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Red Sparrow (2018)

The Cold War-worthy spy thriller Red Sparrow is a misfire that doesn’t seem to be able to commit to what it wants to be. It wants to be provocative but serious; however, it lacks the substance to be serious and lacks the conviction to be provocative. It lands in a middle ground between the sleek genre fun of Atomic Blonde and the understated paranoid realism of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. By landing in the middle zone, Red Sparrow is that rare boring movie plagued by untapped potential.

Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a classically trained Russian ballerina that suffers a gruesome injury. Her leering uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) enlists her into a state-run school for spies and assassins who specialize in seducing their targets. “Whore school,” as Dominka terms it, is run by the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who methodically trains her recruits by stripping away every ounce of fear, shame, and defiance. Their bodies belong to the state now, she says, and they will be put to good use for Mother Russia. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is an American spy working in Europe who tries to convince Dominika to switch sides, to take refuge in the United States. Dominika’s superiors order her to get what she can on Nash, find their secret contact, and eliminate them both.

Firstly, Red Sparrow is far too long and far too leisurely paced at a bladder-unfriendly 140-minutes. When things do get interesting, the overall slow pacing has a tendency to sap whatever momentum was starting to emerge. The entire first act should have been condensed down into an opening ten minutes rather than stretching out into 30-some minutes. We don’t need a full half-hour explaining what Dominika’s life was like before her new life as a deadly state-sponsored seductress. We don’t need all that time to see her life as a ballerina, her life caring for her sick mother, and her hesitancy with her first mission before she’s roped into fully accepting her fate. I don’t need this much convincing that her life was better before or that she was trapped into this decision. I don’t care that Lawrence studied ballet for four months. It’s not integral and it’s a deadly start to a story. Once Dominika is at her spy school, that’s when the movie really starts. I was getting awfully sleepy as the movie just seemed to drift along. I know a high school student who saw the movie and said, “I fell asleep at the beginning, and then I woke up later and it was STILL the beginning!”

Another problem is that the parallel storyline about Nash and the Americans is far less interesting. Every time the movie jumps to his perspective, you can feel the movie stalling. A U.S. spy who is pushing against his own brass and the politics of the agency can’t compete with a woman who is thrust into unfamiliar and dangerous missions that test every physical and psychological boundary she knows. When Nash and Dominika cross paths, he finally starts to justify his placement. Much like the delayed first act, though, the extra time setting up his life before he was important was not time well spent. Their relationship together is mean to appeal to Dominika to convince her to flip allegiances. They don’t feel like they really connect, and part of that is the lackluster chemistry between the actors. The emphasis on their romantic relationship is even more moot because Dominika’s real motivation is revenge. She didn’t need a handsome, doe-eyed American man for that to happen.

Where Red Sparrow does work is with its unique, high-pressure, destabilizing training environment. There’s a prurient appeal when it comes to watching the training program for assassins who must strip everything away and use their bodies as a weapon. This is where the film is at its most interesting and its most sensational as far as use of genre elements. There is an uncomfortable amount of stark sexual violence depicted in the movie. I lost track of the number of times Dominika is raped, tortured, sexually assaulted, or assault is attempted upon her. I don’t feel like these moments of sexual violence are glamorized or designed for base titillation; it’s a window into the harsh reality these women face. They have been robbed of their agency, their very sex weaponized. There’s a fascinating story to be told from that perspective and the trials and tribulations within “whore school” are harrowing, shocking, and always intriguing, which makes it even sadder when the filmmakers try and posit an arty sheen of self-seriousness. This is a movie about training spies to seduce the enemy and then prove their skills. This is a movie where the head of the spy school runs a play-by-ply analysis on a student’s use of a handjob. This is not going to be John le Carre, and that’s fine. Rather than embrace its inherently trashy side, Red Sparrow tries to stay above the icky stuff, while still indulging in a heaping helping of blunt sexual violence. It’s truly strange. It’s like the filmmakers felt they were making something sober and thoughtful and didn’t want to taint their award-caliber production with too much emphasis on the thing that makes it most interesting. And then instead they threw in a lot more sexual violence, because that’s also serious, and that’s the kind of thing serious movies do to be serious.

Lawrence (mother!) is once again a strong anchor for the audience, even if her Russian accent falters from scene-to-scene. This is a very different role for Lawrence and requires her to simultaneously put much of herself on display physically while finding ways to hide the inner life and thinking of her character from the audience. There’s an interesting character here buried under layers. After her accident, Dominika viciously injures her dance partner and his new leading lady, and it previews the cruelty that Dominika is capable of. Much of the press in the lead up has focused on Jennifer Lawrence’s nudity, and it’s there, okay, but it’s never really emphasized. There is one sequence in particular where she disrobes and taunts her would-be rapist to try and ravish her available body, humiliating him, and it’s one of the few scenes where Dominika turns her body around as a tool of empowerment. Granted, it’s within the prism of a school that’s practically state-run sex slavery, so let’s not get carried away with larger feminist implications. Lawrence keeps the audience guessing scene to scene as she transforms from setting, slipping into different identities that suit her, thinking on her feet, and being, frankly, adult.

There are a slew of good supporting actors tasked with saying ridiculous and foreboding things, like Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress of “whore school” and Jeremy Irons as a high-level Russian spymaster. What really catch the attention are the accents. We have a group of actors from the U.S., Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany portraying Russians, and with Edgerton, an Aussie portraying an American. As you might expect, the Ruskie accents can be a bit thick and obviously phony at times.

It’s not too difficult to see the kind of movie that Red Sparrow could have been. It even previews it from time to time, providing a glimpse into an alternative version of the movie that decides to take ownership of its more sensational, sexualized elements with genre pride. Red Sparrow feels like an out-of-time throwback to the erotic thrillers of the go-go 90s. I mean does Russia even need to train sexy assassins any more in the information age where a troll farm and some Facebook ads can get the job done? Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games movies) has a controlled, precise Fincher-like visual acumen that gives the film a sleek and sterile allure to the spy shenanigans. It’s a nice-looking movie to watch, but without a better story, let alone a verdict on tone, it’s a nice-looking movie that runs self-indulgently too long. Consider it a screensaver you forgot was still going on but with Jennifer Lawrence nudity.

Nate’s Grade: C


Game Night (2018)

Very funny and surprisingly satisfying, Game Night is a comedy thriller that further cements my appreciation for the comedic prowess of writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Horrible Bosses). The premise about a group of couples on a wild “game night” they don’t know is real seems like it could go wrong in so many different ways, chiefly being unable to sustain its premise. Fortunately, the film is filled with strong characters who are each given a moment to shine. Jason Bateman and a loose Rachel McAdams are fun as our lead couple, and they’re even better when they’re bouncing off one another, but the real star of the movie is a hilarious Jesse Plemons (Hostiles) as a creepily intense neighbor. Plemons will hold onto certain jokes, taking something that was funny and pushing it into an even funnier, more awkward place. The comic set pieces are well developed and clever, set up earlier and allowed to go in unexpected directions to better complicate matters. While the movie is clearly a riff on David Fincher’s The Game, with some sly visual nods to Fincher’s signature style, the jokes don’t get lost when the action heats up. A good action-comedy makes sure that the action or suspense sequences are still constructed through the prism of comedy. I was laughing often and surprisingly hard throughout the whole movie. Game Night is a wickedly fun movie that has plenty of rewards and enjoyable surprises.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland has been one of Hollywood’s most stable sci-fi screenwriters for some time. In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a sly and invigorating potboiler that made you think. It helped make Alicia Vikander a star and Garland himself was nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay. The movie even won an Oscar for best visual effects, beating out some pretty pricey competition. With one movie, Garland displayed a natural knack for directing. His follow-up, Annihilation, is based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer and has already run into some trouble. After poor test screenings, the producer tried to force changes but these were refused. In a face-saving outreach, Annihilation will only be playing theatrically in North America and will debut on Netlfix weeks later for the rest of the world. The suits are not confidant in the larger public clicking with Annihilation, and they might be right. This isn’t going to be one of those films that people leave declaring their love over in effusive terms, despite what the critical praise may lead you to believe. This is a movie that you leave saying, “Huh.” It’s so powerfully inscrutable to the point that most other conventional forms of cinematic entertainment and narrative are smothered. And yet, it’s that inscrutability that might be the movie’s biggest point and might be its biggest asset.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year ever since he ventured into a strange environmental disaster zone. Then he reappears with a mysterious illness and little memory of the events. Lena joins an all-female crew of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) to find out some answers by exploring The Shimmer, the site where an alien meteorite collided with coastal land and has been changing local life forms at an alarming pace.

Like I said, this movie is a conundrum, not just in a “What did I just watch?” sort of analysis but also in a, “Did I actually like that movie?” personal introspection. There isn’t really a mystery here to unpack as there is an enigmatic experience to explain. I’m doing something I don’t normally like to do, which is immediately type my review shortly after seeing a movie. I generally like to marinate on my feelings after experiencing a movie; however, with this one I felt compelled to put furious fingers to the keyboard, trying to explore my myriad conflicted feelings and find my way out the other side, or at least articulate that journey. I’ll try and steer away from any major spoilers though I worry that even discussing some of my confounding responses will require some thematic and plot context, so beware readers who wish to go into this experience completely pure.

Annihilation is an existential horror movie about biology’s indifference to mankind; at least that’s my best thematic interpretation. In the beginning, Lena is explaining the history of cellular life, the simple splitting of cells that begat all life on the planet. There was no larger forethought, no agenda, and no malice, only the enacting of DNA programming. Ultimately, I think the alien mutations are running on a similar principle. This isn’t an invasion by any traditional definition. This isn’t anything nefarious. This isn’t even anything as clearly identifiable as a virus spreading its illness. This is simply life stirring in a few new recipes. There’s a general level of indifference to the overall setting, which makes the environmental wonders and horrors more dispiriting. For those who demand clear answers from their storytelling, they will be left sorely disappointed. Annihilation doesn’t have any real answers for why these things are happening. They just are occurring, much like the beginning steps of cellular life that found new modes of survival on Earth billions of years prior. It’s just another stage in the development of life. The fact that humanity can be so easily cast aside, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. There’s a mounting sense of existential dread about man’s inevitable demise. One character dubs their mission suicidal and is corrected by another. “People confuse suicide with self-destruction,” she says. “Very few people are suicidal, but all of us are self-destructive.” The plotline confirms this as characters fall victim to hubris and curiosity. However, one may argue there is biological in destruction and reconstitution.

Be warned, dear reader, this is a rather slow movie with a lot of space for breathing, the kind of thing meant to establish a particular atmospheric mood. If you connect with the material, it works, obviously. The problem with Annihilation is that because it’s so inscrutable, because it keeps you at a distance on purpose, that it allows more opportunities to check out. We’re anticipating weirdness and a general breakdown in the group of scientists, and Garland seems to understand this, which may be why he gradually delivers his genre scares. There is an amazing sequence in the middle that is the fuel of nightmares, made all the more searing and scaring by a horrifying sound design that’s even worse when you connect it with the visual source. I was almost compelled to look away and spare my memory this ghastly sight. There are other unsettling moments and the overall feel of the film is definitely one of discomfort and dread, but it’s this scene I’ll always remember and that also solidified the nasty surprises from Mother Nature. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The eventual ending should be easy enough to predict thanks to Garland’s flash-forwards tipping your expectations, that is, if you can actually understand the ending. I still cannot say for certain what happened and why or whether I cared about a why. If, as stated above, the point of the movie is man’s inability to find a recognizable motive in the replication of life by biological factors, then that lends itself to a generally unsatisfying end.

One interesting idea that I regret gets short shrift is just the fact that this is an all-female group of scientists venturing where literally only men have gone before. I’m not celebrating this as some sort of nod at feminism but because it offered an interesting storytelling avenue. All the previous groups were all men and they either were killed by the new environmental dangers or went crazy and killed each other. Minor spoilers, but the women fall under the same sway, destined to the same fate, and it feels like a shame. If you’re going to make a point of questioning whether the deterioration of order and sanity is related to an all-masculine entanglement of thinkers, then don’t just have the women repeat the same decline. Or maybe that’s the point? I don’t know.

Portman (Jackie) does an convincing job of alternating looking confused and spooked, mimicking most of the audience reaction. Her character isn’t asking to be found likeable, only capable, though the first time we get a little taste of her as a person is far too late into the movie. Her marriage might not have been built on the strongest foundation, which again leads to the potential thematic deliberation over self-destruction and rebirth. Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is a bit too flatly monotone for my liking. It feels like she’s sleepwalking through the film, like maybe she was on Ambien and can’t remember even performing in this movie. Tessa Thompson is underwhelming especially with knowing how fully captivating she can be onscreen (see: Thor: Ragnarok). The other notable actress is Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) who put on some muscle and swagger and has a terrific breakdown sequence that showcases some unnerving desperation.

I still cannot even say if I liked Annihilation. There are aspects I can definitely admire, like the commitment of its actors, the emphasis on a more scientific approach to an outbreak/invasion thriller, and Garland’s general sense of place. I still think the majority of audiences are going to leave shrugging. Annihilation is more akin to an Under the Skin or Solaris than a monster hunt. It’s quiet, philosophical, and also often boring. It has its thrilling points, its moments of mystery and intrigue, but it also feels like a slow windup to the eventually disappointing reveal that won’t be enough to justify the lethargic pacing. In the end, this is a difficult movie, but not in a way that requires a thorough decoding like mother! or even in a way that requires repeat viewings to play out the twists. Annihilation is difficult by design, keeping its audience from fully engaging, and then offering little in the way of answers or resolution. And I still don’t know if I like that. Dear reader, this is a confounding movie but it might not be the good kind of confounding.

Nate’s Grade: C+


Tragedy Girls (2017)

I wanted to enjoy Tragedy Girls. I really did. There’s a good starting point with a story about two self-involved teenagers who turn to murder to raise their social media profiles. I like the lead actresses, Alexandra Shipp and Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand, and the film has a quirky sense of style by co-writer/director Tyler MacIntyre. The opening is even great where Hildebrand purposely lures a lover to his sacrificial death in order to trap a familiar slasher film-styled villain. Where it all goes wrong is that Tragedy Girls doesn’t have enough substance or commentary to outweigh its arch nihilism. The message is very flimsy (millennials are shallow, social media is harmful) and the film wants you to revel in the girls’ violent, gory murders but also be repelled by them. It’s a sisterhood of slaying. There are some interesting story ideas that don’t feel better attended. The girls are clumsy at their murders and luck into some absurd Final Destination-worthy kills, but the film doesn’t embrace this concept and makes them untouchable. They kidnap a local serial killer in the opening and demand he train them, but the guy refuses and is shoved to the side for almost the entire movie, stranding another interesting possibility. The high school characters are thinly designed and unworthy of their demises, though that’s also the point. Tragedy Girls doesn’t earn its candy-colored nihilism. It ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth and I found it off-putting and empty. It thumbs its nose with prickly devil-may-care attitude but without anything to really say.

Nate’s Grade: C-


Mom and Dad (2018)

The appeal of the indie thriller Mom and Dad is its frenetic, gonzo, absurdist spirit that accelerates into delicious dark comedy with a maniacal glee seldom seen in movies. The nature of the movie and its bloody violence will put off many viewers; however, if you have a healthy appetite for the bizarre and tonally incongruous, then Mom and Dad will serve as a thrilling and hilarious treat.

The Ryan family, father Brett (Nicolas Cage), mother Kendall (Selma Blair), teen daughter Carly (Ann Winters), and young son Josh (Zackary Arthur), are a typical suburban family with their share of secrets and antipathy. It’s a normal day until it isn’t. While at school, a mob of parents forms to collect their children. A rumor of a terrorist strike has circulated widely. But when the parents get close to their children they viciously harm them. It seems someone or something has flipped that parental instinct to protect one’s child at all costs. Now the urge is to kill one’s young. Carly and her friends escape the school mob and have to survive their homicidal parental units.

I didn’t realize it while watching but it became obvious in hindsight that this was the fodder of one of the debased, juvenile, and altogether hyperactive minds from the Crank movies, a series best described as debased, juvenile, and hyperactive. Brain Taylor takes a Twilight Zone premise and shoots it full of adrenaline and mescaline and whatever else was lying around on the ground. The action gets going in a relatively efficient fashion, establishing our family unit, and then setting them up for a collision course. From the 45-minute mark onward, it becomes more a self-contained thriller inside the family home, pitting our kids against their homicidal elders. It reminded me a tad of Don’t Breathe in its ability to set up a playing field and have its characters find organic ways to get into trouble, escape it, and get into worse trouble. It’s a series of moving pieces that feel elegantly arranged on the playing field. It keeps the movie barreling forward while still finding room for surprises and payoffs, including a glorious late Act Three payoff that I had long ago forgotten about its setup. It’s not quite dues ex machina because there’s more to come after, but it made me so happy.

This is a movie that strangles the concept of tone, and yet it decidedly knows what points to hit up the darker comedy, what moments need more drawn out suspense, and what moments can straddle the difference. The build-up of dread can be beautifully applied and then turned for laughs. Take for instance a moment when a teen girl comes home and notices an open blender with margarita mix, implying her mother is home. Just as a signifier of terror, it’s kind of fun, but then she leans closer and reaches into the open blender, her hand picking the blades. We’re leaning in, waiting for the blender to turn on all of a sudden, and then… she walks away, and the moment passes. Then we laugh to ourselves about how something so ordinary was turned around to be menacing. Taylor finds other little moments like this to assure the audience he’s thought through the premise and found ways to properly develop it to its potential. I was covering my face at parts in tense anticipation and I was cackling to myself at other times.

Cage (Snowden) is one of the few actors that seems to get exponentially more compelling to watch the nuttier he acts, and his crackpot zeal can elevate bad movies into something approaching unintended hilarity, like 2006’s woeful Wicker Man remake. There are few actors that go for broke regardless of how silly they eventually come across. In the wrong hands, this is an attribute that can betray Cage’s efforts and sink a movie. In the right hands, like Taylor’s, it provides the spark of madness needed to push a movie into another level of irascibility. Cage finds humor in the strangest of places, and it’s not a derisive sort of humor but more a genuine delighted bafflement at the character. If you love crazy Cage, you’ll have plenty to love in Mom and Dad.

Blair (Hellboy 2) is the more restrained parent while still getting scenes to cut loose. She’s having terrific fun getting to play bad. When she’s teamed with Cage, they form a darkly funny couple bonding over their shared intent for murder. It becomes an oddball romantic comedy in the darkest sense. Blair also impresses in her scenes of dramatic response. She’s one of the last parental figures to succumb to the hysteria, so we get to witness her process the shock and confusion of the day. There’s a great scene where she’s present in a hospital birthing room. Blair scrambles to save the newborn and try to understand what is happening, and it’s a personal kind of fear and betrayal that registers.

One of the more surprising aspects of Mom and Dad was how it’s able to build the parents as characters in clever and genuinely sincere ways. This is a crazy movie, and that’s its main appeal, but it can also find room to take things seriously. Taylor will momentarily pause the action to insert choice flashbacks that are enjoyable little asides, monologues that provide texture to the world and the characters. The flashback relating to a pool table’s demise opens up an entire analysis of a rocky marriage, a middle-aged man raging against his life’s mediocrity and the faded glory and promise of his youth, and the despair of losing your sense of self through parenthood. It builds and builds and allows the actors to unload. It doesn’t serve as significant a narrative point as other character-based flashbacks setting up ironic convergences. It’s just Brett and Kendall being able to voice their insecurities and disappointments. It’s about this point where the movie positions both as unswayable evil forces, so giving them a chance to come across like genuine human beings before they’re kill-crazy cartoons is unexpected and effective.

I know I’m having a great time with a movie when the worst thing about it is the last few seconds. Mom and Dad just sort of ends. It almost feels like there was some kind of editing accident and you may turn and say, “Wait, is that it?” I didn’t want Mom and Dad to end. This is a raucous dark comedy with an anarchic spirit but a strong sense of pacing, tone, and structure, layering in surprises and escalations dutifully while still finding equitable space to better shade the characters. If you’re looking for a risky dark comedy that will make you feel a tad crazier for watching, give Mom and Dad a whirl. This is the kind of movie you might hate yourself for loving.

Nate’s Grade: B+


The Commuter (2018)

Liam Neeson has been bedeviled on an airplane. He’s been bedeviled on a train. At this point, Neeson is going to find trouble on every form of public transportation. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between America’s favorite geriatric action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). None of those movies had the success of Taken but several had some pleasures or an intriguing mystery or hook. The Commuter makes Non-Stop look like Agatha Christie in comparison.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop-turned life insurance salesman who commutes into New York City every weekday. He recognizes many familiar faces on the train, except for Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an expert on human behavior. She makes a strange offer: find a passenger by the code name of “Prynn” before the last stop and he’ll receive $100,000. The passenger, a high-value witness, will be less well off. Michael taps into his old cop instincts to deduce who might be the desired target. As each stop passes, he has less time to figure out the identity and decide whether he’ll go through with it all.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the plot is so bizarrely similar to 2014’s Non-Stop, with Neeson as a former cop trapped on a mode of travel, being harassed by a mysterious figure, and tasked with discovering the identity of someone on-board before it’s too late while he’s possibly being set up to take the fall. It’s almost as if the producers said, “Hey, let’s get the director of Non-Stop, the star of Non-Stop, and why don’t we just make Non-Stop but, like, on a train?” And then that man bought a new house in celebration of his genius. I look forward to the next entry in the Neeson-Stuck-on-Transportation Trilogy where he’s stalking a ferry approaching Niagara Falls and being blackmailed into finding hidden diamonds. The major problem, besides being so recycled that it could have been retiled Phoning It In: The Movie, is how nothing makes sense at all. With lower-rent genre thrillers, things don’t always have to make the best of sense. Even the best thrillers suffer from leaps of logic but are excused because of how engaged we are in the movie. With The Commuter, I was so detached from the movie that I was impatiently waiting to get off on the next stop, no matter what was waiting on the other side.

The villainous scheme is predicated on so many people doing so many stupid decisions that are far more complicated than they have any right to be. First, this villainous organization essentially looking for a witness on the train has been tipped off from an inside source in the FBI. Except this source cannot say what that witness looks like. Also, why is the FBI allowing such an important witness travel by his or herself minus protection and among the public? I know for a fact that there’s an FBI office in New York City. The FBI members picking the witness up also don’t know what this person looks like, which again begets stupidly bad communication. The bad guys are also pretty bad if they have to resort to such efforts to suss out a witness. Can’t they find somebody to hack a phone? The bad guys steal Neeson’s phone to limit his communication. Yet, as he does in the movie, he simply asks another passenger to use their phone. What was the point of all of that? The villains also immediately inform Neeson that his family has been kidnapped, allowing little room for raising he stakes. Why don’t they wait to see who gets off and leaves with the FBI and use a sniper to take them out? Maybe it’s not about killing the person but destroying the evidence, so in that case you do random bag checks from a train worker. That’s it. Then there’s the nickname given to the target (“Prynn”). Who gave birth to this nickname and why would the witness carry the one item in public that would confirm their identity? If that’s the case, why did any of the bad guys need Neeson? He seems best served as a patsy considering he acts like a maniac, at one point pointing a gun at people and making demands, before settling back and assuring the passengers he’s trustworthy. That’s what stable people do, naturally. Why should anyone believe anything this guy says?

Here’s an example of how dumb this movie is. There are a few characters introduced in the opening act that you know will come back again because of the economy of characters and because name actors don’t take do-nothing parts in genre fare (unless you’re Chloe Sevigny in The Snowman, apparently). I’m waiting for confirmation that one of these characters is revealed to be working with our nefarious villains. A character has a very specific phrase they share with Neeson. Then, upon figuring out who the sought-after witness is on the train, he or she relates their story about bad cops and how one of them used the exact phrase. Fine, as expected, but then Neeson doesn’t respond. It triggers nothing from him even though he had only been with these people hours ago. It’s only later when this same phrase is said for the THIRD time does Neeson finally connect the dots. If a magic phrase is going to be the trigger then why have this extra step? It just makes Neeson look dumb and it doesn’t speak well to the film’s opinion of its audience.

Regardless of how nonsensical a thriller comes across, as long as it delivers the suspenseful genre goods, much can be forgiven. This is another area where The Commuter doesn’t perform well. There’s one decent hand-to-hand fight filmed in a long take that has a solid visceral appeal, but other than that this movie takes turns either looking ugly or like its budget wasn’t simply enough. The location calls for very cramped and limited environment that will require some combat ingenuity that the movie just isn’t up to the task for. Watching Neeson stalk from car to car, playing his Columbo detective games with resolutely stock characters (Lady Macbeth’s breakout star Florence Pugh deserves better), is not as fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe if the rote characters were better drawn, if the evil scheme was a bit cleaner, if the hero was more morally compromised, then maybe the downtime wouldn’t be as boring. There’s a ridiculous derailing sequence and then there’s another twenty minutes after. Collet-Serra can only bring so much to the movie, and the script doesn’t have enough clever inventions or reversals to spur much in the director’s imagination. As a result, everything feels like a deflated by-the-numbers thriller that would be better appearing on late night TV.

Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) is on action autopilot as he settles into the shed skin of one of his past Collet-Serra performances. He’s gruff, he’s cunning, he’ll take your best and keep swinging, and as he reminds the audience at three separate points, he’s sixty years old. He can still offer simple pleasures, and if your only requirement for entertainment is watching Neeson punch people and things, then The Commuter will fulfill your needs. His character is supposed to be placed in a moral question of self-interest but there’s never any doubt. If Neeson was a corrupt cop, I think that would be a better character arc and starting point for a guy questioning selling out a stranger. I’m surprised at how generally wasted every actor is, notably Farmiga (The Conjuring 2), who is literally only in two scenes on screen (her role is mostly nagging phone calls). She’s the only person given a little personality. Perhaps that’s because we already know where her allegiances lie so the sloppy screenplay doesn’t have to keep her an inscrutable suspect to interrogate.

The Commuter is a dumb ride to the generic and expected, and then it just keeps going. If you’re really hard up for entertainment and have a love affair with Neeson’s fists, I suppose assorted thrills could be found, but for everyone else this is one to miss.

Nate’s Grade: C-


Molly’s Game (2017)/ Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.

In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.

I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.

Nate’s Grades:

Molly’s Game: A-

Call Me By Your Name: B-


The Bye Bye Man (2017)

I think La La Land has a shadowy culprit to blame for the big slip-up at the 2017 Academy Awards where it mistakenly was declared Best Picture before the rightful winner, Moonlight, was crowned. Actress Faye Dunaway was the one who spoke aloud the infamous slip-up, but I think she had something else on her mind. She was so preoccupied with trying NOT to think about the Bye Bye Man that she wasn’t fully paying attention to the moment. Fortunately, Moonlight got its rightful due. Unfortunately, The Bye Bye Man exists as a horror film and Dunaway within it. This is a movie whose mantra is “Don’t say it, don’t think it,” all but begging to be forgotten.

If The Bye Bye Man had been the film it appears to be in its opening scene, we might have had an effectively unnerving horror thriller. We watch in a single long take as a distressed man drives home, mutters to himself, and takes out a rifle and systematically kills every person who admits they said “it” or told someone. He goes from person to person, pleading whether they told anyone, and it’s always yes. Then he moves on to kill that person, asking them the same question. It’s an effectively chilling scene and a fantastic way to open a horror movie. And it’s all sadly downhill from there, folks. The rest of the movie is a stupid thriller with stupid teenagers doing stupid things.

Any power the Bye Bye Man has as a concept, a mimetic virus, is wasted as a goofy Boogeyman knockoff with vague powers and intentions. Apparently, one of the insidious side effects of the Bye Bye Man is his ability to cause erectile dysfunction. After the first night he-who-shall-not-be-named is named, two of our college students talk about trying again and how “that” never happens to them, all but implying the Bye Bye Man was a sexual detriment. Another weirdly defined power is that the Bye Bye Man causes his victims to see hallucinations, though sometimes they’re nightmares like maggots crawling out of eyeballs, and other times they’re fantasy, like a naked friend beckoning for a lustful tryst. One character hears disturbing scratching noises and then visions of people standing buck naked on train tracks (the amount of brief nudity made me recheck that this received a PG-13 rating). “We’re all losing our minds at the same time,” a character bemoans at the 41-minute mark. At one point, the Bye Bye Man sends himself as a GIF, knowing how to reach millennials. I don’t understand why these kids don’t accept that if they see something horrific it’s probably false. They know the Bye Bye Man is terrorizing them with their fears and yet they fall for it every time. When you’re talking with someone and all of a sudden they start seeping blood from every orifice, maybe that should be a clue. If Elliot (Douglas Smith) knows he’s afraid of his girlfriend sleeping with his best friend, then shouldn’t he doubt the voracity of seeing them together after the malevolent force with evil visions has entered his life? What’s the point of scratching “don’t say it, don’t think it” as a preventative measure? That calls more attention to the forbidden item. It’s like in Inception, when they say, “don’t think about elephants,” and invariably that’s what you’re going to think about.

If the Bye Bye Man can make people say its name, then why isn’t it doing this all the time? Why all the hallucinations to drive teens to kill themselves? That seems ultimately counter productive to Bye Bye Man business. Any businessperson will tell you the key to expanding your outreach is through happy customers. Fulfill these people’s wishes and then come to collect later. I can write an entire proposal for the Bye Bye Man to shore up his business. He seems to be doing everything wrong. If the goal of the Bye Bye Man is to spread its name/message, along the same lines of self-preservation through proliferation like the haunted Ring VHS tape, then it needs a more straightforward approach. Let these doomed teenagers know their nightmares will end if they bring in an additional however many new victims. Alas, the Bye Bye Man is painfully unclear (it even has zero references on the Google imitator search) and just another boo spook.

Even for horror movies, the characters can be powerfully boring and meaningless. The entire premise is a group of college kids moving into a house that used to be owned by the crazy guy in the opening flashback. They each take turns seeing things, hearing things, and doing things, some as mundane as scribbling without their direct knowledge. The plot is in a holding pattern that requires characters to repeat the threat over and over. The only setup we have with these characters is one house party so we don’t exactly know what they’re like before they start going crazy. Much of their hallucinatory confusion could be mitigated if they just communicated with one another. “Help, Friend A, I am seeing [this]. Is that what you are seeing as well, Friend A?” It leads to a lot of rash actions for supposed friends. Elliot even refers to his friend as a “jock,” which is a term I don’t think anyone out of high school says. When the police suspect Elliot of foul play once his friends start dying, he is acting completely guilty. He begs Carrie Anne Moss (The Matrix) not to force him to say a certain name or else her kids might be in danger. That sounded like a thinly veiled threat. And then the police let him go!

The mystery of the Bye Bye Man’s history is the only point of interest in this story, and even that has its limits. The librarian (Cleo King) is hilariously hyper focused on delivering exposition. She even knows the protagonist on a first name basis. I think she lives to tell people about this one weird event in the school’s history. She even calls Elliot on the phone! The librarian reaches out to him, saying, “I’ve had some strange dreams ever since we talked.” She then asks if she can come over to his house later. What kind of relationship does this person forge with students? Dunaway is featured as the wife of the opening killer, and I just felt so sorry for her during every second on screen. She deserves better than this. Somebody go check on Faye Dunaway and make sure she’s okay.

The Bye Bye Man is a horror movie that’s so bad it can be outlandishly funny. It starts off well and deteriorates rapidly, abandoning sense and atmosphere for jumbled scares. There’s an extended bit during a climactic dramatic moment where a father has to convince his daughter to pee out in public. I felt so bad for every actor involved. I’ll even spoil the ending, which made me howl with laughter. A little girl talks about how she saw a table with some writing. “What did the writing say?’ her father asks, and oh no, here we go again you think to yourself. Then a second later the little girl says, “Daddy, you know I can’t read in the dark! What do you think I am, a flashlight?” My God, that moment should have been followed by a rimshot. This half-baked movie opens up a lot more questions than it has the ability to answer. What is the mythology of this character? What’s with the constant train imagery? Why does the Bye Bye Man have a pet dog? Why are the coins a significant part of its Bye Bye motif? And always, if it can simply make people talk, why isn’t it doing this all the time to spread its name? The Bye Bye Man is fun bad but oh is it still bad.

Nate’s Grade: D


All the Money in the World (2017)

All the Money is the World used to star Kevin Spacey as the prolific oil billionaire John Paul Getty, that is until director Ridley Scott elected to reshoot the part, replacing Spacey with Christopher Plummer after Spacey’s unsavory history of sexual assault came to light. In only ten days, Scott changed his movie with only a month to spare before its release. It’s an amazing feat, especially when you consider Plummer is in the film for at least a solid half hour. He’s also the best part as the mercurial, cruel, penny-pinching magnate who refuses to pay his grandson’s ransom even though he’s the richest man who ever lived. In 1973, John Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) was kidnapped by Italian criminals. With the miserly grandfather offering no help, Gail (Michelle Williams) tries to negotiate with the criminals and her father-in-law to secure the release of her son. I didn’t know anything coming into this film, but afterwards I felt like it focused on the wrong characters. The mother stuck in the middle is not the most interesting protagonist here and seems like a go-between for the two more immediate and intriguing stories, the elder Getty and the youngest Getty. Williams (Manchester by the Sea) is acceptable as the strong-willed, put-upon mother, though her mid Atlantic accent made me think I was watching Katherine Hepburn. Mark Wahlberg (Daddy’s Home 2) is completely miscast as a former CIA agent that helps Gail. He succeeds in converting oxygen to carbon dioxide and that’s about it. The central story is interesting enough, though there are points that scream being fictional invented additions, like a last act chase and a kindly mobster who undergoes reverse Stockholm syndrome. John Paul Getty is an interesting character, and Plummer is terrific, though I am quite curious what Spacey’s performance would have been like under octogenarian makeup (Plummer already happens to be in his 80s). All the Money in the World is an interesting enough story with decent acting but I can’t help but entertain my nagging sense that it should have been better even minus Spacey.

Nate’s Grade: B-


Bright (2017)

Netflix has been fighting to get into the world of theatrical features. While its original series have met remarkable acclaim, Netflix still wants to draw filmmakers. There have been a few high-profile film buys like Brad Pitt’s War Machine, the live-action American Death Note, and it’s become Adam Sandler’s new home. Bright is a $90 million dollar fantasy film directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad, End of Watch) and written by Max Landis (American Ultra, Dirk Gently). The big buzzy movie has been met with big derision from critics, some even referring to it as the worst film of 2017. After watching Bright, I think my friend Drew Brigner sums it up pretty well: “It’s not terrible, but it’s not great.” Slap that onto the poster, Netlfix.

In an alternate Los Angeles, humans exist side-by-side with fantasy creatures like fairies, elves, and orcs. Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is assigned a “diversity hire,” Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc on the force. Nobody wants to work with him. The humans are looking for whatever means they can of getting rid of the orc, and Ward’s superiors are looking for his assistance. Then one night on patrol, Ward and Jakoby come across a nightmarish crime scene. Bodies are burned in place. A woman is stuck in a wall. There’s one survivor, Tikka (Lucy Fry), an elf who has gotten hold of a magic wand. It so happens that magic wands are powerful weapons and only Brights can hold them. Word gets out about their discovery and every group in L.A. is after this powerful item. Ward and Jakoby have to escape gangs, orcs, corrupt cops, and an elf cult leader, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who needs the wand to summon her Dark Lord back to dominate Earth.

For the first 48 minutes or so of Bright I was willing to give it a welcomed chance. The world building from Landis presented enough interesting wrinkles to keep me intrigued. The banter felt believable enough to fit into its desired genre. Edgerton (It Comes at Night) is engaging and charming as a good-hearted orc whose life’s dream is to be a police officer. He is viewed as a traitor by his own kind, so that makes us like him even more for what he’s willing to sacrifice for this precarious position. There’s a personal source of conflict between Ward and Jakoby that is introduced early for them to work through. There are magic police, which is kind of cool. The world feels lived-in with clever details even though it could have used more of that sense of living. Too often it feels like the only difference in this new L.A. are scattered creatures in different locales. Elves are the rich elite. Orcs are the poor and disadvantaged. I could have used more magical creatures in the mix. What about dwarves, wizards, dragons, anything? Still, Landis’ script was providing enough breadcrumbs to carry me along, building up to the wallop of finding the magic wand. It forces Ward to make a startling personal choice that will define the rest of the film. It took a while to get going, but I was still willing to give Bright the benefit of the doubt.

However, it’s after the 48-minute mark that Bright begins its disjointed descent and never truly recovers, disassembling at an alarming rate. What follows is a series of poorly developed, poorly shot action sequences as the characters bump into one violent group after another. The interesting plot development gets put on hold and the weaker elements begin taking greater significance. It wouldn’t be a fantasy film without a great prophecy, which comes into bearing in the most contrived of ways. Speaking of contrived, there is a coincidental rescue late in the second act that made me loudly groan. Then there’s redoubling back to previous locations presumably to save money on set design. Once the movie sets things in motion for the mad scramble for the wand, it just feels like one unrelated sequence after another to keep our characters on the run. Even with the fantastical world building, you’ll be hard-pressed to muster genuine surprise. That’s because all of the later plot turns are readily telegraphed, like the coincidental save. We’re told that only a Bright can handle a magic wand and anybody else that touches it will explode. First off, why doesn’t this make the magic wand a defensive weapon if you know how rare Brights are? If you know idiots are going to have grabby hands, why not slide it toward your enemies? Regardless, knowing that dichotomy, you know one of the two main character will be revealed to be a Bright during a climactic moment, because why else have it? Anticipating payoffs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you can anticipate all of them, then you’re in trouble. The most surprising aspect of Bright is how ultimately it’s still a formulaic buddy copy movie dressed up with some extra fantasy spectacle.

Another weakness that becomes more apparent as the film continues is the characters. Ward and Jokoby are pretty thinly sketched out with a few clarifying details. Ward is the lightly racist archetype who learns to accept his partner’s differences over the course of one long night. He’s pretty indistinguishable from the character Smith plays in the Bad Boys films. I suppose his prejudice and desire to better support his family is enough setup to question whether he’ll follow in the corrupt patterns of his colleagues. But after he makes his choice at that 48-minute mark, it’s like his character growth just stops. He still barks orders, he still quips one-liners, and he makes the big sacrificial gesture, but his character development is iced for a solid hour. Jakoby has more ground to cover and fairs somewhat better as the Jackie Robinson of the orc community. Except this guy seems way too inexperienced, clumsy, naïve, and simply not good at his job. In order to be the first diversity hire, I’m expecting this guy to have to go above-and-beyond to even be considered for a position. It reminds me of Shonda Rhimes quote where she says, as a black woman, “you have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” I didn’t believe Jakoby was the best candidate for shattering that orc-sized glass ceiling. The harassment from the other cops can be painfully juvenile as well, like tacking on a stupid middle school-esque “kick me” sign to his back. He wants to make more of himself and because of that dream he’s shunned by his fellow orcs and distrusted by humans. That perspective should be far more interesting than what we get with Bright.

The supporting characters fare even worse as bodies given momentary activity. Tikka is merely a plot device and not a character. She doesn’t even speak until close to 85 minutes into the movie, and it wasn’t really worth the wait. A toaster could have replaced her and the plot would remain relatively the same. She is the definition of a prop. She has no personality, no agency, and no goal beyond keep the powerful thing away from the villain. Because she’s a Bright she’s one of the few who can wield the magic wand, but even those rare occurrences are underwhelming. If this thing is as advertised, a “nuclear bomb that grants wishes,” then why doesn’t Tikka just utilize it to destroy the villains once and for all or at least help Ward and Jakoby? Poor Fry (The Darkness) just gets yanked around from scene to scene, shivering and generally looking frail. She’s got some killer eyebrows though.

Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) doesn’t have much to work with as the chief villain, Leilah. She’s an acrobatic murder machine who wants to summon the Big Evil Thing of Old, and that’s about it. Rapace does have a naturally elfin-looking face, so it’s solid casting. The other characters, especially the various antagonists, are just slight variations on heavies. No real personalities. No dimension. They’re just a video game stage of slightly different looking goons to be cleared before the next stage. Maybe there’s a larger point about the similar darker impulses all races are tempted by, but I think that’s giving the movie more credit than it deserves.

On that front, the racial commentary of this alternate L.A. is muddled, to say the least. The orcs are obviously meant to take the place of lower-class African-Americans in this newfangled City of Angels. However, what does the movie do with this? The orcs are judged to be troublemakers, prone to violence, and generally subhuman, with several people holding a thousand-year-old grudge over the mistakes of previous orcs. Under Ayer’s murky direction, the orcs easily resemble the black and Latino gangs we’ve seen in many of his police dramas. They’re meant to be an underclass. What does that make black people? There’s a tone-deaf joke in the opening where Ward yells, “fairy lives don’t matter” before swatting the winged nuisance to its death. I guess racism against orcs has replaced all other forms of intra-human racism. Landis’ script takes a hot button issue and drops the ball on making the commentary meaningful. Just think about what Zootopia did with its racial allegory on predators and prey. They took a serious topic and had something to say about it. Landis takes a serious topic and ignores the greater potential. By the end of the film, it feels oddly like Landis just took an old buddy cop story concept and grafted some incidental fantasy elements onto it and called it a full day.

Ayer doesn’t help matters by filming in his Suicide Squad-vision of drizzly grays, cool blues, lens flares, and lots of dim shadows. The very look of the movie is so downcast and the action sequences are too poorly developed and choreographed. The combat is very often close-quartered and the jumpy edits and slippery sense of geography make the brawls practically incomprehensible. The sequences don’t develop organic complications. It’s just the same concept over and over, get to that place, shoot the bad guys before they shoot you, repeat. The action also misses opportunities to connect with the character motivations and to derive mini-goals that can help spice things up. Bright has none of that. Even with the inclusion of magic and magical creatures! The best scene is an attack in a convenience store that gets closest to involving parallel lines of action with some organic consequences related to its specific setting. Otherwise it’s a lot of shootouts in locations you’ve seen in other grimy cop movies (alleys, warehouses, strip bars, etc).

Bright is the most expensive movie in Netflix’s history and they’re already reportedly developing a potential sequel. The world Landis has created has enormous potential. It’s unfortunate that it’s not realized in this first edition. It’s not as bad as some film critics have been harping about but Bright should have been much better. The characters are lacking, the world building feels unfulfilled, the narrative is predictable, the social commentary is simplistic, and the action sequences are dreary and unexciting. I think something like Bright might in the end be intended as a loss leader for Netflix, something they initially lose money on but ultimately draws in new subscribers. It’s almost the same cost for that canceled Baz Luhrmann series, The Get Down (at least got eleven episodes from that). Bright is an underdeveloped genre mash-up that might make you reach for a magic wand of your own, your remote.

Nate’s Grade: C

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