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The Hunt (2020)

hunt_ver2Has there been a movie with worse luck than The Hunt? It was originally scheduled to be released in late August 2019 and was postponed after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Its studio, Blumhouse, pulled the movie out of sensitivity and rescheduled it for March, trying to draft off some of the latent controversy once President Trump caught wind of its liberals-versus-conservatives battle-to-the-death premise and tried to make political hay from it. The marketing highlighted quotes from political figures and writers and asked audiences to judge the controversy for themselves. Flash forward, and the new release date was pretty much the last weekend of theatrical action in 2020. Thanks to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, very few people ventured out from the safety of their socially distant homes to the movies, and it’s only become more dire since. Now just about every wide release has been scuttled from the release date from March into the middle of the summer, and who knows how long this may carry on for. The Hunt may be the last new theatrical movie for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, Universal made their theatrical releases available on demand (this may be an irreversible new reality of distribution) and I watched The Hunt at home. I home hunted, and I’m glad I did. If you’re a fan of Ready or Not and You’re Next, then The Hunt and its shocking violence, demented humor, and political satire might prove appealing.

A group of strangers wakes up gagged in a field. They’re given weapons and then the hunt is on from an unseen force. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is trying to make sense of where she is, what is happening, and how she can escape into safety and who she may be able to trust.

c7f31a20-4d03-11ea-9bfd-a9714bb423baI was consistently laughing throughout The Hunt and amused at its breakneck twists and turns. It’s a film that lets you know very early that it’s willing to go to some dark and twisted places. It throws a lot of characters immediately into the grinder, as you go from following one person who is ultimately slain to another person who eventually meets the same fate, and it creates a desperation of trying to find an anchor. It also makes it feel like anything can happen at any time, that whatever might seem normal could really be hiding a dangerous reality. It’s the kind of movie that isn’t below throwing a grenade down someone’s pants. It has definite satirical sights but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable dark and thrilling little movie. Once we settle on our main heroine, the new joy becomes her ability to see through the facades of different scenarios and fight back, again and again. It’s a wonderfully executed setup of giving us a very capable fighter who is constantly underestimated and then watching her opponents toppled. Each new scenario gives us someone to root for and a new mini-boss to foil. The film becomes a series of escalating payoffs tied to the smartest person making others pay for their mistakes.

I always thought the anger that conservative pundits, and Trump, assailed The Hunt with was misplaced considering that, given the premise, it seemed very much like the liberal elites were the villains. For most of the first act, this is the case, as we’re dropped right into the mix and left to learn on our own much like the hunted conservative characters. We are put in their shoes and don’t even see who may be hunting them until 15 minutes in. For the opening of the movie, it’s like the beginning of the Hunger Games. What is this crate? Why is it filled with weapons? What’s the deal with the pig? It’s a game that you’re trying to learn the rules of while bullets are whizzing by heads, and sometimes splattering into them too. Unquestionably, our allegiance is with these vulnerable people trying to make sense of this madness and survive. We see their humanity. When they do finally encounter their predators in disguise, the liberals can barely conceal their contempt and prejudices. If anyone is actively rooting for the predators after the first act, then they haven’t been paying attention or were too far gone with empathy.

However, the movie does start to take a turn the longer we spend with the hunted conservative characters, all but one not given official names (the list on IMDB cites names like Staten Island, Yoga Pants, and the parenthetically-enabled, (Shut the F*** Up) Gary). They begin to play into the same overblown prejudices and negative stereotypes of their across-the-ideological-aisle peers. As The Hunt continues, it becomes more and more apparent that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (HBO’s The Leftovers) have crafted a political satire that takes aim at both sides (more on this specific aspect later). Eventually the real target reveals itself to be extremism and how it can cloud one’s judgement and ability to see other people on human levels. There’s a late scene where a conservative figure confronts the liberal designer of the Hunt, and they get into a circular argument over which side is responsible for the creation of this death game. It’s a hilarious blame game but also emblematic of what happens when people try to play on the same level as conspiracy theorists who distort reality to their pre-selected biases. Sometimes in politics you need to fight fire with fire and sometimes that extra oxygen only makes things worse.

11hunt-superJumbo-v2Now The Hunt does have an issue with its “both sides are to blame” approach and that’s the false equivalency of the danger of right-wing and left-wing conspiracy clans. Right-wing militants are the ones saying Sandy Hook was a hoax with crisis actors, that Jade Helm was a military plot to take over the states, that scientists are in a cabal to bring down the petroleum industry, and cooping Americans up from COVID-19 to damage Trump, that immigrants are bringing crime and disease into the United States, and other such nutjob ideas. While left-wing extremists can be callous and have their own science denial problems (GMOs, vaccines), they aren’t the ones taking arms, storming federal buildings, sending pipe bombs in the mail, killing anti-Nazi protestors with cars, and shooting brown-skinned strangers in a Wal-Mart parking lot. One of these two ideological sides seem far more likely to support dangerous extremism than the other, especially with a man in the Oval Office who seems to wink and nod at these reactionary elements in approval. While the “both sides are bad” approach to satire allows The Hunt and its filmmakers more ground to market their movie to a wider audience sick of extremism, it’s also a dubious false equivalency that deserves to be called out.

Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s GLOW, Stuber) is the star of the movie and a force of nature. She’s capable, cunning, disarmingly physical and perceptive, and she creates wonderfully bloody havoc. She is a delight and her one-upping her opponents never gets old. She is no-nonsense and blunt, and her efficiency is admirable and highly entertaining. Gilpin is a surprise in badass mode, but she makes it her own with style. A late Act Three fight is brutal as it goes from room to room, smashing everything in sight. It goes on for so long that the fighters start to get fatigued, pleasantly reminding me of the excellent fight choreography of 2017’s Atomic Blonde. It’s a satisfying final confrontation and doesn’t find a contrived way to hold back her formidable ability.

106072660-1565465049545the-hunt-gal-1-5d407ec97db7c-1croppedThe Hunt might have been cursed with bad luck but it also might have the distinction of being the last new movie in theaters in what is proving to be an increasingly challenged year of content delivery. It’s certainly not going to be a film for everyone despite its aim at centrism. I was entertaining by the script’s constant knack for surprises and upending my expectations, of laying out dominoes and then laying waste to said dominoes. Gilpin is a star in the making and a terrific lead. It’s a movie that can get people talking by the end, debating its satirical messages, but it can also just be a fun, nasty little movie that will make you hoot in delight with each violent twist. I’m glad The Hunt could finally be judged on its own merits rather than the presuppositions of others. There might be a lesson in there somewhere.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Invisible Man (2020)

Does everyone remember the Dark Universe, the attempted relaunch of classic Universal monsters that were going to be played by the likes of Javier Bardem, Angelina Jolie, and Johnny Depp? It’s okay if you do not, though the stars got paid regardless. It was all going to be kicked off with Tom Cruise in 2017’s The Mummy, and one under-performing movie later the entire cinematic universe was discarded by spooked studio bosses. But IP will only stay dormant for so long, and so we have a new attempt to relaunch the same horror figures that first terrified audiences almost 90 years ago. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has a long career in genre filmmaking, having started the Saw and Insidious franchises with James Wan, but it was 2018’s bloody action indie Upgrade that really showed what he could do as a director. He was tapped by powerhouse studio Blumhouse to breathe life into those dusty old monsters, going the route of lower budget genre horror rather than blockbuster action spectacles. The Invisible Man is an immediately gripping movie, excellent in its craft, and proof Whannell should be given the remaining monsters to shepherd.

Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) has recently run away from her long-time abusive boyfriend, Adrian (House on Haunted Hill’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Just as she’s taking comfort in friends and her sister, Adrian takes his own life and lists Cecilia as the sole beneficiary, but there’s a catch. She must undergo a psych evaluation and be cleared. Cecilia is ready to move on with her life and start over but she can’t shake the feeling that Adrian might not be dead after all and is still watching her.

Whannell has grown as a genre filmmaker and has delivered a scary movie that is confident, crafty, and jarringly effective. From the intense opening sequence, I was generally riveted from start to finish. The shots that Whannell chooses to communicate geography and distance so effectively allow the audience to simmer in the tension of the moment. Whannell’s visual compositions are clean and smart. Another sign how well he builds an atmosphere of unease is that I began to dread the empty space in the camera frame. Could there be an invisible man hiding somewhere? Could some small visual movement tip off the presence of the attacker? Much like A Quiet Place taught an audience to fear the faintest of noise, The Invisible Man teaches its audience to fear open space. It places the viewer in the same anxious, paranoid headspace as Cecilia. It’s also a very economical decision for a horror filmmaker, training your audience to fear what they don’t see. And there is a lot more in a movie that is not seen. The suspense set pieces are so well drawn and varied yet they all follow that old school horror model of establishing the setting, the rules, and just winding things up and letting them go, squeezing the moment for maximum anxiety. It’s reminiscent of the finer points of another old school horror homage, The Conjuring franchise. At its most elemental, horror is the dread of what will happen next to characters we care about, and The Invisible Man succeeds wildly by placing an engaging character in shrewdly designed traps.

I jumped even during its jump scares and that happens so rarely for me. The jump scares don’t feel cheap either, which is even more impressive. They’re clever little visual bursts of sudden spooks, and they feel just as well developed as the other scary set pieces, complimenting the nervous tension and compounding it rather than detracting. There is one moment that happens so fast, that is so unexpected, that I was literally blinking for several seconds trying to determine if what I was watching was actually transpiring. It was so shocking that I was trying to keep up, and yet, like the other decisions, it didn’t feel cheap. I’m convinced this one “ohmygod” buzz-worthy moment will go down in modern horror history, being discussed in the same vein as the speeding bus in the first Final Destination film. I have this level of praise even for the jump scares.

The movie doesn’t soft-pedal the abuse that Cecilia endures, nor does it exploit her pain and suffering for tacky thrills. This is a socially relevant reinterpretation of the source material. The movie examines toxic masculinity and gaslighting but with a supernatural sci-fi spin, but it never loses the grounding in the relatable plight of its protagonist. Cecilia is a character that has suffered trauma that she cannot fully even process, so that even when she’s on her own, she’s still discovering the depth of how exactly this very bad man has reshaped her perception and fears. We don’t need to see Adrian explicitly abuse Cecilia to understand the impact of his toxic relationship. Within minutes, Whannell has already told us enough with how terrified and cautious she is when making her late-night escape from the bed of her sleeping monster. Her all-consuming fear is enough to fill us in. This is a woman who is taking a big risk because she feels her life depends upon it. Later, nobody believes her fantastic claims about her ex still haunting her and posing a threat, convincing her it’s all in her head, and some of them questioning whether the abuse was made up as well. The correlations with domestic violence and gaslighting are obvious, yes, but this dramatic territory is given knowing sympathy and consideration from Whannell. It’s not something tacked on simply to feel bad for our heroine, or to feel relevant with headlines of monstrous man accounting for years of monstrous actions preying upon women. It’s a complete reinvention of a classic to suit our times as well as taking advantage of what that classic source offers. This is how you can adapt stories we’ve seen dozens of times to feel fresh.

Much of the film rests upon Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and she is truly fantastic. We’re living in an exciting new era where horror movies have reclaimed their social relevance, and they are providing talented actresses to unleash Oscar-caliber performances (Florence Pugh in Midsommar, Lupita Nyong’o in Us, Toni Collette in Hereditary, Ana Taylor-Joy in The Witch). The role requires Moss to demonstrate much through a series of emotional breakdowns. It’s not just getting glassy-eyed and looking scared. Cecilia is a survivor struggling to regain her security while also being heard, and her breaking points of sanity and desperation cannot be one-note. Moss is no stranger to enduring the indignity of condescending men from her TV roles, and she was beautifully unhinged in a memorable moment from Us. She’s the perfect actress to take Whannell’s character and give credence to her vulnerability, uncertainty, and inner strength.

The movie isn’t perfect but it accomplishes a clear majority of its artistic aims with confidence and style. It’s too long at over two hours. I’m glad Whannell doesn’t waste too much time whether or not Cecilia believes her bad man has gone invisible. The supporting characters are a bit underwritten and utilized primarily as Sympathetic Figures Turning to Concerned Figures and then as Potential Targets. This extends to the relationship between Adrian and his brother (Michael Dorman). There has to be more that could have been explored there, especially as it relates to Cecilia. The musical score is heavy on loud, ominous tones and rumbling interference. The special effects are sparingly used, and the invisible suit was initially a design that made me shake my head. In practice, it actually looks pretty interesting and threatening. There is one misstep that feels glaring. Before the end of the movie, there have been a few “hey what about… ?” instances, but they were easy to put out of mind. Whannell drops one major announcement late in the movie but seems to gloss over the extra leverage it provides Cecilia, and her inability to capitalize on this turn of events seems odd considering her antipathy for her attacker as well as the weakness that she can exploit.

As I walked out of my screening for The Invisible Man, I kept reviewing just how many different moments, elements, sequences, and choices added up to a thoroughly suspenseful, satisfying, and entertaining trip at the movies. Whannell has a natural feel for genre horror as well as how to treat it in an elevated manner where it can say real things about real issues while also doing a real good job of making you really anxious. Intense from the first moment onward, this is a streamlined, finely honed horror movie for our modern age. Even the jump scares work! This is already turning into a promising year for indie horror, and The Invisible Man is the first great film of the new year and the new decade.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Assistant (2020)

Jane (Julia Garner) is a young woman serving as an assistant to a high-profile film and TV producer, the kind of man with plenty of pull within the industry. She’s the first one into the production office and the last one out at night. Little by little, a larger picture forms of her temperamental, vindictive, and lecherous boss, especially as young women seeking to get ahead in the entertainment world as carted before him like sacrificial offerings. What will she do when the offending evidence becomes too much to ignore?

Where The Assistant lost me was in its lack or urgency with its storytelling. This is the slowest of slow burns, and it’s understandable, to a point, why this approach is the more realistic path. We’re watching the decades of inertia that make anyone standing up to harassment and abuse very difficult to find any traction or credibility. It’s much easier to just shrug it off, say “that’s just the way this awful man is,” laugh it off like some of his peers, ignore it like others, or compartmentalize, justifying your complicity as symptomatic of just how the industry works. I was waiting for the slow reveals to finally form a picture for our protagonist and push her into action, a desire to do something or say something about what she can no longer ignore or assist. The movie gets us to this point and, in its best scene, smacks her down for even seeking out this oversight. From there, the movie just becomes another repeat of what happened before, with more clues about the bad behavior of Jane’s boss, but it’s more of the same and then it just ends. I think writer/director Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet) was going for ongoing ambiguity whether or not Jane ultimately decides to leave her entry-level position or swallows her moral turpitude. However, there is a frustrating difference between an ending that is openly ambiguous and one that feels incomplete and lacking. After everything I went through, a little more definition by the end could have made the slog of work details more palatable.

This subject is bursting with pertinent urgency and social commentary and I feel like this movie is just missing so many important things to say and do in the name of misplaced indie understatement. Understatement can be fitting as an approach to real-life dilemmas but The Assistant is understated to its unfortunate detriment, traversing from subtlety into somnolence. More time is spent establishing the mundane details of Jane’s office duties than the harassment and protection afforded to her boss. I was expecting to collect little telling details, like the male assistants’ patterned ease of composing “apology e-mails” for whatever indignation the boss feels, but we’re absent a certain momentum throughout. The first thirty minutes is packed with moments like Jane making coffee, Jane tidying an office, Jane getting food, Jane answering phones, Jane microwaving a cheap dinner. We never see her at home from the moment she leaves in the opening of the film. It’s like the movie is saying she lives at the office or must if she is to get ahead in a broken system of people using people. The people passing through are superficial to us, never more than pretty faces, or important names coming and going on the peripheral. I was feeling crushed by the obsessive details of this work routine. I expected to establish a pattern, establish a baseline, and then move from there, forcing change or at least reflection. The mundane details are meant to convey the soul-crushing nature of Jane’s job, being on the bottom of an industry she’s desperate to break into, and how un-glamorous the life of the little people can be. But she’s also a gatekeeper of sorts for the line of future victims encountering her bad boss. There’s a degree of culpability there, and it’s never fully explored because of how underplayed every moment and every scene comes across, choosing mundanity over drama. I would not begrudge any viewer if they tuned out The Assistant after the first half hour of work.

There is a noticeable feeling of dread and discomfort in the movie, but without variation or escalation it feels almost like a horror movie where we’re stuck with the person on the other wall of the action just briefly overhearing things. Imagine Rosemary’s Baby but if you were one of the neighbors just wondering what was going on. There’s an important message here and the point of view of an up-and-coming young woman as the assistant to a Harvey Weisntein-esque monster and her moral quandary of how far to ignore and how much she is willing to suffer is great. That’s a terrific, dramatically urgent starting point, and yet The Assistant is too muted and padded. There’s a remarkably thin amount of drama during these 85 minutes, with the more intriguing and disturbing action kept in the realm of innuendo and suspicion. It makes the final movie feel like the real movie is on the fringes of what we’re seeing and we just need to nudge back to the drama.

There is one fantastic scene in The Assistant and it happens at the end of Act Two, and that’s when Jane finally seeks out the HR rep, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen). You sense just how much she wants to say but how much she feels the need to still be guarded, so minute by minute she tries a few more scant details, all that’s needed to limit her vulnerability and exposure. Wilcock seems like he might just take her words seriously, and then he interrupts to answer a phone call, and it’s an obnoxiously unimportant call and his behavior merges into just “one of the guys.” From there, he turns the heat on Jane, laying out her circumstantial claims and questioning what her future plans are and if this is the best course of action to see those plans through. It’s the company line sort of pressure and you feel Jane retreat within herself as soon as this potential ally becomes just another cog in a system to enable abusers. Garner (Ozark) is never better than in this scene, where the understated nature of the film, and her performance, really hits the hardest. It’s the quiet resignation and heartbreaking realization that the system is designed to protect itself. I wish the concluding twenty minutes had more of the drama that this scene points to as its direction.

The Assistant had a lot of things going for it as a queasy indie drama and it’s still well acted with searing details and a strong sense of authenticity. I feel like that authenticity, however, gets in the way of telling a more compelling and affecting story. I’m here to see the pressure, torment, and decision-making of a young woman put in an unenviable position, and what I was given was an hour of office tasks and eavesdropping. It’s got its moments but it left me wanting more.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Confined (2019)

The first thing you need to know about the Ohio indie Confined is that, according to its IMDB page, its budget was $2,500. That number changes everything about how you gauge the success level of this indie thriller, or maybe it shouldn’t. The very fact that these people made a movie and delivered it to a medium that is widely available with Amazon Prime, that itself could be considered a victory among indie filmmaking, especially if the initial investment is as low as the reported budget. That’s a victory for a filmmaker, but it’s not exactly enough for the viewer. Just because a group of people made a movie doesn’t mean it’s automatically worth the time of the viewer to watch it. There are certain technical elements that you’ll have to be very charitable about more than likely, and Confined suffers from certain deficits in lighting, editing, and aspects that a more robust budget could have afforded. If harsh shadows and an intermittent sound mix is going to be a deal-breaker for a viewer, this movie will be rejected before given a chance on its story and execution. I think that’s the best way to gauge the success of the project, namely the entertainment value that it offers, because creativity is not really budget dependent. A writer does not need a certain dollar figure to tell a compelling story, and any filmmaker can have excusable lapses in technical merits as long as I’m glued to the story. That’s why movies such as Clerks (27K) and El Mariachi (5K) and Primer (7K) and Paranormal Activity (11K) were able to make a splash and give their filmmakers careers. Creativity trumps all else, and if you have a high-concept, thrilling experiment, a strong cinematic voice, or a fearless energy that becomes infectious, much will and can be forgiven with shortcomings.

Shot around Cincinnati and released in 2019, we follow a married couple, Donnie (John French) and Sara Jeter (Caitlin Drance), who are accosted by an angry man, Noah (Chris Dettone), who accuses them of being responsible for the death of his wife from an opening car accident. Noah kidnaps Sara and sends a threatening message to her husband that he has one week to find her. He must “play by the rules” of Noah’s game or there will be dire consequences. Donnie cannot go to the police so he seeks out assistance from his brother to uncover who Noah is and capable of.

The problem with Confined is that at its core it’s really indistinguishable from any other mediocre genre thriller that doesn’t exercise your thinking muscles. Given the budget limitations, starting with a cat-and-mouse game is a smart way that can get around the inability to include larger set pieces. The trick is going to hinge upon whether or not the movie creates a realm of believability that counters the encroaching and nagging doubts from its limited means. Confined disappointingly errs by rolling with the conventions and clichés of schlock thrillers rather than rising above them. Because of this determination, it makes Confined feel like a less-polished version of a mundane thriller. I think the premise has promise but its overall execution proves too lacking to save the final film.

Confined never truly recovers from its handling of its super genius villain, Noah. At no point did I feel like this guy was really scary or threatening. Dettone (Fury: Redux) is fine as an actor but he’s not exactly imposing as a skinny, scruffy dude. Perhaps he was modeled after Heath Ledger’s Joker, a criminal mastermind who always out-thinks his opponents and laughs at their physical strength advantage being neutralized through his cunning. He says he always has a plan and he’s always one step ahead, but I never fully believed Noah because he never seems menacing. It was a mistake introducing him as a hectoring restaurant waiter needling Donnie and Sara. That’s not exactly a position that strikes fear, even after he tells off his manager who then comps the meal. He sneaks into their vehicle and chloroforms Sara first, lightly punching Donnie, who seems to lack any urgency whatsoever watching a strange man drug his wife. He then gets drugged after. That’s another mistake. Noah takes his time drugging both parties and they just let him. Throughout the movie, characters talk a big game of how devious and manipulative Noah is, even his history of getting dismissed from the FBI, but we lack compelling evidence onscreen. I mean he repeatedly goes back to this storage locker area and leaves the locker open and minimally guarded. He says he has contingencies for contingencies, but he then has people murdered in broad daylight in public and seems to not cover his tracks at all if somebody like Donnie could follow. There’s also the overly generous timetable of rescue (7 days) and the general vague nature of his “rules.” Holding people for up to a week brings about logistic questions, like bathrooms, water, etc. Now times that by three because he’s kidnapped three victims (who never plot together for insurrection). As a would-be Machiavellian villain, Noah leaves a lot to be desired and so much is on him.

Confined could have significantly benefited by re-framing its perspective, so instead of Donnie having to save his wife, it was Sara having to save her husband. That’s because midway through the movie, writer/director William Chaffin (Streets of Syndicate, Devil’s Point) reveals that Donnie had an affair. He says he regrets it, and we’re never given much information to contradict that, but it becomes a cudgel that our villain uses to berate Donnie over whether he really loves his wife after all. However, the more dynamic version would flip the scenario and place Sara, an attorney, into this unlikely position of having to save her husband. It would prove even more devious if Noah was then unloading new revelations about her husband that paint him in an unfavorable light, like an ongoing affair with another woman. Then as her investigation got closer, and as time was winding down, she would be processing whether or not she really knew who her husband was, what is forgivable, and whether or not he deserved her intervention. It’s an immediately more dramatic and personal perspective for the lead of a movie rather than Donnie’s supposed redemption. It’s the smarter route to go on a low-budget thriller needing to stake its place with a point of interest that could hook an audience to keep watching for the entire 78-minute running time. There is a four-minute scene where a man looks at photographs and arranges them. Four minutes!

The assorted supporting characters don’t seem to know what they’re doing in this movie. There is a plurality of characters that greet Donnie with a pointed gun, which further strains the credibility level. The additional hostages and their related family members are useless to the story and simply disposable bodies to kill before Sara’s time is up. Donnie’s brother is a glorified exposition device and a strangely motivated figure after a later twist. That’s another factor where Confined seems born from the ilk of direct-to-DVD thrillers, forcing twists for shocking purposes but not providing enough material for them to be really felt. There are a few relatively surprising deaths but because the characters are disposable, underwritten, or simply oblique, it becomes less shocking and more shrug-inducing because what else was going to happen to these people? The final twist feels too forced and yet also wholly predictable. For the movie to have one final memorable moment, there will be a betrayal, but it doesn’t feel earned with what transpires. The ingredients are there to set it up where it feels like an organic development, but under this version of the story, this final twist feels like a final gasp to imitate mediocre thrillers to its end.

Confined is the work of several hard-working individuals and it can be enjoyed in some capacity as a low-budget imitation of the kind of movies you’d see starring, say, C. Thomas Howell or some guy who starred in a Universal Soldier sequel who isn’t Michael Jai-White (Black Dynamite forever!). There is nothing wrong with fun genre thrillers that aim to be nothing more than fun genre thrillers, and this can be accomplished on any budget, even one as tiny as $2,500. It all depends on the storytelling and maximizing the intrigue and development to mask any limitations of budget and technical know-how. If you can’t forgive the technical issues, you’ll never accept whatever charms that Confined has to offer, but the storytelling choices limit the entertainment takeaways. The villain is too unconvincing and powerful without being clever or terribly memorable, the choice of lead perspective feels limited and with a better and more personally compelling figure right there for the choosing, the supporting characters feel unimportant, the story often resorts to telling rather than showing, and the twists are often forced and without larger impact given the underwritten characterization. Would a bigger, more professional budget have solved any of these lagging creative issues? Maybe. Maybe not. Confined is currently available for viewing on Amazon Prime and that itself is its earned victory.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Gentlemen (2020)

I’ve been hoping, wishing, praying for Guy Ritchie to return back to his screwball Cockney crime pictures of his splashy beginning, but the further and further I get from 2001’s Snatch, the more I think it’s a luxuriously madcap exception. The Gentlemen is a closer return to form than 2008’s RocknRolla, but it’s still a long way off from early Ritchie. The recognizable elements are there, from the convoluted story with twists and turns, the non-linear storytelling lapping and overlapping itself, the comical brushes with sudden violence, the colorful array of criminal characters, and a sense of style that seems all over the place. We follow Matthew McConaughey as a marijuana titan looking to get out of the business, though there are threats old, new, and “just business” that are trying to take his empire from him before his exit. The biggest problem with The Gentlemen is how clever it feels like it needs to be and how few characters there are to find interesting. Snatch, by contrast, forever contrast, was practically a Dick Tracy rogues gallery of all its memorable and unpredictable characters. These feel pretty rote, even our heroes, and the minority characters get even shorter shrift. The plot is also more complicated than it needs to be with an extended meta-textual layer of a lecherous Hugh Grant tabloid journalist pitching the story like it was a movie (irony: it is a movie!). It took maybe 45 minutes before I felt like the story was finally picking up momentum and stakes, and by the end, it felt like Ritchie was just extending his story with another twist and wrap-up, and then another twist and wrap-up, like the outer edges of the movie cannot be contained and somehow it’s still even going. It’s like Ritchie doesn’t know when to walk away from his own party. Because of these things the pacing is wonky and there are more than a few tedious stretches. Colin Farrell has some amusing moments but should have been the main character as a boxing trainer who takes a shine to try and reform local hoodlums. McConaughey’s character is too boring and always wins too easily, which makes him more boring. The Gentlemen is a C-level rendition of Ritchie’s best material, and Snatch only shines even brighter with each new miss.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Les Miserables (2019)

I can’t help but feel that France made a mistake when they selected their official entry for the 2019 Oscars. Les Miserables is a perfectly fine, if not good, cop thriller with a social urgency bubbling under the surface to provide added depth, but it’s no Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which was sumptuous and one of the best films of the year. Regardless, this movie follows a new officer on his first day transferred to his new unit in the ghettos of Paris where his experienced partners have harassed the mostly Muslim immigrants to the point of simmering community resentment. Then, in the middle of a pitched crowd of kids fighting the officers, an accident happens, the incident is recorded via a drone camera, and different factions are racing to get a hold of that footage and its inherent leverage. Les Miserables has a docu-drama cinema verite visual approach and plenty of authenticity in its details of beat cops, a minority community under surveillance and mistrust, and the corrupting influence of power. It’s an efficiently made thriller with some potent drama. However, it takes way too long to get going. That drone incident doesn’t happen until an hour into the running time, beyond the halfway point. Until then it’s setting up the various characters and grievances and starting to test our new transfer with how comfortable he will be accepting the borderline behavior of his fellow officers. I really felt like once the drone incident hit the rest of the movie would be off like a shot, a race to the finish, and it’s just not. It concludes too quickly and then introduces a revenge assault that made me yell loudly, and profanely, at my TV when it faded to black without any legitimate ending. I think writer/director Ladj Ly is going for the ambiguity of whether or not these characters are in their “corrupt” and “lost” boxes that society has forced them into, whether they will have their humanity stripped away to become another statistic in an ongoing struggle, but I don’t think a non-ending helps his cause. It makes the movie, already feeling misshapen in structure, feel incomplete. Ending on a quote by Victor Hugo is not the same. Les Miserables is a finely made thriller but at least Hugo’s version had an actual ending.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Underwater (2020)

It may be rather derivative but Underwater is a solid genre thriller that is streamlined to deliver an enjoyable 90-minute ride. You start off right in the middle of conflict, as we follow a group of undersea scientists and workers trying to escape from a deep sea drilling station under attack. The movie is atmospheric and effective because that deep underwater is basically like pitch black night. As they stumble from one clearly defined and varied set piece to another, the movie plays into the elemental fear of the dark, coupled with a rising claustrophobia. Kristen Stewart is genuinely terrific as a steely action leading lady and the other supporting roles, rounded out by the likes of Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, John Gallgher Jr., and Jessica Henwick, create a cast of characters that I was rooting for even if they aren’t exactly fleshed out. It’s a trade-off. More time could have been spent finding room for added characterization and history, but when we know the majority of these people are slated to die from monsters, it feels like the movie made the better choice to jump into the thick of things. Yes, this is a monster movie, as the drilling potentially unsettled an unknown species, and their creature design is nice and creepy. There’s a wonderful moment where a hungry monster swallows a person whole, like a snake unhinging its jaw to consume an antelope. In Act Three, Underwater gets even bigger in its scope of the threat, and I won’t spoil the circumstances but, suffice to say, it approached epic. For a PG-13 monster thriller released in January, the usual dumping ground of studio losers, this is a far better movie and a far more entertaining experience than you would be lead to believe. It’s nothing spellbinding but there should always be room for smart, effective B-movies performed with grit and acuity. It looks like it was based on an anime, from the setup to the monsters to especially the design of the heavy undersea suits that look like mech armor, but no. This is an original film. Well, it’s an original story building off the foundation of other movies, mostly from James Cameron. Underwater is a slickly made, tense, atmospheric little thriller that is worth the dive.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Countdown (2019)

I have history with Countdown. Nothing personally with this movie written and directed by Justin Dec but because of the concept, a killer countdown ticking down to a specific person’s ultimate demise. In 2015, a screenwriting pal of mine Joe Marino and I were developing a TV series pitch for… a mystery involving a website counting down to the specific second of specific people’s deaths. We even called it… “Countdown.” Our pitch, which we presented to a producer and, as far as I know, never got further than that, would have opened bigger and bigger, starting with a mysterious slasher killer on a college campus that opens up to, eventually, a self-aware machine arranging life-and-death judgements and manipulating technology to see it through. I still have the pitch document and, if I do say so, it’s not bad. I don’t hold any suspicion with Dec and the filmmakers behind this version of Countdown. Anyone can independently come up with the same high-concept premise, it’s just funny to me the similarities between the two. It’s also unfortunate because, after having seen this 2019 Countdown, that there won’t be any other versions of this worthwhile premise.

Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail) is a nurse who is still coming to terms with her mother’s tragic death, her feelings of guilt over the accident that caused it, and being harassed by her boss (Peter Facinelli). Her younger sister downloads a new cool app that predicts when a user will die. It’s only a countdown timer and some people get ninety years and others get three days. Quinn tries deleting the app, even buying a new phone, but it cannot be stopped, and she’s now having strange visions and meeting up with other users who fear the app’s threats are very real.

There’s a reason Countdown almost kind of works. The premise has power. It’s a modern mash-up of The Ring and Final Destination, with a technological trap that curses the user like The Ring and then as the seconds tick closer it becomes a paranoid guessing game of what could befall the victim, much like the sneaky appeal of the Destination movies. This is all evident in the film’s opening eight-minute prologue, which is actually, genuinely a good watch. Had Countdown merely consisted of this opening segment, it could have been an enjoyable short film. It establishes its premise, some degree of rules, then simmers in the dread, and produces a few solid creepy moments and a clever conclusion that signals what Plan A had been for the victim’s demise. It’s got enough punch and dread that I could see it performing well on a fest circuit.

The problem comes when the movie tries to arrange a reasonable explanation for all the supernatural spookery. The mystery of the unknown, a haunted app, is going to be better than uncovering the secrets behind the app and its “terms of agreement.” The mystery behind the app is less interesting to watch than the question of how a character is going to die, which is why this would work better in a smaller time frame like as a short where it plays its trick once. The killer app cites breach in agreement terms if users “alter their acceptance of fate.” It’s legally vague but could basically apply to any time any person cancels plans (an introvert’s worst nightmare come true). This is a silly notion because why is a magical phone app so particular about plans? Then there’s the moment where we get the specs on the data for this app and it’s… bigger than expected (“Like a whole season of Game of Thrones on your phone”). I guess that’s slightly unexpected but who cares? It’s little things like this that start to break down the internal logic of the movie’s menace and Countdown was better off when it didn’t have to support a feature.

The movie starts to crack when it tosses in subplots to fulfill a feature-length running time. Again, this premise could sustain a movie (and even a series) but when the conclusion is simply that the app is demonic and uses divine evil powers, then any sense of mystery about the particulars around it feels like jogging in place. What does it matter when the app can justify any action, counter action, or outlandish scenario because of its demonic nature? Our characters gang together with the belief they can somehow break the curse if they beat the counter by one second, but why would they have any sense this could work and with a supernatural presence that can just change the rules? When you’re dealing with, you know, evil demons, they’re not trustworthy. This explanation means that whatever happens can change at any time just because. It makes it feel like all of the untangled mysteries and the determination to beat the system through some assumed understanding of agreed-upon rules as unsatisfying detours.

The most egregious subplot happens to be a very serious case of sexual harassment and assault by Quinn’s boss. This feels entirely out of place for “scary phone app” movie, and it very much feels grafted on by some studio executive who thought they would make their movie more relevant with the changing times. Like some exec said, “Hey, throw in some of that Me Too stuff. That will show we care. Bring in the women. It’s a very real problem.” I understand that the filmmakers wanted to present a villain who could be conquered in the place of an unknowably powerful demonic entity. It feels monumentally tacky to awkwardly cram in a real story of sexual assault as a questionable means of making the film more topical.

I think there’s an interesting story potential of people, knowing the exact second of their death, using it as a motivator good and bad. Perhaps it motivates them to quit their job and finally tackle a long list of personal goals, ask that one girl out, write that novel as some sort of legacy. Or perhaps it motivates them to live a life free of consequences and to take vengeance against others knowing full well their remaining years have been cut short. There could be an entire group of people who view themselves almost as spiritual warriors who have been blessed with foresight so they run roughshod over society’s rules. There could be lots of interesting sociological and psychological areas this degree of foreknowledge could provide, so it feels a little reductive to simply have it be a demonic curse that nobody thinks much more about.

After appearing on numerous Worst of the Year lists, a countdown in its own right, I was expecting Countdown to be an awful, intelligence-insulting experience. I didn’t hate this. In fact, I think it’s rather competently directed with some effectively eerie moments for a PG-13 horror movie. I enjoyed the TWO comic relief characters, a sarcastic and unscrupulous phone salesman (Tom Segura) and a nerdy priest who is eager to help (P.J. Byrne). I thought the opening eight minutes could have served as a complete short film that would have gotten attention. The film even presents some interesting ideas and complications with its premise. It’s not a good movie, especially with its lackluster conclusions to a lackluster mystery, but it’s not really a bad movie either. It’s 85 minutes of a killer premise but lacking necessary development to keep the interest level high, which is why the jump scares with grabby, clammy demon hands pop up. Countdown isn’t bad as much as it’s more disappointing, a premise that could have been so much more.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson (2020)

As soon as I read about the director of The Haunting of Sharon Tate’s follow-up movie, I knew it was destined for a spot on my worst of 2020 list. This filmmaker wasn’t exactly presenting nuanced and sympathetic portraits of famous dead celebrities, and instead was exploiting their fame and their famous demises for cheap genre thrills. The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson was always destined to be a bad movie with these people involved with these intentions. This sleazy thriller is rife with bad decisions, bad faith, and victim blaming to its very nasty core.

Nicole Brown (Mena Suvari) is trying to start her life over after divorcing her famous husband, O.J. Simpson (Gene Freeman). She meets a painter named Glen (Nick Stahl) and invites him to paint her home, to make it more her new sanctuary. Except Glen is a disturbed drifter who will eventually be known as the Casanova Killer who had murdered many blonde women. From there, Glen stalks Nicole and terrorizes her to her very end. Sigh.

The very nature of its premise alleviates the guilt from Nicole’s abusive, controlling husband. Oh sure, the movie still says O.J. is dangerous and jealous and protected by his personal relationships with many of the local law enforcement, but this is mitigated by the very act of using O.J.’s own half-baked alibi assertion from the infamous cash-grab hypothetical literary tome, “If I Did It.” In this highly disingenuous “hypothetical,” O.J. says he might have met a friend named “Charlie” and it was “Charlie” who did the killing and O.J. says he was simply blacking out that night as an unexpected accomplice. First off, the very nature of this book is disgusting, but the fact that this movie uses it as a foundation to posit an alternative theory that lessens O.J.’s blood-stained culpability is like re-telling the Ted Bundy’s account where a frisky and mischievous friend was really the one consuming people. What exactly is the purpose of presenting this alternative theory, which is predicated on the flimsiest of even a whisper of evidence; Glen Rogers’ brother says that mentally disturbed Glen once told him he killed Nicole Brown. That’s it. Add Glen talking to a voice in his head, a dark impulse he calls “Charlie,” and that’s the only connective tissue the movie provides for this new theory.

The entire inclusion of this “Could it be someone else?” theory is for crass sensationalism. Because if the filmmakers were trying to do anything beyond gaining craven attention, they would present a more compelling relationship between Nicole and Glen. The portrayal makes Nicole look like the biggest moron and the movie seems to flirt with the insidious idea that she might have invited her murder onto herself. First, she meets Glen in her neighbor’s driveway, having never seen him before, and invites him into her home and offers him a job, and all of this is miraculously before she even knows the man’s last name, an address, or references. He makes a shifty statement about past work experience being “here and there” and she hires him. The next time we see them together they’re already sleeping together. It feels like I was watching character assassinating propaganda, especially recalling O.J.’s crazed accusations of Nicole sleeping with every many she could find because, to him, she must be a whore. In one of the more wince-inducing moments, Nicole admits to her therapists that she misses the sex with her abusive ex-husband. Any feminism points the filmmakers thought they were providing by showcasing Nicole’s terror and resolve in starting a life away from O.J. just get sabotaged again and again by moments like this. Because Nicole isn’t a person to these filmmakers, she’s a marketable victim who was too stupid to understand how dangerous multiple men were.

There’s also a problem structurally with The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson because she discovers Glen’s unhinged side very quickly. There’s no prolonged buildup of piecing things together. There is half a movie left, which means the filmmakers have an awful lot of time to kill before the actual killings. There’s a drawn-out sequence where Nicole is shopping with the Kardashians (you better believe there are Kardashian kid cameos!) at a nearly empty mall and she sees Glen stalking her. The sequence just keeps going on and on until she’s now stalking him. It’s a sequence that fulfills little we didn’t already know about Glen as a dangerous man. This is further emphasized in unnecessary ways by showing him picking up a doomed woman at a dive bar (literally called “Sinners and Saints” – sigh) and suffocating her, setting her car on fire, and presumably leaving behind plenty of physical evidence like fingerprints. It’s a gratuitous sequence where we get to watch another woman get murdered before our special murder victim gets her showcase. There’s even a shockingly superfluous nightmare sequence that literally rips off the imagery from A Nightmare on Elm Street where Nicole is battling some invisible poltergeist that drags her up a wall and onto the ceiling. It’s filling time, which the movies does even after it finally meets its titular action. There’s a whole two minutes or so of watching a dog walker creep upon the Brentwood crime scene as if we already didn’t know what happened, so where is the suspense? Then the movie fills time even more blatantly by relying on a clip package of real-life TV news from the murders, the Bronco chase, the trial, O.J.’s acquittal, and then portions of his interview for “If I Did It.” It’s literally a clip show to get across that all-important 80-minute feature-length threshold. Watching this abysmal movie, it’s clear that the filmmakers had no real intention of presenting a story and were just presenting the most baseless historical “what if.”

The dialogue in this movie can be wretchedly obvious and trolling for forced profundity with heavily applied and snide dramatic irony. This occurred in the director’s previous film, using the audience’s knowledge of Sharon Tate’s eventual slaying to force a sense of literal and figurative premonition to use as dread. This was at its worse with her awful visions but it also translated to her many heavy-handed pontifications on whether she was fated. With this new film, Nicole is basically looking dead-eyed into the audience after every one of these lines. That includes an admission, “I worry he’s going to murder me and get away with it,” and that’s only five minutes into the movie. I would estimate twenty percent of Nicole’s dialogue in the movie is her contemplations that O.J. will be the literal death of her, like chiding a dismissive L.A.P.D. officer for eventual guilt about not intervening when he had an opportunity. These moments are meant to make Nicole Brown seem more tragic but why does she need any benefit of extra tragedy for empathy?

Look at this wig!

I chiefly pity Suvari (American Beauty). She likely thought she was doing the real Nicole Brown a service by portraying a woman who was trying to work up her courage to push back against her abuser. She probably thought these moments were humanizing Nicole, presenting a more recognizable face beyond the splashy tabloid headlines (see, she has difficulty working a home alarm system too!). I need to believe that Suvari felt she was doing some service because her name is listed as an executive producer, and I would hate to think she was onboard with the more wrongheaded and sleazy aspects of the film becoming a misguided reality. Suvari seems adrift for most of the movie, perhaps the weight of all that dramatic irony crushing her down. However, she doesn’t seem as adrift as Taryn Manning (Orange is the New Black) as a boozed-up cartoon of Nicole’s friend, Faye Resnick. She snorts cocaine. She tries to seduce Nicole at one point, referring to past trysts (more propaganda?). She has a remarkable helmet of a giant blonde wig that looks like it’s crushing her tiny neck. It’s a performance that seems too off-kilter that it almost reminded me of some of the acting I’ve witnessed in The Room. Then there’s Stahl (Sin City) who just acts like a sketchy guy from his first moment onscreen. It makes it hard to believe that Nicole would, after her interactions with O.J., so obliviously accept this new man into her home and into her bed. Then there’s Agnes Bruckner (Love and Chocolate) as a jaw-clenching Kris Kardashian, a character who probably should have just been removed entirely.

The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson might not be as offensively bad as The Haunting of Sharon Tate, but even that declaration is not exculpatory. This is still a terribly written, terribly directed, and terribly made movie based on a terrible premise. Even if the filmmakers wanted to tell a compelling alternate theory to the much-publicized Trial of the Century, it sure doesn’t look like they had any interest other than grabbing their own attention-seeking headlines. There is no thought put into any part of this movie outside of its outrageous premise. At least we’re spared having to relive Nicole’s bloody death through several gross fake-out premonitions like Sharon Tate. The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson wants to position its lead heroine as a tragic figure, but she was already a tragic figure, and it definitely doesn’t earn the artistic right to play Nicole’s real-life 911 calls where she frantically begs for help from her enraged husband. You don’t get to present a feature film that says O.J. didn’t do it and then play her real 911 calls of abuse from O.J. It’s a stark reminder of the resolute bad faith of the people involved in this lousy production. Beware famous dead celebrities, because even the grave can’t protect you from director Daniel Farrand’s gross revisionism for profit.

Nate’s Grade: D

Queen & Slim (2019)

It’s been a couple weeks since I watched Queen & Slim and I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s billed as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, and while that description is technically apt, it’s more a frighteningly relevant thriller about police brutality, the skewed criminal justice system, and the hairpin-turning horror of daily life as a black person in America. A first date between Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) goes awry when they’re pulled over by a racist trigger-happy cop and, in the ensuring struggle, Slim shoots and kills the officer in self-defense. They go on the run trying to escape one setup after another, all the while during this hellish ordeal the characters are growing closer out of reliance and a budding sense of romance. This is a powerfully intense movie with several supremely suspenseful sequences where I worried deeply whether or not the titular pair would be found out, could escape out of a jam, and all the while the authorities are getting closer and closer. They become folk heroes for a community familiar with the oppressive day-to-day of always being seen as a suspect, as “up to no good,” as presumed guilty and dangerous. There are a couple questionable moments later in the film involving the pair as inspiration where I wish the film had perhaps been a little less ambiguous over what I’m supposed to draw. The screenplay by Lena Waithe (The Chi, Boomerang) is cannily crafted with a strong sense of how to develop its premise, deepen it with larger themes, and throw organic obstacles at the characters. I was impressed with how quickly the movie would crank up the tension of a moment, but these thriller aspects never felt cheap or superfluous. The characters do not get lost to the overall plotting machinations and the performances from Turner-Smith and Kaluuya are terrific. Director Melina Matsoukas (Insecure, the soon-to-be release Y comic adaptation) has such an affecting manner with her camera and, in particular, the moody lighting that can express a range of feelings from anxiety or sensuality. The ending of this tale might be expected but that doesn’t take away any of its inordinate power, an ending that has stayed with me and shaken me for days. Queen & Slim is a character-driven chase film that manages to also touch upon powerful social themes, taking a mythic story and making it personal, relevant, and, in a new manner, timeless.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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