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Adeline (2022)

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

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released July 19, 2002:

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 Emmy’s 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 that’s 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

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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

Jerry & Marge Go Large (2022)

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-

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

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+

Our Friend (2021)

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 (2020)/ Feels Good Man (2020)

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.

Nate’s Grades:

Hillbilly Elegy: C-

Feels Good Man: B

Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)/ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

Two new movies have been released for streaming, both coincidentally starring Sacha Baron Cohen, and both are highly political, one by design and the other through fortuitous circumstances of history regrettably repeating itself, and both are simultaneously everything you would expect from their creative forces and worth watching in our tumultuous times.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a courtroom drama depicting the injustices applied to a dispirit group of anti-war activists who were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The various men of different backgrounds and affiliations had their reasons for being there to protest, whether it was building public support to end the Vietnam War, to gain personal publicity, or to get laid, and tensions mounted inside and out the group as the police plan to send a message, harassed protesters, and in one amazingly prescient moment, remove their badges and name tags to then inflict state-sanctioned violence. This is an Aaron Sorkin movie through and through, and his second offering as a director after 2017’s Molly’s Game, and the best thing about the Oscar-winning wordsmith is that watching one of his movies feels like you’ve just downloaded a complete syllabus. The sheer audacious density of information can be overwhelming, but when Sorkin is able to get into his well-established rhythms, the actors feel like wonderful pieces in an orchestra playing to its peak. The real-life story of the activists has plenty of juicy drama and intriguing characters and intra-group conflicts breaking open, mostly between the divided poles of political leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and counter-culture prankster Abbie Hoffman (Cohen). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen, HBO’s Watchmen) could have gotten his own movie and suffers many of the worst indignities as a member of the Black Panthers who was grafted onto the case in order to make the rest of the indicted men seem scarier by association. The consistent interference by the trial judge (Frank Langella) is shocking. It’s so transparently biased, racist, and unprofessional that I have to believe that many of these anecdotes actually happened because otherwise they seem so absurdly prejudicial that nobody would believe this happened. For a movie with such a sizeable cast of trial litigants, lawyers on both sides, friends and family, and maybe every police officer in Chicago, it’s impressive that Sorkin is able to provide so many with great Sorkin moments, meaning those grandstanding speeches, cutting one-liners, and intensive cross-examination. Not everyone is on the same level of importance. Several of the Chicago 7 are merely bodies on screen, two of the guys serve as little more than a quip-peddling Greek chorus. You sense there’s more being left out to fit into a crammed yet tidy narrative that plays to our demands for satisfying character arcs, reconciliation, and a morally stirring final stand. As a director, Sorkin doesn’t distinguish himself but he lets his meaty script and the performances of his actors get all the attention. The editing, like in Molly’s Game, can be a bit jumpy but it’s to serve the sheer size of information being downloaded during the 129 minutes. The political parallels for today are remarkable and a condemnation of our modern times. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an invigorating and, at points, exhausting film going experience that can feel like a retro, overstuffed special episode of The West Wing. It’s everything you should expect and want in an Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama, so if you’re already in that anxious camp then this Netflix original will be preaching to the overly verbose choir.

Secretly filmed over the past year, Sacha Baron Cohen reprises his outlandish Borat character to once again lampoon people’s not-so-hidden prejudices, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and misogyny, which seem to have only gotten worse since the first Borat movie in 2006. The flimsy story follows international journalist Borat returning to America to help improve the standing of his home nation Kazakhstan by offering his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) to the Trump administration. It’s really just a platform for Cohen to adopt a series of disguises (his Borat is too recognizable) and dupe some rubes while exploiting their ignorance and patience. Much of the entertainment comes from the cringe-inducing interactions of how far Cohen and Bakalova will go, marveling at their improvisational skills and also dreading what lines they might cross next. I was laughing fairly consistently, though the schitck naturally won’t be as funny the second time around, even with a 14-year gap in movies. I was really impressed by Bakalova and her own commitment and quick-thinking, keeping pace with a pro like Cohen and really stealing the show because Borat can’t go out in public as before. There are some outrageous moments that work, like Cohen imitating a country singer leading an anti-masking crowd into a singalong with ridiculous verses, and some that simply don’t, like an ongoing stretch where Bakalova explains the appeal of masturbation to a gaggle of deadly silent Republican ladies. Sometimes the comedy seems so broadly caricatured that it’s questionable whether its helpful or harmful, especially the anti-Semitic tropes that Cohen embraces as means of satire. Saying something outrageous to an outraged or shocked party isn’t quite enough. When compiling these hidden camera comedies, they thrive on the oxygen given to them by the targets of the prank. If they don’t really engage, it can feel a bit tired and desperate. I’d say the ratio of hits-to-misses is about half and half but the movie has enough big moments to keep fans happy. The most notorious moment has already been widely disseminated through social media and serves as the climax of the movie, strangely both as the high-point of pranks with big names but also as the emotional catharsis. Tutar poses as a foreign journalist and interviews Trump surrogate Rudy “America’s mayor” Giuliani, who drinks, goes into a hotel bedroom alone with Bakalova, and then lays on the bed while slipping his hand down his pants (like a gentleman does). Borat realizes he doesn’t want to offer his daughter to this creepy, sleazy man and rescues her because he truly does care about her. Borat 2, or Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, takes a scattershot approach to satire and squarely aims at the science-denying MAGA crowd celebrating the excesses of their leader (who doesn’t sound that different from Borat, come to think of it). It might be more admirable in intent than execution but the new Borat can provide a few belly laughs and a more than a few groans as Cohen attempts to make American funny again.

Nate’s Grades:

Trial of the Chicago 7: B+

Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm: B-

The One and Only Ivan (2020)

Disney’s latest talking animal movie is based on a real story. Not the talking animals part, more a gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) who lived in a strip mall as a circus performer and then became a painter and the notoriety of his art built a movement to free him. The One and Only Ivan is a good-natured family film with affirming lessons and a conservationist advocacy. Kids may laugh at some of the silly animals, or they might cry as the maternal elephant (Angelina Jolie) entrusts onto Ivan the promise to break the newest baby elephant free of bondage. Ivan was raised by Mack (Bryan Cranston) who runs the strip mall circus, though times are tough and he may have lost sight of his priorities with his animals. Enter cute kid, cute baby elephant, cute and scrappy dog, and Ivan’s passion for the arts. The one element that makes this movie different, Ivan’s ability to paint his emotions and reflections, is barely included and that’s a real shame. Ivan becomes like the spider from Charlotte’s Web and uses his position to advocate for another animal, using the subsequent attention to spare this small creature. He paints once and the movie zips to its resolution. The thrust of the story is Ivan addressing his own personal tragedy and letting others in, risking his own safety and ego to protect those vulnerable. The CGI special effects are suitable if unremarkable, landing in that middle zone of meeting expectations of semi-reality but not exceeding them. I would have preferred a documentary going into the actual events of the real Ivan, getting interviews from the people who were there and mattered, their own insights and experiences, and really dwelling more on what the idea of artistic expression means for an ape and what it might mean concerning our connections to these creatures. I think there’s a compelling, enlightening, and heartfelt documentary to be had with the subject matter. The live-action talking-animal movie, however, is just more of the same inoffensive family film treacle and clearly not the one and only.

Nate’s Grade: C+

I Still Believe (2020)

I Still Believe was one of the last wide releases before theaters shuttled thanks to COVID-19. It was a low-budget Christian indie by the Erwin brothers, Andrew and Jon (I Can Only Imagine, October Baby). My expectations were already low and the final film is equal parts earnest and goofy, but where it goes wrong is with its stretched-out passion play built on suffering.

Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) heads to college and falls instantly in love with art student, Melissa (Britt Robertson). He’s a budding Christian musician and gets his big break from fellow “student” and successful musician, Jean Luc (Nathan Parsons). Jeremy and Melissa’s relationship is tested when she is given a cancer diagnosis, but he’s unwavering in his support. They pray for help and struggle for meaning, with Jeremy turning to music for answers.

As with many Christian indies, I’ve discovered that the elements of filmmaking and storytelling are generally secondary to whatever the message is the film wishes to confirm for its built-in audience. So the details don’t really matter as much as the bigger picture, which in this case I assume is to inspire in its audience that even when they are suffering that God has a plan for them. I can see how people can find that topic comforting because one of the nagging questions in theology is over why a loving God would allow terrible things to happen to good people. The best the film can surmise is that there is a “greater good” sort of response we cannot know, and that the death of one person could have ripple effects and inspire many millions more. That’s what I Still Believe is proposing with its true story, namely that the tale of Jeremy Camp’s deceased first wife happened to inspire millions and bring them closer to God through Camp’s music and storytelling over his loss. Either you find that comforting and an answer enough or you don’t, but if you question that logic, then the movie demonstrating this resembles a cruel passion play.

Even before I started this movie, I knew that Melissa was going to die, and I knew her ultimate purpose was going to be to push the man along on his own spiritual and artistic journey. She dies so that you can become a better guitarist, Jeremy. I don’t mean to sound crass considering these are based on real people, and the real Melissa really died, and her friends and family felt real grief. My critical aims are with how the movie handles this and not her real tragic loss. I think many can be irritated when a movie says a character’s ultimate suffering was all to prop up another character; I’m reminded of numerous Hollywood stories about African-American suffering where it props up a white savior character to learn or achieve Important Things. This nagging feeling would have been lessened had Jeremy come across as a more compelling character in the movie and, even, a more compelling artist. He’s a pretty bland white dude and his music is fairly vanilla acoustic guitar soft rock. The music is earnest, it’s pleasant enough, but there’s nothing that really stands out, but that assessment is personal, I admit. I struggle with movies that try to convince me of someone’s artistic ascendance but don’t feel like they back it up with the evidence for that fame. The character of Jeremy onscreen is a nice guy, well-meaning, but he’s more interesting when he’s in the goofy love triangle with Jean Luc. Once Melissa gets her cancer diagnosis, his characterization just gets put on hold. He becomes a loving caretaker and then, once she inevitably passes, he becomes a loving and bereaved husband.

This is where I rankle because that cancer diagnosis comes so early and that is all the movie becomes afterwards, and when we all know where I Still Believe is ultimately heading, it becomes very tedious and arguably garish. The cancer diagnosis happens with an entire hour left to go, which means we’re left to watch Melissa get sick, everyone worry and cry, and when her remission happens with a half hour left to the movie, you know we’re just biding time until it comes back again because what else are we going to do with all this extra time? It’s not like Melissa, fresh from beating cancer, says to her man, “Let’s pull off a heist.” We all know where this is going, so this momentary reprieve and the movie treating it like, “Hooray, look at what prayer has done,” feels downright cruel because we know it’s not going to last. We know the rest of the road ahead is going to be watching her returned suffering, which is the entire movie. It is a passion play where we watch a young woman suffer and die so that we will ultimately get some songs written about her memory and experience. For those outside the target audience, this can become borderline offensive, and from a storytelling standpoint so much is left simply broad.

The most enjoyable parts of I Still Believe for me are how goofy it can be especially with its fuzzy details. This is a movie without any sense of humor and yet it can inspire laughter. Jeremy seems to be attending a school where he never has to do any work. This school is also I guess a regular stop for Jean Luc, an alum who has already become famous and has a backing band, so why does he just keep showing up to perform on this campus? Doesn’t he tour outside the school? Also, Jeremy is almost immediately successful. He’s thrown onstage in what amounts to the film’s Star is Born moment when Jean Luc invites Jeremy to share his special song to a live audience. From there, Jeremy is recording, performing regular to packed crowds, to the point that I questioned when he has a sit-down with his college dean about quitting school to tend to the ailing Melissa, I was shocked he was still attending school at all. Isn’t he just a successful musician now? My opening impression of Jeremy as he goes off to college is positive, as he calms down his impaired little brother who is bereft with the departure. Then over the opening credits he’s playing his acoustic guitar on a charter bus and I thought how rude that would be. But by far the most amusing part of the movie is the love triangle between Jeremy, Melissa, and Jean Luc. First off, every time a character says the name “Jean Luc” with such seriousness I giggled. The actor seems so much older than everyone else, though he’s only two years older than Robertson (who is 7 years older than Apa). The love triangle is enough to keep Melissa from being public about dating Jeremy, and when he presses her on it, she pushes back that he should return the jacket that Jean Luc gave him, as if these are equivalent. And then she keeps bringing it up. Jean Luc isn’t even a character so much as a platform of opportunity for Jeremy and then a contrived obstacle for their blooming romance.

The acting overall falls into that earnest yet occasionally goofy territory of many Christian indies. It’s not quite camp but there are moments where characters are so serious that things feel a tad off, like we’re just seconds away from everyone breaking into laughter. Apa (Riverdale) is blandly appealing but feels very much like Zac Efron lite. He does all his own singing and guitar playing which is more technically impressive than the character he has been given. Robertson showed such promise with 2015’s Tomorrowland and seems to be given little to do here. She’s slated in that dewy role as the Wise Woman Fated For Tragedy, which is kind of like the more somber terminal illness equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Even in her last moments, she seems to have a radiance of knowledge. I wish I could say there was strong chemistry between the leads but Apa has better chemistry with his guitar. Then there are Jeremy’s parents played by Gary Sinise and, surprise surprise, recording star Shania Twain. This is only her third film appearance and she is given so little to do that, frankly, it didn’t impress me much. The best performance in the film happens late when Jeremy meets a fan (Abigail Cowen) who monologues what Jeremy’s songs and experiences have met to her and how they’ve changed her life. It’s a moment that feels emotionally affecting even if you know it’s here to literally remind the audience of the theme. That same woman would then go on to become Jeremy’s wife, so good for them.

I Still Believe isn’t offensively bad, campy, or even theologically misguided in its view of morality like a hokey Kirk Cameron vehicle. It feels like a glossy made-for-TV movie that just happens to be made for a majority-Christian audience. The message is paramount, and all else serves the message, which means the characters are uninteresting, the story is redundant to the point of piling on cruelty, and the overall earnest tone can approach unintentional goofiness. It feels like much of the film is padding the running time with lengthy musical performances like a concert movie. It’s also a movie without enough story to cover its near two-hour length. Either you connect with the overall message that there can be meaning in suffering or you see past it and take umbrage with the movie presenting a woman’s suffering as character development for a soon-to-be popular musician. This is like a Christian weepie version of The Fault in Our Stars, which was another movie we knew where it would be headed, but it lacks the effort level. The Erwin brothers shoot everything either with annoyingly distracting handheld camerawork or swooping drone footage. The film has technical merit but filmed like it’s a collection of B-roll for some prescription drug ad (all those smiling, warmly lit faces on the beach having fun). I Still Believe is a blandly dull movie built upon extended suffering and extended musical performances. Maybe it knows its audience too well but I doubt anyone outside the flock will find inspiration here.

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

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