Reading The Snow and the Darkness put me in a bad mood, so I decided to watch Tucker & Dale Vs Evil to cheer myself up. It’s a comedic riff on a hillbilly slasher movie, and it’s available on Netflix right now. I’ve watched it before, and I really love it, because it's clever and funny and leaves me feeling good.
When a group of college kids travel deep into the Appalachian Mountains for a camping trip, they encounter a couple of hillbillies who occupy a creepy-looking cabin. It seems like the perfect set-up for a horror movie. However, the hillbillies turn out to be harmless. Pragmatic, beer-loving Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and hopeless romantic Dale (Tyler Labine) just want to renovate their “vacation home” and go fishing. When Dale rescues college student Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, a series of misunderstandings lead the remaining college kids to believe that Tucker and Dale are psycho killers. Soon the bodies start piling up in violent, gory, and hilarious ways.
Tucker & Dale is a kind of a parody movie, and I, personally, love parodies. They play with the conventions of genre, which I’m always a fan of. But whereas some parody movies are content to rest on laughs and not really bother with a story (I’m looking at you Scary Movie), Tucker & Dale Vs Evil delivers a well-written tale with fleshed out characters and plenty of heart. Also, it’s funny. Really funny.
The humor, as I see it, comes from two major sources. The first is that the college kids, through a combination of misunderstanding, bad luck, and extreme stupidity, end up killing themselves and each other. This is played for laughs, and it works because the deaths are so extreme, they’re ridiculous. However, this humor is predicated on shock value, and it becomes less and less effective as the movie wears on.
Fortunately, the second kind of humor is more consistent, as it relies on the charms of Tucker and Dale. They’re pretty funny from the start, but it’s their reaction to the extreme circumstances that’s particularly hilarious. Tucker and Dale are horrified and confused by the profusion of college kids “killing themselves all over [their] property.” This humor never lessens because it is rooted in character. It also helps that the actors are funny, especially, Alan Tudyk, who has excellent comedic timing.
The humor peaks in the middle, during a brutally gory and hilarious scene, where two college kids manage to kill themselves right near Tucker and Dale. Our two heroes first react in shock and horror, and then come together to try and figure out what’s going on. They decide that the college kids must have some sort of suicide pact and realize that the dead bodies are going to make the two of them look pretty bad. Right in the middle of cleaning up, a cop arrives. It’s a scene that’s genuinely tense, and watching Tucker and Dale squirm is oh-so-delightful.
But even if the humor declines somewhat after that second act, the story continues strong. As the college kids decide to “fight back,” Tucker and Dale struggle to survive. One college kid, meanwhile, is morphing into the titular evil. Will Dale find the confidence to become the hero and win the affections of the girl? Will Tucker ever get to have a beer and enjoy his vacation home? I won’t spoil the ending, but it is a happy one.
Now as I was watching this flick for the hundredth time, I was thinking that, in order to be effective, Tucker & Dale has to make us care for the title characters very deeply and not care about the college kids at all--and it has to do both at the same time. As a writer, I find this a fascinating study. How do you make an audience care for certain characters? Likewise, what makes an audience stop caring to the degree that they actively root for the characters’ deaths? I have my theories.
I had been wanting to see 1917 since the fall of 2019, when a critic compared it to The Lord of the Rings. That was all the sell I needed. I had to wait until after Christmas for it to expand into theatres. But the holidays brought chaos to my personal life, with moving on the one hand and sinus infections on the other. The Oscars came and went, and my life still didn’t calm down. Finally I said, “To hell with it,” and bought a matinee ticket for a Tuesday showing in the middle of February.
1917 is World War I drama done in (seemingly) a single shot. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his friend Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are sent across no man’s land to deliver a message. Colonel MacKenzie is leading two battalions into a trap, and Blake’s brother is among those at risk. Although the territory they must cross seems, on paper, to be deserted by the German army, it is fraught with many perils, as they encounter boobytraps, snipers, and challenging terrain.
1917 struck me as a mash-up between an action-adventure video game and a “best of” compilations of the horrors of World War I, with moments of poignant human drama thrown in. This sounds like an insult, but I don’t mean it to be. I liked the movie. However, I was ambivalent about the use of the single shot gimmick.
On the one hand, I marveled at how they managed to make this movie. They couldn’t have just built several miles of trenches, a village, a river, and a patch of woods in a studio somewhere. Could they? Even if they did, can you imagine coordinating all the actors, all the extras, all the stunt doubles, all the props, and all the cameras? If everyone didn’t hit their mark exactly right, the whole thing would fall apart. I left 1917 wanting to watch a documentary about the making of the movie, just to see how it was done.
On the other hand, constantly thinking about how the movie was made distracted me from the story being told. In most movies, I don’t think about where the camera is positioned or what it's doing, but here it was all I could think about. It almost felt like the camera was its own character, like a first-person video game avatar or maybe a documentary crew recording this incident. But the cinematography was so beautiful, so smooth, so perfectly able to capture excitement and emotion, it made it very clear that everything was staged. No matter how realistic the details, the world of 1917 is inherently artificial.
I know nothing about cars or racing. However, I noted the positive reviews and Oscar nominations for Ford v Ferrari, so when the movie popped up in the dollar theatre, I was willing to give it a shot. I went to see it with my dad, who also has no interest in racing, but trusts my taste in movies. It turned out to be a pleasant Sunday matinee.
After Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) gets his ego gets bruised by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), the American industrialist decides to build a car to win the famous Le Mans race. He enlists Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who agrees to build a winning car if he can have Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as his driver. However, when Ken Miles rubs the advertising department the wrong way, the vice president tries to have him removed. Battling both technical problems and bureaucratic impediment, the two men work together to try to win the Le Mans ’66.
If Ford v Ferrari did nothing else, it taught me an appreciation of racing. I had thought that the race car builder and the race car driver were separate jobs, but the two overlapped quite a bit. For example, Carroll Shelby, the builder of the car, did actually drive the Le Mans race--it’s what drew Ford Company to him. Ken Miles worked a day job as a mechanic and offered valuable feedback and suggestions for the design of the car.
The movie also gave me a new perspective of why races might be popular, necessary even. The Le Mans race was, in this case, a test of the engineering of the car and the skill of the driver. Such a test means pushing the boundaries. Every setback, every problem, every solution that brought up a brand new problem, all led to that glorious moment where all that hard work came together to show off something new.
(Warning: While there are no explicit spoilers, I am going to discuss some of the themes that occur throughout the movie. Some spoilers may be implied, if you read between the lines.)
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, I decided to do a double feature of Queen and Slim and Knives Out. After the emotional wallop of Queen and Slim, I had ten minutes to shake myself off, use the bathroom, grab a popcorn and soda, and ready myself for a lighter, funnier flick.
When eccentric millionaire/ mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies from a slit throat, it appears to be an open and shut case of suicide. But private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired to investigate. As he interviews the various family members (Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Colette, etc.) secrets are unearthed. It seems every person in the family has a reason to want Harlan dead. The only one Benoit can trust is Harlan’s kindly nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who has a visible aversion to lying. But Marta has a secret of her own.
I wanted to see Knives Out, because I liked what Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi. When I heard that his new movie was a murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie novels (my all-time favorite mystery writer) and the 1985 movie Clue (a film I practically memorized in high school), well, count me in. Good reviews and an all-star cast did nothing to diminish my interest in the project.
I have to say, Thanksgiving was the perfect time to see Knives Out. It is the ultimate “family feud” movie, which will make you either relate to the craziness or feel grateful for your own family. The characters were just grounded enough to feel real, and just exaggerated enough to be funny. The actors were clearly having a ball, and that joy translated to their screen. It was fun to see a bunch of rich hypocrites get their comeuppance. Knives Out was a solid film.
It was not exceptional. It was funny, but not hilarious. It was good, but not great. I mean, considering the praise it was getting, I sort of expected more. For me, though, the biggest problem may have been the mystery. Knives Out was advertised as having the feel of an Agatha Christie novel, and that was true. It was very Agatha Christie-like. Too Agatha Christie-like.
See, I’ve read many of Agatha Christie’s novels, enough to pick up on the general patterns. Therefore, I figured out where the story was going. It didn’t surprise me. In fact, I thought it was pretty obvious.
(Warning: I’m now going to brag about how I solved the mystery, so there will be SPOILERS ahead! Read at your own risk.)
After Thanksgiving, I did a double feature at AMC: Queen and Slim in the morning, and Knives Out almost immediately after. I’d never done a double feature, but I didn’t have much choice. Too many good movies come out in the holiday corridor and I don’t always have a spare Sunday to sneak out and see them.
Queen and Slim came on my radar, because I saw the trailer--online or in a theatre, I can’t remember. Queen and Slim is an R-rated romantic drama about a black couple who become accidental criminals and must flee the law. Right away, I liked the characters and the tense situation they found themselves in. The film fell off my radar for a while but came back when the reviews came in and some of my favorite movie pundits recommended the movie.
The movie doesn’t waste time. It begins with a woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) and a man (Daniel Kaluuya) going on an awkward first date. Their names aren’t given until the very end, so I’m going to go off the title and call the woman Queen and the man Slim. Queen is a defense lawyer whose client just received a death sentence. She is guarded and aloof. Slim is an amiable, warm, religious man. The date does not go well. As Slim tries to drop Queen off, he gets pulled over and aggressively searched by a racist cop. Queen tries to record the cop on her cell phone, but the cop shoots her in the leg. A heated fight breaks out between Slim and the cop. Slim grabs the cop’s fallen gun and shoots him, half in defense, half by accident. The cop dies. Before the title card officially drops, they are on the run.
My first reaction, fresh out of the theatre, was that Queen and Slim had a lot of elements that reminded me of a good fantasy movie (my favorite genre), even though it clearly wasn’t fantasy. Queen and Slim was an unexpected journey which ripped the characters out of their normal lives, brought them to interesting places and people, forged deep bonds, and forced them to contemplate deeper meanings of existence, destiny, and legacy. It was Romantic with a capital R. Not only did Queen and Slim fall in love, they expressed what love meant to them as individuals so beautifully and poetically, it made my heart twist.
(Warning: Although I try not to spoil anything in particular, I do mention details that take place halfway through the movie. If you are sensitive to these thing, you may not want to read.)
Destroyer is a prestige, independent picture from Annapurna Pictures that came out last December and which I recently found on Hulu. It is a modern day noir story set in L.A. that features a female detective, Erin Bell, played by Nicole Kidman. 17 years ago, Erin, a local sheriff deputy, worked undercover with FBI agent Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate drug-dealers-turned-armed robbers, led by Silas (Toby Kebbell). Something goes wrong, and Chris winds up dead. In the present day, Erin gets a message from Silas. He’s back, and she intends to find him. The two stories, past and present, are woven together via a series of flashbacks. There is also a subplot about Erin’s daughter, Shelby, starting to go down a bad path, most likely due to Erin’s horrific parental neglect.
Right off the bat, I can tell you that Destroyer suffers from too little story. The two-hour run-time is padded out with many of Erin’s intense, inscrutable stares. The present-day plot involves Erin revisiting old gang members, one by one, and asking them questions until they obligingly answer. There isn’t really a mystery to solve, just stakeouts and interrogations. The past plotline of Erin’s undercover assignment is muted of danger and suspense. Destroyer is a character-driven story where the main character is an inscrutable cipher. There is strong acting, especially from the supporting cast, and individual scenes are well-crafted. It has potential, but the weakness of the story holds it back.
I’m not an expert on the noir genre, but I was introduced to the concept in college. I understand the tradition of the alcoholic detective who uses his fists to get from point A to point B. Does it, however, work in modern day? And does it work when you gender-flip the detective? In Destroyer, it does not. Rather than view Erin as hard-boiled, I saw her as incompetent.
(Click to see full review. Potentially some spoilers. I do describe scenes, including scenes at the end, but I try not to give away twists and important details. If this bothers you, you may want to see the movie first.)
When I was in high school, I saw a little movie called Gladiator. I loved it, but for all the wrong reasons. Rather than cheering for the (supposedly) heroic, stoic, and (in my opinion) boring Maximus (Russell Crowe), I found myself rooting for Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the murderous, incestuous, and emotionally turbulent villain of the story. I knew he would lose, but I didn’t care. He was interesting, and, despite all the bad stuff he did, I still related to him far more than the hero. Thus began my fascination with twisted, crazy, creepy, villainous characters who more often than not take the form of pale-skinned, blue-eyed brunettes.
Joker is the origin story of Batman’s greatest foe, set in a realistic version of 1980s Gotham. In it, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill man, working a menial job as a party clown and taking care of his ailing mother, Penny Fleck (Francis Conroy). He has dreams of making it as a stand-up comedian and idolizes talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Nero). However, a series of events leads him down the path of violence, chaos, and villainous glory.
Naturally, Joker was going to appeal to me. It’s a movie that takes the kind of character I always root for anyway and puts him in the spotlight. The fact that they got Joaquin Phoenix to star in it only made it that much more delicious to me. Before going into the movie, I was keenly aware of the supposed controversy surrounding the movie, about whether or not the Joker was the “patron saint of incels,” and whether this made Joker a movie we needed to watch or a movie to avoid at all cost. I watched it on Sunday of its opening weekend, and my reaction was, as usual, not the right one.
I thought Joker was fun. I enjoyed it. I was thoroughly entertained.
And because my reaction seems inappropriate, I feel the need to explain it. So here I go. First, and most obviously, I enjoyed Joker because Joaquin Phoenix did a heck of a job acting, and I was completely mesmerized by his performance. I could watch him over and over again. Second, I not only empathized with Arthur, I related to him, and there was no moment where he ever lost my sympathy. Third, within the specific context of this movie, moral justice is upheld—the wicked are punished, the powerless become powerful, and society achieves a warped sense of balance. In that way, the conclusion is emotionally satisfying.
I think it’s ironic that most of the fuss revolves around what the movie says about society, how it will influence society, and whether it’s important to society. Joker isn’t a movie about society. It’s a movie about the individual. Joker portrays an individual breaking free from society, with all the joys and pains that liberation incurs.
(Warning: The following analysis reveals key character deaths. If you have not seen Joker and want to be surprised, do not read ahead. You’ve been warned.)
My cousin, Nathan, who has good taste in movies (unlike me), recommended I watch Nightcrawler. He said the film was excellent, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting was superb. One day, while sifting through uncased DVDs at a thrift store, I found a copy of Nightcrawler for 25 cents. I triumphantly brought it back to my home. I was going to savor this movie, so I made popcorn, poured a glass of wine, and waited until it got dark. To kill time, I watched Jupiter Ascending, and let me tell you, it made for a weird double feature.
In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unemployed man with loose morals and a huge business vocabulary. After a chance encounter on the freeway, he decides to pursue a career as a freelance crime videographer. He listens to police radios, races to the scene of a crime, tapes the gory footage, and sells it to a local news channels, headed by Nina (Rene Russo). Finding his calling, Lou intends to grow his freelance business, but to do so he’ll need to take greater risks and push the boundaries of the law.
Nightcrawler is tense, tense, tense, to the point I frequently had to stop the movie just to take a breather. It was well-crafted on every level: great acting, beautiful cinematography, complex characters, tight plot, and clear themes. Granted, those themes are extraordinarily dark and cynical--but damn if the movie didn’t know what it wanted to say and hammer in that point. It was a brilliant film that I never want to see again because it was just too hard to watch.
(Although I try not to include any major spoilers, my review does mention key details and give away the ending to Nightcrawler in a very general way. I recommend watching the movie first.)
It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon, and I had notes to type, so I scanned Netflix for a movie to put on. I wanted something that would not be involving, something that could function as background noise. I spied Jupiter Ascending. I had never seen the movie, but I knew its reputation--oh, boy did I know. A $176 million dollar bomb by the Wachowskis, it was eviscerated by critics and audience alike. I had already read a long and snarky, point-by-point summary of it and seen enough parodies to know the general plot, so I figured it wouldn’t take up too much of my attention.
I should have known better.
Jupiter Ascending is the story of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a poor Russian immigrant living in Chicago, who finds herself unwittingly caught up in a power struggle that spans the universe. A powerful race of advanced humans have discovered a way to keep themselves young and beautiful forever by using other humans to create an immorality serum. This is a lucrative industry, with the Abrasax family “seeding” planets with humans and “harvesting” them when the population reaches its peak. Earth currently belongs to Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), the eldest of three siblings, who plans to decimate Earth’s population in the near future.
But there’s a wrinkle. Jupiter Jones is the genetic match of the now-deceased matriarch of the Abrasax family, the matriarch’s “reincarnation,” so to speak. As such, she can stake a claim to the Earth--provided she can survive the plotting of the three Abrasax siblings. Aided by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetic “splice” of human and dog DNA, Jupiter Jones learns what makes her special (her genetic code), finds love, and learns to appreciate the miserable life she has on Earth.
Jupiter Ascending is an uneasy mixture of Star Wars and Twilight, with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey and dollop of Cinderella. It has way too many ideas and most of them are under-baked. It doesn’t know what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Without a core to hold it up, it stumbles from one incident to the next. The characters are cardboard-thin. Jupiter gets the most development and the most sympathy, but also spends most of her screen time being a damsel in distress, getting tricked, and/or trying to flirt with Caine using cringe-inducing banter. The action and cinematography have the glossy competence of a Hollywood blockbuster, and the sets and costumes are absolutely beautiful. It’s not good, but it’s also harmless and forgettable fluff.
What ended up tearing my attention from my typing and forcing me to watch the film was not so much the movie itself, which, for all its explosions, was pretty boring. No, it was the meta question: “What went wrong?” Because skimming the surface of the film, it seemed like a pretty standard movie. A high concept idea, generic action set pieces, a forced romantic subplot, pretty visuals. About midway through, I started getting into it. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie, but it’s a movie I had some affection for, unlike, say, The Meg, which I found generic, dull, and unambitious. Yet Jupiter Ascending was ridiculed and reviled. Why?
(From this point on there will be spoilers. I will not be doing a point-by-point summary, but I will give away the ending. You have been warned.)
After being burned by Legion, I decided to watch a horror movie that I hoped might turn out to be good. I went with The Ritual on Netflix, which has a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes and a pretty nice trailer.
Four friends, grieving their lost buddy, go backpacking across the Scandinavian Mountains. One falls and hurts his ankle. The men to decide to go off the trail, taking a shortcut into the woods. Weird things happen. A dead animal, impaled on high on the branches, drips blood. Strange letters appear on the bark of trees. Something is about to go horrifically wrong.
The Ritual is well-crafted and beautifully shot. The actors all do a good job of making their characters seem believable. They’re everyday blokes who find themselves in an increasingly horrific situation. I bought into the premise from the start, and because of that, for the first half hour of the movie, I was genuinely unsettled and frightened. But the longer the movie went on, the less it scared me.
On a purely visual level, the antagonist is unique, creepy, and even occasionally beautiful. But the story failed to develop the antagonist’s motivation and mythology. This caused the final act to collapse in on itself. The Ritual turned a simple premise into a complicated, muddled mess. It remained beautiful and well-crafted until the very last shot, but by then, I had stopped believing in it. I left the movie with mixed feelings and vague sense of disappointment.
Why is that though?
(Warning: From this point on, I will be a LONG, scene-by-scene summary, that will SPOIL every plot point of the movie. If you haven’t seen The Ritual, read on at your own discretion.)
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.