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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+

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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+

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Based on the popular horror anthology for children, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a fun, spooky appetizer for tweens and teens, and those who remember what it was like, as they transition into horror. Set in 1968, we follow a group of marginalized teenagers who come across a haunted book that is literally writing vengeful stories with their names in them. The stories are plucked from the books and brought to wonderful life with ghastly impressive practical makeup effects that eerily mirror the illustrations by Stephen Gammel. I wouldn’t call the movie disturbing or gory or even overly gross, but it can be unnerving at times drawing upon the suspense of someone hiding and/or worrying about what is advancing without recourse. I had some quality squirming in my seat in this movie. It’s a simple yet effective formula that is played well by director André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe). Even when the signature vignettes aren’t on display, I was enjoying spending time with the teenage characters and watching them try and navigate being different in a small town, feeling lost or misunderstood, and really trying to decipher some system of rules with the haunted book. It feels akin to a Final Destination where a small band of characters are doomed and have to out think their supernatural boogeyman before the next one is picked off. It’s just enough that the movie doesn’t feel like it’s losing too much momentum when we have to transition back to the original material after leaving the scary story stars, the monsters. This is an enjoyable throwback to 80s children’s movies that were allowed to be a little creepy, a little odd, a little spooky, and not so safe and mundane. It’s also a fun movie for your more macabre-enchancted youngin’s out there and older adults that remember being macabre-enchanted youngin’s themselves.

Nate’s Grade: B

Dark Iris (2018)

i71 Films is a small collective of filmmakers that came out of nowhere in 2016 for the Columbus, Ohio 48 Hour Film Festival, a yearly timed filmmaking competition, and won several awards. They’ve been flying ever since, and the fact that within two years of essentially being a collective they had a full movie out and available on services like Amazon Prime is ridiculously impressive and inspiring. This is a company that can hustle like few others. They have several other projects in development and I doubt we’ll see them fade from the film community any time soon with the momentum they’re building. With that said, I peeked into their first feature, 2018’s Dark Iris, whose cover looks like something out from the Underworld universe. The description made me think I was in for a Matrix-like sci-fi action thriller of meta-human combat. It’s a genre thriller that doesn’t fully seem comfortable with being a genre thriller, downplaying the elements that would separate it from the pack, and falling back on rote characters, rote action, and rote twists. It’s proof that i71 can make a disposable action movie, but disposable is not necessarily the same as good.

Iris Black (KateLynn Newberry) is a waitress with a bad boyfriend, a creepy boss, and a mysterious woman (Rebekah Hart Franklin) stalking her who may or may not be her long-lost sister. People around her keep winding up dead in ritualistic murders that she seems to know nothing about. The FBI (Marylee Osbourne, Jose W. Byers) begins looking into the unassuming barista that might be more than she seems. Little do any of them know that a secret government program named the Hyde Project gifted 13 individuals with advanced DNA and embedded technology that made them superior hunters. It also made them killers with killer urges. A pair of MI6 agents (Kyle Hotz, Jesi Jensen) is tracking down the living super soldiers and killing them one-by-one, and they believe Iris is their last target.

Look at all these characters fighting our literal lead (in far right) for literal space.

Dark Iris could instantly improve by pruning its overpopulated cast and narrowing its focus. There are far too many characters to keep track of without being given better identifying characteristics. We have Agent Fry, Agent Roman, Agent Dillion, Agent Mooney, Agent Lee, Agent Lance, Agent Adams, two MI6 agents, their boss, his underlings including Simone who has more pictures on the IMDB page than either lead actress, Iris’ friend and fellow put-upon waitress, Iris’ friend’s mom, Iris’s bad boyfriend and bad boss, a coroner, and a team of masked mercenaries, and all of these people are introduced within twenty minutes. That’s before a hilariously gun-toting reverend shows up too. I challenge anyone who watches Dark Iris to tell me what characters were named what and what they can recall about identifying characteristics for those characters beyond physical distinctions (this guy had glasses). Yes you can argue that these characters are not the main characters, with the exception of the MI6 agents figuring prominently, and therefore not necessary for character development or personalities to stand out, but if that was the case then why do we have so many of them eating away at the time that could be spent on the characters that actually do matter? There is a glut of unimportant characters jostling for positioning in this movie. It feels like something I’ve seen in some other local films and that’s the excuse to squeeze in friends and family into a project. The characters aren’t as important as simply cramming your pals into your movie. When you have masked mercenaries or characters intending to do little else but feature as extras, this can work. Every movie needs its background players. But when these needless side characters begin to overcrowd the movie, and literally overcrowding tightly shot location scenes at that, then you have a story problem.

The question begins to arise whose movie this actually is with the split attention, and I fully believe Dark Iris would have worked better if it was almost completely from Ms. Black’s perspective. A bunch of FBI agents picking up clues aren’t as interesting as a woman who is under investigation and begins to doubt her own sanity. By re-framing the entire film perspective to its heroine, Dark Iris would instantly have more mystery and shave away plenty of unnecessary information and characters. Her point of the story is the emotional core but also the most interesting perspective, because without extraneous side characters filling in exposition at every turn, the audience would be learning just as its heroine does, trying to piece together the clues or what is happening and who they could trust. It would also be a better move because Newberry and Franklin (Code 207, A Wicked Breed) are two of the best actors in the film. From a storytelling standpoint, refocusing to have Iris as the driving perspective better personalizes the film and gives it more emotional punch via a distressed woman whose life is falling apart. You’re not going to feel an emotional connection or loss for the dozen FBI characters and vague villains meeting in the shadows. You will feel for an ordinary woman who is going through hell.

Simply put, if you don’t have a lead character that you care about in a world of crazy killers, then it feels like the impetus was to make your own version of Wanted or any late-night action clone that confused style for substance, preening for perception. And if that’s the way you want to go, with a collection of killers, then we need people who have personalities that pop. I’m not saying they need to be broad Batman villains but it would help if more attention was made to consider how to make them full characters rather than Human Holders of Guns. Just because you slap a Russian accent onto one character doesn’t mean she now has a distinctive personality. The better way of doing this is to link characters to theme when possible. If this character represents a specific point of view, then you can better tailor them to that perspective, so that each character can represent something different. Dark Iris suffers because it’s not devoting enough time to the character with the most dramatic potential and it’s not devoting time to making its other supporting characters stand out or connect more meaningfully.

Much of the world-building of this story in the opening text amounts to nothing. We have super assassins with super biology mixed with super computers who then have super urges to kill because they feel like gods. The most we get from this is a lackluster fight scene and some easily duped people who are decidedly less than super. If you’re providing this sort of starting point, there should be some appeal to the dark side, the idea that embracing what makes you special is to fully live, coaxing our nervous heroine who doesn’t feel like she can become who she was born to be if it means succumbing to her baser impulses. There should be characters who present different points of view, who demonstrate the highs of their powers, and act as a temptation for Iris, but Dark Iris has none of this. The entire opening could be rewritten as, “A group of genetic experiments were created, then released, and now the government is looking to clean up its mistakes by eliminating the last living evidence of the project.” Boom, I just saved you multiple screens of text. One would think they would bring back the doctor who created the 13 super killers who then disappeared, but nope. There’s no reason for the science fiction elements to even be here if they are just going to be so readily forgotten and inconsequential.

The action, when it does happen, can be pretty underwhelming. I was willing to forgive the low budget if the filmmakers utilized ingenuity to their advantage. There’s a cat-and-mouse moment in a church, where one character is hiding behind pews, and I was thinking the movie would make use of drawing out the suspense, making smart choices with its shot selections to play with the distance, using sound as a useful tool to maximize suspense. None of this happens. Instead the character pops up and starts firing. Much of the action consists of two people at opposite ends firing guns at one another. The action isn’t tailored to locations or character skills and lacks organic complications to change things up. When the movie does focus on its fight choreography, the camera is so close to the action and the editing is jumbled that it’s hard to even understand what is going on. There was one moment where two people were fighting in the background and somebody got stabbed to death, but I only knew this because of an additional “stab/dying” sound effect that communicated what the scene by itself left vague. If you have the time to showcase a fight, wouldn’t you want to devote a shot for the audience to savor one character triumphing over another, especially if it’s good guy versus bad guy?

I have a theory to possibly explain the slapdash nature of the action and I think it amounts to simply running out of time. The production for Dark Iris has professional lighting (occasionally overdone with certain looks, like a set of window blinds that must be behind the brightest Bat signal) and cinematography. However, I started noticing that many of the scenes consisted of a lot of only two angles alternating, like the filmmakers only had enough time for two shot setups and had to forgo more coverage. There are dramatic reveals that made me wish I had a closer shot on a person’s face to watch their response, or some awkwardly framed angles that made me wish the characters moved to different blocking or there were more options how to visually compose this specific scene. It feels like they only had so many selections to use because they ran out of time. There are more shots and coverage of people arming themselves for battle than typically the battle itself; that equation should be reversed. If the production knew it was limited with its time and locations, I feel like there are clever workarounds, namely thinking through the stakes of each action scene, what its goal is, how to throw in new challenges, and how it can relate to the personal journey of the good guys and reveal the skills of the bad guys. Action doesn’t have to be just a bunch of people repeatedly firing guns and moving to a new spot to repeat the process.

The best pic I could find for Newberry for Dark Iris (2018).

The biggest asset Dark Iris has is its cast and there are three standouts. Newberry (Widow’s Point, Notes from Melanie) is a tremendous talent who provides a great emotional anchor for the story. She’s nervous and alarmed and confused by much of the movie and Newberry sells every scene in a manner that feels appropriate and even natural despite the unnatural circumstances. She draws your attention immediately and creates a connection even when her character’s purposely left in the dark. Another reason I wanted Dark Iris to re-calibrate is because I can see that Newberry has so much more she can offer as an actress, so it would behoove the movie to give her even more challenges. Newberry has risen to prominence in such a short amount of time in the Ohio indie film scene and with good cause. Look out for her name, folks, because she’s going to be famous and deservedly so. A real surprise was Hotz (The Penitent Thief, Operation Dunkirk) who, while not given material to separate himself from the pack, does so thanks to the innate charisma and presence of the actor. He has a weariness to him that tempers his scenes of violence and contemplation. He’s deserving of his own starring action vehicle. And finally, we have Dan Nye (Harvest Lake, Bong of the Living Dead) who wins the award for doing the most with the least. He’s just another one of those many FBI agents, but he becomes the much-needed comic relief. He has a few offhand lines that made me chuckle, but he also gets a big hero’s sendoff, which is strangely played as a dramatic high-point for a character that doesn’t really earn that emotional curtain call. Nye has a fun nonplussed nature to him and little asides that can elevate more mundane moments.

Dark Iris is the first film from i71 Films, and it’s impressively assembled with professional-looking technical aspects and some damn good actors, as well as a story that has plenty of exciting elements, from super spies to special powers to serial killers to psychological disassociation. It’s got the potential to be a fun action thriller to showcase the skills of this up-and-coming production team, but unfortunately Dark Iris cannot fully tap that larger potential. It’s too cluttered with interchangeable characters, the focus needed to be tighter, the action needed to be more distinguishable and given more consideration, the mystery is a bit predictable (the movie is called “Dark Iris” after all and the tagline says she has a “dark secret”), and the story of who is doing what is kept rather vague or undeveloped, as if the filmmakers themselves are silently acknowledging that the story is in service of just making a slick product. The pieces were there; a woman who can’t trust her own senses and memory, a group of elite killers who could tempt her into their amoral lifestyle, a chance at cool and memorable anti-heroes and rogues. The production doesn’t have the desire to embrace exploitation film elements, so we’re left with cool parts of a story that never quite assemble together into a satisfying and engaging whole. Dark Iris serves as proof that i71 Films has unbelievable hustle and determination. I hope their future endeavors also employ more attention to storytelling and making the best use of their available resources.

Nate’s Grade: C-

False Flag (2019)

Imagine the U.S. government is rounding up citizens, detaining them, and robbing them of their rights with the idea of installing a system of fear and compliance. No, it’s not the news on abuses of power via unchecked bodies like ICE, this is the plot of False Flag, a low-budget found footage action movie that happened to film in Ohio and is now widely available online as well as being carried on your friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart shelf. I congratulate them on getting their movie out there to the masses. The finished film has some narrative and execution issues but can still be an enjoyable experience, especially for genre fans of military thrillers. Strap in.

We open with a fringe conspiracy host as the frame story, telling his audience what they’re about to see is real footage compiled together to indict the U.S. government. In the small Ohio town of Madison, brothers Mark (Sean Mount) and Ash (Justin Rose) are feuding with old grievances and new, including Mark getting married to Stephanie (Olivia Vadnais). Ash has brought along his YouTube-eager pal Donny (Andrew Yackel), who is obsessed with recording everything for his fledgling channel. Then all of a sudden there is a high-pitched shriek, military vehicles roll into town, and citizens and protestors alike are rounded up and beaten. Ash, Stephanie, and Donny seek shelter with a conspiracy journalist (Jennifer Andrada) and some local militiamen armed and ready to combat what they viewed as the eventual tyrannical government takeover. Over the course of one long night, our people try and escape and get their story told.

Before I go into further detail on some of the shortcomings of False Flag, allow me to highlight its positive aspects. This is a pretty good-looking movie for being a low-budget action thriller, and the cinematography has a nice color balance to many scenes. A race through a maze of school hallways at night is made all the moodier by the professional aesthetic, and many of the action scenes are pretty solid and staged well. The larger riot sequences and chaos that erupts are coordinated well with the background action giving way to whatever blocking our main characters need. The use of the military vehicles also helps lend to the credence of the “it could happen even here” reality. The acting overall is pretty solid without a bad performance. Surprisingly enough, writer/director Aaron Garrett (Foxcatcher) gives one of the more memorable performances as a local mechanic by day and would-be Rambo when called upon. The movie gets markedly more entertaining when he comes into the picture and is able to even the odds. He has a smoothness to his performance that grabs your attention. Yackel (Swamp Thing) has a pleasant presence and a squirrely demeanor that can be endearing. Andrada (Macabre Manor) stands out early as the on-location correspondent for the Alex Jones fringe TV show. She has an affectation that makes her talk very directly, quoting often, but it counts as a viable personality and a pointed perspective that helps butt up against others.

False Flag is the kind of movie that seems like its intended audience are the doomsday preppers and gun hoarders that envision themselves as a Hollywood action star waiting for the eventual government tyranny to give them their time in the spotlight. This premise can be done with skill but absent that it feels like a misguided wish fulfillment that encourages radical thinking in fringe people. I’m not saying the movie is irresponsible. I’m saying that False Flag exists in the same kind of universe of a “Jade Helm” takeover, where it only makes sense for the people who already think along these lines. At one point one character asks a prepper what’s in it for the government to perform its false flag operation, and he responds, “Global totalitarianism.” What does that even mean? Are the police acting in conjunction with the military? Have the military infiltrated the ranks of small-town police officers? It’s rather nebulous. All we know is that someone is taking over for vague reasons and there doesn’t seem to be enough of them.

Eventually it’s theorized that the government is doing this in a small-town to blame on terrorists and justify further military action. But… why is any of that necessary? The United States public has already accepted the idea of going after terrorists, especially on foreign soil and in the age of drone warfare. The U.S. military doesn’t need more public support to go after this already targeted target. If it’s to blame political activists as domestic terrorists, then this plan sure is sloppy. Nobody in Madison we see attempts to call for help, post their recordings, or even watch TV until seemingly hours after the start of the martial law, which is insane. It takes away from the seriousness if characters aren’t immediately trying to make outside connections. When the characters break into a school where prisoners are being detained in a cage (very reminiscent of our current concentration camps along the border) and there are NO GUARDS whatsoever in this room to watch. This is one incompetent government takeover. There is one moment that I had to stop the film and walk around my home because it simply astonished me (some spoilers to follow). The characters cut open a chain-link fence keeping people inside their detention cage… and the other people… stay put. I guess they realized what an important moment this would be to reunite the brothers and didn’t want to ruin it for the cameras. These people act with no urgency when they can flee, and I am still reeling from this moment.

The very ending tries to flip the script but by that point it feels too late and too confusing. I’m at a greater loss what the whole operation was for, who benefited, and who was playing along. There’s some ire toward media manipulation but it feels too late to switch gears with who the recipient of the film’s condemnation is going to be. There’s a five-minute epilogue that throws everything in doubt and leaves you questioning what you saw, but I don’t know what the supposed agendas are and who is playing who and why. Good luck.

The dialogue is pretty plain, which is fine, but its use of exposition is heavy and rather inarticulate. Exposition is a tricky issue because any writer needs to make it as invisible as possible and think about what is essential and when it can unfold to the audience in a hopefully natural manner. There are easy ways around this like the ole answering machine message that fills in the blanks. Here is a sample from about a half hour into False Flag after the first big riot with police:

Stephanie: “…So your mom’s a doctor?”

Little Girl: “Yeah, so, she’s not home that much. But it’s okay I guess.”

Stephanie: “What about your dad?”

Little Girl: “John… I don’t know. He works for the government as a translator or something like that. He and my mom split up while I was young. We were actually on our way to DC to meet him before all this.”

Stephanie: “Sorry.”

Little Girl: “Don’t be.”

Stephanie: “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Little Girl: “Nope.”

Stephanie: “Must be tough being alone all the time.”

Little Girl: “Not really. I grew up pretty fast.”

Stephanie: “I can see that. You’re a pretty strong girl. How long have you lived in Madison?”

Little Girl: “I know you feel like you have some responsibility to keep me safe or keep my mind off what happened but you don’t. I can take care of myself.”

This example stunned me with how transparent the exposition was, which forced characters to speak like they were more machines built to espouse helpful context. Real people do not blab everything about themselves in case someone may be watching who doesn’t know the key parts of their background. Real people do not talk like every moment is a job interview. The problem with False Flag is that there are too many scenes likes the one above, where characters vomit out the necessary info in such a transparently clunky way that it further breaks the film’s reality.

The found footage conceit provides more problems that are not addressed. Firstly, the nature of found footage means there has been a hidden editor and this is all the more relevant because the showcase for this footage is the Alex Jones-style show, which means someone has intended for it to be broadcast for an audience. This brings up the same questions of why the mysterious editor elected to install a narrative. Why is it important to set up these people like they are characters when the important parts, the government’s supposed false flag entry, is the big deal? Furthermore, why is this mysterious editor splicing in flashbacks from an earlier recording of the two brothers running around in a park? This was cleverly done in 2008’s Cloverfield but that’s because it was taped over a previously existing recording, allowing for the good times of a former relationship to sneak in for contrast. But if the intent is the broadcast and to highlight government abuse, why has the mysterious editor chosen again to bend toward a narrative?

Then there are things that simply break the reality of the found footage conceit, enough that they took me out of the movie and I had to start cataloguing them. The general idea is that we have Donny with a handheld camera and Ash with a body camera attached to his ear like a Bluetooth device, but you better believe every scene has the characters adequately framed, which means Ash is awfully cognizant of how he needs to turn and tilt his head in order to get a workable camera angle from his vantage point. When the camera gets passed to other characters, why do they continue recording? Ignoring even that since the movie needs it to carry on, there are moments that shatter the illusion of found footage, like one of those park flashbacks where we see Mark run into a clearing to help his brother and he sets the camera down not on the ground but on… something. When we saw him running there was no rocks, no trees, nothing to be seen, which means I have no idea what this camera is resting on. The most egregious is a conversation where the camera literally racks focus as the woman is talking. She doesn’t move out of her position and it happens even before she turns around, as if the camera KNEW the attention should be on the people in the distance who Donny was referring to. If you’re going to go the found footage route, things like this cannot crop up.

As far as low-budget action thrillers go, False Flag can sate your moderately checked expectations. It provides some thrills and with a professional presentation and uniformly solid acting. The story is pretty threadbare and the found footage conceit feels too minimally thought through, serving a larger point that ultimately is muddled by its rushed and twisty delivery. I think this premise and even the found footage approach could have been a dynamite combination, but it required a bit more development and consideration. False Flag is not a bad movie and I admire much of its technical grit but it is pretty standard thriller stuff, which means it’s hard for it to distinguish itself against the glut of other low-budget direct-to-DVD action lining the catalogues of streaming and shelves.

Nate’s Grade: C

Huckleberry (2019)

As I’ve been more involved in my local film scene, I’ve gotten to know and befriend many good people and creatives that are following their dreams. My long-standing belief is that any movie is a miracle given the enormous undertaking and collaboration it requires, especially if it’s through the often arcane and contradictory gatekeepers of the studio system in Hollywood. Fortunately, writers and directors just gather what resources they can and make their movies on their own terms rather than waiting. I’ve found that these projects could benefit from sincere and respectful film reviews, and that’s something I can actually contribute to. As with other Ohio film projects, I do happen to know a few people involved in key areas with the movie Huckleberry (currently available for free on Amazon Prime, folks), but I promise to be as objective as possible with any constructive criticism and discussion. It’s an intriguing 77-minute feature with an admirable presentation, good acting, and some plotting missteps that hold it back from hitting its full potential.

In Ohio 1999, Huckleberry “Huck” (Daniel Fisher-Goldman) is trans and living as a man, with the occasional hormone shot via the Internet. He’s living with a foster brother (Yang Miller), aggravating various neighbors and authority figures with his attitude, and not-so-secretly crushing hard on his friend Jolene (Sarah Ulstrup). The problem is she already has a boyfriend, an abusive drug-addict named Clint (Justin Rose) who Huck cannot stand. One night it’s too much for Huck to bear, and he takes it upon himself to provide a reckoning for Clint. However, this confrontation doesn’t quite go as planned and an “unknown attacker” gets back at Huck.

The story of a hero pulled into the spiderweb of a wronged woman in need of protecting is the setup of many an indie thriller and classic Hollywood noir. It’s the scenario of the character getting in over their head and learning that their preconceived notions of the world were naïve. Huckleberry borrows elements from that familiar setup. The direction of the story is very much tied to the lengths Huck will go to protect and/or win over his crush, Jolene. You think this will ultimately create a series of spiraling events that get worse and worse, but that’s also not quite what happens.

Huck is our plucky protagonist unafraid of much, including kissing his crush as his school video project (under different circumstances this act, and his insistence on sharing it to the class knowing Jolene’s potential discomfort, might come across more as creepy). The story does a fine job of establishing a one-sided relationship between Huck and Jolene. She does care for her friend but she’s clearly hesitant about anything beyond platonic, but she doesn’t use Huck’s obvious feelings for overt scheming. It would be easy to have her slide into femme fatale territory and manipulate Huck to take out Clint, but that doesn’t happen. Huck, seeing himself the champion, takes it upon himself to target Clint, and this unrequested intervention actually upsets Jolene and harms Huck’s relationship with her. That was a nice development. By choosing to have Huck incapacitated for a decent portion of the film, Jolene steps into the spotlight. The change in her character is a tad rushed, having to get to a place where she welcomes Huck’s white knight compulsions, but I feel writer/director Roger Hill (Flying Paper) has put together sufficient reasons why she would make her final decision.

This is a low-budget movie that doesn’t feel like a low-budget movie thanks to the admirable professionalism of its presentation and the occasionally stirring cinematography. There were a few moments that made me go, “Wow,” which is exceptionally rare for low-budget films. The photography by Jon Coy (The Turn Out) is gorgeous and makes a painterly use of light. The sets are impeccably chosen as well, making fantastic use of the decaying parts of small-town Ohio to provide a sense of ambience and time and place. There are some judicious shot selections as well, often tethering the camera to a moving object like a car. There’s one shot I thought was really well done where the camera is attached to a shopping cart and we watch Huck place different items inside, each contributing to a bigger, sinister purchasing picture of what lies ahead.

Another sterling facet of Huckleberry is the acting overall. Ulstrup (The Dance of Amal) is a future star waiting to happen. There are several moments that live or die depending upon her line delivery, and she always succeeds, elevating the scene. A tearful confessional late in the movie had me spellbound. She comes across as so natural from scene-to-scene, whether it’s her awkward uncertainty of what to do with her friend’s feelings for her or the hurt and self-loathing she swallows in her abusive relationship. Ulstrup is excellent at hiding the affectations of acting and digging into her character. Fisher-Golden (The Emma Agenda) has an interesting presence and can definitely play to his character’s strengths of know-it-all condescension and coiled anger. The actor’s best moments are when he’s trying to contain the emotions that will spill out. Rose (Super Dark Times) does a fine job conveying a grungy, desperate lowlife who probably knows he’s never going to be cut for a better life than the one he’s eking out. Rose could have gone on autopilot as the “creepy abusive boyfriend” role, but he establishes a, for lack of better word, integrity to the character that reminded me of the better character actors. I could see Scoot McNary (Argo) in this part, and that’s a fine comparison. I want to single out one performer for making the most of it. Consider the No Small Parts Award to Dennis Lee Delaney (Departure), who plays the school principal who clearly has contempt for Huckleberry, referring to him by his feminine birth name. Again, it’s the kind of role that could be a caricature, but Delaney underplays the scene, bringing a greater sense of realism and disdain. At the end of his one scene, I found myself congratulating the actor and hoping casting directors would see this.

Where the movie miscalculates is once Huck is attacked by an unknown assailant. The aftermath takes up maybe a half hour and far too long, which puts the main character in the penalty box and relies upon the established supporting characters to carry the film. This can’t quite work because the supporting cast, with the exception of Jolene, have just existed to serve the protagonist. They don’t feel like they have a real inner life of their own. This makes it even more challenging when the narrative transforms into a “who dunnit?” mystery. The obvious first suspect is Clint, but the movie telegraphs he is not the perpetrator and makes you suspect everyone else, so we’ll get scenes of people acting mysteriously vague and peculiar to keep up the air of mystery. When a character responds to the news of Huck awakening with a look of worry, is that person the culprit? When another character ominously alerts someone that Huck has awoken, it plays like a warning, but ultimately most of these are misdirects. The narrative cannot sustain this extended guessing game because we haven’t gotten to know the supporting characters to the point that we may suspect them. When the eventual culprit is revealed, I literally said seconds before, “Wait, who is this character?” The reveal lacks the impact needed for a mystery because the eventual culprit was so incidental as to be forgotten. Once revealed, I felt like Huckleberry found some renewed life, because now this person had a secret to keep and would they be caught? How far would they go to keep it? If the film were going that route, I would reveal the perpetrator with no mystery early to better luxuriate in that tension of the consequences of this violent act. However, the emphasized mystery doesn’t allow for that, so it places the film in an awkward holding area with characters unable to carry the narrative burden.

There are a few problems with setting the movie in 1999 and one of them is the treatment of being a trans high school student, an important dramatic aspect that doesn’t feel fully explored. Early on, when the movie establishes that our lead character is a trans man, it got my attention a little more, as this is not a perspective often showcased in movies during this time period. I thought it would be a way to make a neo-noir thriller or coming-of-age indie fresh. The problem is that nobody in this Ohio rust belt high school views Huckleberry being trans as any big deal. The only push-back comes from his principal during their hostile meeting. That perspective might work in 2019, after greater trans representation and general cultural understanding, but it feels inauthentic to a Midwestern world of twenty years ago. As somebody who was in high school in the 90s, in Ohio, I can say that any trans student living openly as they felt comfortable would have met some degree of resistance, name-calling, and bullying. The fact that everyone in this high school is so accommodating and understanding is remarkable and remarkably unrealistic.

This also opens up the question over why the filmmakers elected to have Huck be a trans man at all. It doesn’t affect the story in any significant way, beyond maybe one neighbor’s added fury when catching his teen daughter intimate with “another girl.” I suppose you could make the argument that Huck is trying to stake his claim on his identity, on this town, and doesn’t care what people think, but does the character need to be trans to convey this? You could also argue just having the lead character be trans is a positive for diversity and simply having better representation, and that’s true. Part of my disappointment stems from the fact that the story had this really interesting perspective and as executed it feels too peripheral. Huck could just have easily been a cis lesbian and achieved the same effect, or even just been a straight cis male. If you’re going to make your protagonist a figure from a marginalized minority group, often the target of bullying and worse, it feels like a narrative disservice to not make that perspective known. This is a very general analogy, but imagine telling the story of an African-American WWII soldier integrated in the armed services and having every person be oblivious to their race and the potential conflict.

Huckleberry clipped along nicely and had many attributes that I admired, from the crisp photography, professional use of visuals and locations to enhance the story and mood, and the overall good acting. The story is only lesser because there are certain choices that don’t feel as best capitalized, from the main character being trans to the inclusion and overlong attention on a mystery that feels like a diversion at best. Also at no point does any character explain why Huckleberry wants to be called Huckleberry, which seems like a moment tailor-made for 90s-centric indie cinema. The story elements were there for an even more engaging, compelling, and unnerving story but it can’t quite maximize that potential. As a result, Huckleberry is an enjoyable and sincere little movie that was knocking on the door of being great. It’s worth your 77 minutes and I think it points toward bigger and even better things for Hill and Ulstrup in particular.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino has been playing in the realm of genre filmmaking for much of the last twenty years. He’s made highly artful, Oscar-winning variations on B-movies and grindhouse exploitation pictures. There are some film fans that wished he would return to the time of the 90s where he was telling more personal, grounded stories. His ninth movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is Tarantino returning to the landscape of his youth, the Hollywood back lots and television serials that gave birth to his budding imagination. Tarantino has said this is his most personal film and it’s easy to see as a love letter to his influences. It’s going to be a divisive movie with likely as many moviegoers finding it boring as others find it spellbinding.

In February 1969, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to recapture his past glory as a popular TV star from a decade prior. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stuntman, personal driver, and possibly only real friend. Rick’s next-door neighbor happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star and the wife to famed director Roman Polanski. All three are on a collision course with the Manson family.

The thing you must know before embarking into a theater to see all of the 160 minutes of Tarantino’s latest opus is that it’s the least plot-driven of all his movies, and it’s also in the least hurry. This feels like a hang-out movie through Tarantino’s memories of an older Hollywood that he grew up relishing. It’s very much a loving homage to the people who filled his head with dreams, with specific affection given to the life of an actor. Tarantino is exploring three different points of an actor’s journey through fame; Sharon Tate is the in-bloom star highly in demand, Rick Dalton is the one who has tasted fame but is hanging on as tightly as he can to his past image and wondering if he’s hit has-been status, and then there’s Cliff Booth who was a never-was, a replaceable man happy to be behind the scenes and who has met his lot in life with a Zen-like acceptance. Each character is at a different stage of the rise-and-fall trajectory of Hollywood fame and yet they remain there. This isn’t a movie where Rick starts in the dumps and turns his life around, or even where it goes from worse to worse. Each character kind of remains in a stasis, which will likely drive many people mad. It will feel like nothing of import is happening and that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more a collection of scenes than a whole.

What elevated the film was how much I enjoyed hanging out with these characters. Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even when he’s just noodling around there are pleasures to be had. Tarantino movies have always favored a vignette approach, unwieldy scenes that serve as little mini movies with their own beginnings, middles, and often violently climactic ends. An excellent example of this is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds where the moments are brilliantly staged and developed while also serving to push the larger narrative forward. That’s missing with Hollywood, the sense of momentum with the characters. We’re spending time and getting to know them, watching them through various tasks and adventures over the course of two days on sets, at home, and on a former film set-turned-ranch for a strange commune. If you’re not enjoying the characters, there won’t be as much for you as a viewer, and I accept that. None of the central trio will crack Tarantino’s list for top characters, but each provides a different viewpoint in a different facet of the industry, though Sharon Tate is underutilized (more on that below). It’s a bit of glorified navel-gazing for Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood nostalgia. There are several inserts that simply exist to serve as silly inclusions that seem to be scratching a personal itch for the director, less the story. I was smiling at most and enjoyed the time because it felt like Tarantino’s affection translated from the screen. I enjoyed hanging out with these people as they explored the Hollywood of yesteryear.

DiCaprio hasn’t been in a movie since winning an Oscar for 2015’s The Revenant and he has been missed. His character is in a very vulnerable place as he’s slipping from the radars of producers and casting agents, filling a string of TV guest appearances as heavies to be bested by the new hero. He’s self-loathing, insecure, boastful, and struggling to reconcile what he may have permanently lost. Has he missed his moment? Is his time in the spotlight eclipsed? There’s a new breed of actors emerging, typified by a little girl who chooses to stay in character in between filming. Everything is about status, gaining it or losing it, and Rick is desperate. There’s a terrific stretch where he’s playing another heavy on another TV Western and you get the highs and lows, from him struggling to remember his lines and being ashamed by the embarrassment of his shaky professionalism, to showing off the talent he still has, if only given the right opportunity. DiCaprio is highly entertaining as he sputters and soars.

The real star of the film is Pitt (The Big Short) playing a man who seems at supernatural ease no matter the circumstance. He’s got that unforced swagger of a man content with his life. He enjoys driving Rick around and providing support to his longtime friend and collaborator. He has a shady past where he may or may not have killed his wife on purpose, but regardless apparently he “got away with it.” This sinister back-story doesn’t seem to jibe with the persona we see onscreen, and maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s merely a means to rouse suspicion whether he may become persuaded by the Manson family he visits later in the movie dropping off a hitchhiker he’s encountered all day long. The role of Cliff seems to coast on movie star cool. There is supreme enjoyment just watching Pitt be. Watch him feed his dog to a trained routine, watch him fix a broken TV antenna and show off his ageless abs, and watch him navigate trepidatious new territory even as others are trying to intimidate him. It’s Pitt’s movie as far as I’m concerned. He was the only character I felt nervous about when minimal danger presented itself. There’s something to be said that the best character is the unsung one meant to take the falls for others, the kind of back-breaking work that often goes unnoticed and unheralded to keep the movie illusion alive.

There aren’t that many surprises with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as it moseys at its own loping pace. It reminded me of a Robert Altman movie or even a Richard Linklater film. It’s definitely different from Tarantino’s more genre-fed excursions of the twenty-first century. It’s a softer movie without the undercurrent of malice and looming violence. There is the Manson family and Tarantino knows our knowledge of the Manson family so we’re waiting for their return and that fateful night in August, 1969 like a ticking clock. It wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without an explosion of bloody violence as its climax, and he delivers again, but I was shocked how uproariously funny I found the ending. I laughed throughout but as the movie reached its conclusion I was doubled over with laughter and clapping along. There’s a flashback where Cliff and a young Bruce Lee challenge each other to a fight, and it’s so richly entertaining. The phony film clips are also a consistent hoot, especially when Rick goes to Italy. It’s a funnier movie than advertised and, despite its ending, a far less violent movie than his reputation.

As Tarantino’s memory collection, the level of loving homage can start to eat the narrative, and this is most noticeable with the handling of Sharon Tate. The initial worries that Tarantino would exploit the horrendous Manson murders for his own neo-pop pulp was unfounded. Tate is portrayed with empathy and compassion, and as played by Robbie she nearly glides through the film as if she were an angel gracing the rest of us unfortunate specimens. She has a great moment where she enters a movie theater playing a comedy she is a supporting player in. The camera focuses on Robbie’s (I,Tonya) face as an array of micro expressions flash as she takes in the approving laughter of the crowd. It’s a heartwarming moment. But all of that doesn’t make Tate a character. She’s more a symbol of promise, a young starlet with the world at her fingertips, the beginning phase of fame. Even the Manson clan doesn’t play much significance until the final act. Charles Manson is only witnessed in one fleeting scene. I thought Tarantino was including Tate in order to right a historical wrong and empower a victim into a champion, and that doesn’t quite happen. I won’t say further than that though her narrative significance is anticlimactic. You could have easily cut Sharon Tate completely out of this movie and not affected it much at all. In fact, given the 160-minute running time, that might have been a good idea. The movie never really comes to much of something, whether it’s a statement, whether it’s a definitive end, it just feels like we’ve run out of stories rather than crafted an ending that was fated to arrive given the preceding events.

The Tarantino foot fetish joke has long been an obvious and hacky criticism that I find too many people reach for to seem edgy or clever, so I haven’t mentioned it in other reviews. He does feature feet in his films but they’ve had purpose before, from arguing over the exact implications of a foot rub in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman commanding her big toe to wiggle and break years of entropy in Kill Bill. However, with Hollywood, it feels like Tarantino is now trolling his detractors. There are three separate sequences featuring women’s feet, two of which just casually place them right in the camera lens. At this point in his career, I know he knows this lame critique, and I feel like this is his response. It’s facetious feet displays.

When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, if you’re not digging the vibe, man, then there’s less to latch onto as an audience member. It’s a definite hang-out movie reminiscent of Altman or Linklater where we watch characters go about their lives, providing peaks into a different world. It’s a movie about meandering but I always found it interesting or had faith that was rewarded by Tarantino. It doesn’t just feel like empty nostalgia masquerading as a movie. It’s funnier and more appealing than I thought it would be, and even though it’s 160 minutes it didn’t feel long. The acting by DiCaprio and Pitt is great, as is the general large ensemble featuring lots of familiar faces from Tarantino’s catalogue. I do think the inclusion of Sharon Tate serves more of a symbolic purpose than a narrative purpose and wish the movie had given her more to do or even illuminated her more as a character. However, the buddy film we get between DiCaprio and Pitt is plenty entertaining. It might not be as narratively ambitious or intricate or even as satisfying as Tarantino’s other works, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fable for a Hollywood that may have only existed in Tarantino’s mind, but he’s recreated it with uncompromising affection.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Escape Room (2019)

If you’ve ever been looking for a PG-13 Saw movie, then Escape Room might just be the film for you. It follows a group of strangers who have been invited to a next-level escape room, one of those group challenges where people work as a team to solve a series of puzzles to “escape” from a locked room with a variety of dangers. The movie version kicks things up by making the Escape Room essentially Cube, filled with a series of elaborate death traps that pick off our characters outlandish room by outlandish room. The enjoyment of the movie is the curiosity of the rooms and the various challenges. The production design is inventive and impressive for its minor budget. The puzzles aren’t exactly things that an audience can solve in the moment. They mostly involve clues that won’t make sense because we can’t explore the room, so it’s just waiting for characters to solve things and make connections. The fun doesn’t come from the puzzles but more what the rooms will do next. The assorted characters have a personal connection that is flimsy and leads to a late reveal of who is responsible for this wicked game. The movie is fun as you’re watching it as long as you accept that little will make sense. Once it extends beyond the rooms and tries building a mythology and a conspiracy behind the rooms, that’s where Escape Room starts to fall apart. It’s a relatively minor but enjoyable thriller that lives in the moment and, in the future, should find more time to spend in the rooms and the crazy challenges. Much like The Maze Runner, once the characters are outside the maze, I just don’t care. It works enough that I wouldn’t mind more, if the filmmakers get their priorities right.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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