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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-

The Green Knight (2021)

The Green Knight is an indie drama heavy on atmosphere and mood and a little lax on pacing, falling into yet another A24 discrepancy between critics and audiences. Much like the contentious differences of opinion over It Comes at Night and Hereditary, it seems like general audiences are a little more indifferent to hostile for this arty release than the critics. Maybe they were expecting something more conventional, which is a mistake considering it’s written and directed by David Lowery, who has dabbled in a studio sphere (Pete’s Dragon, the upcoming Disney Peter Pan remake) but seems more at home with introspective, quiet, occasionally overly obtuse art-house pictures, the kind like 2016’s A Ghost Story where Rooney Mara eats a pie for ten minutes (I will never forget this puzzling movie moment). It’s not surprising then that The Green Knight would be a polarizing film of differing expectations. It’s got good graces, an artistic vision, and a preponderance on atmosphere that can feel a little strained at points.

Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew to the King of England (Sean Harris). He longs to be accepted as a respected knight but he has no adventures to his name. Then one Christmas, a Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) enters the kingdom and challenges any daring knight to a game. That knight can inflict whatever blow or mark upon him, but then the Green Knight will return the exact favor in one year’s time. Full of bravado, Gawain takes mighty Excalibur and decapitates the Green Knight. Turns out the knight is not dead. He only picks up his fallen head and promises that in one year, he’ll deliver the same to Gawain. The months pass and Gawain is drinking and sleeping away his last remaining time before finally accepting to meet his fate. He rides out of Camelot in search of the Green Knight and perhaps a solution out of his predicament.

Where The Green Knight excels is with the distillation of mood and myth-making while not losing sight on its own sense of humanity. This is an Arthurian legend that is potentially a thousand years old, and when it comes to big screen adventures steeped in the mythology of cultures, it’s easy to get swept up in the fantasy spectacle of monsters and heroism. The vulnerability of the heroes is often cast aside to provide further attention to the grandiosity of the experience and entertainment. Lowery positions his movie from the perspective of an eager naïf yearning for a proper adventure to bring him respect and legacy, but he’s also a scared young man who is dreading the worst possible outcome that could be his only outcome. As Gawain sets off on his quest, he sets off proud, striding along his horse, not looking back at his home as he rides off to face his destiny, and then he’s immediately beset by treachery that removes the pristine shine off the tales of old. He’s taken advantage of by highway robbers and placed at an even greater risk of failure. As the movie progresses, Gawain becomes more and more anxious about the potential of getting himself out of his predicament. It truly seems like he’s marching off to meet his executioner, and that realization forces him to quickly adapt into the heroic mold he’s been aspiring for, the legendary knight, bold and brave and meeting death square in the eye. That sounds good in theory but it’s a lot harder to realize in real life. If any one of us, dear reader, knew that our lives were coming to an end with certainty, summoning the courage to meet that would be a herculean effort, and many of us would crumble under the pressure. It all doesn’t seem like enough time. This is what I appreciated throughout The Green Knight. It has its weird, atmospheric mythology and fantasy elements, but it also grounds the drama in relatable and nervous human emotions.

Where the movie goes astray, at least for me, is the time it devotes to achieving its poetic atmosphere. This is a two hour-plus movie that feels every bit of it, even if you’re enraptured by all the pretty style and ponderous pontificating. That’s because the movie is very episodic by nature, which at least breaks it up into manageable chunks each with something new to draw our attention, but it also makes it feel like less is being earned or amassed. In one segment, Gawain rescues the head of a ghostly woman (Erin Kellyman). In another segment, this one quite awkward to experience, he is tempted by both the lord (Joel Edgerton) and lady (Alicia Vikander) of a household, keeping his vow while something most distracting is taking place simultaneously. Another segment has Gawain interacting with giants, including one breastfeeding a little giant. There’s also a fox who occasionally talks and tries to plead with Gawain to turn away from meeting the Green Knight. I suppose if you’re being charitable you could surmise each of these stops is like a test of his skills of knighthood, from compassion to chastity to dedication, but it feels less like an accumulation and more like Lowery is simply finding time to explore other weird offshoots of this crazy fantasy medieval world.

A term I first used describing the films of Nicolas Winding Refn (Neon Demon), a filmmaker I’m not particularly fond of, is the use of empty space, where the narrative feels stretched out and the audience is intended to provide that extra level of meaning for the dead air. To me, it’s narrative forfeiture. The Green Knight could have been trimmed down, it could have been reordered, it could have been given more specific meaning, but that would potentially detract from its tone poem qualities. If that cinematic sensation works for you, and you fall under the film’s sway, then congrats. If you’re looking for more or at least more meaning in the plot and chain of events, then you’re going to be left grasping for more significance. Sometimes things just feel put into the movie because, beyond all else, it’s simply cool. That’s fine, though I found too many of the asides to be lacking once the initial obstacle was established. Lowery has a larger thesis under the surface about environmental awareness considering the Green Knight is literally made of wood and plants, he goes out to the forest to live on his throne amongst the wilderness, and there’s even an extended fiery monologue by Vikander about the enduring power of “green” and how it will outlive us all and grow over our corpses (if you were being pedantic, you could argue that all color will outlive us as I doubt there will be a nightmare future without, say, the color orange). The larger thesis, however, doesn’t feel supported by the asides and episodes of Gawain. I guess it’s about thinking of the consequences of our actions and, in a way, proportionality or response. Maybe more people would reconsider their carbon footprint if nature was going to cut off their heads as a consequence of using too many plastic straws. Maybe.

Where Lowery’s plot and ambition do come together, thankfully, is with his conclusion, which I will spoil in the following two paragraphs. In the original Medieval legend, Gawain meets the Green Knight who proves to be the lord of the manor in disguise. The man playfully chides Gawain for flinching and wearing a sash he felt would spare him of harm. He then says Gawain is “the most blameless knight in all the land,” which makes little sense, and then Gawain joins the other knights, and they all have a big laugh about the jape played on Gawain. That’s not exactly a satisfying ending and takes away any personal growth Gawain might have earned. In the movie, the Green Knight is for real. Gawain initially lowers his head, trying to summon the courage to meet his death, but he flees and apologizes, escaping the Knight’s retribution.

In a nearly wordless epilogue, we watch Gawain’s life over the course of decades, inheriting the throne, siring an heir, abandoning the mother, leading his people to war, losing his son, and eventually being such a disliked leader that his own people revolt including his own family members. All the while he wears that magical sash to thwart his own demise. This epilogue is revealed to be a flash forward for Gawain, who returns to the moment of consequence with the Green Knight. Rather than flee his fate, he now chooses to accept it, to avoid this future where Gawain goes down a path of corruption and neglect. Better to die now than become a cruel despot that will harm others. He even removes the sash. It is here where the Green Knight finally acknowledges Gawain with respect. It’s this ending that really hits home the themes and the character arc for Gawain. He’s become a knight worthy of legend but has no audience, and is choosing to have no audience, to die alone rather than live in infamy. He’s found his sense of bravery at long last because of his fear of what avoiding his fate will cost. It’s an ending that feels earned and when the Green Knight is giving him an “atta boy” you want to join in.

The Green Knight is going to be a different experience for each viewer depending upon your patience for ambiguity and pacing. I found myself at points marveling over the mood and visual style of Lowery’s vision, and at other points I found myself getting restless with the episodic side quests and the stalled character development. It all comes together by the end with a finale that really cements Lowery’s big ideas and drives homes the personal journey of Gawain. It’s all a mixture of bold and beautiful and a little bit boring.

Nate’s Grade: B

Nine Days (2021)

Oddly enough, over the course of less than a year, we now have two movies about young souls competing to find their sense of self before being born. Will (Winston Duke) lives in a small cottage in the middle of the desert. Or so it would appear. He’s a former human who now serves as a spirit who watches over the lives of a select group of others on Earth through P.O.V. monitors. After a car accident, one of his people is killed, leaving a new opening. It’s Will’s job to interview a group of candidates and determine who is best equipped to handle being born. Will takes the process very seriously but he is also more emotionally affected by the loss of life under his guidance than he admits. Where did he go wrong, or is right and wrong even the right markers for assessment? Will must choose wisely over nine days of deliberation and insight into what it means to be human and what it means to live.

Nine Days is a tender and thoughtful movie that has much under the surface given its metaphysical context and probing questions about spirituality, identity, and existence, but it doesn’t simply rely upon the artistic weight of ambiguity. There’s a genuinely involving emotional drama here that’s accessible while offering greater depth to be unpacked by the viewer who enjoys metaphor and implication and debate. At its essence, the movie is about a series of job interviews but for a position that we don’t fully understand what the requirements are and if even meeting the requirements is enough for the hire. It’s a primarily dialogue-driven procedure but it’s also character-focused as the entire process examines what animates Will, what haunts him, and why he does what he does. Early on, the surreal nature of what should be an ordinary event, job candidates interviewing with a boss, gives the movie an air of mystery and offbeat humor. The candidates are showing up, going through a series of questions and role play scenarios, and with each session, the candidates evolve into the personas that will define them. There’s something mildly profound about watching the development of an identity before it’s even been born. As the movie progresses, Will turns down candidates and the news is truly devastating. Not only will these spirits/souls miss out on being born on Earth, they will cease to ever exist and fade away. That is some heavy stuff. Watching each one come to terms with that sort of death can be heartrending. Just imagining having to accept the end before life ever even began.

Rather than simply fade away into the blank of nothingness, Will chooses to help these souls get one last moment of peace before their ultimate end. He becomes a celestial one-man Make-A-Wish spiritual service. It’s unknown whether these “positive memories” are from the souls’ own development or their observation of the souls that have been placed on Earth. Regardless, each rejected candidate gets a moment that Will studiously recreates as an act of kindness. This section can be rather moving as each soul gets a personal sendoff and, in those final moments to savor, we watch them become affected with the generosity and the fleeting moment of life that will be tragically denied to them. One candidate climbs aboard a stationary bicycle, and Will positions one screen after another, each with projection from that angle of the street. When taken together, it creates the illusion of a nice bicycle ride through a town square. The homemade production, even sprinkling cherry blossoms and a swinging light to illustrate a traveling through a tunnel, provide small moments of affectionate conviction. I found each of these moments to be emotionally rich and beautifully rendered on screen. The care and craft Will puts into these acts is wonderful and a tremendous insight into who he is as a character and what he values in others.

Will is haunted by the idea that he may have been oblivious to the pain of one of his pupils, and this indecision is coloring his interview process for a replacement soul. It’s unclear what exactly Will is, or his boss, or his duties, but he vaguely amounts to a guardian angel. He has a bank of old TVs that he monitors and obsessively documents the lives of a few. He takes particular pride in one soul on Earth and listens to her virtuoso violin playing as a means of personal relaxation. Her sudden death rocks him, and when it’s revealed that she was depressed, he tries to make sense of being able to see and hear everything these souls do but not fully knowing them. Did he get something wrong in his clerical assessment? Did his understanding of her have its limits? Could she have been hiding something so all-consuming without his suspicion? It all upends Will and fosters self-doubt. He’s trying to make sense of something that may not ever make sense. That is how inscrutable human beings can be and how tragically fleeting life can become in an instant.

The other change agent for Will is the presence of Emma (Zazie Beetz), a candidate who shows up late, questions the nature of the questions she is given, and is empathetic to a fault. The other candidates are playing within the rules of Will’s questions but she’s pushing back, and it only makes Will think more and more about her and her aims. I don’t consider it too much of a spoiler that Emma will be one of two final candidates for the open spot for life. Her character causes Will to reassess his own biases, his own way of doing things as they have, and his own conception of himself and what life can be about including how own time spent on Earth, which he likes to remind the others like it’s bragging rights. I suppose one could argue that, yet again, we have a quirky female character in service of teaching the male hero about the importance of embracing life to the fullest, but I think the general makeup of the characters is superfluous to the impact of the story. We’re dealing with spirits taking a physical form here. Their appearance is immaterial to their identity at this point, at least in an otherworldly realm that (hopefully) knows no sexism and racism.

Nine Days is the film debut from commercial director Edson Oda and the movie is utterly gorgeous from a technical standpoint. The photography favors gleaming sunsets and pristine vistas to communicate the exquisiteness and otherworldly plain of existence. The desert landscape is beautifully filmed, and the interiors are also pleasing with their visual arrangements and the mingling of natural and artificial light. Oda won a screenwriting award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and for good measure. This isn’t just a good-looking indie, which it assuredly is, but there is deep melancholy and beauty and transcendence to be had with the very humane and compassionate storytelling trying to get at larger truths about our limited time. The storytelling has plenty of ambiguity and nuance and metaphor, but there’s an accessible core that I believe most viewers can align with and then, if they choose, can discover further meaning. There is a slightly basic “stop and smell the roses” moral, but I found there to be more lyrical beauty at different points that affected me deeper than any condensed message. The conclusion hinges on a recitation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and it conveys not just Whitman’s celebratory humanism but also taps into Will’s own character arc. The poetic performance itself is an expression with multiple levels, celebrating life in multiple ways, and serving as a heartfelt and personal goodbye. It’s a lovely ending for a lovely little movie.

Nine Days is packed with recognizable acting faces (Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgaard), several of whom have graced Marvel superhero movies (Duke, Beetz, Benedict Wong), and there must have been something compelling for them to all accept this low-budget, contemplative indie about the human condition. It’s a little movie with a lot on its mind but it doesn’t feel the need to explain everything. There’s a sturdy foundation to begin with but enough ambiguous room for discussion and debate. It reminds me of 2003’s beguiling, divisive, and highly metaphorical indie Northfork. Both movies are poetic, understated, and deeply involved in human connection and spiritual meaning while providing room for interpretation. There’s plenty here to unpack but even on a literal level the movie works as an emotional experience. I found myself under the gentle sway of Nine Days and its mighty beating heart of humanism that extends even beyond the realm of flesh and blood.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Others (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released August 10, 2001:

Nicole Kidman has saved the summer of 2001 – it is now official. In what would have been deemed a pit of mediocrity and nightmares consisting of Angelina Jolie as some raider of tombs or Marky Mark making dough-eyes at attractive apes, has now been bookended by two terrific Kidman films. First Moulin Rouge ushered us in and now The Others is leading us the way out.

The Others is the tale of Grace (Kidman) trying to take care of her two ailing young children shortly after the end of World War II. Kidman is waiting for the return of her husband from the war and is all alone in a giant Gothic mansion. Her two children suffer from a rare allergy to sunlight that is so severe that if exposed long enough their bodies will develop markings and they will asphyxiate to death. To accommodate this illness the entire Kidman household is in the dark and grounded in stern rules. No door is to be unlocked without locking the last, like trapping water in compartments of a sinking ship.

Grace discovers that she does need help and accepts three mysterious strangers that have said they were caretakers to this house once before. Before long the children start reporting odd events occurring that resemble ghosts; a door is opened when it shouldn’t be, someone is making noise where there is no one, and the children report having interaction with otherworldly spirits. Grace scoffs at any notion of the paranormal and goes back to instructing her children with the Bible and its accounts of penance and hell. The incidences begin to build further and further until The Others becomes a full-fledged ghost spectacle.

Spanish writer/director Alejandro Amenábar’s first English feature film is one of carefully textured craft and effective mood. The Others follows the points of ghost stories closely from dark hallways to the creepy and slightly dilapidated house closely. Every move, though, is so well in tune that they are highly effective in creating actual suspense and spookiness. One may have seen the same items numerous times before, however The Others utilizes them so gracefully that it achieves the full desired impact each can bring. Amenábar has created a ghost story that is genuinely creepy and at times scary.

Kidman shines as the dutiful and determined mother. Her performance is one of great dedication and she just consumes whole-heartedly the distress, confusion, and fear of this lonely mother. She is a true anchor for a film. Watching every moment of her on screen is amazing as well as invigorating. This role may lead to possible Oscar buzz come the end of the year but that is just speculation for now.

The rest of the acting is very thorough and well handled by the few other cast members. James Bentley and Alakina Mann portray Kidman’s afflicted children and have much of the movie hinging on their performances. Not to worry, these two excel and give credence to being two of the more gifted child actors in a while. Their efforts greatly induce sympathy as well as great scares at key moments.

The story of The Others by Amenábar may seem simplistic, or even predictable, but the more I thought of the structure and the order of events the more well oiled and calculated it became. This is a delicate story told with great precision with a fantastic knockout ending that had me reworking everything. The Others is an example of why screenwriting is not yet dead in Hollywood.

The Others is a wonderfully brooding film with real scares and great performances, as well as terrific turns in writing and directing by Amenábar. Nicole Kidman has thankfully done it again, and if anyone dares doubt the power and newfound importance of her then see the rest of the summer of 2001’s offerings.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

They don’t really make movies like The Others any more. It’s a patient movie with lots of old-fashioned craft and has more in common with horror movies from a different era. While I would claim that the popular Conjuring franchise, at least the James Wan entries, is a successful Old School horror throwback, its execution can also become quite extreme and ridiculous. Something like The Others dutifully takes its time and nips at your nerves, knowing precisely what key piece of information to tantalize and when to provide more, just enough to grab you deeper into its central mystery and worry over the looming danger for the characters. Twenty years later, the movie plays just as splendidly as it did initially in 2001 but now I have more reverence and appreciation for how it goes about telling its ghost story in a very methodical manner. Not every horror movie ages well. I’m sure that modern audiences could watch The Exorcist and laugh at what, in 1973, scared people to the point of vomiting in theater aisles. If you’re not executing at a high level, it could make for a tragically boring movie. It’s a good thing then that The Others is a PG-13 horror movie that plays all of its limitations to its many artistic advantages.

Coming at the end of a mediocre summer slate of movies in 2001, The Others was a surprise hit, earning over $200 million dollars on a modest budget of $17 million. It helps when your entire movie takes place in one Gothic house and one of the biggest fears is being caught in the light. The premise involves a World War II-era estate where Grace (Nicole Kidman) is seeking help for her two children, Anne and Nicholas, who have a rare photo sensitivity allergy. Direct sunlight will cause them to break out in lesions and potentially asphyxiate (this is a real and rare condition afflicting around 1000 people on the planet). This is a brilliant turn because it means that most of the movie must take place in darkness and even the hint of light could be enough to start causing trembles. A late scare in the movie is simply the realization by Grace that all of the curtains have been removed from the house. Taken without context, that can seem laughable or ludicrous for a horror movie. With the proper context, it becomes a devastating turn. Much like A Quiet Place so brilliantly made sound the enemy, The Others makes the prospect of light the enemy. We start to associate darkness with safety, and then writer/director Alejandro Amenabar uses that environment to drive minimalist horror to great effect. The sound design of whispers, of footsteps, of something that shouldn’t be there is elevated, and the intrusion into the safe space of the vulnerable children makes us all feel a little more vulnerable. It takes the familiar setting of old Gothic horror tales about dark corridors and creaky attics and elevates it anew.

The story is simple but so excellently structured and performed. A mother and her two children are terrorized by ghosts in an old house. Three caretakers arrive to help who know more than what they let on. These characters allow Grace to have someone to question and share her emotional state of mind but they also provide dramatic irony and dread for the audience. They know what’s going on with the house and they’re hiding something, initially tombstones they will later reveal but who do they belong to? They know the house intimately but what is their actual connection to its history? Early on we already have our concerns, as the notice Grace sent out seeking help was never mailed. Halfway through, the caretakers discuss among themselves a secret they are hiding relating to the history of the house. By this point, we have already had a few ghostly encounters so our assumption is that it will relate with the otherworldly intruders. These characters are conflict stirring and keepers of secrets to be revealed in time. Amenabar has a divine instinct of when to drop a new clue, when to pick up the escalation, and when to finally lay out his plot particulars. The big twist has been hiding in plain sight from the start, from the very opening image of Grace gasping awake in her bed and coming down from her frantic distress.

The ultimate revelation that Grace and her children are not being haunted by malevolent spirits but are in fact the real malevolent spirits is a terrific rug-puller. Much like the best twist endings, many of which occurred in contemporaries like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, you can re-watch the movie and see all the clues you missed or how the added perspective reinterprets sequences for added depth. It’s not just a great twist but a culmination of an emotional catharsis; much like The Sixth Sense, it’s a ghost coming to terms with accepting their ghostly identity. Unlike The Sixth Sense, our ghostly protagonist refuses to go gently into the light. Grace has her children repeat to her, “This is our house,” and they refuse to budge. One of the final images, of Anne dancing in the sunlight, is both a victory and condemnation. She can at long last not worry about the rays of sunlight harming her and can live life like an average child. However, she has no life to live and can never leave the house, never grow old, and refuses to part under the rigid determination of her mother, the same woman who killed her and doomed her to purgatory. In some regard it’s a happy ending because hooray the kids can relax, and in many other more disturbing implications, it’s a guilt-ridden murderous mother refusing to let go of her children even after killing them. The movie serves as an empathy experiment to provide back-story for the kind of specters that would haunt an old Hammer horror movie. It might make you rethink other ghost stories or at least try and see things from the ghostly perspective.

I will say that this movie was also maddeningly hard to hear at times. I had to crank up my TV to unheard of volume levels to clearly make out what people were saying. Kidman is quite good but she has a habit of falling back on very breathy acting, relying on whispered intonation. I’m glad I already saw the movie but the sound levels forced me to actively pay attention. Maybe your TV will be different.

Amenabar is a Spanish filmmaker that rose to international acclaim with 1997’s Open Your Eyes, starring Penelope Cruz and later remade into Vanilla Sky, also starring Penelope Cruz (coming to a Re-Veiw in December!). The Others was a significant breakthrough, and in 2004 Amenabar won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for The Sea Inside, a true-life drama where Javier Bardem portrays a man fighting for the right to end his own life. He seemed like an international director on an accelerated ascent, and it all came to a crash with 2009’s costly historical intolerance drama, Agora, starring Rachel Weisz and Oscar Isaac that examined the contentious relationship between Christians and Pagans in fourth century Egypt. It cost $70 million dollars, was over two hours, and made a pittance at the U.S. box-office. From there, Amenabar has primarily worked within the Spanish cinema (2019’s While at War), Spanish TV (2021’s La Fortuna), and one schlocky horror movie about a Satanic cult (2015’s Regression, a title that is too on-the-nose perfect). Admittedly, I haven’t watched any of these follow-ups and the Spanish productions could genuinely be great. I think Amenabar’s early success helped pave the way for another Spanish filmmaker, J.A. Bayona, whose 2007’s haunted manor movie The Orphanage was an excellent Old School horror that could be sincerely scary while still patiently building its unsettling atmosphere.

Looking back at my review from 2001, I think my love of Moulin Rouge carried over into my overly enthusiastic evaluation of Kidman’s increasingly unraveled performance. She’s good but she’s not quite at Oscar levels of accomplishment here, and yet Kidman was nominated for a BAFTA for this role instead of the singing courtesan. The child actors are both good, though neither acted again in credited roles after the mid-2000s, but for me to cite them as “two of the most gifted child actors in a while” reads like hyperbole. My original analysis didn’t get too deep into the mechanics of why everything worked so well, for fear of spoiling its big surprises, and instead kept to admiring its craft, care, and execution, aspects that are still easily apparent and admirable in 2021 as well. The Others is a splendid ghost story no matter the year and will likely still prove to be many years from now.

Re-View Grade: A

Werewolves Within (2021)

Surprisingly based upon a PlayStation VR video game by Ubisoft, Werewolves Within is a fun horror comedy that plays out like a demented Agatha Christie drawing room mystery. Sam Richardson (The Tomorrow War) is a new park ranger assigned to a small snowy town that may or may not be threatened by a werewolf hiding among the townspeople. A series of bloody murders and mangled gas generators points toward some monstrous beast, and over the course of one long night, characters will accuse one another of being the hidden werewolf, and tensions and paranoia mount as the body count rises. Part of the fun comes from the wild whodunit speculation that the filmmakers are aware of. Early on, I started accumulating my band of suspects, and then my red herring suspects, and the movie seems to be fully knowledgeable of this as well, so there’s plenty of little details spilled that, in an ordinary movie would prove conclusive to the detail-oriented viewer; however, Werewolves Within is full of motivations and clever fleeting details to throw you off. Richardson is wonderfully nonplussed as the supremely nice and easy-going ranger who finds himself frantically trying to be the voice of calm and security as the town breaks down. The supporting characters are rather one-note nutjobs but each has a different personality to sprinkle into the chaotic mix. The eventual reveal of the culprit involves a lot of explaining to cover hidden character deception that could have used more setup to feel less forced. I also wished the humor and the horror was a bit crazier. I knew the horror wasn’t going to be pronounced, as most horror-comedies typically favor one more than the other, but I wished the comedy had escalated as the characters further gave in to the insanity of the ridiculous situation. It’s a movie that’s easy going in charm and finely punctuated with some sharp one-liners and silly visual gags. It’s agreeable to its core and a lighthearted yet gory way to spend 90 minutes. By default, it’s also one of the best video game adaptations made into a movie. That’s primarily because it’s a recognizable murder mystery structure just with a genre kick. I wish everything had been given an extra dose of elevation and hijinks, comedy and horror, but that might detract from the overall droll charm, lead by Richardson. Werewolves Within makes me wish for an anthology franchise just transplanting its premise across new settings. Imagine The Hangover but having to also figure out which of your recovering blackout drunk friends was a werewolf. It just works.

Nate’s Grade: B

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released July 11, 2001:

Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.

The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.

Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.

Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.

The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.

Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.

The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.

The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.

I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.

Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.

It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.

It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.

The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.

Re-View Grade: C

Black Mamba (2019)

William X. Lee is an Ohio filmmaker who has found credible success on his own terms and over decades, a fact that deserves celebration. The writer/director knows the business of filmmaking as a genre specialist and has even become an adjunct professor of film at two different universities. With his many years on the fringes of the indie business, I expect Lee has a lot of wisdom about the particulars of the industry and finding a market that is welcoming to content that can be messier in execution. His latest movie in pre-production is called Bulletproof Jesus and, sight unseen, I legitimately love that title with my every fiber. His 2020 film, Black Wolf, literally involves a 58-year-old man having to track down and kill his high school bullies, all of whom miraculously grew up to become terrorists. That sounds hilarious. I believe Lee’s personal story is compelling and acknowledge that genre filmmaking could use more voices and visions from under served perspectives. However, the results on film show indifference or even disdain for accessible storytelling and entertainment value. Black Mamba is a 2019 supernatural action revenge available on Tubi, as many of Lee’s films currently are for free, and it’s indicative of the man’s sense of style and storytelling, both of which I have plenty to talk about in excrutiating detail.

Kyiera Stone (Angela D. Williams) was killed by local criminals. She’s brought back to life by angels who give her a second chance to exact revenge. Kyiera is pitted against an endless assembly line of villains that all want to return Kyiera to her state of decay.

I may sound like a scold, but it is near inexcusable that this movie is two hours long. Far be it from me to instruct a creative how much time they need to tell their story, but you have to think about an audience when you intend a platform for your efforts. What is going to keep someone glued to that screen and justify their investment in every one of your minutes? This is the kind of movie that can barely creak over the 80-minute feature-length finish line, and to push forward to two hours is excessive without an engaging story that needs that extra room to grow.

There is no real plot to speak of beyond our main character coming back to life to wreck vengeance. The movie is patterned after Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, itself patterned over hundreds of genre movies, but it’s like Lee said, “Well, why stop with five bad guys to overcome when you can have 100!” Black Mamba (also the code name for the lead in Kill Bill) is stuffed to the breaking point with villainous characters and some of them are even being introduced with ten minutes left. The critical hit involves like a half dozen bad guys, and then there are more bad guys, and then hell is introducing its own bad guys, and then there’s like a fighting champion from hell, and witches, and I stopped caring because every scene played out exactly the same. The settings may vary, the person might be different, though with a cast list of rogues as long as this one good luck keeping them straight, but the scene plays out exactly the same. Some evil character gets the jump on Kyiera and within a minute she will kill them. That’s it. That’s all there ever is in these confrontations, many of which are hilariously short-lived. At no point will you fear or doubt Kyiera because she never seems to be in danger of losing. It makes the entire two hours extremely boring and repetitive. It also makes the majority of its two hours expendable. Rare is a two-hour movie where I could legitimately say that you could cut it down by 90 minutes, and yet that is the case with Black Mamba. It’s a movie of treading water.

Some of this could be mitigated by providing characters with big personalities, memorable flaws or quirks, or even interesting killing utensils, but Black Mamba feels more like a ramshackle improv fest where actors are entering scenes as “characters” with props or costumes they just assembled off-screen. I love genre movies and I love the way characters can be written for genre. Watch the TV series Justified because it is a masterclass in writing for character. Every character, even the bit-part villain of the week, is written with a distinct voice, an identifiable trait, an angle, something to make them stand out and feel more like a flesh-and-blood person in the stylized, hard-boiled universe of the show. The movie’s extended running time could have devoted scenes to showing why we should fear certain characters, their killing techniques that we would then anticipate seeing how they are applied to our heroine. Think of every movie you can with crazy killers and you see them apply their killer skills early because that’s how you get to fear them. Just being told, “so and so is deadly,” without seeing them in action is dull. In Black Mamba, often characters are over explaining things for the sake of the audience or seeming to narrate what is happening on screen. The dialogue is filled with profanity because it feels like nobody knew what else to say from scene to scene. There aren’t any tense exchanges and showdowns or clashes of viewpoints. It’s all just yelling, boasts, and non-clever insults.

The story doesn’t make much sense. There are angels that bring back Kyiera because it’s “not her time,” but then they want to use her in a celestial war? Was she lied to by the higher authorities in order to manipulate into an ongoing and endless war between heaven and hell? Is this a high-concept version of Munich and Kyiera is being used to perpetuate endless conflict regardless over culpability? No, well at least I doubt it. The larger workings beyond our heroine are left vague and seemingly shifting. The first thirty minutes could have been consolidated to ten to introduce the premise of Kyiera dying and being resurrected, but then there’s nary a section that couldn’t be consolidated, like the litany of interchangeable supporting characters.

Can you tell there are three people in this scene?

Halfway through the movie, we suddenly jump to hell and it doesn’t really alter the direction of the story but only provides more witnesses to commentate on the action. This is where Esmerelda comes in. She’s the queen of hell and played by Dawna Lee Heising, a 65-year-old actress who got her (un-credited) start as a stripper in Blade Runner and has a long list of campy T&A roles in low-budget genre fare. She feels like the production’s big “get” and so she gets a lot of unnecessary screen time. The character is annoying and the entire addition of hell as an environment feels tacked-on. I thought I knew who the big bad final boss was, and then hell is introduced with its own cadre of damned killers, and I didn’t know who the final boss should be. There’s no feeling of a direct line for Kyiera’s goals. Think again to Kill Bill as a prominent example. She had a small list, each name crossed off brought her closer to her biggest target, but each became harder to accomplish and more personally reverent as she climbed the ladder of revenge. There was a feeling of progression and payoff as The Bride worked through her bloody vengeance. With Black Mamba, she’s inundated with one face after another, but you never feel progression because the movie only feels like it’s stuck in a Sisyphean loop of disposable foes. The structure of this movie doesn’t have the groundwork to provide forward momentum.

The first thing you’ll notice about Black Mamba right away is the choice to up the contrast so high that it may hurt your eyes at time. There are times where the color contrast is so extreme that it obfuscates what is happening on screen. You’ll see faces disappear into shadow in a room, and not in a way that feels intentionally ominous, and every time a character is driving outside it looks like an atomic bomb is going off in the background. It’s chiefly a distraction and an ugly one and one that feels like it was done to make the footage look more like a grungy grindhouse movie of old. Going for a specific visual aesthetic is a fine marker, but when it harms the clarity of what is happening then maybe it’s worth revisiting. There are simple things that could have been done to better orient the viewer. The color contrasts and color palette could have better been paired with specific locations so that the audience knows exactly where they were or whose story they were following, much like in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. We even literally have the denizens of hell as one frequent setting, so why not crank the contrast high and more fiery in colors, favoring oranges and reds, and then go for a cooler color palette for action on Earth? Or even have a section that isn’t contrasted to death? It’s a stylistic choice that grates severely.

I would be forgiving of some of the obvious technical limitations for a low-budget indie aiming for the feel of other classic low-budget indies, except that, reportedly, Black Mamba had a budget of $250,000. When I read that I burst out in incredulous laughter. Maybe it was a decimal error, or maybe Lee was very generous and paid his sizeable cast and minimal crew handsomely, or maybe there are other reasons why a quarter of a million dollars does not, in the slightest, look to have been translated onto the finished product. Where did all that money actually go?

I’ve been watching enough micro-budget indies in my pursuit of reviewing homegrown cinema that I feel more adept at better gauging a potential budget. There are locations to consider, though Black Mamba seems to reuse a lot of empty warehouses, alleyways, and church parking lots, and there is action to consider, though Black Mamba uses a lot of plug-in special effects and limited fight choreography, and there are actors to consider, which Black Mamba has in excess, and there is the general professionalism of the look and sound of the movie, which Black Mamba is definitely lacking. There are persistent sound issues (the louder yelling is so screechy and high-pitched that I had to cover my ears) and there is a dearth of editing coverage. Apart from the fight scenes, it feels like every scene was designed with one shot in mind to connect directly to the next. This can make things awkward in conversations that would flow better with alternate angles rather than one person with their back to the camera or in extreme close-up. I geuss it just didn’t matter or they didn’t have the time, and yet with the budget being reportedly a quarter of a million dollars? This movie feels far more like a $10,000 budget indie than $250,000. To be blunt, I have watched movies with budgets under $15,000 look and sound much better than this quarter-million-dollar movie.

I thought about watching other Lee original movies available on Tubi but I only watched about 15 minutes each of 2017’s Six Feet Below Hell, 2016’s King Killer, and 2008’s Kill Every Last One. I don’t think I could take watching all of these movies even for objective review purposes, each of which appears to have the same faults and high contrast value as Black Mamba (one of those films is an astounding 133 minutes long!). While designed to be sold, these movies do not feel designed to actually be watched and enjoyed. There are no real characters to fall in love with, conflicts to draw intrigue, or well-developed plots to thrill and surprise. These movies feel like empty product to line an endless array of schlock DVD shelves.

This brings me to my final complaint registered at Black Mamba. More than halfway through the movie, yet another character is introduced, this time a formidable fighting champ from hell. Upon hearing the man’s name, the queen of hell falls onto the floor and begins gyrating in pleasure, moaning the man’s name and declaring him to be an amazing god among men. This character is played by none other than… the writer/director himself. I almost walked away from the movie at that point. It’s difficult to critique something like Black Mamba. The people involved don’t seem to have any aspirations that what they were making was serious, and yet maybe they should have taken it more seriously. Because of the punishing two-hour length, because of the repetitive and stretched thin plot, because of the over population of unmemorable and disposable characters, because of the technical flaws that still persist after a decade of filmmaking, because of the lack of accessibility for providing an engaging story and characters for an outside audience, and because of its reportedly sizeable budget, I regret to deliver my first failing grade for an Ohio-made indie. I wish Mr. Lee and his team well but this is assuredly a case where if you’ve seen one of the man’s movies, you’ve seen every one of the man’s movies, and unless you were in these movies, you shouldn’t watch them even for irony.

Nate’s Grade: F

Luca (2021)

Pixar’s second straight direct-to-Disney-plus outing, Luca, is a decidedly lesser movie from the creative powerhouse. It’s more in keeping with the low stakes and minimal characterization of something like the Cars franchise or Monster’s University. It has its gentle charms and important themes about acceptance, accessibility, and identity, but Luca feels a bit too shallow and lacking in magic. Two sea monster boys want to feel the thrill and freedom of living on land, and it just so happens they transform into looking like humans as long as they don’t get wet. They must learn the ways of blending in, keep their secret, and win the local triathlon to achieve their dream of owning a Vespa scooter. Yes, ostensibly it’s about two kids, and a third once they become friends with a rambunctious redheaded girl in town, wanting to win a race to get a scooter, and you can see the larger theme about friendship and self-acceptance in the name of intolerance, but the movie feels like Ponyo meets The Little Mermaid with the setting of Call Me By Your Name (with maybe some of its coming-of-age queer coding?). The movie barely gets to 84 minutes long, pre-credits, and even that feels very lackadaisical and padded, stretching a thin storyline with minimal development. The animation is expectantly gorgeous and colorful, the lovely daubs of light are so soothing to watch, though I didn’t care for the Gravity Falls-style character designs. The stakes are low and personal but I didn’t really care about the broad characters. There are some fun farcical hijinks trying to hide their monster selves from being seen, and the conclusion has a sweet message without being overtly sentimental, but Luca is little more than a fitfully amusing yet slight seaside vacation for your hungry eyes.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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