As I’ve been tackling more Ohio-made indies recently, I’ve gotten to know local filmmakers and started having films suggested for me by people within he local film industry, and as I’ve watched more and more that do not work, I’ve begun to dread writing these reviews. Nobody wants to be the killjoy after so many people have sacrificed time and money to bring a movie to life. It’s hard work. Ride or Die is a low-budget indie written and directed and edited by Aly Hardt (Lilith) and filmed in Cincinnati. It’s currently available on Amazon streaming but I wouldn’t advise a casual viewing. It’s confused and meandering and hard to process what is happening frequently without attachment to compelling characters.
Ashley (Vanessa Allen) is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her bestie, Mandy (Hannah Brooks). When a boyfriend mistreats Mandy, that’s when Ashley takes matters into her own hands. She kills an abusive (ex?)boyfriend (Raavian Rehman) and the witness, a girl he was dating called Lemonade (Celeste Blandon) too. Ashley hides the bodies and learns shocking secrets from Mandy that make her reconsider everything she knew about her BFF.
Ride or Die could support a hasty drinking game because scene-to-scene you have no idea what to expect. That can be a bonus if your tone allows for it like a mystery that keeps you upended or a wacky comedy, and for a short period of time I thought that this indie was headed in a black comedy direction. After our protagonist has killed two people within ten minutes, she’s beset by another interloper, a woman who works at a café delivering food (without a car?) and needing a ride. Ashley, who has just stashed bodies in her trunk, reluctantly agrees to help, and as this new woman is yammering away about any topic that enters her brain, I started to wonder if this was what the rest of the movie would be like, a series of outrageous pile-ups that result from the opening murder, becoming harder and harder to cover-up. Nope. After this scene, and the “comedy” of mistaking the blood on Ashley’s fingertips as a sign of her menstruation (“It must be a bad period. I just finished mine.”), we will never see this self-involved whipped cream-loving woman again, and we will never really cover the tone of intentional comedy again short of a no-nonsense Uber driver. Ride or Die wobbles severely from tone to tone, never settling down, and feeling inauthentic whatever the current tonal footing featured. As things were getting serious, I knew it was only a matter of minutes before something ridiculous would happen to ruin it. As things were crazy, I knew it was only a matter of minutes before something self-serious and disjointed would happen to ruin it. If you’re expecting constant tonal self-sabotage, then you won’t be disappointed with the results of this wildly messy 76-minute experiment. Tone switches can work, even serious to darkly funny as demonstrated so skillfully in Promising Young Woman. This movie just can’t manage the abrupt shifts.
The worst part for me was how these tonal shifts and creative decision-making harmed the thematic implications around domestic violence. There are serious subjects at play with Ride or Die and I don’t want to say that humor cannot be found in even the most uncomfortable of topics. It just requires a deft touch, a touch sorely lacking from this movie. In the first TEN MINUTES alone, we endure watching Mandy get assaulted by her bad boyfriend, Ashley gets assaulted by her bad father or step-father (Chris Dettone, Confiend), and then Ashley murders two people, one of whom admits to being a victim of rape from high school before inexplicably falling head-over-heels for Ashley. The first three women introduced onscreen are all victims of sexual abuse. It’s a lot to handle, and I was worried this path was going to continue and every female character introduced would have their own story, not because this would be unlikely from a statistical standpoint of unreported assaults but because it would possibly approach self-parody through blunt overuse.
However, the good intentions of highlighting the struggle to reclaim your identity after sexual abuse is seriously compromised by a late revelation (spoilers to follow, you are warned). After getting drunk, Mandy reveals that she really appreciated the ferocity of protection from her bestie, so she would lie about past abuse from past boyfriends so that Ashley would “take care of her.” She even admits to giving herself the black eye she sports for most of the movie. In a post-Me Too era where victims are fighting to be heard, it’s morally queasy to have a main character falsify numerous assaults for attention. Any good feelings I had for this movie vanished after that point. I don’t know if Mandy fully understood what Ashley would do in response but she had to pick up some disconcerting theory considering all these people went mysteriously absent after Mandy’s accusations. Either her selfish ignorance has led to all these supposedly innocent people being harmed and/or killed or she knew what the consequences would be and set them up for deadly retribution. Whatever the scenario, Mandy is an irredeemably bad person and I couldn’t care about her whatsoever, not that the prior development meaningfully rounded her out. This happens at the halfway mark and the movie cannot sustain itself with 40 minutes after to spend. For a movie that features so many victims of sexual abuse dealing with the long-term effects, it seems very irresponsible to go this route while also trying to treat the topic with reverence.
Another ongoing problem that really tears apart Ride or Die is that there are so many moments that well and truly make no sense. The entire character of Lemonade is getting her own paragraph of confusion. Why does Lemonade respond at all like she does? Ashley has a gun against her head and threatening her if she doesn’t forget her face, providing an out, and Lemonade chooses this moment to come onto her attacker (“What if I don’t want to forget your face?” she coos). I accepted her confessing her own abuse as a means of eliciting sympathy from her attacker, but to get a horny case of Stockholm syndrome instantaneously is beyond bizarre. The kiss triggers Ashley to think about her father (or stepfather) and she kills Lemonade. This scene made me scream “what?” to my TV screen for several prolonged utterances. The entire Lemonade character makes no sense to me. Ashley is haunted by Lemonade’s pale ghost because, we’re told much later, she was her first innocent she killed. However, this confession is occurring directly after she learns about Mandy’s secret, meaning this is entirely false. Maybe beforehand she thought she was an innocent, fine, but why does this woman who spent exactly two minutes on camera before being killed merit such attention? Lemonade then becomes a personification of Ashley’s guilt or self-destruction, or maybe she is a ghost and looking for payback, either would be credible here. I laughed when ghost Lemonade brings it to Ashley’s attention that driving around in the stolen car of the person she may have just killed might not be the best decision. In this moment, the literal ghost trying to murder Ashley is also trying to be the voice of reason, because inexplicably Ashley needs to go dancing and find herself a companion at this exact moment. “I need this for me,” she says, trying to guilt the ghost whose job it is to guilt her. What is going on?
I kept expecting there to be, you know, consequences for the trail of bodies, but apparently the police in this universe can’t be bothered to investigate crimes with scads of physical evidence. I guess no detective has bothered to put together the coincidental nature of all of the men who Mandy goes on dates with or forms relationships with winding up missing. No worried family member? No nosy neighbor? If Ashley were like a professional at murder and body disposal, maybe I’d give her more leeway because she’s demonstrated that she knows what she’s doing after a wealth of experience. This is not the case. She chooses to store the dead bodies in her home, and not buried in the yard but in an accessible space where it’s only a matter of time before the smell spreads. The conflict of covering up the dead bodies feels resolved far too easily and without necessary tension. Because of this, the girl time spent between Mandy and Ashley can become insufferable and filled with awkward dialogue exchanges like, “Why don’t you ever talk about why your parents left you behind?” and, “Maybe this question’s more for me because I don’t know how to deal with losing my mom, and I know it’s not the same thing, but when my mom died, I was just crushed. I mean, your parents might as well be dead with what happened.” Characters explain things they obviously would already know with their years of BFF-ing, like asking to talk about your happiest childhood memory, which happens to be when they first met. The inauthentic, overly expositional dialogue is often a bad sign that a screenplay needs a few more drafts of work.
So much of this movie is built upon a friendship we’re repeatedly told is super close, but they interact less like friends who have known one another since the fourth grade and more like sorority sisters who have shared the same floor for a couple of weeks. The writing just isn’t there to sustain anything character-centric with Ride or Die, which is why the characters seem to flip flop at random in frustrating and annoying ways, when they too aren’t being frustrating and annoying. It’s a clear case of being told relationship importance and bonds rather than witnessing them. There are no real supporting characters. The off-screen grandmother is always heard and never seen and a one-joke character where the joke was never even funny. There are propagators of trauma, like the bad men of the past, and there are victims, like the all-purpose ghost, but it’s the story of these two women and they are so boring together even with repeated murder and cover-ups.
Ride or Die is unlikely to win over any fans who aren’t already personally connected with the indie production. There are definite technical limitations given the budget was only $16,000. The sets never seem to feel lived in. The dialogue often sounds like it was dubbed over. The music drones on and on and at a volume that needs to be dialed back. The acting is flat across the board, with Allen (Girl/Girl Scene) sounding overwhelmingly monotone no matter the intensity of the scene. Scrolling through the end credits, I noticed the same names appearing over and over. Most everyone on this crew worked four or five jobs to see Ride or Die get made. That’s commendable, but I have to ask what about this story deserved all their hard work and dedication? It’s the script that sinks this movie. We get stuff like a ten-second “in media res” opening when we simply get caught up within eight minutes. That’s not how that should work. Likewise, why even bother with a three months earlier/three months later timeline that only muddles things? Was it Ashley’s stepfather or father who committed her abuse? The movie needs clarity but it really needs a driving plot to tie things together. The confusing fantasies, the wildly fluctuating characters and tone, the meandering plot, the overwrought dramatic elements, it all starts to coalesce into a sporadically baffling example of modern camp. I hope everyone involved enjoyed working on this. I don’t think many others will find much to enjoy on the merits of its storytelling and execution. Unfortunately, it’s best left in the rear view.
Nate’s Grade: D
Fred Hampton was the deputy chairman of the Black Panthers in Chicago and was only 21 years old when he was murdered in 1969 by federal agents. Judas and the Black Messiah is about Hampton and his life in political activism cut short, but it’s also another tragedy, one far less known. Bill O’Neal was a federal informant who was manipulated into betraying Hampton to the FBI and ultimately setting up the man’s execution. Both men are given consideration and brought to life by great actors, Laketih Stanfield as O’Neal and Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton. O’Neal is tasked with getting into the trusted inner circle of Hampton and the Black Panthers without blowing his cover, or else he’ll be going to jail for years on potentially pending charges. The FBI agent in charge (Jesse Plemons) is under pressure by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and this all provides even more pressure onto O’Neal, who is a pawn of the higher-ups who only care about neutralizing the growing power of the Black Panthers. The film plays out similar to an undercover mob movie, like The Departed, and much of the drama follows whether O’Neal will get caught, how he will navigate the tenuous territory he is in, and the paranoia of being in danger at all times and from multiple sides if he succeeds or fails. I appreciated the attention given to O’Neal and the consideration that he too is another victim. He is eager to succeed and thinks he might use his service as an introduction into the Bureau for legit work, but he also very much wants to be accepted by the Panthers because he agrees with their philosophies and is looking for a community that welcomes him and provides a sense of direction. If I had a complaint, it is simply that we get a lot more Judas here than we do the Black Messiah. It feels like we’re getting a rather simplified summation of Hampton and scrubbing clean some of his personal leanings (having him identity as a socialist rather than a Marxist) that would make him more controversial. By all definitions, Hampton was executed by agents of the state to pacify institutionally racist fears about powerful and gun-owning black Americans, but putting so much emphasis of the story on the man who betrayed him creates an imbalance in presentation and risks mitigating the depth of Hampton. After Hampton returns from prison, the movement he’s been so heavily involved with seems to dissolve onscreen, focusing solely on setting up our deadly climax. He is seen as a martyr first and foremost. There are two extended shootouts in the second half that don’t feel at all in keeping with the first half of the movie. Kaluuya (Get Out) is electric in public and awkward and sweet in private with his beloved girlfriend. It hints at much more that could have been explored away from his fiery public persona. Stanfield (Knives Out) has the more multi-dimensional role and yet even given the grand Shakespearean tragic proportions of his position, I can’t help but feel like O’Neal feels a tad underdeveloped. There’s a subtle ambiguity that follows his character’s motivations but many of his moments revolve around whether he will be accepted, fool someone, or get caught. There are greater questions of whether the mask he wears is real. The characterization gets a little lost because of the nature of the subterfuge. This movie is over two hours but has the potential to be an epic tragedy and could have sustained a limited series of storytelling. As it is, it’s a tense and powerful movie with great acting and an ending that will rightfully outrage and disquiet. Judas and the Black Messiah is stirring but I feel like it had lost potential by transposing its story and conflicts into two hours and with two central underwritten figures of tragedy. It’s quite good but man this could have been amazing.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Trying to sequelize Silence of the Lambs is surely harder than trying to sequelize The Blair Witch Project. The novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris I don’t think will be confused as a necessary burst of creative ambition and more of a chance to cash in on the love of Hannibal Lector. Though I’ve not read a line from the book from what I’m told the movie is faithful until the much hated ending. Starting a film off a so-so book isn’t a good way to begin, especially when you lose four of the components that made it shine Oscar gold.
The element that Silence of the Lambs carried with it was stealthily gripping psychological horror. It hung with you in every closed breath you would take, surrounding you and blanketing your mind. I mean, there aren’t many serial killer movies that win a slew of Oscars. Lambs excelled at psychological horror, but with Hannibal the horror turns into a slasher film more or less. What Lambs held back and left us terrified, Hannibal joyfully bathes in excess and gore.
Julianne Moore, a competent actress, takes over from the ditching Jodie Foster to fill the shoes of FBI agent Clarice Starling. Throughout the picture you know she’s trying her damndest to get that Foster backwoods drawl she used on the original down. The problem for poor Moore though is that her character spends half of the film in the FBI basement being ogled by higher-up Ray Liotta. She doesn’t even meet Hannibal Lector until 3/4 through. Then again, the title of the film isn’t Starling.
Anthony Hopkins returns back to the devil in the flesh and seems to have a grand old time de-boweling everyone. Lector worked in Lambs because he was caged up, like a wild animal not meant for four glass walls, and you never knew what would happen. He’d get in your head and he would know what to do with your grey matter – not that he doesn’t have a culinary degree in that department in this film. Lector on the loose is no better than a man with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, though he has a better knowledge of Dante and Florentine romantic literature. Lector worked bottled up, staring at you with dead unblinking calm. He doesn’t work saying goofy “goody-goody” lines and popping out of the shadows.
Since the director, screenwriter, and female lead didn’t show up for the Lambs rehash, it feels a tad chilled with Ridley Scott’s fluid and smooth direction. The cinematography is lush and very warm. Gary Oldman steals the show as the horribly disfigured former client of Lector’s seeking out revenge. His make-up is utterly magnificent and the best part of the film; he is made to look like a human peeled grape. Oldman instills a Texan drawl into the character yet making him the Meryl Streep of villainy.
Hannibal is nowhere near the landmark in excellence that Silence of the Lambs was but it’s not too bad. It might even be good if it wasn’t the sequel to a great film. As it is, it stands as it stands.
Nate’s Grade: B-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Serial killer culture dominated the 1990s and oddly enough it’s only gotten more highbrow since. Oh, that’s not to say that you won’t have any shortage of hacky, exploitative movies featuring elaborate murderers with gimmicky calling cards (The Hangman, a killer who literally stages his crime scenes like an ongoing game of hangman). However, the dark obsession with dangerous men (it’s almost always men) has given life to thousands of prestige cable documentaries, true-crime books, and high-profile podcasts like Serial and My Favorite Murder. We still very much have an unchecked fascination for these real and fictitious serial killers and what that may say about our society. In 1992, a serial killer thriller swept the Oscars, one of only three movies to win Best Picture, Actress, Actor, Director, and Screenplay (the others: It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and American Beauty came close if it hadn’t been for Hilary Swank). That’s how good The Silence of the Lambs was as a movie to overcome the genre biases of older Academy membership (it also helped that there were other genre biases at play for the other Best Picture nominees like Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, and JFK). It was special.
All of this is to say that Silence of the Lambs was a near impossible project to follow, and author Thomas Harris proved it with the middling-yet-best-selling sequel novel in 1999. It was obvious that it would be adapted into a major feature film, but the only returning Oscar winner from that first foray was Anthony Hopkins, which is kind of important considering his character is the title. The sequel was directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), adapted by none other than screenwriting titans David Mamet (The Untouchables) and Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List), and the movie made over $350 million worldwide at the box-office. By all accounts, it was a hit, but was it any good, or was it simply coasting from the acclaim and good will of its predecessor and the A-list cast and crew?
The first thing that becomes immediately apparent while watching Hannibal is that this is not Silence of the Lambs and not in a sense of its accomplishments but more in its chosen ambitions. This is not a psychological thriller in the slightest. It’s a boogeyman monster movie. Nobody here is given to intense introspection about man’s inhumanity to man and other such Topics of Grand Weight. Scott’s sequel is more a Gothic B-movie content to spill stomachs rather than quicken pulses. The opening botched FBI raid is chaotic, action-packed, and the flimsy excuse for why Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore taking over for Jodie Foster) is shelved for most of the movie. It feels like the filmmakers know they need to delay the reunion of our favorite cannibal therapist and FBI agent as long as possible, so the 130-minute film feels like a protracted setup to tease how far audience anticipation can possibly be sustained.
In the meantime, the plot alternates between Dr. Hannibal Lector living it up in Florence, Italy and Starling slumming it in the FBI basement. Slowly, oh so slowly, she picks up the pieces to track Lector’s whereabouts, but until then we indulge a lot of narrative bloat. Do we need to follow an Italian inspector who suspects “Dr. Fell” is not who he says he is and then enact plans to prove his identity and eventually cash in? This man is literally on screen longer than Clarice Starling. We’re introduced to a rich villain, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), but he’s more plot device than character, an all-expenses bank account to track and apprehend Lector for his bloody violence. I wish there was more to Oldman’s character given the actor and the impressive practical make-up application. He’s a symbol of rot, of vengeance, of obsession. Likewise, Ray Liotta’s lecherous FBI superior to Starling is less a character and more a plot device. He’s the stand-in for the harassment and dismissal Starling receives from her male colleagues, but a little of him goes a long way. His scenes where every other word is some creepy come-on, some sexual entreaty, or some off-color joke (he refers to Lector in homophobic slurs) are excessive. He’s an awful person but every line doesn’t have to be eye-rolling in how obviously terrible he can be. Spending extended time with all of these supporting characters is just a reminder that the movie is looking for excuses to keep its chief participants as far away for as long as possible. It’s frustrating.
The depiction of Hannibal Lector in Silence versus Hannibal is also quite noticeably different. Like most things in this sequel, the character is baser, key characteristics heightened and broadened, and bordering on farce. He’s less a scary intellectual opponent and master manipulator and more a well-read serial killer on vacation. He is profoundly less interesting in Hannibal. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a pleasure to be had watching Hopkins slice and dice his way through Italy and elude capture. Hopkins seems to relish the amplification of the campy and grand Guignol tone of the sequel. He looks to be having a blast as an unleashed beast. His performance is fun but teeters over into self-parody at times. Hearing the erudite man spout ironic catchphrases meant for incongruous comedy de-fangs some of his mystique and intensity.
And yet there are things I still starkly remember even twenty years later. Hannibal is no Oscar-winning thriller operating at an ascendant technical level with engrossing multi-dimensional characters. It’s a boogeyman movie with a scary old man. The ambitions are just lower, but that doesn’t mean that Hannibal is subpar by those lowered goals. It’s still entertaining even when it’s getting silly or overly long. Scott’s visual presentation keeps things engaging and the lovely Italian art and locales are a definite benefit to establishing the gory, Gothic atmosphere. The makeup is outstanding and, as I said back in 2001, Verger resembles a human peeled grape. Feeding a man to wild boars is also quite memorable. The conclusion still has its squirm-worthy high-point with serving Liotta’s fresh brains to himself. It’s a gory comeuppance that feels fitting. In the original book, apparently Starling then bares her breast to Lector, and he goes down on one knee, and they run off together as fugitive lovers. Needless to say, this ending was met with controversy. The film smartly nixes this, especially since I never for one second felt a romantic coupling between these two embittered characters. The movie doesn’t kill the allure of the Hannibal character but it also positions him on the same level as Michael Myers instead of, say, John Doe (Seven). It’s like a Halloween mask version of a real serial killer, dulled and magnified in some ways, but still leaving a fair impression of its source.
The Hannibal Lector incarnation had two more big screen ventures, the 2002 prequel Red Dragon and 2007’s even-further prequel, Hannibal Rising. Neither was terrific, neither was awful, though the answers that Rising offered as to what made Lector the man he is would inevitably prove disappointing (hello, childhood trauma). Arguably the best incarnation of the character, more so than Hopkins or Brian Cox (Succession) as the first big-screen Lector in 1986’s Manhunter, was from NBC’s television series from 2013-2015. Developed by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, American Gods), and starring Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Doctor Strange) as America’s favorite high-class cannibal, the series found a way to make a weekly crime procedural operatic and hypnotic and disgustingly beautiful. It’s like the artistic sensibilities from Silence and Hannibal were perfectly blended into a strange lovechild that deserved an even longer time to shine. Recently, just the week of this writing, CBS has begun a 2021 Clarice Starling TV series, though because of rights issues they cannot even reference Hannibal Lector. They have the rights to the senator and her daughter who was kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, as if those characters were what the fanbase was really clamoring for more time with. It looks like any other grisly CBS crime procedural just with a different name. I fully expect it to be canceled after one season.
Looking back at my review from 2001, I found myself nodding in agreement with my younger self from the past. I try not to read my earlier reviews before re-watching the films in question and perhaps might surprise myself by coming up with the same critiques independently. I also quite enjoy this line: “Lector on the loose is no better than a man with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, though he has a better knowledge of Dante and Florentine romantic literature.” I would even keep my grade the same. Twenty years later, the Hannibal Lector character still captures our intrigue and fascination even if he’s deposited in a lesser escapade not fully worth his full abilities.
Re-View Grade: B-
Shadow in the Cloud feels like a lot of movies smashed together with the slapdash glue of a SyFy Channel Original movie, combining crazy and crazier elements like a Jenga tower teetering on the brink of total disaster. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Maude, a female pilot during World War II and hitching a ride on a B-17 bomber plane leaving New Zealand. She says she has a secret mission to see through and a valuable package that cannot he opened. The men on the plane are skeptical and banish her to the lower turret on the plane. It’s there that she discovers they have another unwanted passenger, a furry, winged, blood-thirsty gremlin tearing apart the plane’s engines. Maude pleads for the men to listen to her warnings and ultimately takes matters into her own hands to ensure their safety and survival.
The first thing needed to be discussed is the wiry elephant in the room, namely the involvement of writer Max Landis. For those unaware, the successful Hollywood screenwriter of edgy, often glib genre fare (American Ultra, Bright, Chronicle) has faced a reckoning for his many years of abusive behavior with a litany of ex-girlfriends that accused him of gleefully manipulating them and bragging about giving them eating disorders. Landis’ script has since been rewritten by the director, Roseanne Liang, but it’s impossible to say what was on the page before and what was a new addition without reviewing multiple drafts. Suffice to say, Landis’ involvement may very well be a non-starter for many viewers, but it’s the first half that really makes things even more uncomfortable with his name attached. For about half of the movie, Maude is trapped and harassed by a bevy of off-screen men who joke about having their way with her and belittle her existence as a woman. I don’t believe that the movie is ever endorsing this misogynist and borderline rapey perspective of the men, but it is dwelling in this muck for quite some time, and to think that the famous screenwriter, who was credibly accused by multiple women of predatory and awful behavior, is writing these words, well it sure makes the entire protracted discomfort seem gratuitous and even risible. I’m sure women dealt with this sort of dismissive and harassing behavior while serving during wartime, obviously, but there’s a difference between reflecting realism and exploiting it for titillation. Was this aspect even worse before the director’s rewrites? Did she put her stamp on this harassment? It’s hard to say, but the lingering discomfort is a distraction to the overall entertainment value. It’s so heavy-handed that it becomes counterproductive to whatever message is attempted and becomes the lasting takeaway.
With that being said, Shadow in the Cloud is a mess of a movie that feels rattled and tonally confused. I thought given the premise that this was going to be a mostly silly movie. We’re talking about a gremlin attacking an aircraft, which is pretty much a remake of that famous Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring William Shatner. There’s only so much you can do with, “There’s something on the wing” declarations and people not believing the crazy accusations. I wasn’t expecting fighting a literal furry, bat-like monster with the tension of whether or not the main character might be assaulted by a gang of men in the sky. If the filmmakers wanted to go with the grueling and uneasy tension of Maude being at the mercy of potentially lethal men, that would be fine, but don’t include a silly monster too. The moments simply don’t jibe. There’s a moment where Maude falls from the plane and a Japanese Zero plane above her explodes and the resulting explosion propels her back into her own plane. It’s like a cartoon. You could very easily eliminate any and all of the supernatural elements from this story and I think it would have been better served at that. There’s enough tension to be had with the Zero planes being out there and the crew not believing that Maude saw the enemy, let alone a monster. The musical score is all retro 80s synths and it feels jarringly discordant. I did not like it immediately. The tone veers so rapidly, at times from scene-to-scene, and while this can offer a sense of unpredictability, it can also hamper whatever had been working. The suspenseful time in the ball turret is mitigated with a finale that is so goofy that it exists in another universe. The movie ends on real-life footage of women serving in WWII and any sort of feminist inspiration is completely unearned from the crazy little contained thriller about mid-air monster battles and scrappy dames.
When the movie is locked in that ball turret, that’s when Shadow in the Cloud is at its best and presents an intriguing degree of potential before flaming out into self-parody. There are some genuinely well-wrought moments in that small space, and the natural tension of a woman on an all-male crew is enough to establish a dividing line of suspicion for the dismissive men. The director is also at her best during these sequences and finding resourceful use of her small space to still tell her story and reflect the dilemma of our protagonist. There’s a satisfying problem-solution plot formula to employ. There are a few mysteries to ponder, like why does Maude have a gun, what’s put her arm in a sling, what is her mission, and what is in that package she swears is more important than anything else? It’s enough to hold your intrigue while the men coalesce into a chorus of harassing voices interrogating her as their captive. She’s in such a vulnerable position and the movie can play up paranoia, vertigo, and claustrophobia all together to really ratchet up our fraying nerves. As the movie settled into this tight setting, I accepted that it might just be nothing more than a cost-effective contained thriller, and that excited me because it felt like the filmmakers were finding ways to make that idea work. I started getting visions of the last contained thriller that really knocked my proverbial socks off, 2010’s Buried. Alas, I was never taken with the silly gremlin aspect of the screenplay and how easily forgotten it becomes. This killer gremlin just sort of comes and goes whenever the story needs a convenient extra dash of blood. It’s likely what got the movie sold as a pitch but the first thing I wish had been removed.
I have enjoyed Chloe Grace Moretz for years, all the way back in 2010’s Kick-Ass. While she’s now in her early twenties, she still comes across as so young, and the reveals relating to Maude and her motivation make it harder to accept Moretz in the role. I recognize that she is no longer a young girl and can elect to play adult women onscreen, but she never felt fully believable for me. She can do action and has proven herself to be tough and courageous, but something was lacking with the depiction of Maude. It felt too much like a kid playing war. Every other actor might as well be a vocal actor because the movie is pretty much a radio play with the exception of the first five minutes and the final ten minutes. The male voices tend to blend together and lack distinct personalities. When they’re all harassing and condescending then it makes it quite difficult to distinguish characters (“Oh, this is the OTHER gross guy with the higher pitch”). It’s excessive and another element exaggerated to the point that its aims become another self-sabotaging fault.
I’m sure there are more than a few that will have a blast with Shadow in the Cloud. They’ll celebrate the harshness of Maude’s harassment as a needed historical reality check. They’ll laugh up the goofiness of the gremlin attacks. They’ll shift nervously during the contained thriller centerpiece in the ball turret. They may even cheer during the big cheesy climactic brawl in the mud. However, I found the sum of its many parts to be too lacking. Shadow in the Cloud would have been better with a little more pruning, a little less Max Landis, and some tonal consistency. It might be crazy enough to entertain for its 80 minutes but it feels like its gasping for air by the ridiculous finish.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Little Things wants to be Seven but it’s not even half of Seven (three-point-five?). It’s a meandering movie that doesn’t quite commit to being a prestige character study or a grisly, pulpy serial killer thriller, and so it operates in a middle-ground that achieves little more than prolonged boredom. It’s far too long, far too slow, and with not nearly enough excitement or intrigue or depth.
In 1990, Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a LASD deputy and living out his final days on the force in the relative anonymity of the unincorporated parts of Los Angeles. He used to be a big time L.A. cop but got far too involved in series of murders, and his obsession lead him to a heart attack, a divorce, and being removed from his office. Deacon delivers evidence to Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), the new chief detective on a series of murders that may be a continuation from Deacon’s days. The two men work together to untangle the details and target their primary suspect, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a bow-legged, greasy-haired creep who maybe confessed eight years ago.
The Little Things was originally written in the 90s by writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) and it’s easy to see why. The 1990s was a heyday of serial killer thrillers; it felt like any studio would greenlight a project as long as the crazed killer had a gimmick to their murders (”This guy only kills people on Friday… because you can’t eat meat on Friday?”). While the preponderance of these kinds of movies has shifted to the ever-flowing world of direct-to-video (look for The Hangman, where Al Pacino chases a killer literally playing the game hangman with victims), there is still a perverse fascination with true crime culture and serial killers to be exploited by a canny writer. We still love these kinds of stories when done well. HBO’s True Detective has also taken the serial killer formula and transformed it into a contemplative, long-form character study that looks just as much at the flawed detectives as it does the killers. Over the course of eight elegiac episodes, True Detective can take the time to immerse you in the sordid and portentous details of these people, their cases, the lingering questions, and their demons and doubts made flesh. The depth of the tortured, flawed characters and the complexities of the cases are what sustain the multiple-episode investment (exception: season two). With a movie, you must be more judicious with your precious two hours of time for storytelling. This preamble was a long way of saying The Little Things doesn’t fit as either. Its cases and characters lack the depth to justify the time dwelt, and the thrills are decidedly dimmer, denying a serial killer audience a compelling case, compelling characters, and a unique killer.
I’m going to summarize the two-hour-plus plot for you now: two cops investigate a series of serial murders. They think they have a culprit. They tail the suspect. A slightly surprising ending that lacks the shock and contemplation I think Hancock is looking for. The end. I’ll keep it vaguer to preserve spoilers but suffice to say that is not enough plot for an investigation. I recently re-watched Seven, one of my favorite films of all time and a masterpiece in its genre, and it has a natural propulsion to it where each clue leads to the next by design from its grandly clever psychopath. You know there are seven deadly sins and each new victim is another step closer to achieving that mad goal. The story engine keeps the plot driving forward. With The Little Things, there are some bodies and a whole lot of waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Paired with the placid pacing, it sure makes The Little Things feel like it’s missing a big picture.
There are also some moments that ripped me out of the movie, mostly involving a disconnect between what is intended on the page and what is delivered on the screen. We’re told that these characters are so obsessed, yet they don’t come across that way. Sure, they follow Sparma because he’s so obviously a guilty-looking suspect, but we don’t witness the lengths they’ll go and the people they’ll push away in order to close their case. In the end, Hancock approaches this territory, but it feels like a stab at subversion and relevance the rest of the movie has been missing. It feels like Hancock had two hours of one kind of thriller and then in the final five minutes said, “Eh, who cares?” This climax also involves a professional detective making so many bad decisions about his own personal safety that I felt my eyes rolling out of my head. It’s like Hancock is using the character’s dumb choices to declare how obsessed he is with finding the truth, and yet we didn’t witness this obsession earlier when he was making good decisions. Baxter is supposed to be a family man and a religious man, yet Malek is playing him so devoid of emotion and the script doesn’t present anything meaningful for his domestic life, that he feels more like a robot with a flimsy back-story provided as a default setting. Then there’s Deacon’s monologuing to the corpses of the dead women. He also sees ghosts of the victims. If the movie was presenting this as a sign of his tortured psyche, it should have gone all-in. Have him converse with them all the time, have them reappear and whisper in his ear, have the new crime scenes trigger the appearances of victims from the old crime scenes, take this unique angle and take ownership of it, really separate from the glut of other serial killer thrillers. Alas, it’s just an awkward personality motif that occurs from time to time to provoke an eyebrow raise.
All three central actors have won Oscars for their acting, and while nobody is outright bad, they all seem to be delivering wrongly attuned performances. Washington (Fences) dials down that natural charisma to go full quiet intensity, and there are few actors who can be as intimidating with looks and hushed words as this man. Except he’s supposed to be haunted and the wear and tear of the man’s past lacks weight because of the performance choice. The pain and struggle seem to be suffocated in that steady steely Washington glower. Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) is too detached to convincingly play his young family man coming unglued thanks to the case. He’s playing the role like he’s secretly going to revealed as the real killer in a hasty last-second twist. Leto (Blade Runner 2049) is inherently drawn to off-putting oddballs and his appearance halfway through provides a necessary jolt for the movie. The problem is that he’s so creepy, he’s so weird, he’s so desirous of attention, that it makes the character overwhelmingly obvious. He’s not interesting so much as he’s just a neon sign flashing “Guilty,” and there are only two ways to go with this, neither exactly fulfilling given what has preceded. The best scene in the whole dirge of a movie, by far, is the interrogation with all three actors feeding off one another.
The Little Things feels like a dated copy of 1990s serial killer thrillers without anything new to offer besides the star wattage of its cast. It’s even set in the 90s for no real reason than to deny its characters access to cell phones and the Internet. The look of the movie is awash in the cool, moody style of David Fincher’s signature look, like Hancock and his technical artists were reviewing Seven and Zodiac and aiming for a fawning homage to a modern master of crime cinema. I would advise people to just watch Seven again, or even any of the many junky serial killer thrillers from the 1990s (Copycat, anyone?). The Little Things just isn’t that interesting. The main characters are threadbare, the women are either colleagues, wives, or corpses, the plot meanders for far too long, the pacing is turgid, and it lacks memorable set pieces and reveals that linger. It needed to be better, or worse, but instead it’s just imitation David Fincher visual wallpaper.
Nate’s Grade: C
News of the World is an old-fashioned story, a Western and road movie, a grieving father taking a young girl under his wing, but with a slight modern polish thanks to the cinema verite style of director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, Captain Phillips). The handheld camerawork and close-ups create a different kind of mood for a genre defined by long takes of sterling vistas. Hanks plays Captain Kidd, a traveling performer in 1870 who would literally collect newspapers and read the news to the locals, providing a wider understanding of the wider world. Along the way he comes across a young German girl (Helena Zengel) who was raised by a Native American tribe (the same tribe killed her German family and adopted her). He is determined to take her to the last of her family 400 miles away and from there they encounter many dangers and detours. I feel like every big filmmaker at some point feels the need to make a Western, and now Greengrass has scratched that itch. The older genre is so mythic and filled with grandly romantic notions of the frontier. News of the World is more an old-fashioned Western, without much in the way of critique, and fairly episodic in plot, and Kidd and the kid travel from miniature set piece to set piece like little narrative cul-de-sacs rarely producing additional connections from their adventures. I hoped Greengrass would bring his docu-drama realism to deconstruct the American romanticism of the Wild West, pick apart at that myth-making and whitewashing, but the movie is more committed to being a safe, square, and traditional old movie. The little girl is less a character and more of a necessary plot device, something to drive this man to confront his grief and provide a purpose for him. I wish there was more to their dynamic but she could have just as easily been replaced with a dog. There is one shootout that serves as the highlight of the film and where Greengrass comes most alive with his sense of tension. I was expecting a bit more conflict or commentary given that Kidd is traveling post-Civil War Southwest and selecting what news each community wants to hear, tailoring to his audience and knowing everyone likes a good story during “these troubled times.” There’s one section where a local boss looks to take advantage of Kidd’s services by forcing him to read from the boss’ propaganda publication and Kidd turns the tables on him. It feels like an anecdote rather than a thesis statement. I kept waiting for more to arise with the characterization but was left disappointed, as much of the movie is kept at a surface-level of who these people are. Whether it’s victim, saint, marauder, or newsman, everyone is pretty much whom you assume on first impression. The movie’s staid pacing lingers. It’s two hours but it’s not in any sense of hurry. Part of this is because the screenplay, based upon a 2016 book by the same name, is entirely predictable. Even the revelations held until the very end for fitting tragic character back-stories can be sussed out. I watched News of the World and kept thinking, “What about this story got these people so excited?” I think it was Greengrass feeling that artistic itch to lend his stamp on the American Western (I was reminded of Ron Howard’s own itch, 2003’s The Missing) and yet it feels like Greengrass was holding back and just sublimated his style to the settled genre expectations. It’s not a bad movie by any means but it lacks anything exceptional to demand a viewing. It’s a perfectly fine movie with a handsome production, gorgeous setting, effective score, and sturdy acting, and when it’s over you’ll say, “Well, that was fine,” and then you’ll go on with your life.
Nate’s Grade: B-
There were many bad judgements when it came to developing Fatale, the first being that this erotic thriller was worthy of any sustained effort. I’m all for a guilty pleasure genre outing, and we’ve had enough distance from the heyday of erotic thrillers that a re-examination could be due, especially in light of the Me Too era. I was wondering if Fatale was going to present its chief crazy lady, played by two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank, as the one who was right all along, and instead of endangering the nervous husband Derrick (Michael Ealy) she was really protecting him. Or maybe the movie was going to posit that Derrick’s perception of events was biased and built upon false assumptions and he was the real villain. Or maybe the Fatal Attraction-esque plot (Swank’s loft even resembles Glenn Close’s abode) would have more commentary on the fact that our resident crazy stalker was a police officer targeting a black man. I was holding out hope there would be something, anything to separate this movie from the glut of junk, but alas, it is merely a better assembled mobile of junk you’ve already seen far too many times in other questionable movies. There is nothing to surprise, to subvert your expectations. It’s depressingly predictable. Amazingly, the writer is David Loughery, who also wrote Obsessed, Lakeview Terrace, and The Intruder, which suggests he’s perhaps copying and pasting and re-arranging familiar story elements at this point. I didn’t care about the plight of Derrick because the movie wants me to see him as a “nice guy” but he’s really a dolt who doesn’t deserve our sympathy. Swank (The Hunt) is badly miscast as a seductress. She comes on so strong so fast that I thought the movie was aiming for self-parody. The fact that Swank is listed as a producer further confounds me. I’m sure she felt playing a sultry villain would be fun, but Swank’s performance needs to go bigger to leave the orbit of an otherwise forgettable and boring genre exercise that wastes everyone’s time. Fatale deserved to be filled with no names and occupy a Cinemax slot between the hours of three and four A.M.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The Midnight Sky is really two sci-fi survival movies in one. In 2040, the world is experiencing a planet-killing ecological disaster. A team of astronauts, lead by a pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones), is returning from a multi-year mission to check if a moon of Jupiter is habitable. On Earth, Augustine (George Clooney with a Santa beard) is the lone scientist left at an Arctic research station. He has cancer and sees his life as having run its course, that is, until he finds a small girl (Caoilinn Springall) who missed being evacuated. They band together to brave the wintry, poisonous elements to travel to another outpost to better communicate with the returning astronauts and possibly secure an escape from this dying world. It sounds like it should be a very exciting and interesting movie. There are even sinking ice floes, space walks amidst deadly asteroids, and Augustine having to stop at points lest he overtax his frail body. In practice, the movie isn’t so much exciting as it is ponderous, grasping for a larger philosophy and existential meaning that seems entirely elusive. We’re treated to several flashbacks of a young Augustine (different actor but still voiced by Clooney) that seem superfluous until a grand reveal that made me audibly groan so loud I thought my neighbors would complain. I kept waiting for the relevancy between the stories to be demonstrated, and when it happened it was not worth the two-hour wait. The realization was so hokey that it retroactively made me dislike the movie’s moments that had been working earlier. As far as direction, this might be one of Clooney’s strongest turns as a visual storyteller, even if he borrows liberally from other recent sci-fi movies, notably Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar. There are moments of stark beauty and terror. Ultimately, the whole movie amounts to a sad man taking stock of his life and legacy (is he a metaphor for the Earth? Is the Earth a metaphor for him?), and I’m still wondering how something this glum could also be so maudlin. The pacing is another issue. I was always eager to jump to the other storyline to see what they were doing (a cinematic “grass is greener” mindset). The acting is fine and I wish I could have spent more time getting to know the crew of this space mission (including Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone) or conversely gotten to feel more of bond between Augustine and his near-mute charge that felt like it was providing insight into this man. Looking back, there’s a reason for some of the stilted characterization, but having an excuse for why your characters aren’t better developed is like preparing an excuse why you did something self-sabotaging. The rest of The Midnight Sky doesn’t better compensate for this storytelling choice, and so the movie feels too dull, frustrating, opaque, and overly manipulative, aided and abetted by Alexandre Desplat’s sappy score. No more than the sum of its parts, you can soon watch The Midnight Sky on Netflix and fall asleep to it on your own couch.
Nate’s Grade: C+
As my girlfriend described, Tenet is a headache disguised as a movie. I can agree about the confusion and irritation from trying to make sense of a 150-minute movie that almost defies you to even keep watching. From the opening sequence, my head was hurting from trying to make sense of everything and deduce meaning and connection. Christopher Nolan’s movie was set up to be the savior of the summer, a thinking man’s blockbuster with such size and scope that people would come back to the newly opened theaters to get a taste of the summer they missed because of COVID. It didn’t work out that way and Tenet’s box-office disappointment contributed to the recent decision for its parent studio to release its entire 2021 slate of movies onto its streaming service (nobody should risk their life to go see the Tom and Jerry film). Tenet has too much going on for me to call it a bad movie, but it also has too much going on for me to call it a good movie.
Protagonist (John David Washington) is recruited by a secret organization that is trying to thwart a cold war from becoming hot between the future and the past. Neil (Robert Pattinson) explains about “reverse entropy,” about effect before cause, and that there are machines that can allow people to reverse their direction in time. It’s less jumping through points than it is hitting the rewind button. A Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) and his wife (Elizabeth Debicki) may be the key to preventing a future catastrophe or one that hasn’t happened yet or has already happened. It’s time travel so the tenses can get confusing. That’s not the only thing that’s going to likely confuse you.
At around the half-hour mark, it felt like every character was talking past me, like they had no intention of being accessible. It is practically maddening to be in a conversation where everyone is talking above your level, relying upon lingo and references you are unfamiliar with, and you can try your best to grasp the basics of context clues to try and decipher a base level of understanding, and then, when you think you have things together, they start talking backwards. That is Tenet in a nutshell. It is a mystery how Nolan expected general audiences to even want to keep up with this. I’m not one of those people that needs my story spoon-fed to me, and I welcome challenging storytelling that rewards multiple viewings. However, the problem with that gambit is that if you require your movie to be seen a multitude of times to be understood, you better guarantee anyone will want to watch it a second time. I’m certain I’ll better understand Tenet with another watch and that I’ll find even more little clues to celebrate the exquisite cleverness of Nolan, but I don’t want to re-watch this any time soon, if possibly ever.
Nolan has been here before with 2010’s Inception, a movie that could have been confusing from its very conception given a heist upon four levels of dreams each with their own sense of linear time. Early on, Inception was also confounding, but slowly Nolan opened up his world, allowing the audience to adjust to a learning curve and process the information we needed to be set by the time the big heist got underway. Even after, we had mysteries and complications to be solved. It was a complex puzzle with layers but it was accessible. I thought early into Tenet we would be following a similar track, and I kept waiting to adjust to the learning curve, for things to gain a momentum. There needs to be rules, a demonstration of the rules, and then we proceed. I guess I understood things on a general level, stopping the bad guys from somehow destroying the world, and special turnstiles that make you go in reverse time, and there’s a palindromic plotting emphasis that becomes a late justification for 90 minutes of mostly boring blather with the occasional set piece. For the purposes of further clarity, I even read the Wikipedia plot summary to fill in the gaps of my personal comprehension, and it didn’t really assist beyond confirming for me that I understood the broad strokes of an otherwise confounding movie. It’s hard not to feel like Tenet is more an expensive, globe-trotting experiment for Nolan than a movie intended for mass entertainment. Again, I’m not deriding Tenet because it’s ambitious. I’m deriding it because it’s indignant of a potential audience.
I cannot stress enough that every time characters began speaking, I liked Tenet less. If somehow the movie had eliminated all dialogue, it might have worked better. It’s not like Nolan’s scripted words offer much comprehension anyway. It feels like the dialogue is nothing but impenetrable riddles about scientific jargon and vague pronouncements often given to too cute dialogue about the nature of time. There were points I just wanted to scream. Of course there were other moments I was straining just to try and understand what was being said. Tenet is another example of Nolan’s self-sabotaging sound design where he makes the volume of characters speaking subsumed to the volume of sound effects and score. It becomes another hindrance to try and understand an already confusing and aggravating movie experience.
Another factor that made Tenet a slog was the lack of any emotional engagement. Nolan has often been criticized for being a cold filmmaker, one more beholden to the intricacies of his origami-styled plots and surprises. I think this is often an unfair charge but he’s certainly a filmmaker known for his preference for plots that take ownership of character. You would not confuse a Christopher Nolan blockbuster for some mumblecore indie. Even in a movie with as much plot groundwork as Inception, Nolan provides an emotional core with the story of a man literally haunted by the ghost of his wife and his grief over his own culpability for her demise. The climax even involves him having to finally let her go in order to save the day. With Tenet, we get nothing. There’s an abused wife and while I don’t want to watch her get threatened and attacked by her husband, that’s not exactly the same as providing an emotional anchor. She’s, at best, a supporting player. The world-saving stakes are all you’re going to get. I didn’t care about Protagonist as a protagonist, and I didn’t care about Tenet as a secret organization, and I didn’t even like spending time with these people. These characters are boring, but the movie thinks by keeping them moving fast enough, or talking nonsense long enough, that you will fail to notice.
I’m not even fully cognizant of the benefits of inverse time. You can travel backwards and watch people go in reverse but is this really a practical application of technology? Reverse fight choreography can be cool, like people doing reverse flips, and it can also look extremely silly with punches exchanged that look too fake and people scooting on the ground like child trying to break dance. For me, it’s a toss-up whether watching characters run in reverse is surreal and dreamlike or just plain goofy. I guess one could reverse and then un-reverse, more or less traveling back to a point in the past and going forward from there. This means you’ll have to live those extra days, weeks, whatever the time difference, but it also seems to indicate that you must do everything you did before because you have already done it. If this is the case, why bother going back in time if you’re just indebted to doing the same things all over again? Why take a test again when you have to give all the same responses to the same questions? It feels like Nolan wanted to try and make a time travel movie that isn’t quite a time travel movie, so he settled on people running backwards. There is an intriguing disorientation at work when Nolan really plays with the physics of reverse time, but I don’t think this core idea ever fully comes together in a satisfying manner.
The last hour of Tenet does liven things up as we have two large action set pieces that play out with patience and an expansive scope. This is Nolan’s spy action-thriller. A high-speed heist on the road leads to a car chase with reverse cars to combat. It’s the only action sequence where the audience has a good understanding of the mini goals. Even an earlier art heist resulted in raising questions of credulity (“If the security system sucks out all oxygen, and they’re triggering this, why have they not come prepared with their own oxygen tanks?”). The high-speed heist and ensuring chase sequence flat-out works and is pretty cool. The conclusion involves two teams of soldiers, one going forward in time and one going in reverse, and that has such amazing potential for an intricate and exciting culmination of action. Imagine a character going back and forth and jumping from their unique perspectives to aid and inform each team. Unfortunately, in execution it comes across as jumbled chaos. Again, I imagine there are details and parallels I would notice more with a second viewing but I doubt when that will happen. For a movie essentially about time travel, it feels like Nolan has put more careful thought into trying to make his movie a palindrome than trying to come up with engaging and cool things to do with time travel action.
Christopher Nolan is one of the biggest names working today, a man whose risky, expensive blockbuster projects get greenlit because of his artistic audaciousness. You would never want a Nolan movie to simply play things safe. He seems at his most comfortable when it’s playing around with chronology and audience expectations of what moments have meant. There is a reverse palindromic feature to this screenplay I do admire from a writer’s perspective. However, knowing it takes a confounding 90 minutes to get to that reveal means that you’ve had to endure 90 minutes of protracted set up and with characters that are, at best, glib archetypes, empty suits, and guns with people attached to them to occasional bark orders or say confusing terminology. It makes for a very frustrating and at times disengaging viewing experience, one I even contemplated retreating from. I’m glad I stuck it out but cannot say it was worth the time and ensuing headache.
Nate’s Grade: C