No Go

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Tenet

*Editor’s note: Today’s review will be the first of its kind on Backseat Directors. Since our writers’ opinions of TENET varied quite a bit we decided to give each of them an opportunity to share their experience and thoughts of the movie. Each writer was given one paragraph to share their quick thoughts. For a more in-depth (spoiler-filled) discussion of TENET, go listen to Ep. 113 of the Backseat Directors Podcast.

Warner Bros. Pictures | Rated: PG-13 | Run Time: 150 minutes | Director: Christopher Nolan

Parker Johnson: One thing that made the movie so enjoyable for me was seeing Kenneth Branaugh as a villain. Most of the time I’m used to either seeing him as the protagonist, a mentor figure, or Gilderory Lockheart. I was impressed by the range of emotions his character went through, and how his character genuinely believed he was in the right–even in the act of doing awful things. There’s one scene in the movie where he flies into a rage that made me more tense in a movie then I’ve been for years. Bravo sir, bravo. 

Recommendation: Go See It!

Rachel Wagner: There will be some people who try and paint those of us who did not enjoy Tenet as simpletons unwilling to embrace risky filmmaking. I would ask those people to consider what their own basic demands for a film are? For me, it’s engaging characters, interesting story, and coherent dialogue. Tenet failed at all 3 of these requirements. The characters for the most part were flat with little backstory or depth to their roles. The story was difficult to follow and overwhelmed by a loud blaring score and very choppy editing, and the dialogue was frequently unintelligible. If I literally can’t understand what the characters are saying because of the bizarre sound mix choices it doesn’t matter how great the visuals and action are. In fact, it only makes me more frustrated that such craft and spectacle is wasted in a self-indulgent slog. I have always been a fan of director Christopher Nolan, even in his more divisive films like Interstellar (2014) or The Dark Knight Rises (2012), but he deliberately made choices in Tenet to ostracize his audience from the picture and make it an overall unpleasant experience. Especially having such a yearning for a big blockbuster on the IMAX I wanted to love what he offered in Tenet, but I did not.

Recommendation: NO GO

The Formal Review: Nolan uses numerous scientific theories and the ROTAS palindromic square in a very ambitious and ingenious way. He is able take those ideas and stage them via action sequences that run backward and forward through time simultaneously. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema gives some amazing scenes that make a James Bond film look low key. Ludwig Göransson’s score is very Hans Zimmer like, and it is a thunderstorm. The film has Nolan trying to outdo the espionage film genre by making his own filled with speedboats, glamorous locations, and a lot of crisp suits. Each actor does a good job at playing their roles with Washington and Branaugh being the standouts. The former is able to be like his father while also establishing himself as a lead man. The latter is no surprise as he is a Shakespearean actor and he can do almost any role. The film does have some issues with dialogue being muffled and it feels too short for the complexities it tackles. This can make the film feel confusing, and maybe subtitles would have been beneficial. The character development and Nolan’s treatment of his female characters could be better. For better or worse, this movie has Nolan trying to outdo himself, and each viewer will decide if he is successful. In short, it is in the top tier of Nolan films; go see it! The best experience would be in a theatre with the best audio possible like Dolby Cinema. Any other thoughts would involve spoilers and a full analysis will be coming later.

Recommendation: Go See It!

Rachel Ogden: With Hollywood plagued by a one-time-watch epidemic, director Christopher Nolan has created something you can’t possibly grasp without multiple viewings. Every choice is a gesture of faith in the audience; faith that we will do our best to keep up and that we’ll come back for more. The dialogue moves as fast as John David Washington runs, and the content is cerebrally ambitious without losing the thrill of the ride. Rather than be intimidated, I think you should be excited; just don’t get hung up on what you don’t understand and enjoy what you do. Though I’m only on my first viewing, I wouldn’t be surprised if TENET became my favorite Nolan movie.

Recommendation: Go See It!

André Hutchens: As it goes with every Christopher Nolan film (it seems), TENET was one of the most, if not THE most highly anticipated film of 2020. Coronavirus pandemic be damned, there was no stopping this film from debuting in actual movie theaters, and allowing audiences worldwide the opportunity to experience the latest Nolan film the way every Nolan film should be experienced. Perhaps his most complex and intellectually challenging movie yet, Nolan has crafted a unique and bold movie that will be discussed in social circles for months (and maybe years) to come. TENET presents time-travel like no other movie before it, which will require the intent concentration and focus of its audience. John David Washington is a star in the making, and Robert Pattinson’s role only helps to build my excitement for his next project as Bruce Wayne in The Batman (2021). Other than a few scenes that really struggled to properly sound mix the audio and I was unable to understand the dialogue, this movie is a must see in theaters. See TENET in IMAX if you can; this movie deserves that kind of spectacle.

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: The Tax Collector

RLJE Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: David Ayer

As a kid, my dad took my brother and I to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) to spend the night aboard a retired Navy submarine. OMSI had a great program to educate us about the science and history behind the machine, but I was most excited for us to plunge below the surface and take the submarine for a spin. Imagine my dismay when my dad confessed that submerging was not part of the deal; we spent the night parked safely afloat in the Willamette river, never to explore the possibilities of the hyped-up watercraft. Laying in my 17-inches of bunk, I was deeply disappointed in the shallows of my nautical escapade. The Tax Collector (2020) left me with a similar reaction.

The story follows David Cuevas (played by Bobby Soto), who in addition to being a devout Christian and involved father is an intimidating tax collector for a crime lord in South Central L.A. Watching him conduct brutal business amidst the family’s preparations for a quinceañera had me making connections to The Godfather (1972), as Cuevas is a man living two lives in two worlds he claims coexist. But both lives are threatened when an old enemy of Cuevas’ boss called Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) comes to town and attempts a takeover. Like those he collects tax from, Cuevas learns that he has his own price to pay and attempts to settle the score before the screen fades to black. There are moments reminiscent of director David Ayer’s previous screenplays Training Day (2001) and End of Watch (2012), but they are lost amidst numerous bad investments in runtime.

The best part of the movie was the interplay between Cuevas and his partner Creeper (Shia LeBeouf), who attends his duty to “terrify the herd” with sick satisfaction and stone-cold stares. Despite his sadistic nature, Creeper is wholly devoted to his partner. When he tells Cuevas, “zI’ll ride with you ‘till the wheels fall off,” you believe him. The complexity of both characters is best shown when they are together; Creeper doesn’t believe in God but has consigned himself to hell, while Cuevas asserts that his own religious convictions and familial devotions allow him “to go into the darkness but come back into the light”. Creeper serves as a foil to Cuevas’ duality, a warning sign that having a foot in both worlds doesn’t work. This concept was fascinating, but it was forgotten as the plot progressed. Consequently, Cuevas ceased to be complicated or compelling. Instead of gripping action, you get a lot of gun-waving and threat-throwing that doesn’t really add to the story or help you care about the characters. The DNA is there, but it’s just sitting in a plain petri dish with no signs of life. A myriad of plot threads with little substance leads to an ending that comes up short, just like Cuevas’ count of the tax collections earlier in the movie.

Shia LaBeouf and Bobby Soto in a scene of The Tax Collector | RLJE Films.

The biggest problem for me was figuring out the overall story arc. I thought I was watching a critique of the toxic masculinity that keeps a steady death toll in L.A. neighborhoods, but instead the movie seemed to revel in it. The opening credits claim that gang culture is all about love, honor, loyalty, and family, and it seems to really believe it, expounding on it with heavy-handed dialogue. The relationship between the values that the gang preaches and the fruits of their labor form an interesting dichotomy, but any chance of deep exploration is overthrown by random stabs at shock factor. Like when the big baddie bathes in the blood of a young woman and sacrifices a chicken to the devil, or when the bullets start flying and the tally of revenge kills ramps up so fast you lose track. The good guy cries, seethes, and swears, but I was too emotionally checked out to care much.

There’s a part of me that feels defensive of the film because so many critics have condemned it with a mercilessness to match Creeper’s. I especially feel that the claims that The Tax Collector is racist and brownfacing are completely unwarranted. I so badly wanted this movie to be great, but alas it wasn’t so. The character of David Cuevas is described as “a candle in the darkness,” but this film feels more like a shadow of the greatness it could have been and what I wish it was. The great team of collaborators and top-notch trailer got me so excited for a movie that proved to be like my OMSI experience; I expected torpedos and got torpor instead. I can only hope that Ayer’s next venture makes the submarine seaworthy once more.

Recommendation: No Go

REVIEW: The Rental

IFC Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 88 minutes
Director: Dave Franco

I am not the biggest horror movie fan in the world, but some of my fellow writers here at Backseat Directors were meeting up to go back to the theaters and invited me to join them. Having been in quarantine for many months, I couldn’t resist seeing a new movie again on the big screen. So I went and checked out the new movie, The Rental, from actor/director, Dave Franco. While it showed promise for the new director (The Rental being Franco’s directorial debut), the film did not monopolize well on the interesting and fun set-up that it builds making for a frustrating experience.

The Rental has a fantastic cast with Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, and Jeremy Allen White playing two couples that decide to celebrate their work accomplishments by renting a fancy house on the Oregon Coast for the weekend. As it begins, the movie sets up a lot of potential conflict between the characters: there may be racism on the part of the landlord, illegal cameras in the home, infidelity amongst the partners, and more. I was honestly excited to see where all these plot threads were going to lead and what was going to happen to our characters. The acting from the main cast is also all excellent; and Franco and cinematographer Christian Sprenger do a good job creating tone and an eerie atmosphere throughout. So for the first hour I was really digging this film.

Unfortunately, none of these plot points paid off well in the end. Without giving away any major spoilers, I wasn’t satisfied with any of the character arcs of the people involved, nor are any new characters brought into the story that are compelling. It basically devolves into a slasher movie in the last fifteen minutes but it is too late in the game and too silly to work—even for slasher-movie fans.

(From left to right), Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White and Alison Brie in a scene of The Rental | IFC Films.

When I left the theater I was proud of myself for going back to the cinemas, (mask on and spaced) but I really wish the movie had been better. It had a lot of potential but didn’t monopolize on much of any of it. There’s even a sidestory with a missing dog and a mysterious door that goes nowhere. The suspense and atmosphere were there, but a film has to pay off well and this one just didn’t.

What do you think of The Rental? Have you been back to theaters? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

Recommendation: NO GO

REVIEW: The Hunt

Universal Pictures
Rated: R
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Craig Zobel

Ever since I had an unfortunate incident involving a flight of stairs and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, I’ve insisted that my life is better off without horror movies. But The Hunt lured me in; resembling The Hunger Games more than The Exorcist, it’s a dark political satire about a group of Liberal elites hunting “deplorables” (a.k.a. non-elite Conservatives) for sport, and an awesome protagonist who flips the game on its head (she also literally flips a lot of people—it’s her signature move). The movie was set to release in 2019, but the plot caused a lot of discomfort in the wake of multiple mass shootings and even prompted criticism from the President, and thus was delayed until now. The controversy created a fair amount of buzz—not enough for me to know about it in 2019, but enough to prompt the marketing team to use the slogan, “The most talked about movie of the year is one no one has seen yet!” I thought, “Well, duh, it’s only February,” but I was intrigued! Surely any movie bold enough to make that kind of statement is worth a watch, right?

Well… Not any movie.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I thought, “This is getting good!” and a few seconds later thought, “WTFB (what-the-flying-bananas).” I imagine a middle-aged Vegas fortune-teller writing the script, musing mysteriously and waiting with a hairy mole and misty incense for me to fill in the gaps for myself. Vagueness, it seems, is their attempt at brilliance. I get that you have to suspend disbelief for movies, but my disbelief was so suspended that I was floating aimlessly in the endless space of ideas and theories without ever being grounded by an intelligible story. I couldn’t spoil the ending for you because I’m not exactly sure what happened. It was probably all a dream, but whose dream is anybody’s guess.

Justin Hartley and Emma Roberts in a scene of The Hunt | Universal Pictures

My top two complaints were the gratuitous violence and the unending stream of political mudslinging. Obviously, I expected more than pillow-fights, but I felt that the movie kept trying to push the boundaries of gore for the simple sake of “going there.” What’s worse is the combination of bloodshed with humor that falls sickeningly flat, leaving you feeling really, really uncomfortable: it’s the level of awkward that has you looking for the exits. It’s not like I never laughed, but I certainly cringed more than I chuckled. As far as political commentary goes, you’d get the same level of subtlety from the protagonist’s shotgun. The original title of the film was Red State vs. Blue State, and it should have stayed that way. The 90-minute runtime consisted of extremists saying and doing awful things to each other, like a brutal Shakespearean yarn based on Twitter comment sections. Rather than feeling “woke” about my own political leanings, I just felt more frustrated with the people whose opinions I disagree with. To remain unbiased, the film’s main character has no obvious political leanings. Her core beliefs could be summed up by a perverted version of the Barney theme song: “I hit you, you hit me, let’s go on a killing spree”.

Hilary Swank and Betty Gilpin fighting in a scene of The Hunt | Universal Pictures

Speaking of which, if this movie has any chance of earning the price of admission, that chance’s name is Betty Gilpin. She plays Crystal, one of the victims of the Hunt who is really bad at being a victim. She disappears into the role of disaffected, totally deranged Mississippi-trailer-trash, and yet makes the character relatable, entertaining, and engaging. You definitely wouldn’t want her to be your coworker or your neighbor, but you can’t help but root for her on her quest for survival. Both the actress and her character are placed in really crummy situations (Crystal being in the Hunt and Gilpin being cast in The Hunt) but they shrug it off and start running the show. Gilpin quite literally does it all: the bad-bossery of Sigourney Weaver, the captivating presence of Sandra Bullock, the emotional range and control of Jennifer Lawrence, and the action-hero skills of Gal Gadot. She’s surely headed for bigger and better things, so be sure to catch her in GLOW on Netflix or keep an eye out for her next Hollywood venture. 

In all fairness, everyone I knew was shocked I picked this film, so maybe my expectations were way off. Maybe I’m just crazy; I certainly felt crazy walking out of the theater. But assuming I’m sane, maybe wait until March’s other movies feel safe enough to get released.

Recommendation: NO GO

REVIEW: Ordinary Love

Focus Features
Rated: R
Run Time: 92 minutes
Director: Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn

“How do you say to someone ‘don’t die’?”

I saw the ​trailer​ for ​Ordinary Love​ during the previews before ​Emma​ a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t wait to see it. ​​A heartwarming Irish film with Liam Neeson? Count me in! The trailer felt like warm, creamy hot cocoa gently blanketing over my soul. However, what I got was more like a discount dollar store hot chocolate mix in tap water. It wasn’t awful by any means, but it felt like such a mediocre attempt at a much better movie. I am going to forgo my usual division of “My Quibbles/What I Liked” and focus on this movie as a whole while I explain why this movie didn’t stick for me.

First, no one can or should say that Liam Neeson or Lesley Manville are bad in this movie—because they aren’t. Lesley Manville actually does a phenomenal job as Joan going from nervous concern at finding a lump in one of her breasts, to acceptance that she has cancer, to pain ridden anxiety, to a quiet dignified perseverance. Her performance was the highlight of this film. Seeing Liam Neeson as Tom in a more quiet, subdued role rather than the elderly action hero was a really nice change of pace as well.

The main premise of this film is a year in the life of an ordinary Irish married couple who go through the ordeal of finding out that one of them has cancer. We are informed that they have been married for many years, have suffered tragedy, and are very comfortable with each other as friends and spouses… Or so we are told.

The film begins with the couple taking their normal morning walk followed by breakfast. We then hear them make playful jabs at each other—over and over and over again. At first, I was amused by how comfortable they seemed with each other. But before the cancer diagnosis, all they do is insult and argue with each other. It was starting to feel like less of a playful relationship, and more like a concealed abusive one. As the film progresses, Joan’s prognosis gradually takes over the couple’s life and puts a strain on their relationship. Joan increasingly thinks that Tom is not taking her cancer seriously, and Tom is frustrated with his feeling of powerlessness, and doesn’t want to accept the seriousness of their situation.

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in a scene of Ordinary Love | Focus Features

This is where the film fails to deliver. We are told that the couple has this loving relationship, but we never see their relationship outside of the “playful” insults and the arguing around the house. In fact, Tom doesn’t seem to even be emotionally invested in Joan or her prognosis outside of a few scenes: one line where he asks another patient’s spouse, “How do you tell someone to not die?”; when he begins to cry after his pet fish dies; and one monologue at his daughter’s grave. We spend almost an hour-and-a-half seeing Joan suffer, and Tom doing the bare minimum of driving her to the hospital and being in the same general area as her. In one major scene, Joan calls Tom out on avoiding her; choosing to watch a soccer game and leaving her in bed alone while in pain. The film seems so preoccupied with being subtle about the couple’s relationship, that they don’t allow for any positive emotion to slip though. Inwardly I was channeling Ebenezer Scrooge, crying “Let me see some tenderness!”

The message the movie was trying to tell was the age-old classic of spending time with the ones we love while we have a chance. But they were also so concerned with keeping it subtle that it sucked all positive emotions right out of it. This is a love drama with very little love, very little tenderness, and very little positivity. What we are left with was an entirely ordinary (pun intended), forgettable, “romantic” drama.

Recommendation: NO GO

REVIEW: Brahms: The Boy II

STX Entertainment
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 86 minutes
Director: William Brent Bell

Released in 2016, The Boy is actually a film that I enjoyed. It told the story of a young housekeeper, played by Lauren Cohen, who was tasked to take care of a large porcelain doll named Brahms. Throughout the film the viewer is strung along into thinking that the doll itself was haunted—with the grand reveal that Brahms was not a haunted doll: but rather a grown man living within the walls of the house (who was, quite frankly, psychotic). While it is no work of art, I thought it was a quirky one-off film with a unique narrative twist… Regardless of how pedestrian and mediocre the story was.

Fast forward to 2020 and we now have the sequel, Brahms: The Boy II. Unfortunately, instead of expanding on the unique twist the first movie told, this sequel has reversed course so poorly that it actually makes the first film look weaker. That’s right folks: this movie is so bad that it actually makes its predecessor look bad. 

But where does Brahms: The Boy II go wrong? Let’s start with the story… The movie begins with a young family whose lives have been shattered by a horrific home invasion. While the father, Sean (Owain Yeoman) is out of town his wife, Liza (Katie Holmes) and son Jude (Christopher Convery) are left to fend for themselves as robbers break into their home nearly killing them both. The event is so traumatic that young Jude is rendered mute and Liza suffers from intense PTSD (which is just passed off as an excuse to give us jump scares). The family decides to retreat into the countryside of London to heal and overcome their trauma. They end up in the guest house outside of the mansion, which was the location and setting of the entire first movie (the guest house was not a location that appeared in the first movie at all). It is from here where Jude finds Brahms buried in the soil with its hand hilariously sticking out from the ground, and finds himself a friend within the lifeless doll. His family, desperate for him to leave his state of silence, encourages their friendship with the inanimate object until Liza finds disturbing clues that hint at something being awry; pictures of murder, torn up toys, and angry animals.

Christopher Convery as “Jude” appears in a scene of Brahms: The Boy II | STX Entertainment

If that story sounds at all familiar to you, do not worry: Brahms: The Boy II is very much a run-of-the-mill sort of horror movie. Its biggest crime is that for such a strange concept and such a bizarre adversary it chooses to go down the most generic and obvious paths. Nothing in this film scared or disturbed me in the least bit. The movie seems to prefer to startle the audience with abrupt jump scares, the likes of which are unequivocally telegraphed. For a slim 86 minutes I felt incredibly bored. I found myself checking my watch frequently waiting for something to happen. The film is happy meandering about with Brahms playing small pranks on his poor victim not caring to move the plot forward at all—and boy, is it mind numbing.

My greatest frustration with this film is not the bad writing, the poor direction, or even the frequent jump scares. It’s that rather than building upon a unique story with a good twist, it totally throws the story right into the dumpster, and goes with a supernatural angle. It hamstrings the film into a total snooze fest, devoid of any suspense or cleverness. It’s so badly paced that even the scares feel out of place, and it is too shallow to offer anything insightful or disturbing to get under your skin. Brahms: The Boy II is plain and lifeless, much like the porcelain doll it is named after.

Recommendation: NO GO

REVIEW: Fantasy Island

Sony Pictures
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 109 minutes
Director: Jeff Wadlow

I have a pet peeve with Youtube. When I’m up late at night listening to calming music, I often find myself assaulted with a mandatory ad for an upcoming horror flick. It ruins my whole bedtime routine because I then have to watch a Disney movie to rid myself of the heebie-jeebies. I know it’s pathetic, but I can’t even handle scary movie trailers during the daytime, and I cover my eyes when they come on during previews at the theater. So, thank goodness for Fantasy Island: its existence feels like comeuppance for every time my Frozen sing-a-longs have been interrupted by screechy violins, panicked screams, and creepy voices. Based on a popular 70’s TV show of the same name, the movie Fantasy Island comes with a horror twist on the show’s theme: be careful what you wish for.  

The premise is that the titular island manifests for its visitors the deepest wishes of their heart; but gradually, their fantasies twist and degrade into lethal nightmares. It seems the island had the same effect on the producers of this film, as their fantasy project of recreating an intriguing concept eroded into the disappointing final product that I saw in theaters over the weekend. Everything the movie had going for it went bad like week-old pizza—uncompelling characters (despite being portrayed by seasoned, talented actors), eyeroll-inducing dialogue, and a total lack of fear or danger felt by the audience (remember, this is coming from a total wimp). If Hallmark made a horror film, this is what it would look like.  

The perfect description of this movie lies in one of its characters—Dr. Torture. A giant with bulging, veiny muscles (imagine Kronk from Emperor’s New Groove, but bent on murder and wearing scrubs); he avoids asserting his size, and instead chooses tiny, surgical tools to intimidate the protagonists. He spends most of his screen-time jabbing a 1-inch blade at people or waving a bone saw with the diameter of a Girl Scout cookie. He could probably kill you with his bare hands, but instead he goes about attempting to murder the protagonists in such inconvenient ways that it almost feels like a spoof. Likewise, the movie itself felt full of untapped potential, yet clumsy and confusing in its execution. 

Portia Doubleday and Lucy Hale in a scene of Fantasy Island | Sony Pictures

What can be said for Fantasy Island, however, is that it was entirely unpredictable. I kept thinking I had it figured out, and every time I was proved wrong. I found myself leaning closer and closer to the screen, brows furrowed and resting my chin on my hands, as if those extra movements would somehow help me solve the mystery. I was surprisingly invested in the wild roller coaster, even if it all seemed to have no rhyme or reason.  By the end, it still lacked rhyme or reason, and even though I found the cinematic journey entertaining, I would skip this one and go see one of the many other horror flicks available this month.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you share my YouTube pet peeve), the horror genre has survived worse and will no doubt survive this, too. I fully expect the next venture by Blumhouse Productions to be bone-chilling and terrifying. But for now, Fantasy Island has me sleeping easy.

Recommendation: NO GO

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