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The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international best-selling trilogy that gave way to three hit Swedish movies, one Hollywood remake that netted a Best Actress nomination, and millions in worldwide revenue. The problem was that its author, Stieg Larsson, died of a heart attack in 2004, before the publication of any of the original novels. The property was too valuable to simply collect dust and thus a new author came aboard to tell further adventures of Lisbeth Salander, the pint-sized Gothic avenger. A new set of novels began being published in 2015, and after David Fincher’s 2011 version underperformed at the box-office, it seemed expected to reboot the franchise with a new big screen story that had yet to be adapted. In steps a new director, a new dragon-tattooed lady for The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Unfortunately, my fears have come true and the eventual reckoning has happened: they have made Lisbeth Salander boring.

Lisbeth (Claire Foy) is thrown into another criminal conspiracy with shadowy forces at play. A network of high-powered assassins, known as “spiders,” has stolen a dangerous technology that will allow the user control of nuclear arsenals. Lisbeth is hired to retrieve this tech, betrayed, and then on the run from Swedish authorities, professional killers, a dogged NSA operative (Laketih Stanfield), and the head of this cabal, Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks, Blade Runner 2049), her long lost sister Lisbeth left behind years ago.

In her first 2010 outing, Salander was presented as a complex, emotionally withdrawn figure, eminently capable but flawed, hurt, and looking to punish others from her fraught history with terrible men. Strip away all the Gothic trinkets and camouflage, her assertions of identity, and she’s still a deeply intriguing human being. However, even the latter Swedish films started veering in this more derivative direction. As I wrote presciently with the second Swedish Dragon Tattoo movie back in 2010: “We project the interest we felt for her from the first film to the Salander stand-in represented in the second film. She’s still a resourceful, loyal, and cavalier presence, but the plot corners her into being a creature of action. She becomes the fantasy bisexual ass-kicking protagonist that was merely hinted at previously. That sounds like a good thing, but trust me, it does the audience a disservice to box in such a fascinating character.” With Spider’s Web, Lisbeth Salander has become a Gothic Jason Bourne spy figure, and as anyone who has seen the Bourne movies can attest, he’s the most boring character in his own movies, which is why he needs to be kept constantly on the move and hunted. He’s only interesting when he’s getting out of jams, and Lisbeth is now sadly in that realm.

Lisbeth has been reduced to her most essential, and most superficial, characteristics, which also go for the film as a whole. The Dragon Tattoo series began as a twisty investigative procedural with a litany of suspects and dark secrets worth killing over. From there, the Swedish films turned Lisbeth into an indestructible Terminator capable of getting the drop on anyone and axe-fighting oversized men. The Swedish series began more grounded as a mystery/thriller and suddenly, and regrettably, transformed into a preposterous Hollywood-style action-thriller, following the edict of bigger being better. That same mentality has carried over past Larsson’s contributions, and now Lisbeth has become an action superhero and the series has become trashy fun, high-calorie junk food, a safe excursion to a seedy underbelly. The Girl in the Spider’s Web still provides a consistent degree of entertainment, but it’s not playing at a higher level, content to hand-wave away its story for cool chases and fights. It’s the kind of movie where, to escape an encroaching fireball, Lisbeth dives into a bathtub of water. It makes for a visually interesting shot but it’s pretty cliché 90s action movie stuff. Director Fede Alvarez has a slick handle with visuals and evidenced real talent at sustaining and developing tension with 2016’s Don’t Breathe. He has obvious visual talent. There are some engaging fights, like a close-quarter struggle in a bathroom, and some nifty chase scenes, like a motorcycle chase over a frozen lake. I would have liked even more action if Spider’s Web was going to brush aside narrative and moral complexity for stylish set pieces.

The story of The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like a lukewarm repackaging of spy clichés, and the film does little to make any of it feel important or relevant. There’s a super powerful technology that everyone wants, which falls into the wrong hands, and now it’s about retrieving this device and saving the world. That’s like the plot of just about every James Bond movie. It’s a formula, but where Spider’s Web missteps are that it doesn’t add anything else to this staid foundation. There are scenes but it’s usually about this group going after this group, or this group now going after this group, and without wider relevance it becomes redundant plot placeholders, something meant to distract long enough to get our characters from Point A to Point B. With a mystery, there’s a natural momentum that builds as the case builds coherency and the investigation focuses the direction. With action thriller mode, Spider’s Web just has a bunch of guys that occasionally interact until the movie needs some of them dead. This model by itself can work but it requires concerted effort, and that just isn’t present here.

The most interesting aspect of Spider’s Web is the further examination on Salander’s troubled upbringing, this time introducing a sister that has been plotting vengeance. Salander is, first and foremost, the selling point of this franchise; she is, after all, the titular girl with that particular tattoo. She is what separates this from any other paperback thriller. The Swedish sequels opened up her past traumas with her Soviet-defected father. He was the Big Bad Man behind the scenes trying to institutionalize and neutralize her. While skirting into the above-stated dangerous territory, the Swedish sequels still knew that Lisbeth Salander’s complicated history was the real mystery the audience craved, and it set up a series of antagonists ready to be foiled for years-in-the-making payback. I don’t really know how the events of Spider’s Web gibe with the overall series. I had to look up whether the evil father in the opening was the same evil father in the other films (both are listed as Alexander Zalachenko, so I think so). But the established history has Lisbeth committed after trying to set dear old dad on fire to save her abused mother. I don’t see how any of that is likely if she escapes her father’s clutches as a pre-teen and is supposedly on the run. The secret Salander sister revelation also impacts little. She was the one left behind, whose continued abuse and degradation are strongly referenced. It doesn’t feel like Lisbeth harbors great guilt over leaving her sister behind. During their final face-to-face, Camilla actually poses a worthy question: “Why did the woman who hurts men who hurt women never come back and save her own abused sister?” Because this storyline is flagrantly underdeveloped, the evil sister angle is a cheap twist. There’s nothing to the Camilla character, so she serves as a symbol of shame, and yet the movie doesn’t seem to capitalize on this in the slightest, which is a puzzling disservice.

Foy (Netflix’s The Crown, First Man) is having a big year for herself but feels slightly miscast. She never really gets an opportunity to show off her range, which is a byproduct of the streamlined, reductionist screenplay emphasizing bare plot mechanics. She is missing the intensity or fire that we’ve seen in prior Salanders, breakout-star Noomi Rapace and the Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara. When Foy tries for glower you see the effort. She’s more grumpy than tortured, like maybe she skipped a meal. Even with the requisite piercings, tattoos, and black leather wardrobe, Foy seems a bit too clean-cut for the part. Personal admission: Foy with her sharp bangs, saucer-eyes, facial shape, and Gothic accessories, looks remarkably like an ex-girlfriend of mine from the early 2000s. That was something that kept sneaking into my mind throughout the film, which made the experience a tad stranger as if I was imagining an ex engaged in action heroics. Even excusing that personal connection, Foy ranks a distant third place for the Girls With.

The new Dragon Tattoo movie will likely also be its last. I can’t imagine fans getting too much pleasure out of a streamlined, underdeveloped spy thriller that sands away the edge and complexity of its characters for rote action movie chases. It’s not a bad movie and it does carry moments of excitement and entertainment, but it’s also become a standard Hollywood thriller, no different than a dozen other high-tech, junky hacker thrillers. The Girl in the Spider’s Web gets caught in its own formulaic web. If Lisbeth Salander has been transformed into a standard action hero, then we don’t deserve more adventures.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Halloween (2018)

It’s been 40 years since the original Halloween changed the horror industry. That is no overstatement. The low-budget 1978 movie by John Carpenter was a box-office sensation and ushered in a decade-plus of bloody slasher cinema. It’s even been 20 years since Halloween: H20, which was a 20-years-later sequel bringing original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis back into the mix. It’s now been another full H20 of time since that film, which makes me feel old, personally. Rob Zombie revived the franchise in 2007 with a back-story for methodical killing machine Michael Myers that nobody asked for (surprise: his family life was not great). Now an H40 later, director David Gordon Green and actor/writer Danny McBride have revived the franchise by going back to its roots, namely by ignoring all of the seven sequels and bringing back Curtis yet again. The new Halloween 2018 edition is a strange experience for fans. The first half feels like an elusive parody of the franchise, and then the second half drops comedic pretext and becomes much more serious and straightforward. As my pal Ben Bailey said, I can understand people hating this movie or loving it depending upon the half they focus on. This new Halloween ends on a high note but still could have been so much more.

In the decades since the original murders on Halloween, Laurie Strode (Curtis) is living a hermetic life. She’s never fully recovered from the events of her traumatic youth, and so has been preparing intensely for Michael’s eventual return. She rigorously trained her own daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), for self-defense to be a survivalist, locking her in the basement and training her with an array of firearms. Laurie thought she was drilling her daughter to be strong and a survivor, but the state had other interpretations, and so Karen was removed from her mother’s home and grew up resenting her oppressive, paranoid mom who took away her childhood. Karen has forbidden her own daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), from interacting with her crazy grandma, but both find ways. Michael Myers breaks loose from a prison transport and is heading back to Haddonfield with a mission to find and kill Laurie. They’re on a collision course H40 years in the making.

Let’s focus on that peculiar first half first. There were several points that made me shake my head and wonder if they were trying to be subtlety tongue-in-cheek or bad on purpose, and because of the pedigree behind the project, I had to give it the benefit of the doubt, but to what end? Why skewer horror tropes in a subtle way that could be construed as simply being bad instead? Why even do it for this franchise and then mostly drop it by the second half? There were several moments where I had to laugh and I wasn’t fully sure it was intended. This was my dilemma watching Halloween 2018 and I’m sure others will have a similar experience, scratching their heads and wondering why the movie is going the route that it is. Take for instance the horror trope of the bad babysitter. We have another situation where a nubile high school girl is going to invite her boyfriend over for some late-night action, nodding to the 1978 original film. Except the kid being babysat sees through everything and calls out his babysitter. He’s a street-smart kid who speaks with the voice of the knowing participant, like when he tells the boyfriend that he will die if he goes upstairs (spoiler alert: this kid is prophetic). There’s a string of kills that feel perfunctory, like the filmmakers have noticed that too much time has passed and have to satiate audience bloodlust to buy them another ten or so minutes of setup and characters. The kills themselves are lackluster. Even the gratuitous nudity is fleeting, confined to a quick flashback relating to young Michael Myers spying on his big sister (one of these days a slasher movie is going to be replete with wall-to-wall male nudity and no boobs just to mess with its target audience). There’s the trope of the ineffective police officer. After finding out Michael Myers is on the loose, an officer bluntly says, “What are we gonna do? Cancel Halloween?” The answer is, yes, you cancel the trick-or-treat activities for the town where this guy is clearly heading and you adequately warn the populace. You ask for assistance from anyone with a cell phone to broadcast the whereabouts of fugitive Michael Myers. The guy is pretty large and easy to spot, plus he’s not that traditionally fast. A citywide digital manhunt might have made for a more interesting movie premise with some genuine cultural commentary.

Or take for instance the stupid side characters meant to be fodder for the merciless kill count. The movie mysteriously gives these disposable characters little one-minute asides to present a glimpse of another story that we’re just not privy to. There’s the little kid who doesn’t want to go hunting and wants to be accepted by his father as a dancer. Okay, that’s a more interesting conflict than I thought, and then the dad immediately stops at the site of a bus crash with wandering chained inmates and says, “I’m gonna check this out, stay here.” It’s like Green and McBride gave us one page of characters from an indie drama and then had them smash back into idiotic plot devices making the most headache-inducing decisions. Another instance is a pair of cops debating over adult meals and bread. I appreciate the effort to try and flesh out the characters in a way that makes them feel more real, but then they have no larger bearing than being the next in a line of victims. There are other strange reminders that things just aren’t exact with the movie, at least for the first half. It’s this curiously overwrought, off sensation that keeps the audience from fully engaging, being told to possibly laugh with or at the movie.

I also think the film is fundamentally flawed in its approach, namely by elevating Laurie’s granddaughter as a co-lead. Allyson is too removed from the situation to give an interesting perspective, so she becomes any other teenage heroine we’ve seen in scores of slasher cinema likely meant to appeal to a teenage ticket-buying audience. The real conflict and the real story is the relationship between Laurie and her estranged adult daughter. There is so much drama there to unpack and the movie would be far better had the filmmakers eliminated the majority of the extraneous characters and focused on these two women and their decades-long acrimony. Get rid of Allyson’s boyfriend, who gets way too much screen time to simply be jettisoned without resolution (his lone purpose seems to be disposing of her cell phone). Get rid of his friend, a supposed “nice guy” with his own entitlement issues. Get rid of the babysitter friend and her dumb boyfriend. Get rid of the cops. Get rid of the Doctor Loomis prison doctor replacement, nicknamed the “new Loomis.” Get rid of them all, including Allyson. I would have preferred Allyson being murdered in the middle of the second act as a means of raising the stakes and forcing Laurie and Karen together again. This is very much a PTSD film about the long ramifications of trauma and how it affects multiple generations. I would have loved seeing that play out in the interplay between Laurie and the daughter that she pushed away in an attempt to save her life. There is so much palpable drama there that I’m genuinely shocked how little Karen figures in Halloween 2018. It’s such wasted dramatic potential as well as a better focal point for the movie.

It’s the second half, and in particular the third act, that saved the movie for me. The finale is everything fans would want, transforming into a surging siege thriller built around Laurie’s well-armed abode. It’s here where the movie becomes a multi-generational fight to the finish and the Strode women must team up to fight the man responsible for the long lingering trauma that has defined their lives in innumerable ways. It’s a climax that feels elevated by the pull of history, and it’s terrific and terrifically satisfying. Watching Laurie stalk the house in search of Michael Myers, going from room to room and locking them down, is the first actually nervous sequence in the film, benefiting from the investment we have in Laurie as an avenging figure. It’s during this sequence where Curtis (Freaky Friday) and Greer (Jurassic World) remind us what wonderful actors they can be. It made me wish for my more realized version of the two of them and their relationship even more. This is where Green (Stronger) also demonstrates his best sense of geography and escalation. Beforehand there are a few nifty tracking shots, paying homage to the opening of the original, but they’re self-contained, congratulatory moments. It’s the finale that made me realize what this movie should have been from its first frame. Lucky for Halloween 2018 it ends a high note (excluding the cliche post-credit revelation).

The newest Halloween movie has lit up the recent box-office charts and ensures this won’t be the last we see of Michael Myers and potentially old lady Laurie Strode. That’s kind of a shame because Green’s movie serves up a fitting finale for the series that could work as a capper for Laurie as a character and a survivor of trauma. But alas, the ringing of cash registers will be enough to extend the franchise and carry on more blood-letting adventures for the man in the William Shatner mask. Halloween 2018 starts off fairly rocky with a question concerning overall tone and intent. There’s humor that feels grafted on from other parallel reality versions of this story, somehow blurring together into a weird final product. The second half works much better than the first when it stops cracking wise and takes itself seriously enough to realize where the real drama lies, with Laurie facing down her demons and working together with the women of her family for maximum vengeance. Watching three generations of Strode women fighting together is a triumphant conclusion. It’s a shame that it won’t actually exist as a conclusion for that much longer.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Twisted Pair (2018)

Neil Breen is the closest thing we have today to a living Ed Wood, a filmmaker so determined to ell his stories without a clue how to accomplish this feat, routinely finding new and astounding ways to transform the medium of film into an incomprehensible experience that can only be best appreciated through the howls of incredulous laughter. In 2013, Neil Breen came to attention among a certain select audience seeking the pleasures of a so-bad-it’s-good movie, and I count myself chief among this nation. I was fascinated by Fateful Findings and have since sought out Breen’s other films, using them as the main attraction for a gathering of like-minded friends and adult beverages. He may not be the next Tommy Wiseau or produce an accidental masterpiece like The Room (I don’t think an Oscar-nominee will be playing Breen in any biopic, though I pick Eric Roberts). Breen is taking advantage of the pocketbooks of eager midnight movie enthusiasts but he refuses to see his movies in that derisive light. To him, and God bless him, they are legitimate pieces of art and he personally disallows any marketing of them as “midnight” or “cult” movies (I saw portions of his actual contract he sent to our local art house theater playing his newest picture). His latest is Twisted Pair, a “psychological thriller” with double the onscreen Breen. It may not rise to the craptacular heights of Fateful Findings, but Twisted Pair is a worthy and hilarious entry in the ever-expanding yet mordantly redundant Neil Breen cinematic universe.

To explain the premise or story is almost superfluous, like trying to find a logical interpretation in a David Lynch movie or a Jackson Pollack splotchy painting. I’ll try. Cade and Cale Altaire (Breen) are twins who were… abducted by aliens… and given supernatural powers thanks to… A.I. technology? Back on Earth, Cade (or Cale?) has a wife (Sara Meritt) and plant bombs in the buildings of evil corporations, I think. Cale (or Cade?) is addicted to drugs (maybe?), has an addict girlfriend, and abducts corrupt CEOs, politicians, and authority figures and chains them in a murder dungeon where he lectures them and occasionally shoots them casually in the kneecap or shoulder. There’s also a conspiracy about trying to… do nefarious things with a cutting-edge A.I. virtual reality program… that shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands? Cade (or Cale?) must stop these evil forces from doing… evil things… by blowing them up? Also, his wife may be a spy.

If the above sounds like pure insanity straight from the cuckoo source, then you have read it clearly. Twisted Pair doesn’t abide by any traditional standards of film or storytelling.There isn’t so much a plot with a beginning, middle, and end as there are a jumble of scenes that could have been placed in any order whatsoever and lost nothing. With Neil Breen as writer and director, we typically get a lot of visual repetition; whatever info can be imparted in one moment Breen decides to impart in five. On the other side, storylines and characters will be summarily dropped or introduced with little context. Take for instance the villain who, as best I can tell, speaks with a voice modulated tone in real life. It’s not like he’s holding some mask to his mouth or anything that would alter his voice to that super deep register. Apparently he just speaks this way normally, and it’s hard to understand half of what he says, and it’s hilarious. Does this character matter in the scheme of things? Not really. He’s there to be another face to a vaguely defined conspiracy of forces that Breen is determined to thwart. The villainous character just happens to fondle dollar-store costume jewelry as a side bonus.

As another sign of repetition, Neil Breen obviously bought a package of special effects, and he is determined to get all his money’s worth. Thanks to the alien A.I. (I think), Cade and Cale are gifted with super powers but these only seem to involve jumping. Cade will form a Super Mario Bros.-esque jumping pose, or spread out onto the ground like Spider-Man, and then magically leap fifty feet in the air. It’s a cheesy effect that looked more realistic on the Six-Million Dollar Man in the 1970s, but Breen is going to make sure you become familiar with it again and again. Sometimes the jumping seems more trouble than it’s worth, as Breen’s character could have more easily take a flight of stairs. A similar effects package must have been explosions, so you’ll see the same fiery effect over and over across a variety of surfaces, though never impacting those surfaces or leaving anything resembling debris. You may become ore familiar with this oft-repeated explosion than the faces of your own relatives. There’s also a strange addition where whenever Cade touches a presumably locked door a little light goes on, as if to communicate he is unlocking it. This happens a lot. The last scene of the movie, Cade addresses the camera directly, touches his heart with two fingers that glow, and says without a hint or irony, “I’ll be right here.” He has to know he’s ripping off E.T., right? By the rules clearly established, does this mean he’s unlocking his own heart?

The side storyline with the twin could have been cut entirely (not that there’s much that genuinely serves a larger story). I was expecting more interaction between the two Breens and for each to reflect some sort of dichotomy between good and evil. Nope. The second Breen, Cale, is a vengeful vigilante in a hooded sweatshirt and a gloriously fake beard. He shouts questions like, “Who am I? What am I?” but doesn’t seem that torn up. He kidnaps some corrupt officials and promises to hold them an undetermined period of time, occasionally shooting or beating them. Then the screen starts to have other images of other chained officials superimpose while an eerie soundtrack kicks in, seemingly implying the sheer numbers of Cale’s victims. At no point are we meant to see Cale as a wayward figure succumbed to his darker impulses. In fact, Cale and Cade aren’t that different at all; both of them destroy the apparatus of corruption and take human life. The prisoners have a hilarious moment that feels like an improv run amok as they try and top one another with all the bad things they have been committing. They almost run over each other in their carefree confessions of moral decay. Yet these missing people, presumably important enough to attract the attention of the police and investigators, never impact the larger plot. You would think only naturally that an identical twin kidnapping people would have some direct mistaken identity complications. Either the bad guys come after Cade or the authorities do, thinking he’s the other brother. Nope. Strangely, the brothers only interact in dreams and brief flashbacks.

There’s a distinct reason that Neil Breen’s onscreen characters are always lionized as heroes. It’s filmmaking as therapy session, and as I wrote for my Fateful Findings review: “Assessing the film, it sure comes across like Breen’s attempt to bolster his sense of self. In every scenario, people treat him as a treasured human being, he’s at the center of a diabolical conspiracy, he’s gifted with magic powers that separate him from normal men, all women want to seduce him, and then in the end he’s the one who makes the world a better place by exposing corruption. It sounds like a hero complex to me. Even acts that deserve harsh scrutiny, like his enabling of his wife’s addiction or his blasé attitude about carrying on an affair, are ignored. In this universe, [Breen] is always right, always desired, always respected, and always special.” This may be why even his “twisted pair” is spared any sort of scrutiny for their own bad behavior.

There are numerous sequences that just make you shake your head. My favorites include an interlude with a slow-motion hawk that Breen nuzzles up next to. Seriously, there is a lot of green screen work throughout the film including a Wiseau-style fixation on things that shouldn’t need green screen. Why green screen the exterior of a building? Could Neil Breen not find one building exterior in all of his home state of Nevada? There’s a sequence where a woman materializes and literally turns on another Neil Breen movie, firmly establishing the connected universe theory. This same woman leads a man inside a literally red-lit abode (more on lighting below) and you suspect someone will be killed, either the woman or the mysterious john you never see above the neck. Nothing comes of it. Occasionally we’ll get a wide shot and watch Cade or Cale walking… for thirty seconds, and sometimes a tree will obstruct our view and we’ll wait for him to appear on the other side of the tree…. but instead he’ll be in the tree! Aha, you weren’t suspecting that, were you, complacent audience member? I would estimate a solid 80 percent of the movie’s dialogue is Breen’s voice over stating the obvious or the preposterous. In consecutive lines of voice over he says, “I miss my brother,” and, “I miss what I never knew.” But you knew your brother; we’ve seen footage of you two together.

The relationship with Cade’s wife is baffling. It begins with Cade running into a woman and profusely apologizing and declaring he will make it up with dinner. She is not interested in the slightest but he doesn’t acknowledge her discomfort at all and persists. He then FOLLOWS her home. He then BREAKS INTO her home. He then ATTACKS her and ostensibly tries to rape her while calling her a “bitch.” This awkward moment then transitions into the eventual revelation that it was all one big role-play. What? Neil Breen purposely staged his character attempting rape and made it into a sex game for he and his ever-accommodating wife? That’s so weird and off-putting. I don’t think Neil Breen is the kind of artist to attempt something approaching Elle.

The technical specs are spotty, especially the lighting. There seems to be two prevalent styles of lighting a scene: 1) overblown to hell, casting harsh shadows, and 2) with a small diagonal sliver. This sliver approach happens in numerous scenes and always seems to find the faces of the actors in the scene, or Breen or whoever will use it as a mark, walking into that small sliver of light and exposing their face. It happened so often that my rowdy theatrical audience turned it into a game, loudly cheering whenever a character “met their mark” and was highlighted by that available strand of light. I think this is what Breen thinks makes a professional looking movie or a film noir.

The acting hasn’t gotten any better over time. As I wrote about Breen’s performance in Fateful Findings: “Let’s start with Breen himself, who is fairly listless and deadpan throughout. He raises his voice but rarely does he change how he’s responding. He’s aloof and strikingly self-serious at the same time.” Since there are two Breens, consider this observation even more fitting. The rest of the actors don’t have much to work with. There isn’t a natural performance in the film. Often the delivery is stilted or overemphasized, pausing at weird points or simply raising the volume for effect. At least with previous Breen outings there was another actor or two to single out, usually not in a positive way mind you. With Twisted Pair, it’s all Breen, all the time, for better or worse.

So ultimately where does Twisted Pair fall on the curve of so-bad-it’s-good cinema? It is a hoot, a misguided and poorly executed sci-fi thriller with baffling and repetitious plot turns, characterization, and puzzling decisions at nearly every level of filmmaking. Having digested five Breen movies (and lived to tell the tale) I can attest that there are patterns that emerge in each one of his films. He’s always going to be portrayed as a crusading hero against the corrupt forces out there bewildering the little guy, he’ll have a dash of supernatural elements that will never be adequately explained, his idea of romance is comically chaste and usually involves women face down and topless, and he’ll gift the audience with head-smacking redundancy of scenes, motifs, messages. If you have to skip out to the bathroom at any point, whatever you miss will be covered again. Twisted Pair is mid-range Breen, no quite as high as his crowning achievement, Fateful Findings. It runs out of steam in the final fifteen minutes and even my rowdy midnight-movie crowd sensed the drop-off. The movie is playing one-night-only screenings across the country. If you get a chance, and love the weird world of sincerely made bad movies, then I highly recommend gathering a group of friends and checking out Twisted Pair and doing your best to make sense of it during and after the film.

Nate’s Grade: F

Entertainment Value: A-

Unfriended 2: The Dark Web (2018)

Ditching the supernatural threat for something even scarier, Unfriended 2 follows the original film’s found footage-as-computer screen storytelling model but takes a dark dive into the Dark Web of the Internet, a playground for all kinds of shady criminal activities. A group of ethnically diverse friends gathers online to play a cross-country game and run afoul of a very vengeful man who wants his laptop back. Apparently our protagonist, Matias (Colin Woodell), stole it at a lost and found to better work on his sign language reading app to communicate with his deaf girlfriend. It was touches like that where the movie felt far more developed than I was expecting. The movie builds a nice sense of momentum and dread as the friends get further and further into uncovering the Dark Web conspiracy of for-hire snuff films and sex trafficking, and at every point there are moments they could turn away and avoid their doomed fates. The suspense sequences are well thought-out, like where the group has to quickly adopt a façade playing a game while a wifi connection is in play, and as soon as it goes out they breathlessly communicate their next desperate plan of action. There is one great kill and a few nifty twists and turns, especially as things get even more dangerous for our characters. Writer/director Stephen Susco finds ways to keep his film visually engaging and still character-centric in the decision-making, avoiding the escalations from feeling contrived and artificial. I enjoyed myself right up until the end, though the film does become more preposterous as it goes. The Dark Web as a whole is vague enough to be whatever the horror audience needs. The movie doesn’t have much to offer in the way of online culture commentary beyond a pretty standard “be careful what you wish for” warning. The characters aren’t terribly dimensional but they held my interest and contributed in small but meaningful ways. With Unfirended 2, it’s a fitting and palpable story engine for a clever thriller. If you enjoyed the recent indie hit Searching, check out some of the Unfriended films too.

Nate’s Grade: B

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.

In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.

There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.

The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.

The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.

This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.

And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.

Nate’s Grade: B+

First Man (2018)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.

What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.

Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.

I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.

As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.

First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.

Nate;s Grade: B-

Assassination Nation (2018)

Assassination Nation is an explicitly potent and timely Movie of the Moment; it’s a modern “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” for the Age of Trump, exposing the fissures in our society, primarily the elements that prey upon, police, and punish women. The film is brimming with female rage that you may leave shaking. It’s a movie that wants to grab you and scream its message in your face, and that will be off-putting to several, but the overall experience was so stimulating, so ambitious, so affecting, and so emotionally cathartic, that I wanted to howl back, now championing this audacious movie to whomever might listen. This is one of 2018’s best movies and most vital statements.

In Salem, four teenagers have become the most hated people in town. An anonymous hacker has been stealing people’s private information, correspondence, and intimate pictures and uploading it for the public to digest. The town has gone mad with this feeding frenzy of new info and open secrets, leading to suicides, retribution, and murder. Lily (Odessa Young, a strong debut that reminded me of Olivia Cooke) and her BFF posse, Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra), become the main suspects and the town turns on them, looking for some good old fashioned vigilante justice.

The film is messy and chaotic but these are not the usual detriments; it is exploding with things it wants to say about the hypocrisy and nastiness of our modern era. Early on Lily remarks to the audience, “I read this quote from a writer once who said 10 percent of the population are cruel, and 10 percent are merciful, and the other 80 percent can be swayed in either direction. I’m sure that writer has never seen 4chan or Twitter.” At the end of the day, Assassination Nation will not allow its audience to take comfort even as it transforms into a female revenge thriller. Here is a movie that grabs you forcefully and says, “This is who we are now so what are you gonna do about it, huh?”

When Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling wrote “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” he was critiquing the veneer of civilization we clung onto through our “good manners,” yet with the right pressure points we could just as easily turn on our fellow man with suspicion. The divisions in our current political climate often feel unable to be bridged; how does one reconcile a middle ground between one side that views gay people, trans people, women, people of color, and immigrants as human beings deserving of rights and protections and another side that laments the Way It Used to Be? There was one tense moment at gunpoint where a character that had previously led a literal lynch mob says, through convenient tears, that he’s sorry. Oh, he’s sorry he almost murdered an innocent classmate? Are there some decisions, some votes that you just can’t erase with a “sorry”? When people are willing to drop all pretenses of humanity for tribal allegiance, then perhaps those people don’t get away with an apology for their grievous harm. As the hacking begins, it’s initially pinpointed coming from a Russian IP address, and I wondered if maybe writer/director Sam Levinson (son of Barry) was making an additional comment about how easily these divisions can be exploited by an outside actor, as they were with the Russian propaganda missions of 2016 (and beyond). There’s another culprit responsible for the dissemination and the eventual explanation for a motive is a pitch-perfect end note demonstrating the destructive nature of casual cruelty.

The breakdowns in the Salem society stem from a deluge of secrets being unleashed and consumed without abandon. Everyone feels exposed, naked, some of them quite literally considering the treasure trove of hacked pictures, again drawing comparisons to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence getting their intimate personal pictures broadcast. The expectations of privacy are malleable in a digital age of consumption, where the wider public is insatiable to know and see everything no matter the violation. The ravenous consumption of intimate secrets then foments into a mindless mob in need of blood. It’s the social media horde that has to find a new victim to point the outrage machine at. This is best demonstrated by the school’s principal (Colman Domingo), an early victim of the hacker. Included on his cell phone’s gallery are nine pictures of his young daughter in the bathtub. Ready to take down another target, the community demands that the educator resign despite his pleas that they are innocent pictures but the crowd argues that all nudity is the same and therefore sexualized, especially when it depicts females. He’s dubbed a pedophile and a child molester and every horrific term. He’s pressured by the school board to resign and he faces down his hostile, accusatory crowd. I was so taken with this storyline and the personal anguish this man was going through that I wish we had gotten more time and appearances with him as a significant supporting character (this refrain will be referenced again). It’s these early moments that made me think of the Salem of Arthur Miller’s play, a bluntly obvious comparison point for a painfully blunt movie.

The world of Assassination Nation is deadly to women. It’s the kind of movie where male entitlement can turn a street harasser into a would-be murderer, which dredges up memories of Mollie Tibbetts, killed by a man who refused to accept that she didn’t have to talk with him or acknowledge him while she was out jogging. The teen girls are pressured to be sexual beings by those who want to commoditize their bodies, and then they are puritanically demonized when these actions become public knowledge. I kept finding relevant correlations with so many moments and themes throughout the film, and I imagine many others will do the same. That is one of the charms of a movie bursting with so many things to say; each person may be challenged or affected by something different. The satire is unsparing and darkly comic but when it needs to be serious and disturbing, Assassination Nation can switch tones with ease. You’ll be laughing at some violence, cringing at other examples, and possibly cheering by the end as just deserts are served. Having a multitude of tones and messages doesn’t detract from the overall impact; it just means there are more storytelling avenues to chase and different emotions to elicit.

Take for instance a scene that occurs after the end of the movie. We watch an African-American marching band lead by a lead female performer with a baton. They stomp in unison through the smoldering remains of a suburban neighborhood and play a brassy rendition of pop scion Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” It’s a song about youthful revelry but also a declaration of independence from the oppressive expectations of others (“It’s our party, we can say what we want/ It’s our party, we can kiss who we want”). Can this moment relate to the idea that a younger generation must keep marching onward in the face of tragedy after tragedy, that the racism and misogyny and mass shootings won’t stop, that we’re a constant shuffling funeral march in the unmovable face of broken politics? Is there reference to the expectation of African-Americans to perform through horrifying adversity for the entertainment of a white audience? Is this a celebration or elegy? It’s a strangely beautiful coda that left me thinking even more, and if something that happens even after the end credits can stay with me, you know you have a worthy work of art.

This is a movie that affected me deeply as a drama and, as it changes gears, a suspense thriller. There are some extended assault and torture sequences that will test the comfort level of every viewer. There is a healthy exploitation streak that runs through the film, but I found it far more meaningful than say the recent gonzo art flick earning overzealous critical raves, Mandy. Levinson’s camera will adopt the male gaze that imprisons these teen girls with close-ups of gyrating movement and pouty stares. Some will characterize these moments as Levinson muddying his message by indulging in the same objectification he has been criticizing. I can understand that analysis but I think it goes deeper. I think the camera is adopting the objectification of the world and Levinson is asking us how we feel now that we’ve gotten to know many of these women. Are they so easily disposable once you widen the lens and see them as vulnerable, sympathetic, and relatable human beings?

The final act delves into full-on exploitation vengeance thriller and becomes a feminist rallying cry against the wider array of misogyny poisoning society. I imagine future generations will memorize Lily’s final speech to the American public with the same degree of awed reverence as college-aged males do for Tyler Durden (a movie where its target audience missed the satire). It would be glib to simply dismiss Assassination Nation as an opportunistic RiotGrrrl response to the Me Too movement. This is a primal cry against the Age of Trump and feels like the first great film in response to our 45th president and all that his ascension has wrought.

When the film does go into thriller mode, Levinson proves surprisingly adept. There is an extended tracking shot that swoops from window to window, floor to floor as we slowly watch a home invasion in progress, and it’s exceptionally taut. The camerawork by cinematographer Marcel Rev (White God) is remarkably fluid, floating around its subjects in glides like the camera is serving as the eye of god. There’s a mesmerizing quality to the visuals that transcends the array of genres the film effortlessly hops between. One minute you’re caught up with the arresting, upside down camerawork leading to an explosion of violence, and the next you’re taken with a surreal depiction of suburbia. The music selection is also on fire with choice tracks by K. Flay, Bishop Briggs, Joywave, Bams Courtney, Gracie Mitchell, Billie Ellish, and others. It alternates between guttural and polished, angry and contemplative, but it screams as loud as the film itself. I’ll be surprised if I come across a better contemporary soundtrack to a 2018 movie.

If there is a niggling detraction for the movie it’s that we could have used more time spent rounding out the supporting characters. Besides Lily and Bex, the other girls are more defined by their relationships and proximity to our protagonist. I wanted them to open up more as characters. I also wanted even more catharsis by the end of the movie. After almost two hours of rampant misogyny and subjugation, I could have used even more lingering vengeance as the girls defended themselves from their attackers. Still, my biggest regret with Assassination Nation is that I didn’t spend more time with the supporting characters and their individual personalities and trials. I just wanted more.

Bristling with anger and feminine agency, Assassination Nation is a warning shot, a rallying cry, and a daring artistic statement about the role of women in response to the rise of Trump and his cronies. It’s not subtle but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. It’s blunt and extreme because our times are blunt and extreme, it’s messy because our news cycles are messy, desperate to cover a cascade of catastrophes and scandals, it’s using the language and imagery of exploitation cinema because that is too often the lens with which women are viewed in modern society, as achievements to unlock, as trophies to be won, and as a product for mass consumption. Levinson has put together a movie that has a possibility of being a seminal film, of being a touchstone of the resistance to the Trump Era and all that it stands for, but at its core it opens up with excoriating detail the pressure and punishment women must persevere through on a daily basis as targets of patriarchal entitlement and the dangerously fragile egos of dangerous men. In the recent weeks we’ve watched a possible Supreme Court nominee who might have committed multiple acts of sexual assault, and the response has been to “plow ahead” and appoint the man for a lifetime position ruling on the legality of women’s rights without further inquiry or investigation. The film feels even more charged, relevant, and prophetic with each new allegation of wrongdoing being hand-waved away as mistaken identity, boys-will-be-boys moral relativism (more like rapists-will-be-rapists), and the same kind of nonsense that women have been subjected to since the original Salem and well beyond that. For every woman fed up with the status quo, Assassination Nation is your movie, and for every man whom needs a feminist lesson with an extra dose of Purge-style bloodletting and vengeance, here is a brazen and affecting statement. Assassination Nation is the movie of the moment and it’s a knockout.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Predator (2018)

It’s been 31 years since the first Predator strutted its camouflaged self onto the big screen and bedeviled Arnold Schwarzenegger and company. Since then the dreadlock-sporting intergalactic sportsman has become a familiar vaginal face to movie audiences around the world. One of those company deaths in the original movie was none other than Shane Black, years before the writer/director became a bankable Hollywood commodity. Black is going back home to revive the dormant franchise with The Predator, a big-budget sequel/reboot that aims for the stars and falls far, far too short.

An alien spaceship belonging to a rogue Predator crashes on Earth, scattering important debris. Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is a black ops sniper and the only surviving member of his team who happened to be on site when the ship crashed. The government says he’s crazy and transfers him onto a bus filled with other mentally disturbed military vets who call themselves “the Loonies” (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera). A tough-talking government agent, Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), seeks out a biological specialist, Dr. Brackett (Olivia Munn), to examine their interstellar prize. At the secret lab, the Predator breaks free, Dr. Brackett chases after the specimen, and she teams up with the “Loonies” to track down the alien. After his initial Predator encounter, Quinn mailed the alien helmet and other evidence to his son, Rory McKenna (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy with autism who cracks the alien code and becomes the target of a Predator, a Super Predator, and the government.

The Predator is a supremely messy movie, often feeling like two separate screenplays inelegantly stitched together, one a big bloody action thriller, the other a winky Shane Black vehicle with a cavalier, macabre sense of humor. It doesn’t quite work because the movie can’t fully settle on a tone, or a direction, and thus it keeps providing glimpses of the many versions of the kind of movie it could have been instead. I’ll openly admit to being a Shane Black fan when he embraces his sly instincts, command of genre, and ribald wit (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a modern comic masterpiece; The Nice Guys is… pretty good), so the Black touches were my favorite part especially because they stood out the most. I enjoyed the characters entering into scene-breaking asides, like Dr. Brackett questioning why the alien would be named a “predator” given its behavior is more akin to a hunter or a fisherman, and Traeger shrugging, “Yeah, well, we took a vote and ‘predator’ was cooler. Right guys?” Or when a character is being held at tranquilizer gunpoint and mocks the danger, only to be tranqued point blank in the eye, killing him. Or a bully suddenly getting drilled by the defense mechanisms of the Predator helmet and murdered. It’s these moments that kept me most entertained, demonstrating Black’s unique voice that can take genre filmmaking within a studio sphere and turn it on its head with a devilish grin. If The Predator had been more a Shane Black vehicle than a Shane Black studio reboot, then perhaps the final product would have risen above the mediocrity that sinks it.

Much of that mediocrity comes from the middling plotting, mostly after the first act. For a solid half hour, I think Black has something promising, having set up the various characters and gotten them to intersect and go on the run together as a merry band of outlaws and amateur alien hunters. Once the “Loonies” break free with Dr. Brackett is where the movie loses its sense of direction. The plot just stumbles from one set piece to another, rarely with good reason. One minute they’re running away from a Predator creature and the next they run into an apparently unlocked high school building rather than flee in cars and RVs. Most of the plot movement follows little Rory, first reaching him before the bad men do, then rescuing him from Predator dogs, and Predator, and then he’s kidnapped by the bad guys, then he’s hunted by the Super Predator and I’m tired. This kid is a spectrum-walking, spectrum-talking plot device (more on that below). It feels decidedly odd to have a super sniper paired with a renegade group of mentally disturbed and dangerous military castoffs and instead of them primarily hunting and killing a space alien they are rescuing a little boy with special needs. It would be like having a Tarantino rouges gallery teaming up to teach a child how to read. It feels like a misapplication of the character dynamics onscreen, which again gets to my central criticism of the final film feeling too much like separate movies in conflict. The studio elements (supportive yet feisty ex-wife, autistic savant, Predator dogs) feel too obvious.

The action is serviceable with a few dandy practical gore effects. There’s a nasty, visceral quality of the action that proudly wears its R-rating as a badge of honor, as a PG-13 Predator movie would be a disservice to the universe’s most fearsome hunter (the first Alien vs. Predator was PG-13; I suppose acid and florescent blood are less traumatic to be seen gushing from hacked limbs?). The action gets a lot more boring once the Super Predator is introduced, an eleven-foot all-CGI monstrosity that needed a bit more work. Beforehand the Predator is a combination of makeup and practical effects, allowing longer interaction with its environment. I enjoyed the Predator breaking out of the lab. I did not enjoy the team taking on the Super Predator at night in the middle of the woods because it decided to go… sporting. Seriously, the second-to-last action set piece has the flimsiest formation. Rather than accomplish its mission, the Super Predator invites all the humans to one more game, though the alien acknowledges that “McKenna” is their only true champion. It devolves to jump scares in the spooky woods, but hey, at least characters can start being eliminated (some of them so abruptly that it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exit). There are touches throughout the action that keep things lively before ultimately succumbing yet again to the freefall of the project’s creative dissonance.

The actors are enjoyable but I felt bad they weren’t given more. Holbrook (Logan) is consistently upstaged by his eccentric band of compatriots, but only Jane, Key, and Rhodes get any personality. The other guys are just kind of there. I don’t think I laughed once at Key’s (Netflix’s Friends from College) many, many wisecracks. The Tourette’s syndrome tic given to Jane (TV’s The Expanse) is rarely funny, and yet Black goes back to it again and again (the adolescent kid behind me in my theater thought every profanity was the funniest thing ever committed to film). The actors glide by on Black’s signature macho, cocksure style, clinging to every new quip like a lifeline. Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse) has a few fun, feisty moments but is still basically featured as The Girl. Tremblay (Wonder) is making me rethink my evaluation of him after Room. The best actor in the movie, by far, is Brown (Black Panther) who has a malevolent charm that connects most fluidly with Black’s sensibilities. Even his self-satisfied laughter made me laugh.

We need to talk about the film’s views on autism (there will be some spoilers in this paragraph, so skip ahead if desired). Rory McKenna is of that kind of Hollywood Autism, the kind we see on TV (The Good Doctor) or of classic movies (Rain Man). It’s the designation of autism as a gateway to super powers (never mind that having savant abilities only impacts ten percent at best). Whatever, it’s an unrealistic depiction in an age of better, more nuanced depictions of mental health and disabilities. Where The Predator gets crazy is when Dr. Brackett offers this nugget: “You know many people think autism is just the next step in human evolution.” No. Nobody thinks this. As someone who has worked extensively with children with autism, this is not a thing. I’m not saying by any rationale that those with autism are lesser by any means but they’re no more the next stage in human evolution than any other condition. Ask a person with autism if they feel like the next stage in human evolution, like an X-Men mutant. What makes matters worse is that Black confirms this strange notion when the Super Predator, surprise surprise, was most impressed with Rory McKenna and not his big bad dad. The Super Predator plans to take the kid back to, presumably, harvest his autism DNA so the future predators will… know how to fly their spaceships that they already know how to fly? I don’t know.

The Predator is part sequel, part reboot, part Shane Black genre riff, part muscular R-rated action movie, part chase movie, and part Hollywood mishmash. Apparently the film underwent extensive reshoots as well, retooling the entire third act, which seems obvious in hindsight and only magnifies the disconnect between the central story elements. Shane Black’s signature elements are but glimmers of what could have been. It needed to be more of a genre send-up of 80s-action farce, or a more straight-up action movie, or something where the plot generally made sense and had characters we liked. Was Shane Black playing a joke on the studio? The Predator will probably be most known for editing out a real-life sexual predator, or from its dreadlocked alien dog being domesticated after getting shot in the head, or its depiction of autism, or anything that isn’t really the entertainment level of a mediocre rehash. Check out Predators instead.

Nate’s Grade: C

Mandy (2018)

Mandy is a gonzo, psychotropic mood piece that will infuriate some, test others, and delight a select audience that responds enthusiastically to atmospheric indulgences. Set in the 1980s, because of course it’s the 80s, a logger (Nicolas Cage) and his titluar girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) have a bad run-in with a small cult. Their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), declares that the god of the universe told him he is entitled to everything, and he picks Mandy. Bad things transpire and Cage is left for dead. He sets off on a quest for vengeance against the cult and a fetish-clad biker gang they employ as muscle, and in the process he might be going insane.

So what kind of movie is Mandy? There really isn’t a plot here so much as an immersive experience of fever dream imagery with a loving yet detached nod to its cultural influences from the 1980s, heavy metal music videos, Heavy Metal magazines, heavy metal album covers (sensing a trend?). There is the bare bones of a plot here, a revenge formula, but it’s really more about the moments and the feelings that writer/director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) is trying to communicate through the screen. He’s another disciple of the Terrence Malick/Nicolas Winding Refn School of Filmmaking, ditching the story details for a visually immersive and hallucinatory sensory experience. The problem with these kinds of movies is that you either check into that wavelength or you don’t. I know that sounds like an oversimplification, as all movies either engage or disengage, but because the story and characters are so minimalist, the opportunities to click with the material rely entirely upon the moody atmosphere and creative execution.

Mandy is overwhelmingly a campy revenge thriller that celebrates the unique Cage-ness of Nicolas Cage’s more unhinged, bizarre performances. This is a movie that asks Cage to go the full Cage, and that can be a beautiful thing. There’s a knowing campiness to the whole exercise that doesn’t feel condescending. It’s not making fun of the onscreen antics so much as it is celebrating the artful absurdity. This is the kind of movie where there’s a chainsaw-on-chainsaw duel and it’s awesome. This is the kind of movie where every patch of woods has a blast of fog to make it feel like a dark fairy tale. It’s the kind of movie where the practical gore effects are stomach churning and memorable. It’s the kind of movie where Cage lights his cigarette from the fire of a decapitated head. It’s a movie where Cage goes on a journey where he transcends into the mythic. He is no mere mortal by the end; he is the mythic figure of vengeance. The man doesn’t just find his foes to foil; he has to first construct his own metallic scythe straight out of a fantasy adventure. Cage is fully aligned with the bizarre and eerie primal nature of the film. His crazed intensity is matched perfectly with the overwrought atmosphere and villains. There are moments where his bug-eyed stare or maniacal laughter will give you chills. He has one sequence that’s petty much non-stop screaming on a toilet as he tries to process shocking grief. It’s a performance that asks Cage to be unrestrained and tightly coiled at parts, relying more on physicality and intense looks than dialogue. For fans of the ironic and sublimely weird Nicolas Cage, Mandy should be a deranged delight to hoot and holler.

However, there’s really no entry point for a viewer if they do not celebrate the campy, gonzo, detached atmospherics of the film. Walking out of Mandy, I told my friends that it needed 20 percent more plot and 20 percent less movie. There’s no reason this movie needs to be over to hours long, especially with its threadbare plot. It takes far too long to get going, with the cult attacking Cage and his girlfriend at the one-hour mark. The second half has improved pacing but still takes its sweet time too. Cosmatos seems to favor a dreamy sense of pacing, so instead of, say, ten seconds of watching Cage’s pained reaction, we’ll get 30 seconds. The self-indulgence has a way of making the artful intent redundant. Did we need those extra 20 seconds to really feel the full artistry? Or, perhaps, could Cosmatos have used all the extra time saved from collectively trimming the excess moments and diversions to better develop the characters and story? The other problem with diverting the majority of the attention to atmospherics is that the eventual comeuppance of the cult lacks a full sense of satisfaction. If we don’t get to really know the cult members then we won’t feel the rush of catharsis when they are dispatched. I talked about this very topic with my review for Peppermint, another revenge thriller with inherent structural problems that mitigated audience payoffs. The revenge formula is a simple thing and engineered to deliver payoffs. Here are two September releases that fumble that formula, although Mandy places less importance upon it. Most of these cult members are given a look, at best, which makes them interchangeable and disposable. Jeremiah Sand is an intriguing, hilarious, pathetic creature, and so the final showdown proves satisfying and somewhat revelatory, as his ego-driven bluster transitions quickly to pleading and bargaining and abject fear. It’s a fitfully climactic moment but did we need two hours to get here? There’s a better 90-minute movie trapped inside here, subsumed and suffocated by Cosmatos’ love affair with his influences and indulgences.

This is also sadly the last score from composer Johann Johannsson, who passed away in February of this year. He was an eclectic creative voice whose musical abilities were diverse. He could create a thundering score that felt like an incoming army, like with Sicario, or a soaring melody that could lift your spirits, like his Oscar-winning score for Theory of Everything. With Mandy, Johannsson relies upon those 80s metal influences and produces a sonic landscape fitting for Cosmatos. The score is kept at a rumble that accentuates the nightmarish qualities of the visuals. To the end, Johannsson sought unconventional methods to give voice to his movies.

Mandy is a crazy, dreamy, moody movie heavy on brooding atmosphere and light on story and characters. If you can hop on its wavelength, Mandy will prove to be a gonzo good time. If you can’t, it’s going to be overly reverential to its cultural influences and laboriously long. I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m not a fan of most Refn movies because I feel like they fall into the trap of emphasizing pretty yet hollow imagery. The ideas don’t tend to go as deep as the filmmakers think they do, and I grow restless for more. Mandy needed more time spent giving greater shape to its world and narrative. This criticism may sound unfair given the nature of the film (do you ask for the details of a dream?) but I feel dismissing its lack of substance is a step too far. Mandy is essentially a dream with hazy plotting, vivid imagery, and intense feelings, but it can wash away upon waking. I left my theater torn over the movie, wanting to celebrate its artistic vision and weirdness while also wishing there was more weirdness and more of a vision.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Nun (2018)

It’s amazing to me that The Conjuring series has become a literal billion-dollar franchise and in only four cost-effective movies. Rare is the film franchise that births spin-offs so readily, but The Conjuring has already introduced two Annabelle movies, one Nun film, and an upcoming Crooked Man feature. It’s almost as if any supernatural creature given a minor spotlight in the James Wan-produced series is destined for greater things. It’s like the Conjuring universe is a pipeline to stardom for America’s next big malevolent demon. I’m thinking the Conjuring 3 could spend 30 seconds on some tall tale about a haunted plunger and it would be spun off into its own franchise within a year, tops. The Nun is the fifth film in the series, the second spin-off film, and probably the movie with the least amount of narrative substance given its starting material. It’s a mixture of old horror staples and exorcism mumbo-jumbo, and it’s also not half bad.

In 1950s Romania, a small abbey is being haunted by an evil presence that had been confined behind a door that ominously warned, “God ends here.” A nun has committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is called by the Vatican to investigate the strange happenings. He teams up with a local nun-in-training, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), and a traveling merchant Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) who first discovered the dead nun’s body. The sisters inside the abbey are behaving oddly and it’s not long before our characters realize they’re trapped in the abbey with something wicked looking for a human host to escape.

There’s not really much to the plot of The Nun so the emphasis comes in the realm of atmosphere, unsettling visuals, and unnerving set pieces. The investigative process with our priest and nun-in-training doesn’t amount to many revelations, and the information won’t be new for the audience considering this specific demon Valak has been seen in two other Conjuring-related movies now (maybe three?). It becomes a haunted house thriller and, like the earlier and much ballyhooed Hereditary, a movie of moments. So your mileage will vary depending upon how affected you are by the atmospherics and imagery. With The Nun, I felt like the visuals were built upon more rigorous Catholic religious iconography and a foundation of decades of accumulated exorcism film imagery. Plus the very design of the titular nun is just super unsettling by itself, let alone placed in a spooky setting with spooky lighting. Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) finds visually pleasing and distressing imagery that he emphasizes for better effect, like a team of faceless nuns standing in formation, or a tormented boy with a snake that slithers out of his screaming mouth. It’s not subtle in the slightest but credit for not relying upon an inordinate number of jump scares for its chief spooks. In the realm of schlocky horror, The Nun is actually a little restrained when it isn’t being ridiculous, but it’s the kind of ridiculous that makes you laugh and anticipate the next scene rather than check your watch. Again, your mileage will vary, but I enjoyed the theatrics and imagery more than the overrated Hereditary.

This brings me to the biggest head-scratcher in the movie that would have seemed designed to ensure audience investment. I had no idea Taissa Farmiga (TV’s American Horror Story) was going to be in this movie let alone the co-lead of the movie. As soon as I saw her face I leaned forward, newly intrigued. My working assumption was that the younger Farmiga was going to be the prequel version of the character played by her older sister, Vera Farmiga (yes, they’re sisters and not mother/daughter). Suddenly this made her character that much more interesting and created a direct connection from the events of the nuns to the larger Conjuring universe, providing a back-story for the Warrens to lean upon. It also allowed me to transfer my feelings for the character onto Taissa Farmiga, making me care far more about her well-being as she creeped around dimly lit corners than if she had been any other woman in a habit in a bad place. The fact that The Nun had so effectively hidden Taissa Farmiga’s presence from the marketing made it feel like an intentional surprise, something to let the audience know the filmmakers weren’t skating by. It raised my opinion of the movie and my enjoyment from scene-to-scene.

And then I found out Taissa Farmiga’s Sister Irene is a separate character from Lorraine Warren. Huh? Of all the young actresses in the world to select, choosing the literal younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who looks strikingly similar, feels far too intentional to be coincidental. Why isn’t she just the younger version of Lorraine Warren, setting her up for a life of hunting the supernatural after this formative experience? She’s even presented as a nun in training and not a full-fledged bride of Christ. Even the decades in age difference would add up. It’s not like you’re playing that close to the facts of the case when it concerns the Warrens who, by modern accounts, are considered frauds by many. Come on, James Wan. Come on Conjuring universe. What are you doing here? The solution was right within reach and you deliberately ignored it.

The Nun is a moderately entertaining movie subsisting on strong production design, exorcism iconography, and solid performances from capable actors. It’s not really more than the sum of its parts but, for me, there were enough effectively creepy moments and punchy images that won me over by the end of its 96 minutes. If you’re a fan of the Conjuring series, or particularly demonic possession/exorcism movies, then you’ll likely find enough entertainment to be had, even if the filmmakers absurdly decide not to have Taissa Farmiga play the younger version of an already established central character. Was this a late-in-the-game rewrite to absolve her of her connection to Vera Farmiga? I’m happy for anyone connected to the production to contact me and clear this up (after my surprising conversation with a key creative on Sherlock Gnomes, I’ll just start openly asking for clarifying correspondence from Hollywood filmmakers now). The Nun in essence does just enough to be silly or scary when needed and possibly worth a watch for horror fans. Now about that haunted toilet plunger. I may have a pitch ready if you’re open to it, James Wan. After all, what’s scarier than a broken toilet?

Nate’s Grade: C+

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