Blog Archives

Ma (2019)

I’ve just sat and watched the entire 99 minutes of Ma, a low-budget horror thriller starring a three-time Oscar nominee, and I’m genuinely confused who exactly this movie is for. Does it qualify as campy? Is it meant to be campy? Is it meant to have a message? The optics are just all over the place and begging for more context, and you have Octavia Spencer holding court with a movie that teeters into Mommie Dearest territory of bizarre choices. If someone asked me to recommend this movie I wouldn’t know whether it was possible. Not because it’s so overtly bad that no human being could find some degree of enjoyment, though make no mistake it’s certainly not good, but because I have no idea who to recommend this to. It almost feels like if you’re that very small niche that absolutely loves Showgirls, Sleepaway Camp, Falling Down, and Everything Everything, then maybe this will be for you. Is that person out there? Does that person exist?

Ma (Spencer) is a lonely veterinarian technician in small-town Ohio who is enlisted by a group of teenagers into purchasing them alcohol. She offers up her basement for the kids to get their drink on, free from the law and other prying adults, and it becomes a hangout space for the entire school. Ma starts dressing younger, stalking the kids online and in person, and getting a little too attached to her new friends and the feeling of being young and part of the in-crowd.

This is a Crazy Person Movie, which means it falls under the formula of the Crazy Person infiltrating the likes of, presumably, non-crazy individuals, warming to their company, and then eventually going too far and revealing themselves to be dangerous and crazy. As such, there’s a natural plot trajectory where the Crazy Person cannot be too off-putting early on. They need to be a little odd, maybe misunderstood, and very vulnerable, enough so that other characters may take pity upon our Crazy Person and invite him or her into their lives. That doesn’t work when your Crazy Person is acting crazy and dangerous so early and at every turn. The entire premise hinges on a group of teenagers befriending a 40-something woman who opens up her house for their parties and underage drinking. I have to imagine, even in a small town as the setting, that teenagers have to find other places to go drinking. It can’t be that hard. Given the opioid crises, there has to be more than one or two abandoned houses in this neighborhood. Regardless, the first time this older woman invites them over to drink, under the auspices of making sure they’re going to be safe with their shenanigans, she literally points a gun at one of them and pretends like she will murder him. Then it’s revealed it’s not loaded and everyone has a laugh. Now, I don’t know about you, dear reader, but if a stranger pulled out a real gun and threatened a friend of mine, that would be our last interaction with that strange stranger. This tenuous grasp on reality makes the movie feel much dumber as it goes, as we keep waiting for what the final tipping point will become for our teenagers to finally conclude that Ma might not be all right.

The problem with this is that it makes all of the characters into complete morons, and they’re not very well developed beyond stereotypes to begin with. I was struggling to remember the difference between the white guys. The adults aren’t much better. Nobody seems to be acting like actual human beings and they’re all so boring. This means we’re drifting along and either waiting for them to get a clue or get killed, and when it feels like neither is happening any time soon, Ma can become a dreadfully tedious experience that invites further criticism.

Tonally, I don’t really know what director Tate Taylor (The Help) was going for here as he stepped into unfamiliar genre territory. This was also evident in his film adaptation of The Girl on the Train, which got really confusing and sloppy and potentially campy itself, at least with how self-serious it got to be even when it was twisting corkscrews into necks. When Ma wants to be scary, it’s mostly creepy. When Ma wants to be funny (?), it’s mostly creepy. When Ma wants to be dramatic, it gets very serious but never follows through, falling back on camp or creeps. Ma has a tragic back-story involving a sexual humiliation, and it just happens that her all-white high school are the cackling faces pointing and laughing at her pain. The flashback scenes of young Ma feel like they were made in the 1960s and not, presumably, the 1980s. She is victimized by the collective white supremacy of her school and the film never deals with the racial aspect. There’s a truly weird moment where Ma paints the black male friend’s face white, saying there is only room for one of them in the friend group, implying they are token minority positions, I guess. But she literally puts him in white face, and this moment isn’t given any more thought and the movie simply hasn’t earned any of this. None of the moments relating to race are given any more than passing mention. There’s a motherly revelation that, much like the other heavier elements, feels tacked on and never explored in depth, calling into question its very inclusion. There are so many story elements that get thrown out that it feels like Taylor and his screenwriter are just blindly stumbling through their narrative and hoping that something sticks together.

If there is in fact any reason to watch Ma, besides morbid curiosity, it’s Spencer (The Shape of Water) who works to find the humanity of an increasingly cartoonish character. Finding out Ma’s back-story provides a suitable tragic motivation for her to seek vengeance on the children of her high school tormentors, but there’s also the strange element of her intense attention on Andy, the son of the man she was crushing on in high school. Is she setting him up for some devious end result to get back at his father, or is she trying to get with this kid as a means of tapping into the intimacy with his father that Ma was denied but still obsesses over? She seems to zone out at work often, but is this a general malaise, the idea of a physical or mental sickness that she alludes to, or just her being a poor employee who daydreams about her murder vengeance fantasies? Spencer is bouncing around many different emotional poles and maintains a sense of dignity even when the movie is asking her to behave in cringe-inducing, youth-imitating behavior. I don’t know what movie Spencer thought she was acting in from scene-to-scene, but then I don’t know if Taylor knew what movie he was directing from scene-to-scene either.

Ma is a strange movie for Taylor, Spencer, and every viewer left scratching their head. It’s not really a comedy. It’s not really a horror movie despite some blood and gore. It’s not really a drama because whenever it introduces potent dramatic elements the film abandons them. And it’s not really a good movie. It feels like a game experiment that everyone attached just lost clear sight of, ultimately losing whatever thread or meaning had appealed to them with the project. Just say no to Ma and yes to Mamma.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

By general consensus, it’s been 28 years since the world had a truly great Terminator sequel. What has been so challenging for filmmakers to continue this franchise? The absence of creator James Cameron is obvious, as it’s hard to find anybody with the blockbuster acumen to fill that empty director’s chair. I submit that I think it’s because the Terminator franchise is, at its core, a very limited franchise of stories (I never saw the short-run TV series starring Lena Headey as Sarah Connor). It’s about a killer robot after its target. That’s it. There’s some time travel jazz thrown in but that’s never been given tremendous contemplation, especially 2015’s brain-hurting alternative timeline reboot, Terminator: Genisys (with Headey’s Game of Thrones co-star Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor). Now comes another attempt to revitalize this dormant franchise with Terminator: Dark Fate and this time they’re not just bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger but also the original Sarah Connor as well, Linda Hamilton. The early trailers and ads did not exactly give me much optimism. It looked like the same. Another killer Terminator. Another good Terminator. I saw little to earn enthusiasm. Then the positive reviews poured in. I’m here to report that Dark Fate is the best of the sequels, a satisfying mix of action, character, and world building, but I’m also ready to let this series go away into its own dark fate.

Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has been hunting down different Terminators for the last twenty years. Her path crosses with Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a Mexican autoworker who happens to be a very big deal to a future human resistance against future angry machines. Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is a future soldier sent back through time and given enhanced speed, strength, and endurance. She is to serve as protector for Dani, though Sarah seems to feel she has a claim to that position as well. Together the women will try and outrun a new Terminator model, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) and seek shelter from an unlikely ally, a retired and reformed Terminator (Schwarzenegger).

The Terminator franchise has been one built upon chase scenes, trying to escape a nigh unstoppable being and find refuge while it lasts. Because of that and a generally simplistic “save X to prevent future Y” goal, the franchise can often be reduced to a series of successful or unsuccessful set pieces, and as the movies continued the characterization flattened out, replaced by an influx of humor (Terminator 3), grimness (Terminator 4), or confusion (Terminator 5). What made the Cameron movies special was his magical ability to apply character to action, pushing everything forward so that every set piece felt naturally developed, with organic complications and mini-goals relating to the arcs and needs of the people on screen. The action in Dark Fate gets closest to that Cameron gold standard with some engaging sequences of big screen violence but tailoring it better to specific location and character dynamics. When Grace first rescues Dani, it’s at the factory where, oh great irony, machines are replacing human workers. The machinery of this factory floor gets utilized for the rough and tumble activity. There’s a mid-air collision that goes through a series of stages as things get worse and worse, including an extended sequence of zero gravity fisticuffs that is extremely fun to watch. The action is solid throughout.

Thankfully, the strong action under director Tim Miller (Deadpool) is aided by the storytelling core of three strong women. Arnold doesn’t even come back into the picture until much later. Each of these women has a different style to her, a different personality, and a different goal, whether it’s killing all Terminators first, spare the future leader at all costs, or looking for a sane middle ground that keeps everyone alive. It’s refreshing to watch the franchise return to its roots of strong female lead characters being given the reigns. The screenplay by David S. Goyer (Batman vs. Superman), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), and Justin Rhodes puts the spotlight where it belongs and tweaks some of the politics of old; Dani is derisively told by Sarah that it’s a woman’s womb that presents the biggest threat to the system, as they share the notoriety of being mothers of future male saviors. There’s a level of polish given to the characters that I appreciated, providing room to have them butt heads in a manner that felt genuine. There are some significant differences that makes this trio interesting but also satisfying when they work together for their common survival. The general mystery around the back-story of our genetically-enhanced human being Grace was a plus rather than another blank slate robot bodyguard.

Hamilton is back and so is Arnold, though he was also pretty central in 2015’s failed alternate timeline reboot. Fortunately for the audience, Dark Fate actually gives them things that matter. Both are given characters going through a sense of loss and rediscovery, working together to rid the world of a common evil, one out of vengeance and duty and the other out of penance. The interplay between them is rich in dramatic potential, as is the prospect of a Terminator model that wants to be moral without having its programming fiddled with by some enterprising human. This is a Terminator that wants to change and adhere to a code of ethics and principles. That’s interesting, and adding layers of personal animus just makes it more interesting. The screenplay lets the characters have enough little grace notes, smaller moments to breathe and remind you that these action stars were also more fleshed-out characters once long ago. I’m not going to say there’s some great lost play somewhere in a Terminator movie, but I was very appreciative of some of the smaller, more contemplative moments that dwelt on accountability and redemption. It’s not just all apocalyptic doom and gloom, there can be room to explore mature characterization too.

Another aspect I was not expecting was how politically relevant Dark Fate would become with the U.S. immigration crisis. Our heroes are traveling north via a caravan of immigrants, and for a while it felt like I was watching Sin Nombre but with killer robots. Then they have to sneak across the border and are captured and placed in crowded detention centers. There’s an entire jail break sequence with Terminators in an ICE-style prison. The evil Terminator makes use of the government surveillance network to track the other characters on their trek along the border, using the machinations of a police state to hunt down these fugitives. There’s not much in the way of commentary to be afforded beyond the simple empathy of watching other human beings struggle for a better life and being treated as less than human by an indifferent bureaucracy. There’s even a mixed-race blended family that serves as a focal point of a change of conscience. There’s a refreshing amount of diversity. I wish the movie had gone even further or staked more with commentary but I also suppose there’s a reason that none of this was seen in advertisements. I suppose the Dark Fate filmmakers didn’t want to turn away the dollars of any sensitive conservative ticket-buyers.

I have some general questions not so much for this movie, though they do apply, but for the Terminator franchise as a whole, and I figure I should address these as a separate section:

1) Why does the future only ever send one killer Terminator robot at once? If the goal is to kill one special target and it seems one Terminator keeps getting foiled, why not send more than one to accomplish the mission? Maybe there’s some technological limitation of time travel where only one machine can be sent at a time and there needs to be sufficient time to recharge. If you’re machines, you got time, and the way time travel works, it would not matter when robots were sent, just that they are arriving at the same date. I began to envision what this might look like and started composing a comedy sketch in my head where a classic Terminator T-100 knocks on a door, asks about seeing John Connor, and then an old landlord says, “Oh, he sure is popular today, come on in.” It’s here where the T-100 would come inside and be seated in a room with other Terminator robots throughout the ages. What would then proceed would be an argument among the many Terminators over who deserved to be the one to kill John Connor. One would say they were transplanted 30 years prior and had been waiting diligently until this moment in time, another would argue they are the most advanced, newer model and would have the best likelihood of success, and another would argue they had gotten the closest to him, etc. I’m sure someone may have already had this same idea but it amused me highly.

2) We’ve had shape-shifting Terminators since the first sequel in 1991 and there hasn’t been too much variance on them after. The problem is once we enter into the liquid metal, body-reshaping era, there doesn’t seem like there’s much more advancements to be had. The Terminator in the third film could also do some technical wizardry. The fifth one made use of nanobots, I think. I’ve tried to forget much of Terminator: Genisys, including the spelling of the subtitle. With Dark Fate, we get a new Terminator who can… have its metal skeleton jump out of its body… and serve as a duplicate? I don’t really know whether once the skeleton leaves if the “body” is more vulnerable or whether there are limitations. It’s unclear world building. Also, there are tentacle-enhanced Terminator robots seen in the future that would be deadlier. Regardless, none of these updates are as big a leap as the T-100 to the T-1000 and its shape-shifting. You have a master hunter that can take on any face, so why does it keep settling on the same face even after its targets know who they should be running from? Why do the shape-shifting Terminators not adopt a host of disguises in order to get closer to their prey? If I knew one face in the crowd to run away from, I would think my predator would not want to keep that face. I can understand from a filmmaking standpoint why you’d want a default look so the audience knows which character is which visually. I feel like these killer robots are undervaluing the shape-shifting.

3) Why do the Terminators have to work harder, not smarter? You have one target, usually, to murder to wipe out futures, so why take any chances with one assassin limited by their bipedal arms and legs? Why not send a thousand drones to blow up one human from the sky? Why not place a reward on the Dark Web and see how long it might take? Or, even better, why not send a robot with a nuclear bomb in its chest? That way all the Terminator needs to do is get its target in slight visibility and boom. It’s not like the machines seem to be worried about collateral damage.

4) No matter how many Judgment Days are averted, it seems like there will always be another down the line, so is mankind just biding its time before an eventual robot apocalypse? In the timeline of Dark Fate, mankind eventually creates a new A.I. that eventually attacks its human overlords, and it’s a new albeit delayed Judgment Day. Does this mean that the franchise is locked into an endless cycle of repetition, where victory just means postponement? A central theme throughout the series is “making your own fate,” the rejection of destiny, and the fluidity of personal choice and agency, and if the movie says, “Eh, human beings will keep making the same mistake over and over no matter how many interventions,” doesn’t that conflict?

I’m sure there are more questions for the Terminator franchise to be had but I’ll leave it at those. Dark Fate is the most accomplished of the Terminator sequels, post-T2, but this is still one franchise that feels low on creativity and interest. The prospect of another Terminator movie doesn’t fill me with any palpable degree of excitement. Even with this sequel that serves as yet another reboot, I’m not excited for further adventures. If there’s another movie, I’ll see it but mostly out of a sense of obligation. If this was the last we saw any of the original Terminator characters, it works as a fitting sendoff and as satisfying an ending as any before. What started as a special sci-fi series with one of the greatest action sequels of all time has become just another franchise on the decline with a fading brand name that studios keep picking at every few years, reassembling with new pieces that they hope might convince audiences there’s still vitality. Dark Fate is a perfectly good action movie with more thought and polish then I anticipated, finding legitimate reasons for bringing back its stars of old and giving them meaningful things to do. I had a good time with the movie but feel like this is one franchise that is ready for a merciful termination.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Parasite (2019)

Parasite is the latest from award-winning South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host, Okja) and it won the prestigious Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. The filmmaker has never settled down in any genre and often goes for broke when it comes to embracing whatever genre he is dabbling in and then subverting, accelerating, and broadening that territory to show an audience what a master can do with these storytelling parameters. No movie under Bong Joon-ho’s guidance is ever limited by its genre. Needless to say, I’ve been highly anticipating Parasite, even more so since the critics started bandying about terms like “masterpiece.” Simply put, Parasite is a miraculous movie.

We follow the Kim family who live in a scummy basement apartment on a filthy street known for public urination. They scam free wi-fi off their neighbor and badly fold pizza boxes for little money. They’re barely hanging by on the outer edges of society when opportunity comes knocking. A rich family, the Parks, is in need of a new English tutor for their teenage daughter, and Ki-woo Kim (Choi Woo-sik) has the connection. He will pose as a college-educated English teacher, recommended from his friend, the departing tutor. He gets the job and sees further opportunity, eventually scheming to get each member of his family hired; sister Ki-jung Kim (Park So-dam) as an art therapist for the Park’s troubled son, father Ki-taek Kim (Song Kang-ho) as the personal driver to the family, and mother Shung-sook Kim (Jang Hye-jin) as the housekeeper and personal assistant for the family. The Kim family gains further leverage as they worm their way inside this house, but there are secrets that will force them to readjust how far they are willing to go to service this bourgeois family and keep their good lies rolling.

Parasite just unfurls with such natural ease, building and developing outward, building its characters, their problems and deceptions, and then, like that, it effortlessly turns gears toward another tone, and you weren’t even aware it was happening until after the fact. Bong Joon-ho’s film is so exact and impeccable and calculated that the pieces are move in tandem like a well-oiled machine. The synchronicity is so amazing that I often had to acknowledge how effectively the movie had surprised or satisfied me. There isn’t a wasted moment in the 130 minutes here, which begins as a fun con game between one family of shady grifters working their way inside a rich family’s trust. From there, the movie gets even darker, more mysterious, outlandish, and even more mournful and delightful. There are moments of slapstick comedy that had me howling, divine sequences of tension that felt ready to explode, and regular emotional punches to the system that reminded you that despite everything these are still people capable of great suffering and great feeling. Parasite is a rare movie that works on near every level, each facet of filmmaking operating at such precision that it blends together to create a masterwork of tone and tenor that is universally accessible, brimming with menace and glee.

There’s a simple pleasure to be had watching a con artist at play, so there’s even more amusement when we’re watching a family of con artists all spinning lies in tandem. The process of escalation is so clean and believable in the world’s universe, with the first family member using their position of influence to manipulative the family into hiring the next family member, even if that means scheming to get rid of the Park family servant already occupying that desired position. The Park family matriarch is all about personal recommendations and using a tight circle of trust; however, the Kim family exploits the obvious loophole of what if the initial link in that chain is untrustworthy him or herself? Initially I thought the movie was going to be watching this one family worm their way into the lives of the rich and powerful and take over, and while that is true to a certain extent, the movie is thankfully even more than that. Still, the con aspect alone is highly entertaining and so naturally plotted, with each new addition feeling organic from the last. There are natural complications that provide new challenges for the family of con artists to maintain their shifting covers and having to think on their feet, and there isn’t a moment relating to these antics where Parasite is not completely compelling and darkly funny even as it veers into extremes.

If you’re thinking that the Kim family is the obvious target of the movie’s parasitic titular allusion, slow down, my friend. While the Kim family is more obvious about their deceptions, the Park family too is filled with the deception of civility, kindness, and graciousness. At first, we laugh at them because of a general naivete that allows the Kims to flourish. As the Kims successfully roust different servants, they are routinely dismissed without much thought. Some of these people have been with the family for years and otherwise have spotless records, but all it takes is one whiff of impropriety and the Parks are already scrambling to cut them loose, usually very unceremoniously and immediately, with the misplaced idea that this will somehow be the “nice” and “respectful” way of handling a dismissal. They’re so quick to turn on people they feel are disloyal or incompetent, but really, it’s the disloyal aspect, that they can be manipulated so easily by the Kim family’s suggestions and assertions. Never once do Mr. and Mrs. Park ask for their servants’ side of the story; they accept the accusations with minimal evidence are gung-ho about removing their formally trusted help as if they have been waiting for these moments.

The movie becomes a parable of exploitation and the consequences of avarice, and I’m going to do my best to dance around some significant spoilers that reshape the film in its second half. At one point the Kims have all made themselves at home in the luxury of the Park estate while the family is away on a camping trip. It’s carefree wish fulfillment, lapping in the excess, and then over a drunken family dinner, Mrs. Kim says that if she had this kind of money that she would be as nice as Mrs. Park (appears). For her, money is like an iron and irons out all the problems of life, and as a family that has constantly been hustling for their next dollar, to be free of cares and worries would be the ultimate luxury. However, there is naturally more to this estate and the Park family, and the movie takes some dark turns into a battle over status and how far people will go to protect what they feel belongs to them. This is acted out in very personal ways and also in larger metaphorical waves, which adds to the overall class warfare satire. What starts off as a spiky little con comedy becomes something deeper and more challenging, expanding its targets to indict everyone jockeying for position in a system that seems corrupted to a fault.

Even as the Kim family is scheming and conniving, there are still moments that remind you that they aren’t these smooth, amoral con men of the movies and are real human beings with real feelings and real insecurities. There’s one moment Mr. Kim overhears his boss casually talking about him, and it’s very complimentary except for one admission. Apparently, Mr. Kim has an odor to him that the rich man finds to be rather unpleasant (he describes it like an old radish). No matter the suits he puts on, no matter the politeness and charm he manifests, no matter his skills when it comes to being a dutiful driver, no matter the gaps that Mr. Kim feels he is surpassing, there will always be something innate to him that stops him from being accepted and integrated in this cherished, cordoned-off land of the rich. His very smell is offensive to the noses of the rich, and this is something so personal, so nasty, that it genuinely wounds the man and we feel for him. Bong Joon-ho asks his audience to embrace all sorts of uncomfortable positions, taking characters you found despicable and asking to see them as real human beings capable of great loss and shame. It stops the movie from feeling like it’s treading into cartoon territory even as its violence and physical comedy ramps up in the second half. It never loses a sense of its soul.

Ki-woo Kim asks his father, after several setbacks, what their plan is next, how they will persevere against the latest setback. Mr. Kim answers that his trick is to never have a plan, because plans will inevitably fail. This is a nice character moment but also an insight into a perspective that leads to what I would argue is the emotional climax of the movie, where Ki-woo pledges to save someone through an elaborate and years-in-the-making plan. In that moment, is he rejecting his father’s philosophy and driving forward on what will be at minimum years of hard work to reach his goal, which is motivated through reclamation and salvation rather than personal gain? Or is the very fact that he is committing such an elaborate plan an act of folly he knows will never materialize because that is the nature of plans? I love that the film leaves you, the viewer, to determine whether this assertion is optimistic or pessimistic and how that paints the film’s message.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is another showcase of how Bong Joon-ho is brilliant at visually communicating his wonderful stories. The editing is so tightly precise to maximize tension and comedy, and sometimes both simultaneously. The photography is gorgeously composed with the use of space in the frame excellently communicating character relationships. The geography of the home is nicely utilized to ratchet up the tension of escaping around corners and hiding around furniture. There are moments that just made me want to applaud the filmmakers for their top-level craft.

Parasite is an effortlessly impressive movie that blends tones, insights, and entertainment to create one of the more unique and pleasing film experiences of the year. Bong Joon-ho once again shown himself to be a masterclass filmmaker who can tackle just about any subject and any genre and make it sing. I’d advise to avoid specific spoilers to maintain the surprise factor; however, this movie is so well executed, so astonishingly developed with precision and attention given to each of the characters and their individual whims and problems, that even knowing every single plot beat in this movie will not diminish the enjoyment factor. That’s because Parasite is a rare movie that is so sumptuously put together, so seamlessly calibrated, that to watch the movie is to simply sit in awe of how talented the filmmakers are at weaving their tale. Parasite is definitely one of the best films of 2019 and worth tracking down where able.

Nate’s Grade: A

Joker (2019)

There has been a lot of discussion over Joker, a new dark R-rated spinoff unrelated to other comic book movies and directed by the man who gave the world The Hangover films. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips desired to tell a character-driven drama that explored how Batman’s most notorious villain, and perhaps the most widely known villain of all pop culture, became exactly the clown he is. Some people said the Joker didn’t need a back-story, others said that Phillips had no place dabbling into the realm of superhero cinema, and there were plenty of others who expressed unease that the movie might inadvertently serve as an inspiration for disaffected loners looking for encouragement to make others feel their pain and suffering. After all those think pieces and cultural hand-wringing, Joker, as the actual movie, isn’t quite the transgressive experience that others feared and that the movie very much wants you to believe.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a quiet, pathetic man who is being ground down by the forces in his life. He has a unique medical condition that causes him to break out in hysterical laughter when he’s nervous or upset, which only makes others feel nervous and upset. It’s hard for him to keep his job as a for-hire clown and his therapy and medicine are being eliminated thanks to budget cuts. He cares for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), crushes on an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and dreams of being a stand-up comic who will one day grace the set of his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s life changes from one night of extreme violence and how it shapes his concept of himself and society. He’s tired of feeling bad for who he is and he’s going to realize his true potential on the biggest stage.

There’s something, excuse the modern parlance, quite “edgelord” about the film and its artistic approach. It’s very eager to be dangerous, edgy, disturbing, and there are certainly extended moments where it achieves these goals, notably thanks to Phoenix’s performance. However, I was cognizant of how eager the film was to be gritty, and dark, and different, to the point that it felt like the whole enterprise wasn’t just trying too hard to be different but wanted you to know it was trying. After a while, you just have to shrug and say, “Hey, movie, I get it.” This guy’s life ain’t too hot. The first 45 minutes could probably be condensed in half. The first two acts feel redundant as they establish the many trials and tribulations of this man on the edge of a broken society that has abandoned him. Because of this, Joker can be an entertaining experiment in solo superhero stories but there is a critical absence of depth that keeps the film from going beyond a stellar lead performance. It’s a Martin Scorsese hodgepodge, a cover song for a famous villain.

This is the kind of movie where subtlety is rarely used, which increases the sensation that it’s trying too hard because it seems like it’s saying all of its points with exclamation marks. Even in the opening minutes, while Arthur is applying his clownish makeup, we hear a voice over narration from a TV newscaster who is essentially screaming to the audience all of the important social contexts for the setting (Things are bad! People are mean! The economy is bad! People are getting desperate! What has the world come to?!). There’s a fantasy experience where the characters are just openly explaining their desires. The visual metaphors are pretty simple, like the idea of hiding behind a mask (don’t we all wear masks, man?) and the intimidating set of stairs ascending to Arthur’s apartment that he must climb. So many supporting characters act like mouthpieces for larger collective groups, like a paid therapist who tells Arthur that the people with money don’t care about her or Arthur, the little people caught in the machinery of runaway capitalism, or Thomas Wayne as the callous and cold business elite who seems disdainful about any sort of empathy for others that challenge his responsibility to a larger society. De Niro’s talk show host feels like an amalgamation of a lot of different themes, like daddy issues, the media, but also the representation of ridicule as comedy and mass entertainment. There aren’t so much supporting characters as there are ideas, and in a weird way this could have worked, as if each figure represents some different level of psychosis for Arthur, almost as if it was repeating the 2003 movie Identity and everyone really is a reflection of Arthur’s damaged personality. The inclusion of Beetz (Deadpool 2) is more a plot device meant to humanize Arthur, but the entire premise feels like it’s missing development to make it believable, and ultimately this is the point of her character but it’s a long wait for a reveal for a character that is superfluous at her core. It’s the kind of movie that thinks we need to yet again see the definitive formative act of every Batman movie.

The movie does pick up a momentum when Arthur starts to get set on his way toward becoming the clown prince of crime. When the Joker gets his first taste of violence, in self-defense, the clown vigilante becomes a symbol for a reactionary contingent of Gotham’s lower classes. The groundswell of support provides a welcomed sense of community for a man who has been secluded for his idiosyncrasies, but it’s a celebration of a loss of morality, and so to fully embrace this tide of supporters he must give away the last of vestiges of his soul. This downfall allows for the movie to feel like it’s finally committed to something, where the setups are finally starting to coalesce around a character who is now driving his story rather than being the recipient of misfortune. The violence becomes more shocking and Arthur stops caring about hiding who he really is, and that’s when the movie becomes the full force it had been promising. I was tapping nervously throughout the final thirty minutes because I was anticipating bad things for anybody on screen. Phillips can use this anxious anticipation for unexpected comedy too, like where a character was trapped due to their unique circumstances and whether they too were in mortal peril. I wish Phillips had pulled back because there’s a perfect visual to conclude his movie, that brings the entire self-actualization and loss of morality full circle, and yet the movie gives us another two-minute coda.

Joker certainly feels like Phillips’ version of a Scorsese movie, for better and for worse. If you’re going to imitate anyone, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers whose crime dramas have reshaped the very language of the movies and how we view violent crooks. The go-to response I’ve seen is that Joker is a combination of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I’ll readily agree with the Taxi Driver comparisons. It’s everywhere. We have a disaffected loner who is turning sour on an increasingly hostile and unstable society he views as beyond repair. Even the shot selections, camera movements, and 1970s era set design evoke that influence. The King of Comedy is more a facile comparison, as Arthur is a disturbed man trying his luck at standup comedy, failing, and becoming more unhinged. The real reason reviewers seem to be making this connection is the inclusion of Robert De Niro, and it feels like that is the only reason he’s actually involved, to ping back to King of Comedy. The idea of a stiff actor like De Niro being a glib talk show host, even in the 1970s, seems like a bad fit. The other real film influence I don’t see getting as much recognition is Network. This is a tale of one man tapping into a vent of anger and starting a movement that ripples out beyond them into something uncontrollable.

Phillips is best known for his comedy work but I could feel his leaning to do a straight genre picture. In other reviews, I’ve cited Phillips’ keen eye for noir-flavored visuals (think of the car traveling across the desert as seen through the reflection of sunglasses in The Hangover). He had the chops to tell a straight genre crime thriller, so it’s not surprising that Joker is a slickly made, unsettling, and effective movie when it counts. This is a grimy-looking New York City, I mean Gotham City, where the garbage piles high (another not so subtle visual metaphor) and the city feels like a maze all its own crushing our main character. The cinematography is great with several strong moments that amplify the mood of unrest and distaste. The cello-heavy score by Hidur Guonadottir (HBO’s Chernobyl) is very evocative and ominously conveys the turmoil bubbling below the surface in a manner that doesn’t feel like pandering. This is a good-looking production made by talented technicians and Phillips has enough skill to pull it all together, even if that aim is really to recreate a style of another filmmaker and the time and place of his films.

I’ve purposely saved the best for last, and that’s Phoenix as the titular character. He is mesmerizing as a broken man trying to find his place in society and flailing wildly. His uncontrollable cackling is so unsettling that when he broke into laughing fits, I could feel myself getting more and more unnerved. At first it was the awkward sympathy of watching a man struggle to get through his disability, trying to compose himself, and embarrassed for the discomfort he was projecting. The very sound of the cackling trying to be contained, as a friend and co-worker Jason credited, watching the laughter catch in his throat, it had such an immediate, almost physical reaction in me. Later in the movie, I cringed because it made me worry what was going to happen next because I know it’s a precursor to bad feelings. When he’s becoming more comfortable with his impulses and dark thoughts, you notice the cackling starts to ebb away. There’s a small moment that I loved where after he flees from his first murder he runs into a bathroom, and once his breathing calms, it’s almost like his body is commanded by some spiritual serenity as he begins to dance. Phillips allows the scene to breathe and play out, to invite the audience to join. This little motif probably appears a few too many times, but it’s a beautiful little moment of physicality that expresses the chaos becoming harmony within a man. Phoenix lost 50 pounds for the role and his gaunt, haunted frame reminds you how much of a shell of a human being this character feels like. He even tells his therapist that he questioned whether he was even a person or not. Phoenix burrows deep into the character and unleashes a committed intensity that is impressively communicated through his sad, reedy, sing-songy voice, his slippery stances and body language, and the madness that seems to resonate from his bulging eyes. Even when the movie is repeating its steps and tricks, it’s Phoenix that constantly gives back to the audience. It’s a performance certainly worthy of Oscar attention and plaudits, though in my mind it’s still a step or two below the instantly iconic, and Oscar-winning, performance from Heath Ledger.

Joker is a movie and should not be held responsible for the actions of others and what they may read from the film. I don’t sense Phillips and his team condoning their protagonist’s lawless actions, and the violence is often undercut so that it feels more disturbing than triumphant and exhilarating. When Arthur does get his first kill, the audience has likely been silently rooting for him to fight back, to punish the wrongdoers, but the movie draws out the scene in a manner that’s akin to a wounded animal panicking as it scrambles for its life and a cold execution. It’s not meant to be cool. Phoenix’s performance elevates the entire enterprise and will unnerve as much as it ensnares. It’s not a subtle movie at all, and it hugs the works of Scorsese a little too closely, both in tone as well as visual symmetry. It’s trying very hard to be nihilistic, edgy, and provocative (this isn’t your “normal comic book movie” it wants to scream with every frame). Arthur just wanted to make people laugh, the movie tells us, but the joke was on him after all (subtlety). If anyone is inspired from this movie, I hope it’s to seek out other Scorsese movies.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Fanatic (2019)

As a connoisseur of crappy cinema, I often seek out movies that I feel might hit that so-bad-it’s-good sweet spot. There are scads and scads of bad movies but few manage to land in the realm where their utter inanity and ineptitude provide genuine, baffled entertainment. The Internet would have you believe that the new movie The Fanatic fits that bill. On its face it seems like it might. It’s directed and co-written by Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst, stars John Travolta, and is about a mentally challenged fan stalking and holding his idol hostage. That sounds like it has plenty of potential. The Fanatic is not a fun watch, especially by the last act, and I was mostly left scratching my head and wondering who in the world this movie was crafted for and why.

Moose (Travolta) is an obsessive fan. He also has a mental disability, which makes it hard for him to connect with other people. He’s obsessed with the actor Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa, fairly good here) and getting an autograph. After a misunderstanding, Moose is determined to track down his favorite actor and let him know why fans are important.

I have no idea who this movie was made for. I wasn’t so much laughing at it, though it did happen occasionally, as I was just staring slack-jawed and completely mystified. I didn’t really have fun watching something like this and I doubt most people would. It’s a bad movie but really it’s a gigantically miscalculated movie because what is the point and perspective presented? Are we meant to be weirded out by our mentally challenged protagonist, because that seems in bad taste? Are we meant to endorse his actions, because that seems in bad taste too considering how many transgressions he makes? Are we meant to feel that he is justified in his alienation or in how he responds to Hunter Dunbar, because that seems like enabling criminal behavior? Are we meant to feel for Hunter Dunbar when he gets the upper hand and tortures Moose in vengeance, because I can tell you listening to Travolta wail on the floor in pained cries is not exactly a hoot. Am I meant to have a squeamish sympathy for Moose that is then tested over time as he crosses more and more lines? That doesn’t really happen either. I don’t know what the movie wants me to think about Moose and Travolta’s committed yet stereotypical performance, which I think is why so many are holding this up as an example of something to ridicule because they don’t know what to make of it. It’s like the film just took a lot of bizarre and controversial plot elements, threw them together, and said, “You decide” when it comes to commentary.

What is the message about fanaticism? It’s the title of the movie so I would assume it’s being presented at least as a subject worthy of discussion. Moose is a fanatic and his fandom drives his life. It’s all he can think about. It gives his life purpose. Yet the movie takes away any real negative interpretation by applying the mental disability to the character. He’s a fanatic but he can’t be all that bad because he’s mentally disabled and, maybe according to the movie, not fully in control or cognizant of his own actions. This is a cop-out on multiple fronts. The completely superfluous voice over narration from Leah (Ana Golja), a side character at best, is generally just describing what is literally happening as well as offering an occasional dismissive comment about the facile nature of reality in Hollywood. Hey, have you heard how the entertainment industry is shallow and surface-level and exploits dreams and dreamers for profit? This is new to me! The narration almost presents a weak justification for Moose, like he was entitled to strike back when he discovered that actors don’t like it when you track down their home addresses and harass them. “You’re nothing without your fans,” Moose screams at Hunter in anger, and in an ordinary movie I would consider this a sign that the movie is lambasting the self-aggrandized sense of entitlement from fans and how toxic this can be to the psyche. Except The Fanatic won’t do any of that. It won’t set up Moose as an example of toxic fandom, and his disability is proof enough why.

I did not enjoy this movie. For thirty minutes I’m watching Travolta go from scene to scene and try out every clichéd acting trope for playing somebody with mental retardation. I may have missed something, and I don’t have the interest to watch it again, but I was left wondering how in the world Moose even supports himself. He has friends across Hollywood plugged into different tourist ventures but we only ever see him dressing as a British policeman and running around the Boulevard trying to coax strangers into snapping pictures with him. He’s terrible and off-putting to the average person on the street, so he can’t be making money from this. It seems like the filmmakers are weeding out any and all things that could keep Moose away from this very select path of being an obsessive stalker. That’s all he does. He’s not focused on anything else other than finding this star and letting him know how much he loves his work. There’s so little to this character but because the film strips any other complications or attachments from his life, it feels downright manipulative to basically set him up for this collision course. I’m reminded of 2002’s One Hour Photo where Robin Williams played a disturbed man who formed an inappropriate attachment to a group of strangers and became more and more undone, finally stalking them, intervening with horrific results, and hinting at a deeper history of abuse. None of that is present with Moose and it makes the experience feel like it’s either pandering or dithering.

When Moose does kidnap Hunter in the last act it’s meant to evoke a Misery situation but it felt to me like a much sloppier version of 2006’s Hard Candy. In that film, it was a battle of wills between an angry young girl (Ellen Page) seeking righteous vengeance and a man swearing his innocence (Patrick Wilson), and your sympathies were meant to be tested and question who was correct and who was going too far. I think that’s what Durst and company were going for but oh do they miss the mark and then some. I didn’t feel like Hunter was getting comeuppance for his behavior because his responses to Moose seemed fairly reasonable. I didn’t feel like Moose had become the villain now because the movie was presenting him still as the same figure from the opening minutes; he hadn’t become more disturbed or aggressive even after doing some very bad, very criminal things. I didn’t feel like the film was setting up some form of tragedy where Moose and his ignorance of the severity of his actions would escalate beyond his control. Mostly I was just waiting for the movie to be over, again watching with the fascination of a rubbernecker. I didn’t feel tension during any moment of this movie and I didn’t really care what happened to anyone.

I don’t know what would exactly appeal to Travolta with this part, besides the actorly possibilities of playing someone with mental disabilities. God bless him, Travolta goes all-in on this part and is practically bouncing off the walls. He’s so unrestrained, so dug into the tics and mannerisms of his character, which feel more informed by the portrayals of other famous actors playing this kind of person than it does on anything else. It is a performance that makes you second guess many of the actor’s choices, including the … shaved mullet haircut, and there are certain line readings that are so awkward they will make you leave the room in embarrassment. Of note is one frantic threat about what Moose will do to a man in a way reminiscent of Freddy Kruger, and the level of detail said in such a serious, scream-heavy tone just adds more ammunition for its unintentional hilarity. The problem is that the movie certainly doesn’t see Moose as a tragic figure, until his brutal beating at the end, and it doesn’t see him as a comic figure, so he’s just kind of hanging around like an unwanted guest. Travolta’s wince-inducing go-for-broke, almost Nicolas Cage-ian performance (I’m making this a term) is the best reason to watch The Fanatic, and you should really not watch this movie at all.

Another reason the movie isn’t derisively enjoyable is because it’s fairly competent and actually a bit stylish in several areas. Durst will get a lot of mockery for his involvement but the man has always had an eye for visuals (he directed most of his band’s music videos). There are some pretty nicely composed shots with some moody lighting thanks to cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (Panic Room). The score is pretty good too, using a lot of Max Richter-esque strings for pointed punctuation of key moments of unease and dread. This isn’t a bad movie because of the technical merits or through Durst’s direction. Sure, you could argue he should have reined in Travolta’s eagerness, but when the movie seems made to indulge those impulses, I can’t fault him for basically just letting his lead actor throw subtlety out the window and dance on its grave and other mixed metaphors.

It’s for these reasons that I found The Fanatic to just be a dispiriting movie, missing the electric charge of the truly and entertainingly bad movies like The Room or the oeuvre of Neil Breen. It’s just a bad movie by design, not on purpose. It’s hard to even find sincerity with it, an essential element of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, because I don’t really know what the movie finds sincere. It’s inconclusive what message I’m supposed to garner, what perspective is being delivered, and how I’m supposed to feel about any of this. It’s not executed in an intriguing ambiguity that pushes the audience to draw their own interpretations and conclusions. It feels more like the movie is simply incomplete, that it’s missing core elements to make it worth watching. Travolta unleashes a flurry of unrestrained acting tics and some may find it snicker-worthy, but Travolta hasn’t exactly been holding back as of late in his film choices. The Fanatic is really a dank genre thriller that doesn’t know what it wants to say and what it wants to do, and by slapping the mental disability factor into the mix, it definitely has no courage to pick a direction or statement. If you’re morbidly curious, you might find some degree of interest here but I wouldn’t advise it. The Fanatic is not the next best bad movie. It’s just a miscalculated effort and a sad one.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Ad Astra (2019)

I knew early on when I was watching the advertisement for writer/director James Grey’s Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) that this was going to be more a quiet, slower, contemplative movie than the ads were making it seem. Hey, I like quiet, slower, contemplative movies, but I like the ones where they give me an entry point, a reason to care, and a story with characters that make me feel compelled to watch what happens next. Ad Astra does not quite rise to that level.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut in a near future with a special mission: to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones). The father left Earth decades ago to search for intelligent life and develop an alternative energy source. His discovery has unleashed a series of destabilizing power surges across Earth. Roy is ordered to travel to the outer reaches of Neptune and discover what has happened to his father and his crew who have stopped communicating. If necessary, he is to use all options to correct the problem, including taking his dear deadbeat dad’s life.

Ad Astra is probably the most realistic portrayal of what space travel cold be like in the near future. It’s a grounded approach that feels very detail-oriented without necessarily losing the audience in the schematic output of all those details. It reminded me a bit of a companion piece with last year’s First Man, where the audience saw all the ingenuity, as well as makeshift dangers, of early space flight. The interiors of these space ships and bases are far closer to resembling the plain days of early NASA than anything fancy and gleaming when it comes to futuristic science fiction. When Roy is walking around a giant tower reaching high into the atmosphere, it feels like you are there with him experiencing the dizzying heights, locked into his human-sized perspective of something so massive and intimidating, and it’s merely man-made. Wait until we get to the heavenly bodies. It’s an aesthetic choice that lends the film an authenticity as well as the amazing solar visuals from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar). The scale of space is really felt as Roy keeps venturing further and further away from home, into the cold darkness of the unknown, towards that missing father and sense of resolution. The visuals and stately special effects are beautiful and given an additional level of ethereal glory from a score by Max Richter (The Leftovers). It’s a lovely movie to sit back and watch, and thanks to its episodic structure, it delivers something new every twenty minutes or less. The movie can feel more than a little tedious as it stretches out into the cosmos. There’s something to be said about a film that has the patience to take in the splendor of the universe, and there’s also something to be said about having a more significant story to pair with those awe-inspiring cosmic panoramas.

My issue with Ad Astra is that everything feels to be locked in at a very general level of substance. The story of a son voyaging to meet his absentee father and come to terms with that relationship is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of a main character living in his famous yet distant father’s shadows is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of exploring life in the universe is fine, except the movies doesn’t do so much with that either. It feels like you’re watching what must have amounted to twenty pages of script spread out over the course of two hours. If it’s going to be a character study, then I need more attention spent deepening Pitt’s character beyond the pretty rote daddy issues on display. If it’s going to be a contemplative exploration of man’s place in the universe, then I need more sides and angles of perspective throughout the movie. There are no real supporting characters in this movie outside of guest appearances (Hey, it’s Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland). The father figure is kept more as looming idea or force of nature than human being. Roy’s wife (a barely there Liv Tyler) is more a recorded visual of regret to remind the audience of Roy’s loss and sacrifice, relating to his pursuit of his father. The entire film feels far too sketched in, archetypal, and generalized to noodle around with weighty ideas and concepts that it doesn’t seem fully committed to exploring in meaningful ways.

The problem with a narrative that’s episodic is that not every episode is as interesting. Each Pitt stop (oh, you bet I’m intending that pun) allows a slightly different tale to emerge, but then it’s over and done and we’re moving onward. With Apocalypse Now, those episodes came together to tell a larger mosaic about the madness of the Vietnam War and the physical and psychological toll it was taking. I was not getting that same kind of cohesion with Ad Astra. The most exciting episode involves a lunar chase and shootout. It’s cleverly executed and makes strong use of the limitations of space, in particular the lack of sound. One second your co-pilot is at the wheel and the next he has a soundless bullet hole through the head. It was an intriguing segment because of the unique realities of staging its genre car chase that open up something familiar into something new. Unfortunately, many of these episodic segments just incrementally push the story along, pairing Roy with a new group of people that we’ll shed in fifteen minutes or so. Don’t get attached to anybody because the only characters that really matter in the universe of Ad Astra are Roy and his father. Every other character is merely a representation of some aspect of their relationship. It makes the smaller episodes feel a bit mundane unless they have something fresh, like that lunar chase. Otherwise, it’s more people we’ll be soon getting rid of doing inconsequential tasks.

Removing the dominant father/son relationship, Ad Astra is a movie about the search for meaning in life. Roy’s father has exclusively put that meaning upon the discovery of intelligent life in the universe. If human beings are all there is, he questions what’s the point of going on? First off, Mr. McBride is only exploring one portion of space and to paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton in Armageddon, there’s a “big-ass” amount of space. If the man fails to detect any signs of intelligent life, that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, it only means it hasn’t been found where one person was looking (the Missing Keys Dilemma). On a philosophical note, even if humanity was all there was in the great wide expanse of space, that doesn’t make our existence any less remarkable. If we happen to be the lone representatives of intelligent life, born from heat and rock and millions of years of trial and error getting it just right, then that’s incredible. There are so many variables going against the existence of life on our tiny bubble of air out in the vast vacuum of space, and just because we lucked in and others have yet does not take away from the appreciation and majesty of humanity’s prized situation. Do we put our meaning outside of ourselves or develop our sense of meaning from within? I cannot say whether Ad Astra is keeping this storyline so vague and generalized so that is can stand-in for spirituality, the idea of looking for proof of a higher intelligence, a God, and finding meaning in a grander design rather than the chaos and luck of chemistry and evolution. Or does Roy’s father represent God and Roy is man confronting an absentee creator? Under that interpretation, the ending might make a little more sense, but again I’m doing the movie’s work for it by projecting meaning.

It’s pretty much a one man show and Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is asked to do a lot without showing much. His character is a reserved man by nature, though that doesn’t stop him from explaining his inner thoughts through intrusive voice over narration, an addition that feels tacked-on after some test screening to better acquaint an audience that was having difficulty staying on board. Pitt is an actor capable of tremendous subtleties through his movie star good looks, and he has moments here where his eyes are telling the story that the movie doesn’t seem interested or committed to tell. If you were going to spend two hours in space with one actor, you could do far worse than someone like Pitt.

Ad Astra is more art film than thriller, more father-son reclamation than sci-fi, and more a drifting homage to Apocalypse Now in Space than something that can stand on its own merits. The expansive cosmic visuals are luxurious on the big screen, the level of detail toward the realities of space travel are appreciated, and Pitt is a sturdy anchor for the project, but what does it all come to? Everything is kept at such a generalized level that the movie feels like it’s skirting the surface and ignoring larger depth. It has a surfeit of directions and choices it can make for greater depth, but we have to keep on trucking, like a ticking clock, entirely constructed to serve one purpose, barreling toward the father/son confrontation and resolution. Except I didn’t care about Roy’s dad because I didn’t feel the impact he had on his son, I didn’t feel the need for some form of closure, the driving force of the movie’s big little universe. And yet we drift onward, like the boat in Apocalypse Now, heading for our destination because we’re told to do so. Ad Astra is an acceptable matinee with some well applied technical craft and a bleak sense of realism but it’s ultimately too empty of an experience to warrant any return trips of value.

Nate’s Grade: C+

It Chapter Two (2019)

To be fair, It Chapter Two was always going to be the less interesting half. There’s a reason when they thought they would only get one movie that the producers and writers decided to focus entirely on the childhood storylines, and that’s because it’s the superior material. Director Andy Muschietti and most of the same team from the 2017 film return with a bigger budget, a bigger running time, and some new famous faces (not counting the cameos). At a whopping 169 minutes long, It Chapter Two rumbles into theaters as a big scary surefire hit, enough so that no other Hollywood studio scheduled a competitor during its release weekend. As anyone who saw the 1990 TV miniseries can attest, the adult half of Stephen King’s story is the harder slog, and Chapter Two makes it even sloggier (I’m making this a new word starting now).

The Losers Club from Derry, Maine have all grown up as 27 years have passed from that fateful day that they battled the evil Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) and lived. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) has stayed behind, cataloguing the events of the small town, waiting for the return of their nemesis. He alerts his old friends to once again return so they can take care of Pennywise as he feasts once again on the children and adults of Derry. Bill (James McAvoy) has become a famous and frustrated horror author. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) has married an abusive man. Richie (Bill Hader) has become a famous standup comic. Ben (Jay Ryan) has slimmed down and become a wealthy architect. Eddie (James Ransone) is with another overbearing woman and fraught with anxiety as an insurance risk assessor. Stanley (Andy Bean) is conflicted about returning as he views himself the weakest of the group. The old gang revisit the town of their youth and take turns remembering what they had selectively forgotten through the years. Only they can band together to stop Pennywise but they must all work together to survive yet again.

Every time It Chapter Two was cutting back to its numerous childhood flashbacks (more on that in a moment) I was reminded how magical this younger cast was together, how much more I cared, and I was secretly wishing the movie would just stay in the past for good. In short, the adult versions of these characters are pretty boring. They each only have like one note of added characterization for the ensuing 27 years after we’ve seen them, meaning I guess according to the movie that whomever you are in middle school is who you’ll be as a grown-up? That’s a scarier thought than anything Pennywise has to offer. It’s as if our understanding of them was put on hold for those 27 years as well, so there’s too little to unpack, or what’s there seems peculiar and unsatisfying. Richie’s big personal secret that Pennywise taunts him with seems decidedly less scandalous in our modern age. Bill has to suffer people telling him the ending to his book was unsatisfying. He also has survivor’s guilt over responsibility for the death of his little brother, Georgie. Beverly is with an abusive husband who she leaves in the opening scene. So that seems to be the end of that development. Ben is still nursing his crush from middle school on Beverly; the man hasn’t moved on from a middle school crush! He’s gotten rich, gotten in shape, and still waiting for this one girl to like him, which is a weird message. Maybe the movie is positing that all of the characters have been emotionally “on hold” since the childhood trauma they cannot remember, put in a stasis as much as Mike who elected to stay behind when the others wanted to get away. That feels like excuse-making to me. These versions of the characters just aren’t that compelling and given little to do and too much free time.

Structurally, this movie is a protracted muddle and could have sliced out a healthy 45 minutes. The first act checks in with each character for us to see where they are in life and then concludes with their reunion at a Chinese restaurant. The uncomfortably long second act follows each character wandering around the haunts of Derry and essentially having their memories activated. It follows a formula that gets to be rather redundant. The adult goes to a place, they have a scary flashback about that place as a child, then they have a scary moment as an adult. It means each character has two linked scary moments/set pieces to go through, and there are at least five characters to get through, which means this whole sequence takes up like an hour. Also trying your patience is the fact that there is no new information. You’re watching the characters try and remember things that you, the audience, already know, so it gets to be rather boring. Then there’s the extended ending that is undeserved for a two-part franchise. The ending gets drawn out so long, with so many little minor stops, that my father said, “It’s like everyone came up with a different ending scene, they voted and they all tied, so we got them all.” A Lord of the Rings-style sendoff was not needed for these characters. The misshapen and drawn out structure is a result of adapting a book where the narrative drive was from the childhood experiences using the adults more as a conduit to explore trauma and as a means to finally deliver a last confrontation. It’s hard to assemble a full movie out of that material but this doesn’t feel like it (pun intended?).

It Chapter Two is also noticeably less scary than the original movie. Part of this is because we have a baseline of expectations from the childhood spooks, but it’s also because the horror doesn’t seem to have the same level of care and craft attached. Because of that formulaic middle, there’s less an anticipation for Pennywise’s big scares and more a resignation. It’s a skipping record of scares, waiting for the non-scary thing/person to become the scary Pennywise. With the 2017 It, the scares were able to develop in fun ways, playing upon their childhood fears, and were developed with careful craft to heighten the tension. Pennywise was genuinely terrifying. Now in the sequel, because the scares aren’t delivering the same impact, the movie veers too often into comedy, which only further de-fangs the power of its demonic clown. The 2017 It naturally understood that its horror would take steps into the goofy but that made it scarier. With the 2019 sequel, the human characters are calling out the horror tropes, which doesn’t work. This is even more noticeable and unhelpful when the big scary scenes all involve some CGI monster. There’s very little actual Pennywise in this movie and too many dull CGI monsters rambling about. Then there’s a terrible over-invested secondary villain with a childhood bully breaking out of a mental hospital and being instructed to kill the adult Losers. Every time the movie kept cutting to him, I sighed. He doesn’t deserve the amount of screen time and importance he seems to have been given. I don’t care about this guy and the movie shouldn’t waste time trying to make me care.

The returning assets are welcomed, providing a sense of continuity that helps carry over our good feelings and good times from the 2017 hit. Muschietti (Mama) is a talented director and an excellent mood setter, but he’s also excellent at directing child actors. There’s one standout scene in It Chapter Two that would rank with the quality of the previous film. There’s one scene that follows a little girl with a splotchy birth mark on her cheek as she follows a firefly under the bleachers at a high school baseball game. Waiting below in the shadows is Pennywise, who plays upon her insecurity of her facial deformity, and his own, to promise her a better life. It’s the one moment in the movie I actually felt something close to fear. Muschietti draws out the development organically and plays upon the mounting dread, holding onto a moment of Pennywise frozen, like the creature below the facade is trying to remember what to do next. It’s a stellar little moment, beautifully directed and written, and it’s almost completely superfluous to the main story. The child actors are all still outstanding, even if some of them get a slathering of de-aging CGI to make them look more like their pre-puberty selves (sorry Finn Wolfhard). Then there’s the breakout sensation Skarsgard (Assassination Nation) as our favorite dancing clown. He’s under served by the story problems and the hazy rules leading to his eventual confrontation. I enjoyed every actual appearance from the character and Skarsgard’s eerie command over his physicality, the way he can simply move through a scene or fixate his face, is astounding. The degree of his brilliance in this role will get downplayed because of of its genre but he is doing remarkable acting here.

The adult actors all deliver capable and even great performances with what little they have. It doesn’t take a great actor to act scared, as judged by the litany of low-budget horror available, but it does take a great actor to try and funnel that into the narrow band of a character. Chastain (Dark Phoenix) is enjoyable, because she always will be, but her character is meant to sleepwalk through the movie, putting together the memories of old and becoming more aware. It makes for a restrained performance, which works for an adult woman raised with abusive men, but it can also mean that Chastain is given less material as an actor to work with. McAvoy (Glass) breaks into a childhood stutter when he’s really freaked out but even his character seems to vacillate between under-performing and over-performing, especially when he’s obsessed over saving one little neighborhood kid who probably views him as the real danger. His character was the unquestioned center of the 2017 It, but that center seems more with Richie with the 2019 It. Hader has taken a surprising and very affecting turn into darker dramatic work with HBO’s Barry, and his performance is the best of the adult Losers. He has his expected funny moments but it’s the sadness and anxiety that coats his words that Hader is able to bring out. His is the character that seems to open up the most through the second installment and Hader was a terrific choice to facilitate this.

It Chapter Two falters in comparison of the first film where the qualities all felt so wonderfully organic, arranged, and developed. It was a grade-A funhouse of goofy terrors. The sequel is far far too long, misshapen structurally, overextended, underdeveloped, lacking in sustainable tension, overusing CGI and comedy, and strands the talented actors with little to do. I heartily enjoyed the first chapter and that’s why I’m feeling as let down as I am for Chapter Two. It’s certainly not a bad movie. It still has enough slick technical skill and good acting to warrant a viewing if you’re a fan of King’s novel or the 2017 movie. Just be prepared for a longer, duller, and less satisfying concluding half that seems to be running on half the imagination. It might work well enough but it only makes me appreciate the charms of Chapter One even more.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Don’t Let Go (2019)

It’s a time-displaced mystery where two people, a police detective (David Oyelowo) and his teenage niece (Strom Reid), are trying to communicate across space and time to prevent a personal tragedy, namely the niece’s eventual murder. He’s two weeks ahead time-wise and making use of his advanced knowledge and her insider info to better understand what went wrong that fateful night. If it sounds a bit like 2000’s Frequency, featuring a father and son across the decades with a ham radio, that’s because it’s pretty much Frequency. No matter, this is the high-concept stuff of fun, clever structural gamesmanship, tapping into the past and future to solve a crime. Writer/director Jacob Estes (The Details) has a good first draft but the script needed more work. It starts off rather slow, takes more time than needed to establish its rules, and even after those rules are somewhat hazy, like when Oyelowo gets a download of new memories from his future self. To say the story gets a bit convoluted is an understatement, and the ending feels more like a rush to a finish rather than a carefully planned conclusion. The best asset the movie has is the relationship and performances from its stars. Oyelowo is a man rushed against an impossible task, and his fevered and harried performance does much to communicate the burden placed upon him. Reid (A Wrinkle in Time) is very good as an inquisitive teenager who has to process the looming danger that hangs over her head, plus just being a teen girl in L.A. Both of these actors are at their best when they’re together (via magic phone calls; are texts not magic?) and pushing each other to succeed. There’s great potential in the unlikely partner dynamic with them as well as a resonating personal motivation to drive the movie. I just wish Estes and the filmmakers had slowed things down and given their setup more thought and experimentation. It kind of goes in rather predictable and mundane directions, including having a super killer that seems anything but. Don’t Let Go (a painfully generic title destined to be forgotten) feels like it could have worked a limited run miniseries, or, barring that, a better paced and developed film.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Ready or Not (2019)

Ready or Not is like the twisted lovechild of the home invasion thriller You’re Next and the meta-horror funhouse that is Cabin in the Woods, and it’s a total blast. This is no game.

Grace (Samara Weaving) is marrying into a rich family of socialites, famous for their family’s history with board games. Grace’s husband is reluctant about his bride joining the family he had walked away from for years. There is one big tradition: every new member of the family has to play a game upon their wedding night, dating back to the great grandfather who founded the family company through a chance encounter. Grace pulls a random card that says hide and seek, and that’s the game they must play. She’s bemused at being enlisted into a child’s game but little does she know that the family is arming themselves to find and murder her. They fear that if they cannot kill her before dawn, they will all be doomed thanks to an old curse.

The movie is entertaining from beginning to glorious ending thanks to finely developing its unorthodox premise and staying consistent tonally, whether it’s dark humor or tension. This is a very funny movie. In fact, I laughed more and harder during this film than I have with movies sold as comedies. It’s not afraid to spin its macabre premise for fun, but it impressively doesn’t lose sight of character and scenario along the way. That means that the screenwriters are deriving their humor from the absurdity of their situations and finding organic wellsprings of comic relief. The humor doesn’t detract from the danger of the moment while also enlivening the rest of the movie. The incredulity of the situation leads to some wonderfully ironic moments, like one relative studying YouTube videos for how to operate a crossbow, someone looking up on Google whether or not deals with the devil are real, and a running gag of the estate’s maids meeting horrible accidental deaths. And then there’s the ending, which finds a wonderful way to essentially have its cake and eat it too. I won’t spoil it but the ending to Ready or Not is a fist-pumping, cheering, clapping, highly memorable closer, and one of the best endings in years. It’s one of those endings you can’t wait to talk about with others.

All of the various family members have little notes to play and character beats that provide a more realized glimpse into their histories and the family dynamics than I would have anticipated. It made me feel like the filmmakers had given great consideration to even the smallest of details in what is, at its core, a murderous version of a children’s game. There’s the wife to Adam Brody’s character who is all-in on whatever it takes to maintain this family because she hints at what kind of horrible life predated her new life here. Then there’s the patriarch of the family who is all about ceremony and staying true to the rules until he has to experience the smallest challenge and wants to use whatever cheats he can at his disposal, arguing that great grandfather would use security cameras too if he could and why should they be penalized for simply playing the game in a more technologically advanced era. He’s just another rich douchebag who drops his pretenses the moment something isn’t handed to him. The characters are varied so that you can never feel relief when anyone is in a room, and that even includes the children, who seem destined to become new participants in this cycle.

Even with its tongue-in-cheek humor and premise, there is a lot of clever thinking put into Ready or Not. There are plenty of setups that connect to later payoffs, including that amazing finish. The screenplay by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy thinks things through step-by-step so that it’s always ahead of the audience. If any of us found ourselves in this scenario, we would likely try and escape as quickly as possible to an outside refuge. They provide an explanation for that hurdle. Then when Grace finds a way out, the screenplay finds a logical yet clever way to curtail that escape. There is a gruesome sequence where Grace suffers a specific injury and then has to pull herself out of a bad situation, and the movie sets up a gnarly out that connects to that injury, and I sat with baited breath just waiting for the puzzle pieces to connect, and Ready or Not has several moments like this. It’s a fun movie because while it doesn’t take itself that seriously it’s very serious about its storytelling and structure.

Weaving deserved to be an A-list actress after her star-making performance in Netflix’s The Babysitter. This woman is so magnetic and so great at roles that require a tightrope of tone; she sizzled as the darkly advantageous yet lovable babysitter in that other movie, and with Ready of Not she’s our increasingly baffled heroine just trying to make sense of the insanity. The audience gravitates toward Grace pretty quickly as a grounded woman who seems genuine about her desire to have the family that she never formed as a foster child. There’s a latent tenacity that emerges from Grace as she pushes herself through one survival scenario after another. Unlike the similarly themed You’re Next, Grace is not some secret badass raised by crafty survivalists. She’s a normal person thrust into a very abnormal situation, and her responses stay reasonable and formidable when called upon. She is our center for the fun and she makes a winning heroine, and Weaving is so good at the heavy moments, the gross moments, the sly moments, that she deserves to have great material handed to her because she is ready, Hollywood.

Ready or Not is a sneaky, nasty, delightfully dark little movie that left me hooting, hollering, squirming, and grinning with satisfaction. It’s a late summer surprise that delivers everything I was hoping for and has great, delicious fun with its humor and violence. It’s smartly paced, smartly structured, with supporting characters that leave a mark as well as thematic questions over culpability and group think. This is the kind of movie I wish Hollywood was making more of, with screenwriters that can take a premise and write the best possible version of that and with the best possible ending. Any misgivings I have for this movie are small quibbles, like maybe more specific payoffs linked to onscreen deaths, but even that would detract from later events and payoffs, so even my quibbles can be excused. Ready or Not deserves to be seen with a raucous crowd that will appreciate it to its full extent. I look forward to the Twister-heavy sequel.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Kitchen (2019)

Mob movies are culturally beloved. I could watch Goodfellas every time I see it on TV. We know these movies, we know this lifestyle, in so much as it’s been demonstrated in our art. A feminine perspective is often the dame, the moll, the panicked wife who worries her husband will never come home and see his bratty kids again. Rarely in mob movies are there roles for women that can be considered three-dimensional. Even Diane Keaton gets shortchanged in The Godfather series. In comes Oscar-nominated Straight Outta Compton screenwriter Andrea Berlof, tackling her directorial debut and adapting a graphic novel about three mob wives fighting the system. It’s about time this under-represented perspective in some of our favorite movies got its due spotlight. It’s too bad then that The Kitchen finds ways to still leave the women behind where it counts.

Set in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City in the late 70s, three mobsters get arrested one evening by the FBI and sent to prison. Their wives are now left alone to raise their families, struggle for employment, and to not be forgotten with the new pecking order of those mobsters left behind. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) think they should take over their husband’s rackets while their men are indisposed. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is more worried about what will happen when her abusive husband comes back from prison. The three women work together to make a stake at their own claim, butting heads against the existing power structure of dismissive men who don’t think organized crime is any place for a woman.

The Kitchen has such potential but it’s too often running off the fumes of other mob movies. Beyond the obvious similarities with last year’s more refined and polished Widows, this is a movie that gobbles its mafia movie clichés like a heaping helping of pasta (more clichés!). The characters aren’t terribly well defined and the story oddly moves in starts and stops, with moments either feeling too long or too short, and especially abruptly transposed, using montage to hurdle through what should have been needed onscreen development. People rightfully complained about the final season of Game of Thrones skipping over needed steps along a character’s journey to get to its intended destination, and The Kitchen is deserving of the same charge. We want to see these women in charge and others afraid, except the movie doesn’t show me any reason why these women would rise in power and what sets them apart from their steely competition. I get that they’re underestimated and they are determined, and that works in a general sense, but by the half-hour mark they’re already successful mobster entrepreneurs and I’m unsure how. Even after their rise, there is little that seems to deter them. Every new obstacle is comically taken care of in such casual fashion that you never worry for their well-being. It feels like Berloff wants to skip through all the hard work and just get to the enjoyable desserts or a life of crime, but moving up the ladder is an essential part of any power struggle story. As a result of the sloppy plotting and pacing, there is an over-reliance on clichés to stand in place, relying upon the audience’s warm understanding of the genre territory and what to expect to relieve the movie from having to do more work. It’s all telling and hardly any show.

The characters are kept as archetypes as well, at least 2/3 of the leads. Both McCarthy and Haddish seem miscast for their roles. Both are splendid comic actresses and have dramatic capabilities beyond what they get credit for, but they seem to rely upon comic instincts to get through their underwritten scenes, which further hampers the lack of tension. Each actress gets one solid scene to open up their character but it’s just so little. Ruby has a sit down where her mom credits beating the “soft” out of her daughter for Ruby’s success. That little glimpse into her past and her fraught relationship with her mother served as a tantalizing hint at what could be explored further with the Ruby character. The same with the fact that she’s a black woman who married into a very rigid Irish-American family set in their prejudices. There’s such dramatic potential to be had there. Alas, she’s tasked with being a hardass and that’s all The Kitchen asks of Haddish, treating her more as symbol than person. For McCarthy, there’s a late scene where another character tries to soft-peddle her involvement in crime, saying she did what she had to for her children, and Kathy corrects, saying, no, she did it all for her. She was tired of being a deferential doormat and wanted to feel important. That degree of self-empowerment through selfishness could be a fascinating character angle to explore, but we don’t get that. She clarifies the lens for us to view her with but by that point it’s far too late. The film is top-heavy with underwritten women and that’s a shame.

The most interesting character by far is Moss’ abused wife-turned-budding killer. Claire is the one starting at the lowest point and the one who takes to the life of crime as means of salvation. These characters are doing some pretty heinous acts but with Claire I felt the most empathy for her plight, bullied by her husband and feeling trapped, more worried about the impending release and her return to being the scared woman cowering in the corner again. She doesn’t want to go back to that life and I believed every moment of Moss blurting out her despair and desperation. That’s why her relationship with another oddball killer played by Domhnall Gleeson (The Last Jedi) was what I cared about most in the movie. You watch them grow together, him mentoring her on how to cut up a body and dispose of it down river, and you watch how each of these two people finds something missing in the other. They may not even be good for one another, enabling their darker impulses and past a point of no return, but it’s the only evolving relationship we were given an entry point to empathize with fully. This segment is also criminally underwritten but it’s clearly where the focal point of the movie should have been. This was the perspective the movie should have been locked into and the character’s journey we follow through every step.

The Kitchen isn’t a bad movie at all. The production design and period appropriate costumes are to die for. There’s always going to be a visceral enjoyment watching the underdogs move ahead and topple their doubters and competition. The ensemble doesn’t have a bad actor in the bunch. Bill Camp (Molly’s Game) shows up with a real sense of veiled menace as a Brooklyn mobster both irritated and impressed by the ladies’ advancement. The soundtrack is packed with Scorsese-riff-approved tunes, including three instances of Fleetwood Mac. There are pleasures to be had. It’s just that the ingredients to a better movie were all there, plain as day. If you’re a fan of mob movies in general, you may find enough to satisfy with The Kitchen, which has its moments but ultimately feels too much like an under-cooked dish you’ve had one too many times before (metaphors!).

Nate’s Grade: C+

%d bloggers like this: