How does one adjudicate a country’s own nightmare and find justice? That was the situation Argentina found itself in after returning to a democratic state following seven years under a military junta that kidnapped, tortured, interrogated, and killed thousands of its own citizens in the guise of “stopping radical communists.” Argentina 1985 gives you its setting in the title but it’s really about the chief prosecutor (Ricardo Darin) trying to hold the top generals accountable for their crimes against humanity. There is a lot riding on this case and plenty going against him, including near-constant death threats for he and his supportive family. There are some very harrowing personal accounts in the movie, but it’s set up almost like an underdog courtroom drama conceived by Aaron Sorkin, and much is made about putting together the young hotshot team and seizing the day. The movie is swiftly paced for being over two hours and has notable comic relief to keep things from getting too overwhelmingly gloomy given the subject matter. However, Argentina 1985 never loses its focus on making the powerful account for their sins. It’s a rousing courtroom drama with piercing details, engrossing human stories, and the temerity of history. In the light of rising authoritarian movements around the world and even in the U.S., this movie has even more urgent political relevancy about making sure the crimes of government officials are accounted for and that justice is served. It’s a testament to the heroism of everyday citizens and it makes for an invigorating drama that doesn’t lose sight of the big picture amidst the plethora of procedural details.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The true tale of rescuing the trapped 13 Thai boys in the summer of 2018 is turned into an engrossing and often thrilling if overly long 2022 movie experience thanks to director Ron Howard and a dedicated crew bringing to vivid life the harrowing drama. I was vaguely aware of this story as it played out originally, though missed the critically acclaimed documentary The Rescue from last year that covered the same material, but watching the movie I realize I knew very little of the actual horror. The movie centers around a pair of English divers (Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen), both with over 30 years of specific cave diving experience, helping the Thai Navy Seals and government officials to find and save the missing children and their coach. The submerged path is one that lasts about seven hours, and it’s narrow, dark, and treacherous, easy to lose your way. when you only have a tank of air, navigation is the difference between life and death. It’s also a race against time as the monsoon waters are flooding the cave further. The cave traversal sequences are nerve-wracking and deeply immersive, enough so that even I, while watching, started sitting on the edge of my couch in the safety of my own home. The story isn’t entirely centered on our two heroic white guys, as the screenplay by William Nicholson (Gladiator) widens the focus onto many who contributed to the boys eventual rescue, from an engineer who realized they needed to dam water drainage at the top of a mountain, to the locals who agreed to have their crops flooded for the possibility of saving the kids, to the bravery of the Thai Seals, to the hope and burdens of the parents. I never knew the boys had to literally be anesthetized to be removed, and the ensuring climax as the rescue team keeps tabs on how their precious cargo is responding during the multi-hour journey underwater. Howard keeps things pretty straightforward and helpfully provides onscreen graphics to better provide a sense of distance within the cave, which just makes the heroics even more dizzying. Thirteen Lives is an inspiring story about the world coming together for common cause (except Elon Musk, who baselessly accused one of the divers as being a “pedo”) and it’s also genuinely exciting even when you know they all make it out alive, which is its own credit. It might have used some tightening up for pacing, but it’s a well-made dramatization that pays real homage to the many heroes without overplaying its drama.
Nate’s Grade: B+
There is a question with every new movie depicting the Holocaust or slavery or some other horror of the past, why do we need this still? It’s a suitable question but one that rests upon the fleeting assumption of history being settled upon. “We all agree slavery was bad,” some opponent might say, “So why do we need another movie to convince us what we already know?” One need only look at the last couple years and the diverging controversies over teachers covering the ills of America’s past with clarity, and it’s clear that the idea of settled-upon history is an illusion. There will be people arguing slavery wasn’t as bad as history has perpetuated, that even the Irish experienced something similar as indentured servants (but they were still legally viewed as people). Some will erroneously argue that slaves were there by choice, or that their masters weren’t all cruel, and that even by having a roof over their head and the bare minimum for sustenance that they were “looked after.” There are battles happening all over the country, with one side trying to present the evils of slavery in an unvarnished manner and the other trying to obfuscate, mitigate, or distract from the facts because accepting a reality that your country has made mistakes somehow means being unpatriotic or loving your country considerably less. So to answer the question, as long as we have others denying history for political expediency, then yes, we need more media to remind us that the horrors of the past were indeed horrific. With that in mind, Emancipation is meant to be a rousing spectacle about one man’s incredible fight for freedom, but what it really comes across is a fumbling awards movie as awkward action movie.
Peter (Will Smith), or known as Gordon, is separated from his family and forced to work on the Confederate railroad in 1863 Louisiana. He hears about President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves and believes if he can just get to a Union camp, then he can return to his family. Peter fights back and escapes into the swamps and heads for Baton Rouge, a five-day journey. On his trail is the dangerous slave catcher Jim Fassell (Ben Foster), who will stop at nothing to secure Perter and prove his racial superiority to his fugitive.
There are two competing impulses running through Emancipation that never seem to coalesce, always pulling the movie in opposite directions or at least undercutting its value in entertainment or substance. On the surface, Emancipation looks like an awards-ready spotlight. It’s got Will Smith playing a real-life historical figure who suffered greatly but triumphed in the end, a man whose image lives on in our history books (well, depending upon your state) and contributed to the abolitionist movement. He was a real person who made a real difference during a tumultuous time. I get a strong sense that Smith was following the 2015 template of Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Revenant for this project, and especially the Academy-friendly model of physical torment equaling Oscar gold as it did for Leo. It’s hard not to feel like the movie was formulated as an awards gamble, that sizing up all the elements, Smith saw a fast track back to the Oscars (this was in production before Smith did win his first acting Oscar for 2021’s King Richard). Naturally, Smith isn’t the first person to select Oscar-friendly roles for the purpose of earning some serious acting trophies. Nor should he be inordinately penalized for that ambition. All that matters is the end result, and it’s there where Emancipation struggles with its own identity crisis and where its transparency becomes a hindrance.
This movie wants to be a substantive drama that can enlighten us about the perseverance of the human spirit, and for the first thirty minutes Emancipation feels honed from the likes of 12 Years a Slave. Then at the Act One break, Peter and several other slaves break free, and from there the story becomes a tense chase movie for an hour, only to conclude its final half hour as a war movie akin to Glory. It’s a tonal balancing act that doesn’t quite work. I was interested in the first 30 minutes, which establishes the brutality of slavery in a way that feels empathetic but tasteful. It’s a question whether or not historical horrors should be watered down, made palpable to a wider audience, and if in doing so dilutes the power of history, but that’s another debate. When the movie becomes an elongated chase sequence is where my patience began to wane. This is where director Antoine Fuqua really seems to settle in, playing into his background of action movies (Training Day, The Equalizer, Olympus Has Fallen, The Magnificent Seven). Fuqua’s instincts are for action movies, and that’s what Emancipation becomes, but it so clearly wants to also be Something More and doesn’t quite accumulate into that. The Revenant stretch is reliant upon episodic survival and the final half hour is about a war charge. I suppose one can be generous and say that Peter’s canny survival skills are overt characterization, or that the environmental threats are representative of a larger hostile world, but the action movie parts were pretty to look at but also emotionally inert for me.
I considered the lead character in 12 Years a Slave to be the least interesting person in his own story, but the movie found plenty of space for more immediately compelling figures. Not so with Emancipation, as once Peter goes on the run, it feels like overall characterization is put on hold. Smith is perfectly reasonable as a determined and dehumanized individual pushing back against the monstrosity of slavery, restricting much of his performance to the physical realm. The sheer intensity of his eyes can convey plenty that the script characterization lacks. Smith lowers his voice modulation, adopts an inconsistent Haitian accent, and gives a rather subdued performance given the sensational material. I think it’s because the film is geared more as an action movie rather than as an in-depth character study, so when we’re left with the characters, their limitations emerge.
This paucity also extends to the supporting characters. At first I thought that Charmaine Bingwa (The Good Fight) was going to be relegated as the suffering wife for our protagonist to get home, but then the movie keeps cutting back to her like she’s having prophetic dreams. What is happening here? The check-ins with Peter’s wife all deliver the same obvious information, namely his family misses him. This woman doesn’t even get a storyline of her own in the meantime, a conflict to overcome to keep her family out of further harm in the absence of Peter. The biggest supporting character is the villain, and even he is boring. Foster made a name for himself playing psychopaths in late 2000s cinema and has matured with more nuanced roles in The Messenger, Hell or High Water, and Leave No Trace. He’s one of our best actors, and yet he’s given so little here. His slave catcher gets a monologue that’s meant to provide insight into his admiration for the intelligence of black people. I kept waiting for something more with this guy to define him beyond a stock racist. I guess maybe the movie is saying he’s not as racist because he begrudgingly concedes that slaves aren’t stupid, but he’s still massacring them, so it feels like a minimal distinction of character. He also gets defeated in such an anticlimactic manner. If he’s only a stock villain, at least give us the thrill of defeating him.
The cinematography by Robert Richardson (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is at once gorgeous and also confounding. The emphasis is on deep focus, so you can see lots of rich details in elegantly framed compositions. There are sweeping camera movements, especially during the war-torn finale worthy of Matthew Brady, that are breath-taking, again calling attention to its handsomely mounted pedigree. However, the color palette has taken notes from Zack Snyder and drained away all color to the degree of looking monochromatic. Repeatedly throughout the movie, I would comment to myself about how beautifully filmed a scene was… and then complain about how the dour color grading sucked the life out of it.
Emancipation is a genre movie that envisions itself as a high-minded Oscar contender, and when it attempts to be something more than a crisp-looking chase movie, that’s where it exposes itself as lacking the substance it so desires. The life of Peter, or Gordon, is meaningful, the person behind the famous photo of the scarred back that made the cruelty of slavery a vivid picture. The experiences of every person who endured the hell of slavery is an indictment worthy of being told, but the personal story becomes grounded down into familiar B-movie pap. If the production was content to be a thrilling B-movie, that would be one thing, but it’s clearly engineered to be Something More, which is usually adjacent to Something Important. I think following The Revenant as a model was a mistake, and I think giving the reins to Fuqua was a mistake, and I definitely think the limited characterization and color palette was a mistake. Emancipation is a strange movie to watch. It’s about the horrors of slavery, and it’s also at the same time about a man wrestling a gator in the swamp. Emancipation is a movie that wants to pretend to be something it’s not but also won’t fully trust its deeper instincts and impulses.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I was recently having a conversation about how there seems to be fewer high-profile serial killers today, at least compared to the ignoble heyday of the 1970s-1990s, the kind of men, and yes, it’s almost always men, who fascinated millions and inspire countless books, movies, podcasts to detail the heinous details of their twisted and ritualistic crimes. I recall reading an article that proposed the rise of serial killers during that time period might have had something to do with the prevalence of lead paint and lead poisoning in homes before it was finally phased out in 1978. It seems like it would be harder to be a serial killer in the modern era, where almost every person has a device to call the police, or document your behavior, and submit it for the public record. Of course, we also have far more mass shootings and spree killers, so it’s not like things are perfect. I thought about this while watching The Good Nurse on Netflix, based on true events following a nurse in Pennsylvania who may have ultimately taken 400 lives before he was finally apprehended. How does a serial killer operate in the modern world? With help from lawyers.
Amy (Jessica Chastain) is a nurse working the night shift and trying to raise two young girls on her own. She suffers from a heart defect and keeps her ailment hidden for fear she will be fired before she crosses the period where she can earn health insurance from her job. She’s stretched thin, overworked, exhausted, and anxious, and that’s when Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) comes into her life. He’s a new nurse for their hospital, comes highly recommended, but then… patients start coding and dying and Amy can’t explain it. Somehow insulin is getting into their systems, and she begins to suspect Charlie is the culprit, and from there she works with law enforcement to investigate Charlie’s mysterious past work history and assemble a credible legal case of guilt.
It’s obvious from the start Charlie is guilty, and thankfully the movie doesn’t drag this reveal out, even choosing in its long take opening to demonstrate one of his dispassionate murders. This is less a story about whether this person is in fact the actual killer and more a story about how to nab the killer, and the methodical, detail-oriented case work reminded me especially of 2015’s Best Picture-winner, Spotlight. Likewise, we already knew the Catholic Church was covering up sexual crimes from its priests, so it was more a story about the people responsible for bringing them to justice and how they worked their case. It’s a similar and similarly engrossing formula for The Good Nurse. Uncovering Charlie’s past, his way of avoiding crimes is eerily and infuriatingly reminiscent of the Catholic Church just reshuffling its dangerous priests from parish to parish. The prior hospitals that employed Charlie will not talk about him because to do so will open them up to legal liability, so instead they simply fired him for specious reasons and allowed him to gain employment at another hospital, repeating his deadly patterns. To get more involved, or to investigate further, would be financially deleterious to the hospitals, so they looked the other way. A post-script tells us that none of the hospitals that employed Charlie Cullen were ever criminally charged for their role in perpetuating the death this man left behind. The Good Nurse smartly understands that pinning down one villain is easy, but indicting the system is an even bigger story, and one that rightfully earns every ounce of viewer condemnation and outrage. The lawyers representing these hospitals are just as culpable for these preventable murders.
Much of the movie follows Amy’s personal investigation, dovetailing with two detectives (Nnamdi Aomugha, Noah Emmerich) trying to put together the meager crumbs that the hospital is offering after its own six-week-late internal review that necessitated contacting the police about the “irregularity” in a patient’s death. Each has key pieces, Amy with the inner workings of the hospital system and nursing expertise, and the detectives with the shady background report on Charlie, and it’s an exciting turning point when they join forces. From there, the movie reminded me of Netflix’s sadly cancelled series Mindhunter, where two FBI agents profiled America’s most notorious serial killers to learn insights about the patterns of pathology. It was also a series about talking, about trying to draw these dark men into confession, and the subtle manipulations necessary to get the key pieces of information desired. Amy brings hard evidence that her co-worker is stealing insulin but it’s not enough, and she questions how far to put herself in the middle of this investigation, especially since her daughters have grown close to Charlie.
The direction by Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking, A War) is very aligned with the fact-finding tone established the screenplay by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917, Last Night in Soho). The camera work is never flashy, preferring longer takes from unobtrusive angles, but without fully adopting the impatient edits docu-drama verisimilitude approach many directors would follow to better capture the reality. The directing is very methodical, cerebral, and restrained in the best way to enhance all of these elements from the story. It’s also not a surprise when you recall that Lindholm directed two episodes of Mindhunter’s first season. It’s the kind of assured direction that often gets ignored in award season but it’s the kind of direction this movie needed to better succeed in tandem with its slow-building, fact-finding mission. It’s not dispassionate, it’s deliberate.
Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts) is an actor I’ve been critical of with some mumbly, tic-heavy past performances, but he’s genuinely good and unnerving for how “normal” he comes across while holding back just enough in his eyes to make you want to take a cautious step back at various points. His role is the more internal one, and the character becomes an incomplete guessing game of how much of what you see is the real Charlie Cullen. Is the kind, compassionate Charlie who helps Amy’s daughter learn her lines for a school play, while encouraging her repeatedly, the real version of this man? Is the evasive man who bursts into sudden and shocking moments of emotional outburst the real version? Is it some semblance in between, and how does one square the difference? The movie’s focus isn’t on unpacking the psychology of this bad man (the title is not a reference to Charlie but of Amy) but on the hard-nosed efforts to finally bring him to justice. Because of this there aren’t as many showcase moments for Redmayne, but he genuinely made me jump during his bigger moments. His Midwestern accent also sounded a lot like (a non-Bostonian) Mark Ruffalo to my ears, further cementing the connections to Spotlight.
The real star of The Good Nurse is its story, given careful examination and worthy condemnation to the forces that allowed a mass murderer to continue his trade for years. When finally asked why, as if there can ever be a satisfying revelation for why bad people do bad things, Charlie can only shake his head and respond, “They didn’t stop me.” He kept killing because the hospital lawyers shuffled him around, protecting their own rather than innocent victims who place their faith in the hospitals and their staff to follow the Hippocratic oath and “do no harm.” The Good Nurse is an appealing movie for fans of true-crime and investigative procedurals. It stays focused on the human cost of those preying upon others, whether they be serial killers masking their misdeeds or corporate lawyers protecting profits and liability over human suffering. It’s a good movie and a good reminder that the over-worked, underpaid nurses are legit heroes.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The story behind Greg James, the filmmaker from Ohio, is surprisingly tied to, of all things, dodgeball. In 2004, the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story was released and grossed $168 million worldwide, but there were two legal challenges accusing copyright violation to writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, and both have central Ohio connections. The first was by writers Ernando Ashoka Thomas and David Price, a Bexley, Ohio native that put his own experiences as an adult dodgeball tournament organizer into the script. Where things get interesting is that this other script, entitled Dodgeball: The Movie, was passed along in March 2001 to Shaun Redick, who worked for an agency and was friends with Thurber. This was one month before Thurber finished and registered his draft of his dodgeball screenplay. During the copyright lawsuit in 2005, a judge determined that a jury might “reasonably infer” that Thurber had access to the other dodgeball screenplay via Redick. There were other similarities between the two scripts that appear to be more than just formula and genre trappings, like both featuring a wheelchair-bound former dodgeball champion who becomes a coach and dies in a freak accident midway through before the big game but then reappears as a ghost to cheer them on.
The second and lesser-known suit was for authorship of that other dodgeball script, and that’s where James comes in. He and Thomas worked together under the YNOT production company they founded. They directed and produced a movie in 2001, Raw Fish, that Thomas wrote. Afterwards, in 2001, Thomas was working on the dodgeball script and James claims he was a co-author (Price was not listed as co-author until 2004 in screenplay registration). Thomas listed himself as the sole author on all the drafts he copyrighted and shared, and because James did not assert his copyright dispute until 2005, the statute of limitations ran out. James said that Thomas removed James’ name from the cover page before submitting the draft but never inquired further because he trusted his would-be partner. Lacking proof of collusion, and beyond the three-year window, James’ case was dismissed. The suit with Thomas and Price against Fox was later settled for an undisclosed sum, and James was left with nothing.
James returned to Columbus after 25 years in L.A. and was inspired to make a local story into a feel-good family film that could inspire others. Adeline is based on a horse at Serendipity Stables that provided therapeutic care for children with disabilities and those on the spectrum. In 2002, a tornado struck and Adeline reportedly held people against a barn wall to protect them rather than running away from danger. The horse’s bravery was rewarded by locals donating over $15,000 to allow Adeline to receive life-saving surgery (Adeline lived another three years). Adeline is James’ homecoming, and it’s sweet and slickly produced to look like any number of other faith-based inspirational family films, and that’s also its problem, if you find that to be a problem.
In a small Ohio town, Kay (Jane Mowder) moves onto a horse ranch and her presence changes everything. Bethany (Orli Gottesman) is running from foster home to foster home for setting fires, but one encounter with Adeline the horse and she’s rethinking her pyromania. The town preacher John (David Chokachi) and his wife Terry (Erin Bethea) have an autistic son who takes a shine to Adeline and actually speaks. John is skeptical and worries putting faith into Kay and her holistic solutions will lead to another disappointment. He challenges his parishioners to not lose sight of where to place their faith, and then the big tornado comes twistin’ through.
If you’re fans of sweet feel-good movies, Adeline will likely hit most of what you’re looking for, but I found the central idea a little too simplistic to the point of incredulity. In short, this is a magic horse. This is the only conclusion I must derive from what I see onscreen. I love animals. I always have. As my fiancé would attest, they flock to me. With that being said, I have a problem with animal movies because too many of them feel lazily projected onto the animal as its symbol. I had this same feeling with the 2020 inexplicably Oscar-winning My Octopus Teacher: “Does this octopus really see this man in a snorkel as a friend or an ally? She reaches out a tentacle to touch the appendage of this underwater man, but what does that mean? Is this signaling a friendship or is it merely signaling an animal taking stock of its surroundings? I don’t know and depending upon your personal relationship with the animal world, you will either accept everything [this man] says at face value without skepticism or you will see him as a slightly foolish romantic.” Adeline is such a magic horse that all it takes is Bethany looking once into her eyes to break her free from her fire-setting impulses. Adeline is such a magic horse that all it takes is a couple of rides and the preacher’s autistic son is now talking. This horse is spoken about in such grandiose terms and yet the screenplay by Sam Lewis doesn’t make the horse a character, which can be done for animals (see: Seabiscuit). The problem is that if effort is not put into giving the horse something, then the horse is merely a plot device for easy miracles. It might as well have been a magic couch whereupon every sit heals thy sitter. Given this horse’s track record, I’m surprised the town didn’t trot Adeline into their office to fix any budget shortfall. I know this is based on a true story, and I’m being more than a little facetious, but we need more from the drama than “Person A nuzzles horse or rides horse. Person A is now better. Repeat.”
Where the movie seems to want to go is the idea of alternate routes of healing, and this has dramatic potential that’s never fully realized. Much of the conflict revolves around John being skeptical and unwilling to see the benefit of the horse. His job asks him to put his faith in God and not a horse. He’s also hurting because of the frustrations with raising a non-verbal autistic child that he has difficulty communicating and connecting with. At one point, he even says he blames God for cursing his family (yikes). It looks like Adeline is going to be a conflict between traditional faith and alternative healing, an Old School versus New Age kind of battle. It appears that John might even feel threatened by the horse, like his parishioners will start looking to the special horse for answers and healing rather than their local minister. Does he feel threatened? Does he think his authority is being challenged by the horse or by God? Had the script really explored this personal crisis it could have made for an interesting character study about belief systems in conflict. Instead, it mostly plays as John being the most stubborn man who has to be the last one to accept the gift of Adeline. Lacking that depth, it means we’re just waiting for John to finally come around to the obvious, and it can be a frustrating waiting game. Even after the horse protects a dozen people from a tornado, David still pushes back. He even lays out a theory that since the horse farm was the only one hit by the tornado that God must disapprove (people literally groan and walk out of church in disgust after he proposes this theory). I think re-centering the movie on one man’s crisis of faith, accelerated by already feeling shaken from his son’s diagnosis, would be the smarter storytelling foundation rather than making the horse the magic new neighbor.
The story has too many characters and subplots that don’t get enough attention, but at the same time Adeline benefits from a pacing standpoint by having more stories to switch over. The Bethany storyline could have been its own movie but she feels more like Exhibit A for the miraculous potential of the horse. We’re told that she can’t stop starting fires and bounces from foster home to foster home, and all of a sudden Kay agrees to adopt her on the spot, and why not if all it takes is one encounter with Adeline to prove curative for Bethany’s troubles? Because this conflict is amazingly resolved so quickly, we have to add the extra conflict of the town teenagers bullying Bethany for her past, though this is comprised to one scene where the kid she may or may not have a crush on, Jason (Jake Satow), stands up for her and punches the lead bully. This is the end of Bethany being picked on for her past. Having an outcast character in a small town is a good viewpoint and a natural source of conflict going up against community expectations. Unfortunately, Bethany is just treated like a testimonial. Likewise, the autistic child is merely a plot device, and the script then transforms Terry into little more than a pleading support network. She wants her husband to acknowledge the healing power of the horse. That’s about it. She’s the sweetly smiling, eyes-glistening “why won’t you see?” figure in these kinds of movies. I think the character that suffers the most is Kay. She doesn’t feel like a person but yet more of a plot device. She stirs up the status quo, and she has a mysterious past, and yet she’s just deliverer of miracles without further dimension.
Even though its budget was half a million dollars, Adeline looks and sounds like a professional movie that would ably fill the scheduling slots of a Hallmark or Christian TV network. The cinematography by Dan Parsons (Treasure Lies) is rich and autumnal in its color palate, and the use of dappled lighting and depth of field visual arrangements helps add an extra pleasing cinematic quality to the movie. The score is also quite nice by Erik Schroeder, a man with over 100 scoring titles to his name. It’s pleasant and twinkly without overwhelming the emotions on screen. The special effects with the tornado and its destructive wake are quite good for the budget. The acting is above average too. Mowder (Foxcatcher) is dignified, Chokachi (Baywatch) is perfectly flummoxed, Bethea (Fireproof) is winsome, and Gottesman (1-800-HOT-NITE) has a natural presence that makes me think she has even bigger opportunities on the horizon. Plus, there’s the always enjoyable Ralph Scott (Double Walker) as John’s unflappable friend and soothing voice of reason.
There is plenty to enjoy with Adeline. It’s a passion project where you can feel the affection of everyone, and James has an invisible ease behind the camera. The acting and technical merits are solid and the pacing keeps things moving smoothly. Where Adeline frustrated me is with its screenplay that settled too often on its staid formula. We’ve seen these kinds of movies before and Adeline rests upon that familiarity a little too often for me. Genre fans will find enough to satisfy them, and everything is kept at such a family-friendly level of nice (even the disagreements are short and never more than G-rated) that is wholesome without feeling overly maudlin. I think the screenplay could have done much more with its pieces, but my opinion is going to be a minority for the movie’s target audience. Adeline is a nice movie about good people experiencing good tidings and will leave many people feeling, mostly, good.
Nate’s Grade: C
There’s a rule of thumb I’ve come to find in Hollywood, something so certain you could set your watch to it. No, not the Emmys nominating Frasier for everything. I’m talking about man-owl Larry King, who seems to dabble in the land of film reviews. Kindly readers beware, if you see an ad for a film and it has Larry King’s salivating blurb in it, run away. Run away like the plague, like Pamplona. Just run. The only films I can remember off hand (though this theory has come true every time) are 15 Minutes and Wind Talkers. And now there is the horrifically titled sub-sub movie K-19: The Widowmaker.
K-19 should not be confused with K-9, the Jim Belushi teams up with a dog to fight crime film. No this one takes place in the early 60s in the thicket of the Cold War. An opening title sequence tells us Russia has enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world two times, but the United States has enough to blow up the world six times over. Whoo! U-S-A! The maker of widows is itself a docked submarine in the Russian navy in preparation for combat. Before it even leaves the shore it is said to be cursed, having five men die already from its widow maker-y hands. Liam Neeson is the captain of K-19 and well respected and beloved by his crew. However, Neeson is willing to put the lives of his men ahead of the agenda of the state, so the Communist government places Harrison Ford on the sub and gives him the reigns of command. Ford is a rigorous taskmaster who puts his men through countless drills and does not exactly see eye-to-eye with the more empathetic Neeson.
The story’s real turn comes about midway in, when after successfully launching a test missile above the arctic ice the nuclear core of the sub springs a leak. If something is not done to slow down the heating core the men could be vaporized in a mushroom cloud. Except that patrolling the waters nearby is a Unites States destroyer and thus would be destroyed as well, surely igniting the start of World War III. Crew members take shifts to enter the radioactive core area to try and do what they can. The situation gets even direr when the men come out looking like something from a George Romero film.
K-19‘s biggest fault is fictionalizing what would have been an interesting hour block on The History Channel. The Neeson and Ford characters feel like two sides of a debate, not exactly characters. The whole movie has been Americanized with heroic proportions. Instead of compelling drama we’re left adrift with what the studio wants as a summer movie with material that should no way be associated with it. I mean, the horribly dishonest marketing campaign actually has a crew member shout “Torpedo headed straight for us!” then shows a torpedo surging ahead. There was never a torpedo in the entire movie or a scene where they were being attacked! Somewhere in this ho-hum story is an exciting tale of the courage these men were forced into as well as the strain of not being able to tell their friends or family about anything that happened.
Submarine movies have so many limitations to them thats it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there’ll be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.
Director Kathryn Bigalow (Strange Days) manages to give it the ole college try with the long camera movements inside and the close-ups of men glaring at one another. Although technically able, Bigalow doesn’t do anything to transcend the limitations she has to work with. And while she meets her mark as a director, it is neither spectacular nor worthwhile.
Ford has a horrible Russian accent he likes to flirt around with through the film. I don’t exactly know if people are supposed to like his character, being rigid and pragmatic at the expense of human life. Neeson, on the other hand, is quite capable and shines in his role. The rest of the crew alternates between Russian accents to even some Australian ones I heard.
K-19: The Widowmaker tells us that this story could not be told until the fall of communism, except at the end it shows a clip of the Berlin Wall coming down and the crew then gathering to finally remember their fallen comrades. Some people just don’t have their dates right, and some people just don’t know how to take an interesting unknown slice of history and tell it well. Damn you Larry King.
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I just think submarine thrillers aren’t for me. I won’t argue there aren’t good movies based almost entirely in the tight quarters of subs, like Das Boot or Crimson Tide, but I think most of them just blur together into a wash of genre cliches. As I so presciently wrote in 2002 for my review of the submarine drama, K-19: The Widowmaker: “Submarine movies have so many limitations to them that’s it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there will be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.” I’ve grown even more bored by these sub-genre staples. In some ways, submarine movies are a precursor to the Hollywood fascination of the contained thriller, the limited location setting that acts as a pressure cooker of conflict. However, the setting isn’t as important and the people and the conflicts that reside inside those cramped quarters. For Crimson Tide, the reason that movie really worked is because of the feud between its stars, each man fighting for dominance and gaining allies and plotting mutinous moves in the name of security. You could have told that same story in a military base on land and it would succeed. The problem with K-19 is that the true story is more interesting than a rehash of submarine cliches.
Here is a forgotten chapter in history of heroism and sacrifice, and the fact that it’s from a Russian perspective during the height of the Cold War makes it unique, at least as such in an American marketplace. The movie also feels so out of time thanks to the last decade of Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin. But for a time in the early 2000s, Russia opened up its naval shipyards to Hollywood to tell a very Hollywood version of their own history they had, for decades, insisted be kept only as secret. The crew aboard the K-19 avoided an escalation that would have likely triggered World War III. They were victims of their country’s arms race, building Russia’s first nuclear submarine to compete with the Americans but not building it to ship-shape shape, a point Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) cites during an electrical malfunction. For those well-versed in USSR history, or having seen the truly excellent HBO mini-series Chernobyl, this shoddy workmanship is hardly uncommon when the government insists on results through fear and dire repercussions, and so the state meets its quota, though perhaps only on paper to satisfy a bureaucrat who doesn’t want to be shot by his own government. This is one reason why the real story of these men was withheld for 30 years, as it would cheapen the image of the Soviet state during a time where any mistake is viewed as weakness. I would have preferred a movie that opened up more of the men on this submarine, that really dealt with their hopes and fears more in a more personal and intimate way rather than just hand-waving “Cold War destruction” as it’s catch-all for drama and stakes. Let’s also really dwell on the sacrifices of these men taking turns to venture into a highly irradiated nuclear core to stop it from exploding. Let’s let these men feel like people rather than as indistinguishable and plentiful sacrificial offerings.
This could better be accomplished by removing the core of the script by playwright-turned-screenwriter Christopher Kyle (The Way of Water, Alexander), namely the fight for control of the sub between the old captain (Neeson) and the new captain, Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). The mutiny subplot even becomes the focus of the third act, even after the development with the broken reactor, as if settling this command squabble was more entertaining to an audience. Vostrikov is willing to risk the lives of the men for the goals of the state; Plenin is not. It’s an easy setup to root for one man and hiss at another, but their glorified personality clash doesn’t have near the crackle of Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide. The fact that a mutinous conspiracy can outflank the danger of a nuclear accident will only work if the characters are that compelling, and woe they are not. We’re given some fleeting information about their backstories, with Vostrikov’s father having once been a hero of “the Revolution” but ultimately ended up in a gulag like so many one-time heroes for the Soviet state. There just isn’t enough here to really care. We side with Neeson because he’s more loyal to his crew, but this is also benefited with the hindsight that we know this real incident did not trigger a real war. When either actor begins their hard-line posturing, it feels like watching two older dads argue in a parking lot. Both of the actors suffer from their catastrophically bad Russian accents. If I was director Kathryn Bigelow, I would have just given up and said, “All right, forget accents. Everyone just speaks in their native tongue and we’ll just shrug it off.”
A more interesting tangent, at least for me as a film critic, is my opening salvo savaging the film tastes of the late Larry King (1933-2021) and the topic of “blurb whores,” critics who are so easily amused that their excitable, adjective-ready blurbs in the advertisement for a movie can be a bad sign of the movie’s ultimate quality. A website (eFilmCritic) used to track the most egregious examples of “film critics” offering their “takes” on movies in a scathing series called Critic Watch. Neither the series nor the website seem to be active any longer, but I remember every year checking in and taking stock and shaking my head in incredulous disdain. These were usually populated by the same names like Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, Shawn Edwards from the local Kansas City news station, Jeffrey Lyons and then eventually his son Ben Lyons, Pete Hammond for Maxim, and the most curious case was that of Earl Dittman from Wireless, the publication being like one of those little insert pamphlets for oblivious satellite TV subscribers.
Dittman was the king of blurbs on questionable movies, and his verbal ejaculate over Robots might be the best indication. He said of the 2005 animated film, “…Even more spectacular, computer-animated film than The Incredibles … In fact, the term ‘brilliant’ fails to accurately describe how wondrously witty and innovative Robot [sic] really is … If you thought the superheroes of The Incredibles and the ocean-dwellers of Finding Nemo were humorous, you haven’t heard nothing yet. The side-splitting humor of the mechanical beings in Robots is worthy of a capital ‘H’ … Forget The Incredibles, Robots is one heck of a funny animated comedy … Robots is a hilariously awesome and breathlessly inventive work of entertaining animated brilliance… You can’t afford to miss a single frame of this amazing, unforgettable animated classic.” Wow. He gave TEN different paragraph-length blurbs over Robots to the studio, an okay animated movie at best, and surely not one “more spectacular” than The Incredibles. I can even recall seeing a TV ad for Robots that was nothing but wall-to-wall Dittman quotes. With the man’s hyperbolic, effusive praise for even the crappiest of films, like calling Shark Boy and Lava Girl a “masterpiece” and Hostage as “more electrifying than Die Hard” (what????), there was a theory that the elusive Dittman didn’t even exist. Sony had been ridiculed when it was revealed in 2002 that “David Manning” was a fake critic they had created to positive blurb their movies (The Animal: “The producing team of Big Daddy has delivered another winner!”). Sony even had to pay out a modest settlement in a class action suit to any filmgoer having felt duped to see four movies. And then somebody proved Dittman was real, a freelance writer from Houston, and just a guy who seemed to love all movies and wasn’t that interesting. I don’t think he’s blurbed again since 2007. May he enjoy his retirement.
All of this is my way of saying K-19: The Widowmaker is a submarine movie where submarine movie stuff happens. If you can’t get enough of the likes of U-571 and Greyhound, then that would probably be all you would ask for in your nautical storytelling. Everyone attached has done better, though the old age makeup during an epilogue set in 1989 was eerie about what an older Harrison Ford would look like, so well done, makeup team. My review from 2002 rings so true twenty years later that I’ve had to resort to thinking what else can be added in discussion. That’s always nice, to recognize my critical self from twenty years hence was right on the money. K-19 is long, misshapen in its structure and attention, and bogged down with cliches. My initial grade still stands.
Re-View Grade: C
It’s the lowest of low stakes movie but a simple story with agreeable actors and a sweet enough core can be enough to fulfill 90 minutes of entertainment. Jerry & Marge Go Large is inspired on a true story of a retired couple who figured out a flaw in their local lottery and brought in the whole town to make an eventual windfall of over $27 million large. The draw of the movie is its cast, including Bryan Cranston and Annette Benning as our titular couple, and watching them generally make one another smile. This would not be out of place on a Hallmark Channel rotation. It’s simple, it’s sweet, and the town is full of aw-shucks nice people who all band together without anything in the way of larger conflict or rivalry or disagreement. However, the movie is also so slight to the point that it feels like an extended news magazine piece. There’s no real tension until a smug Harvard math whiz discovers the same lottery flaw tries to apply pressure to good old Jerry to get out, a storyline that feels like a fictional inclusion to add some degree of opposition to what is otherwise a story about a smart guy discovering a loophole and winning big for his whole town. It’s an interesting story but the real emphasis could have been as a character study for Jerry, a man who studies numbers for hidden insights but has difficulty connecting with people including his own adult son. We get glimpses of this as Cranston monologues or looks askance, but all these personality conflicts are resolved so tidy to the point that it feels offhand. The details of the true story are interesting enough, and everyone is coasting on such a mild and mellow vibe, that it’s easy to just relax and find comfort with the film’s small comforts.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Fred Hampton was the deputy chairman of the Black Panthers in Chicago and was only 21 years old when he was murdered in 1969 by federal agents. Judas and the Black Messiah is about Hampton and his life in political activism cut short, but it’s also another tragedy, one far less known. Bill O’Neal was a federal informant who was manipulated into betraying Hampton to the FBI and ultimately setting up the man’s execution. Both men are given consideration and brought to life by great actors, Laketih Stanfield as O’Neal and Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton. O’Neal is tasked with getting into the trusted inner circle of Hampton and the Black Panthers without blowing his cover, or else he’ll be going to jail for years on potentially pending charges. The FBI agent in charge (Jesse Plemons) is under pressure by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and this all provides even more pressure onto O’Neal, who is a pawn of the higher-ups who only care about neutralizing the growing power of the Black Panthers. The film plays out similar to an undercover mob movie, like The Departed, and much of the drama follows whether O’Neal will get caught, how he will navigate the tenuous territory he is in, and the paranoia of being in danger at all times and from multiple sides if he succeeds or fails. I appreciated the attention given to O’Neal and the consideration that he too is another victim. He is eager to succeed and thinks he might use his service as an introduction into the Bureau for legit work, but he also very much wants to be accepted by the Panthers because he agrees with their philosophies and is looking for a community that welcomes him and provides a sense of direction. If I had a complaint, it is simply that we get a lot more Judas here than we do the Black Messiah. It feels like we’re getting a rather simplified summation of Hampton and scrubbing clean some of his personal leanings (having him identity as a socialist rather than a Marxist) that would make him more controversial. By all definitions, Hampton was executed by agents of the state to pacify institutionally racist fears about powerful and gun-owning black Americans, but putting so much emphasis of the story on the man who betrayed him creates an imbalance in presentation and risks mitigating the depth of Hampton. After Hampton returns from prison, the movement he’s been so heavily involved with seems to dissolve onscreen, focusing solely on setting up our deadly climax. He is seen as a martyr first and foremost. There are two extended shootouts in the second half that don’t feel at all in keeping with the first half of the movie. Kaluuya (Get Out) is electric in public and awkward and sweet in private with his beloved girlfriend. It hints at much more that could have been explored away from his fiery public persona. Stanfield (Knives Out) has the more multi-dimensional role and yet even given the grand Shakespearean tragic proportions of his position, I can’t help but feel like O’Neal feels a tad underdeveloped. There’s a subtle ambiguity that follows his character’s motivations but many of his moments revolve around whether he will be accepted, fool someone, or get caught. There are greater questions of whether the mask he wears is real. The characterization gets a little lost because of the nature of the subterfuge. This movie is over two hours but has the potential to be an epic tragedy and could have sustained a limited series of storytelling. As it is, it’s a tense and powerful movie with great acting and an ending that will rightfully outrage and disquiet. Judas and the Black Messiah is stirring but I feel like it had lost potential by transposing its story and conflicts into two hours and with two central underwritten figures of tragedy. It’s quite good but man this could have been amazing.
Nate’s Grade: B+
A sweet and heartfelt true story to friendship that also doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships of illness and the elongating circle of grief. Our Friend is based on the life of journalist Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck) whose life is thrown into turmoil after his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson), is diagnosed with terminal cancer. They rely upon their devoted friend, Dane (Jason Segel), for help during the months and years after the diagnosis. The movie jumps around in time, for minimal effect, but does a fine job of laying out the three central characters and their core relationship of love and compassion. Dane is scoffed at by Matt’s friends as a loser who hasn’t gotten his life together, and Dane even contemplates some drastic personal decisions, but he finds a purpose and definition with his servitude, even as it impacts his own outside relationships. I was expecting more attention to the titular “friend” of the title, and it is a slight detriment, but the dramatic core of this movie is solid. The topic of terminal illness can easily veer into soapy, maudlin territory, but the movie is on firm grounding early during a scene where Matt and Nicole discuss how to tell their two young girls that mommy isn’t getting better. Her angry outbursts later and final moments are also unvarnished yet still in character. The acting is quite good overall and there are plenty of one-scene players that leave a favorable and empathetic impression, like Gwendoline Christie and Cherry Jones. The non-linear jumps feel like an attempt to create more meaning than a simple story about friendship will afford and an invitation to sift out connections and parallels. It’s a movie that doesn’t necessarily break away from your expectations as a cancer weepie. You know what you’re headed for. Our Friend is an enjoyable and heartfelt drama with better-than-average performances and overly disjointed editing. If you’re in for a decent tearjerker, give it a try.
Nate’s Grade: B
Hillbilly Elegy is based upon the memoir by JD Vance and in 2016 it became a hot commodity in the wake of Trump’s surprising electoral ascent, with liberals seeing it as a Rosetta Stone to understanding just how so many working-class white people could vote for a billionaire with a gold toilet. The movie, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and currently available on Netflix, follows an adult JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a Yale law candidate forced to go back home to Middletown, Ohio after his mother Bev (Amy Adams) lands in the hospital for a heroin overdose. It’s 2011, and Bev has been fighting a losing battle with opioids for over a decade, costing her a string of boyfriends and jobs. JD’s homecoming isn’t quite so rosy. While he can take comfort in fried bologna sandwiches and his sister (Haley Bennett), the town is not what it once was. The factory has closed, poverty is generational, and his mother is one of many struggling to stay clean. In flashback, we watch MeeMaw (Glenn Close) take in the young JD (Owen Asztalos) and raise him on the right path. JD must decide how far the bonds of family go and how much he may be willing to forgive his mother even if she can never ask for help.
The subtitle of Vance’s novel was “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” and it’s that latter part that got the most attention for the book and critical examination. Many a think piece was born from Vance’s best-selling expose on the hardscrabble beginnings of his personal story along the hills of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley and his recipe for success. Given his libertarian political leanings, it’s not a surprise that his solutions don’t involve a more interventionist government and social safety nets. According to Vance’s book, he saw poverty as self-perpetuating and conquerable. It was the “learned helplessness” of his fellow Rust Belt inhabitants that Vance saw as their downfall. For me, this seems quite lacking in basic empathy. You see these people aren’t poor because they’ve been betrayed by greedy corporations, indifferent politicians, a gutted infrastructure and educational system in rural America, pill mills flooding Appalachia with cheap opioids, and a prison system that incentivizes incarceration over rehabilitation. For Vance and his like-minded fellows, upward mobility is a matter of mind over matter, and these working-class folks have just given up or won’t work as hard as before.
Now, as should be evident, I strongly disagree with this cultural diagnosis, but at least Vance is trying to use his own story as a launching point to address larger points about a portion of America that feels forgotten. The movie strips all of this away. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) juggles multiple timelines and flashbacks within flashbacks as Vance follows the formula of prodigal son returning back to his home. The entire draw of the book, its purported insights into a culture too removed from the coastal elites, is replaced with a standard formula about a boy rediscovering his roots and assessing his dysfunctional family. At this rate, I’m surprised they didn’t even time it so that Vance was returning home for Thanksgiving.
Removed of relevant social commentary, Hillbilly Elegy becomes little more than a gauzy, awards-bait entry meant to uplift but instead can’t help itself from being overwrought poverty porn. If we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how Appalachia got to be this way, then Vance becomes less our entry point into a world and more just an escaped prisoner. Except the movie doesn’t raise Vance up as exceptional and instead just a regular guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through will and family support. I’m not saying he is exceptional, I don’t know the man, but this approach then ignores the reality of why so many others just aren’t following his footsteps of simply trying harder. Without granting a more empathetic and careful understanding of the circumstances of poverty, Howard has made his movie the equivalent of a higher-caliber Running with Scissors, a memoir about a young man persevering through his “quirky, messed up family” to make something of himself on the outside. This reductive approach is meant to avoid the trappings of social commentary, and yet in trying to make his film studiously apolitical to be safer and more appealing, Howard has stumbled into making Hillbilly Elegy more insulting to its Appalachia roots. Systemic poverty is seen as a choice, as people that just aren’t trying as hard, that have given up and accepted their diminished fates. Never mind mitigating economic, psychotropic, and educational circumstances. I imagine Howard wanted to deliver something along the lines of Winter’s Bone, unsparing but deeply aware of its culture, but instead the movie is far more akin to a sloppy compilation of Hallmark movies and catchy self-deprecating bumper sticker slogans. Seriously, about every other line of dialogue feels like it was meant to be on a T-shirt, from “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become,” to, “There are three types of people in this world: good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Well, maybe not that last one. The insights are fleeting and surface-level, with vague patronizing along the fringes.
The personal story of J.D. Vance takes the center stage and yet he’s the biggest blank of characters, and what we do get isn’t exactly that encouraging. I think we’re meant to engage with his triumph over adversity, but he has such disdain for his background while clinging to it as an identity, and this intriguing dichotomy is never explored. Vance as a character is merely there. His awkward experiences relating to the rich elites are just silly. He calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) in a panic over what fork to use at a fancy dinner table, as if this perceived social faux pau would be the difference between getting a law firm gig. He’s supposed to feel like an outsider, both at home and away, unable to escape his past that defines him, but the movie doesn’t even make Vance feel alive in the present. Most of the movie he is just there while big acting takes place around him. He listens to the life lessons bestowed upon him, good and bad, and it makes him the kind of man that when he grows up will join Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, so hooray? I sighed when the movie established the stakes as he needs to get back in time for his big lawyer job interview, a literal family vs. future crossroads. The movie treats its frustrating main character as a witness to history rather than an active participant, and his personal growth is what? Coming to terms with the limitations of his mother? Accepting himself? Leaving them all behind to survive? I don’t know. There is literally a montage where he gets his life back on track, starts getting better grades, ditches his no-good friends, and heads out into the world. This could have been a better articulated character study but instead Vance comes across as much a tourist to this downtrodden world and eager to return to safer confines as any morbidly curious viewer at home.
I simply felt bad for the actors. This is the kind of movie where subtlety isn’t exactly on the agenda, so I expected big showcases of big acting with all capitals and exclamation marks, and even that didn’t prepare me. I watched as Amy Adams (Vice) worked her mouth around an accent that always seemed elusive, with a character that veered wildly depending upon the timing of a scene. Almost every moment with Bev ends in some alarming escalation or outburst, like when a new puppy ends with Bev declaring she will “kill that dog in front of you,” or a ride back home descends into a high-speed promise of killing herself and child out of spite. This woman is troubled, to say the least, and her addictions and mental illness are what defines the character. With that guiding her, Adams is left unrestrained and usually screaming. There’s just so much screaming and wailing and crying and shouting. It’s an off-the-mark performance that reminded me of Julianne Moore in 2006’s Freedomland, where a usually bulletproof actress is left on her own in the deep end, and the resulting struggle leans upon histrionics. Was I supposed to feel sympathy for Bev at some point? Does the movie ever feel sympathy for this woman who terrorizes and beats her child? The broad portrayal lacks humanizing nuance, so Bev feels less like a symbolic victim of a larger rot of a society abandoned and betrayed and more a TV movie villain.
Close (The Wife) disappears into the heavy prosthetics and baggy T-shirts of MeeMaw, but you could have convinced me the character was a pile of coats come to life. Truthfully, MeeMaw is, by far, the most interesting character and the story would have greatly benefited from being re-calibrated from her painful perspective. She’s the one who bears witness to just how far Middletown has fallen since her and PawPaw ventured as young adults with the promise of a secure new life thanks to the thriving factory. She’s the one symbolizing the past and its grip as the present withers. She’s the one who has a history of abuse only to watch her daughter fall into similar patterns. Think of the guilt and torment and desire to rescue her grandson for a better life and save her family. That’s an inherently interesting perspective, but with JD Vance as our mundane lead, MeeMaw is more a slow-walking curmudgeon taken to doling out profane one-liners and grumpy life lessons. Close is easily the best part of Hillbilly Elegy and deserved more attention and consideration. A moment where she clings to JD’s high-scoring math test like a life raft is heartfelt and earned, more so than anything with JD.
Another slice of America that feels forgotten and angry is on display with the documentary Feels Good Man, a.k.a. the Pepe the Frog documentary. Who is Pepe? He’s a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie as part of a comic series of post-college ennui between four friends. The character was adopted by the commenters on the message board 4Chan as their own symbol, and as their memes spread and became more popular with mainstream suers, and that’s when the 4Chan warriors had to do something drastic to save their favorite frog. They began transforming Pepe into a symbol of hate in order to make him toxic for outside use, and then the irony of their attempts at reclamation faded away and Pepe became a real symbol for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The character is currently listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of symbols of hate. The movie explores this evolution and de-evolution of Matt Furie’s creation and serves as a cautionary tale about the scary shadows of Internet culture and the nature of reclaiming meaning and intent with art.
Firstly, is there enough material here for a full-fledged documentary? We’re talking about a cartoon frog filling up the memes of Internet trolls. Is that enough? I think so, though I wish the movie shed even more critical scrutiny upon the 4Chan fringes of the Internet that have become a toxic cesspool of alienation and recrimination. These are people that self-identify and celebrate their social isolationism. The acronym N.E.E.T. stands for NOT Employed, Educated, or Trained and is adopted by many as an odd badge of honor. We even see home video footage of people sharing their personal lives in cluttered, trash-strewn basements. These are people electing not to engage with a larger functioning society and yet also feeling hostile to those that choose otherwise. Maybe it’s all a big joke to them, so why even bother; maybe it’s a defeatist mentality that plays upon social anxiety and learned helplessness. Maybe it’s just a noisy, nihilistic club that doesn’t want anything for themselves other than to disrupt others. The interview subjects from the 4Chan community are few but offer chilling peeks into this subculture. They see the world in terms of a very high school-level of social hierarchy, and the people who are pretty, successful, and having sexual relationships are the “popular kids” keeping them down. I think in terms of a Venn diagram, that incels and these NEET freaks are a flat circle. It almost feels like Vance’s cultural critiques of his poor Appalachia roots syncs up with the disenchanted 4Chan kids. This self-imposed isolation and self-persecution stews into a hateful mess of resentment. It’s not a surprise that several mass shooters have partaken in 4Chan and 8Chan communities.
This scary subsection of Internet culture has been left to fester and it went next level for the 2016 presidential election. The trolls recognized their own sensibilities in Donald Trump, a candidate whose entire presidency seemed on the precipice of being a bad joke. The alt-right celebrated the man and used Pepe as a symbol for Trump’s trolling of norms and decorum, and the 4Chan message boards became an army of meme makers to steer Internet chatter. It’s hard to say what exactly the cumulative effect of these memes and trolling efforts achieved, in addition to the successful efforts of Russian hackers and a media environment that gave Trump billions of dollars in free airtime, but the 4Chan crowd celebrated their victory. “We memed him to the White House,” they declared. From there, Pepe became a synonymous symbol of a newly emboldened white supremacist coalition and any pretenses of ironic detachment dissolved away.
The rise and mutation of Pepe makes up most of the movie, and it’s certainly the most fascinating and scary part of Feels Good Man. However, there is a larger question about the ownership of art and interpretation that the movie presents without conclusive answers. Symbols are a tricky thing. They’re not permanent. The swastika wasn’t always associated with Hitler and Nazis. A pentagram has significantly different meanings depending upon a Wiccan and conservative Christian audience. Feels Good Man examines Furie as a humble albeit slightly naïve creator. He’s a nice guy who just can’t get his head around what has happened to his creation. How far does the artist’s intent go when it comes to credible meaning? At one point, Furie tried stemming the negativity by killing off Pepe in a limited comic, but it didn’t matter. The 4Chan followers simply remade him as they desired because at that point Pepe was their own. He has been built and rebuilt over and over again, that no one person can claim interpretative supremacy. Furie’s version of Pepe might be gone but there are millions of others alive and well. This gets into the nature of art and how every creator in some regard must make amends with letting go of their creation. Once it enters the larger world for consumption, they can steer conversations but art can take on its own life. The last third of the movie follows Furie taking action to enforce his copyright law to push back against the more outlandish uses of Pepe the frog, including from InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same man who told us the government was making frogs gay for some unexplained conspiracy. Jones makes for a pretty easy villain to enjoy seeing defeated, and the conclusion of the movie involves dueling taped depositions between Furie and Jones over intellectual trademarks and free speech. It makes for an easy to navigate victory for Furie to end the movie upon, but is this larger war winnable? I have my doubts and I don’t think the trolls of the darker reaches of the Internet are going away.
I also want to single out the beautiful animation that appears throughout Feels Good Man, giving a visual representation to Pepe in a manner that’s like trying to give him a say in his own intent.
So, dear reader, why did I pair both of these movies for a joint review? I found both of them as investigations into a sliver of America that feels forgotten, left behind, stuck in ruts outside their control, and resentful of a changing culture they see as exclusive to their hard-hit communities. I thought both Hillbilly Elegy and Feels Good Man could provide me, and others, greater insight into these subcultures and perhaps solutions that can make them feel more seen and heard. The problem is that Elegy doesn’t provide solutions other than “pull up your bootstraps” and Feels Good Man involves a destructive coalition that I don’t want better seen and heard. Both movies in their own ways deal with the nature of how very human it can be to retreat to their safe confines of people who too feel ostracized, hurt, and overwhelmed. I have pity for the people of the Rust Belt, the hillbillies experiencing generational poverty and hardships, though “economic anxiety” is not simply a regional or whites-only worry. I have less pity for the basement trolls of 4Chan trying to celebrate school shooters because it’s somehow funny. I’m amazed that so many talented people were part of Hillbilly Elegy and had such high hopes. For all of its full-tilt screaming, the movie is thoroughly boring and formulaic. Given the nature of an elegy, I was expecting Howard’s movie would be more considerate of its people, but their humanity is lost in this pared-down characterization, and the tragedy of society failing its own becomes an inauthentic Horatio Alger story of the plucky kid who went to Yale and became a real somebody. Feels Good Man might not be the best documentary but it feels more authentic and owns up to its inability to answer larger questions about human behavior, art, and interpretation. Both of these movies will prove horrifying to watch but only one is intentionally so.
Hillbilly Elegy: C-
Feels Good Man: B