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Some Kind of Zen: the Mundane and the Divine in Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’

(spoiler warning later)

I can’t stop thinking about this film. For those for whom film appreciation approaches religiosity, Nomadland may be like going to church.

What writer, director and editor Chloé Zhao manages so artfully here is a narrative which moves like the free-spirit characters who inhabit the ethereal location of her film’s title. But it also moves just enough like a traditional feature that it pulls you through its peaks and valleys, its lulls and rushes, with a grace approaching Zen. 

Although I’m a practicing Christian Scientist, I like to say I’m a closet Buddhist, meaning I don’t go to organized Buddhist services, but I take a lot of lessons of Zen Buddhism with me in my daily life. What I love so much about those teachings is the idea of a kind of responsible detachment. So one is not necessarily completely detached from the world or detached from other human beings, but one need not be mentally and spiritually caught by everyday circumstance.

That’s not exactly the life Fern (Frances McDormand) is living in Nomadland, but the philosophy behind the film seems to be one of responsible detachment. What makes the film so emotionally resonant for me is the struggle it displays between spiritually succumbing to the stories we are naturally caught up in as human beings and our preternatural lust for the divine. That is the human condition. We cannot exist without that duality. Brad Bird called it “the mundane and the fantastic” in reference to his classic film The Incredibles. But while his fantastic referred to explosions – and explosions certainly have their place in cinema – Nomadland‘s fantastic is nature, charity, solace, inner peace. The divine. 

The mundane and the divine intermingle with each other in provocative and cathartic ways throughout Nomadland. What is mundane in the film is its setting within the US aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown. We as an audience know what happened and have likely seen its effects. Just to see those effects directly on screen is cathartic. Fern had a life she loved with all her heart, no matter what others may have thought. She and her husband lived and worked in a contemporary version of a company town, but no one owned their labor. She worked for that company, but she also worked many other jobs, including as a substitute teacher, referenced in a pithy exchange between her and one of her former students. It’s a very brief moment, but Zhao and McDormand communicate so much with it. We see how much Fern deeply cared about that job and her students, and we hear what could be described as the thesis statement of the movie: “I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?”

For Fern, money matters because she has to stay afloat like anyone else. But lifestyle matters just as much, if not more so. And that quest to stay authentic to the lifestyle she wants – the lifestyle she chooses – while still surviving presents an all-too-familiar American duality.

When the company Fern’s husband Bo worked for folded, so did their small town. In a double-blow for Fern, Bo passed away after an unspecified illness. The fact that we initially get less specificity about their life together (as opposed to more) grounds her as a part of the nomad community she joins. When others say their piece about why they chose the open road, Fern’s is not so monumentally important to us as to drown out their voices.

The American nomad community as depicted here is ostensibly not much different from its reality. Bob Wells – sort of the guru of modern mobile living – basically plays himself. So do Linda May and Swankie, Fern’s two closest connections on her nomadic journey other than Dave, but we’ll get to Dave later. The construction of the film is such that we hear the stories of these nomads first before we get a fuller sense of Fern’s. We first see Fern taking seasonal work, starting to make her van her home, but because we focus on a more holistic cacophony of other personal stories first, we see a broader picture of economic catastrophe and the attempt by folks to make some kind of sense – some kind of Zen – out of it. 


This is what makes the film’s climax so profound and moving for me. Throughout the film, Zhao is using a combination of narrative and documentary techniques and more often than not is able to blend them seamlessly. That blend places Fern’s journey to the divine in a larger context that we can all relate to. 

As Americans, we know our country is struggling. It can be overwhelming as anyone with any sense of empathy to see what is happening and not wonder how we ended up here and what our individual place is at this point in history. When Fern drives through the snowy mountain landscape she used to call home, or when she walks through the abandoned relic that is her old place of work, we see ourselves reflected because her struggle is not necessarily elevated beyond the struggles of others featured in the film. It’s a difficult thing to achieve. Fern has to be a character we deeply care about, but who also acts as a kind of cypher – a docent is how many have referred to her. She is leading us on a spiritual journey even in her most mournful moments because we cannot escape the mundane in our quest for the fantastic, and neither can she.

I would argue that at least some of that mundane is represented by Dave (David Strathairn). Fern meets Dave on-and-off throughout their travels, and the possibility of romance arises. Perhaps we would make a different decision if we were Fern. But because she has fallen in love with the nomadic lifestyle, to ask her to fall in love with anything or anyone else would be in vain. There is too much fantastic left to see on the road to settle down.

The film cemented its masterpiece status for me when Fern has to make that crucial decision. Should she stay with Dave or should she get out on the road again? A great filmmaker can take the smallest of stakes and turn them into the most burning of questions. Chloé Zhao is that filmmaker. In that moment, when Fern had not yet decided what to do, there was no question more important in the world to me. In my opinion, this is not because Fern is necessarily the most striking character, but because she holds all the film’s most heady and spiritual themes in her grasp. She is on the same plane of existence as her compatriots in their vans. Were she elevated in some way, I don’t know that the movie would have this kind of power over me. Because it is about a communal quest for the divine, it becomes absolutely universal. It’s not about Fern’s quest, it’s about ours. 

And the quest is never over.

-George Napper    

‘Nomadland’ is now streaming on Hulu and in theatrical release nationwide where theaters are open

1hr, 48min; Rated R for some full nudity

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In a safe and clean theater, ‘Tenet’ is a blast (no spoilers, I promise)

Even from watching the trailers, nobody could really tell what Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was all about. We all at least knew it was going to be unlike most action films, and that it involved some form of bending time. But what I could not have foreseen is how Tenet is the best-ever James Bond movie not starring James Bond. No Time to Die, the gauntlet has been thrown.

We begin with an attack on a Russian opera house thwarted by The Protagonist (John David Washington). He only receives this moniker after that mission, which was partially a test. He is brought into a secret society attempting to, as they put it, prevent something worse than World War 3. We never learn The Protagonist’s real name. Usually these kinds of minimalist naming conventions irritate me, but here, there’s a reason for it. Those in charge of this grander mission have to have ways to keep things straight in their minds, and knowing who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy is vitally important when some people have the ability to operate in reverse while everyone else is moving forward.

In this world, linear entropy and natural forward momentum can be reversed. I won’t tell you why, as that would totally spoil the fun. But because this phenomenon exists within a Chris Nolan movie, there are of course villains who use it to their own heinous ends. 

To help combat these villains, enter Robert Pattinson as Neil. Furthering the Bond theme, Neil is a kind of Q on steroids. He’s there as a storytelling device to explain some of the concepts, sure, but he’s also the gadgets and ideas guy. From the moment they meet, Washington and Pattinson have great chemistry as action partners. They’re both incredibly suave and naturally funny, but they’re really just being themselves. They’re not trying to impress anyone, they just really are that cool. That’s why I saw Washington as Bond in this; he could carry every note those movies throw at an actor. Some people are just born charming.

Mainly, though, this movie doesn’t exist to charm. It exists to dazzle, with fresh ideas, crackling visual storytelling, and stunning setups and payoffs. 

Like Inception, it attempts to have its cake and eat it, too, in an emotional sense. But Tenet is definitely more successful at this. Because Kenneth Branagh’s Andrei Sator — the movie’s biggest baddie — is a fiery Russian oligarch who often wears his heart on his sleeve, it makes sense why his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), features so prominently. I did feel a bit let down that such a fantastic actor as Debicki (please watch Widows) is cast almost exclusively as a damsel in distress here, but I did actually feel for her character quite a lot, which, as much as I love Inception, is more than I can say for the Mal storyline. 

Tenet is not without its share of flaws, but I suspect that I’ll probably have less qualms with it than many moviegoers due to its dense plot. That’s not to say I think I understand it all better than anyone: my issues with the film are mostly about execution.

Like most of Nolan’s films now, he’s got the volume on the music and sound effects turned up to infinity. This is fine for a wordless action scene or a tense establishing shot, but there were a few times where a character was clearly saying something important and I simply could not hear the words. I don’t know why Nolan insists on making his films this way, but as much as I love his work, that part is starting to get unforgivably irritating.

And then toward the final action sequence, there is a light speed exposition dump which is supposed to propel us into said sequence. But it all happened so fast that I definitely lost the thread for a moment. For a high-concept film which I felt did such a marvelous job of showing its rules and ideas rather than telling them through at least 80% of its runtime, that momentary clunkiness really stuck out.

But these are fairly minor complaints in the grand scheme of things for me. There is so much to gawk at here, in the best way. It’s smart spectacle on the grandest scale possible. And it might have the best car chase in cinematic history. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, watch it for yourself.

However, obviously, you should make informed choices with your health. This pandemic isn’t over. I speak as someone who has had Covid-19 and gotten through it — it is not fun and you should take all the precautions you feel are necessary and then some. If you are a cinephile like me, Tenet is an absolute blast to see in a safe and clean theater. I am grateful that I had that experience. If it’s something you feel you can wait to watch at home, or if you feel that no movie theater visits are worth it right now, wait. It will still be a very rewarding experience, and likely a safer one. And likely a quieter one, too. I had forgotten how loud the multiplexes like to crank up the sound these days.

2hr, 30min; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language.

’Tenet’ is now playing in early access screenings in select cities where theaters are open in the US. It will expand weekly starting September 3.

-George Napper

Bound to be polarizing, ‘Tesla’ is as daring as biopics get

It’s difficult to know where to start with a film like ‘Tesla.’ Although it takes a little while to congeal, in my opinion, it grows into a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts masterpiece. But I can guarantee you not everyone will feel the same way.

Ethan Hawke gives a moody, striking performance as Nikola Tesla, the famous inventor who never got his due in his lifetime. The film is basically a thesis statement for the value of Tesla’s inner workings; his humming drive. It combines this psychoanalytical exegesis with an exploration of the stream he swam against. He never cared much to make money for himself or others; he genuinely wanted to change the world. And his ideas really did.

Director Michael Almereyda’s unorthodox storytelling techniques here include a Tesla-sung music video of a well-known 80s pop hit and an invented ice cream cone fight with Thomas Edison. That’s the kind of movie this is. Its flights of fancy and low-budget shortcuts can either seem totally jarring or totally earned. For me, they felt totally earned.

Part of earning it is being intellectually and emotionally consistent. Here, Tesla constantly struggles with the concepts of profit vs. achievement, love vs. lust, and human connection vs. individual accomplishment. The film subtly paints a picture of a man who banked on his own considerable genius so much that it prevented him from making the connections necessary to perhaps achieve his vision.

The flights of fancy keep the film’s view of Tesla from feeling like an abject tragedy. They keep Tesla’s ambition fresh in one’s mind rather than his failures. Almereyda’s film is a cascade of color, history, music, and mood; undeniably sexy, sneakily intellectual. To me, it’s like getting to eat vegetables and dessert at the same time.

-George Napper

‘Tesla’ is now available for rental and purchase on iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu

1hr, 42min; rated PG-13 for some thematic material and nude images

‘Palm Springs’ is the best version of ‘Groundhog Day’ since the original


In recent years, the “stuck-in-a-time-loop” subgenre popularized by 1993’s classic Groundhog Day has picked up quite a bit of steam. From the Happy Death Day horror-comedy duology, to the young-adult novel adaptation Before I Fall, to the beloved action films Edge of Tomorrow and Source Code, many filmmakers have put their stamp on this concept recently, to varying degrees of success. 

Palm Springs takes the concept back to its romantic-comedy roots, and I think it’s the best example of it since granddaddy Groundhog.

From this point on, I’ll be discussing plot elements that are better experienced as surprises, even in the first act of the film. Obviously I won’t be spoiling specific jokes or scenes, but if you’re very spoiler-averse, come back to this review after watching the film.


Andy Samberg plays Nyles, a misanthropic thirty-something at a destination wedding in Palm Springs, California, in which his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) is a bridesmaid. Cristin Milioti plays Sarah, sister of the bride and maid of honor. When we first meet Nyles, he seems like a lost cause in terms of tact and decorum. It’s an interesting place to start, because as we learn over the first ten or so minutes of the film, Nyles’ attitude isn’t actually what it seems. 

Sarah is initially put off by Nyles’ brashness, but as she learns what’s happened to him, she starts to fall for him and is drawn into the time loop he’s fallen into.

There are a few fantastic cameos and hilarious supporting performances from recognizable actors in this film, one which I really don’t want to spoil in any way. All I’ll say is this: Whiplash, eat your heart out.

But aside from how truly, truly funny this movie is, it’s also pretty heartfelt for what it is. The main characters grow and change in believable ways, and even though the premise allows for a certain amount of goofy guffaws, the film also takes its premise seriously in a variety of deep and surprising ways. It also pulls off a terrific balancing act between showing what’s necessary of the drama at the wedding, but not getting too bogged down in histrionics. 


Perhaps I’ll write a full analysis of this film later on, but for now, because I don’t want to spoil what an awesome surprise this movie is, I’ll just end this review by saying Palm Springs is one of the best-written and best-edited films I’ve seen this year. And it’s certainly the most sharply written romantic comedy I’ve seen in several years.

‘Palm Springs’ is now streaming on Hulu

1hr, 30min; Rated R for sexual content, language throughout, drug use and some violence

-George Napper

“Da 5 Bloods”: one of Spike Lee’s absolute best

First, I want to acknowledge that my life experience is in no way similar to any of the characters depicted in this film. Therefore, my analysis of the film is incomplete. This film educated me in ways I never anticipated, and that is a gift I can never repay.

And yes, this film is a gift.

Da 5 Bloods is everything I look for in filmmaking. It is the perfect synthesis of thesis, dialogue, plot, acting, visual language, and film history awareness. It is arguably one of Spike Lee’s greatest achievements, and that is saying something.

Not even six minutes in, and one of my favorite individual camera shots of this or any year is shown. It shows our lead characters, 4 of the 5 Bloods, middle-aged black Vietnam veterans, dancing in a modern-day Vietnamese nightclub. Behind them, a Vietnamese d.j. provides the tunes. Behind him is a screen displaying the logo of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In front of him, adjacent to the dance floor hangs a big neon Budweiser sign. About 30 minutes later in the film’s runtime, “Stormin’” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), the Bloods’ fallen squad leader says in a flashback, “War is about money. Money is about war.” The symbolism of the nightclub becomes obvious. In ways big and small, this film is about the perpetual commodification of war. 

Of course, that’s not all that it’s about. It’s a tribute to the service of African-Americans in wars after which those who survived were never properly thanked or rewarded. It’s a dissection of our current moment, where politics can’t help but wrestle culture at almost every turn. And it’s a powerful drama about family ties and forgiveness. 

In my opinion, Spike Lee handles all of these elements with incredible balance. There is a point in the film where it becomes a full-on war movie, and it is tense as all hell. And even then, Lee never loses the threads he’s woven in from the beginning. It’s deep, hilarious, terrifying, tragic, hopeful, challenging, and educational. Lee’s direction here is just superb.

If I have anything at all negative to say, it’s that in the action half, there are so many great moments where Lee subverts our expectations based on war-movie clichés, that by the time we get to the major twist, it felt sort of anti-climactic because I had already guessed it earlier on. But that’s such a minor thing because the emotion Lee wrings out of that twist is totally transcendent. 

As Paul, Delroy Lindo is the main actor getting us to that transcendent emotional place. Paul is one of Lee’s greatest characters ever. In the 5 Bloods’ search for the remains of Norman, along with a buried treasure they left behind, Paul descends into righteous anger to the point of exhaustion and delusion. I’ve already heard some critiquing the film’s long running time, but I would argue it needed the length to convince the audience of Paul’s turn. I can’t tell you how many movies have completely unconvincing character shifts in them. That being said, Lindo is nothing short of all-time great here. Paul is a complex, iconoclastic character whom I hope will be the subject of further cinematic analysis. Lindo is giving literal blood, sweat, and tears to portray the layers upon layers within Paul, and it’s a devastating performance.

Boseman as Norman is a quiet yet thundering presence. Clarke Peters as Otis, sort of the de-facto leader of the modern-day Bloods, is kind of the perfect balance of everything this film represents. In attempting to be the peacemaker amongst the often-bickering group, he has to deal with every side of any given argument, and he brings enough depth as an actor that he never comes off as just an audience avatar. And then, of course, there’s Jonathan Majors, one of my favorite actors working today (if you haven’t seen “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”, do yourself a favor). As Paul’s son, David, he helps balance out the thunderous overtones of the film with a compassion which underlines the film’s thesis: “War is about money. Money is about war.” David represents a younger generation no longer interested in fighting their parents’ battles.

In the end, Da 5 Bloods is also a love letter to the activism happening now. In making a film which dissects and educates about tensions of the past, Lee also made a very forward-facing one. In many ways, it’s an exegesis of American and international anger throughout the history of the military industrial complex. But it never loses hope, and we shouldn’t, either. 

-George Napper

Da 5 Bloods is now streaming on Netflix

2hr, 35min; rated R for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language

Every American should watch “Guardians, Inc.” (Dirty Money s2e5)

For the past few years, the Netflix series Dirty Money has profiled numerous cases of global, national, and localized financial fraud and abuse. Some of the one-hour episodes touch very emotional nerves because the cases involve rightly emotionally-charged topics such as housing, government, and personal banking. I usually don’t write about television, let alone specific episodes of television, but very few pieces of media have shocked and angered me like “Guardians, Inc.”

The fifth episode in the series’ newly released second season exposes a cottage industry of abuse of America’s legal guardianship system. It seems that almost anyone can apply to become a legal guardian of anyone, regardless of their relationship or lack thereof with the elderly citizen assessed to be a ‘ward of the state.’ Abusive guardianship has become a network with many moving parts that all point to the same place – milking money out of the nation’s older adults. 

Basically, people are referred to legal counsel who ‘specialize’ in this area. They are often convinced to sign documents they have little to no understanding of, which in turn gives the ‘guardians’ power of attorney. In one of the two cases the episode is built around, an attorney ends up selling a man’s childhood home without his consent. It is eventually demolished and the man has never received a penny of the sale. 

In the second case, an estranged family member is put in place as a second guardian. This family member then transfers this guardianship to a politically-connected woman with close to 40 wards already who lies about the man’s safety in the care of his common-law wife in order to arrest him. Charlie Thrash’s location is still unknown. Even the aforementioned estranged family member who is interviewed declines to disclose his whereabouts.

In both of these cases, anti-psychotic drugs were recommended at several points. As one legal expert points out in the episode, there are very few older Americans under guardianship who have not been prescribed these medications. It’s a lot easier, then, to get folks to agree to things when they’re less aware of what’s going on.

These cases and many others reveal a serious problem in our court system. Many of the experts interviewed in the episode affirm that court-appointed guardians are often chummy with judges. The longest hearings on individual citizens becoming wards of the state last only ten minutes. Some take just thirty seconds. Once you are declared legally incapacitated, it seems there’s very little you can do. There are often phony medical reports written in the first place. It’s often said that a fish rots from the head down, but in this case, the fish is already rotten on both ends. 

And that’s all before saying this is all for profit. The legal fees alone are astronomical, especially to fight these kinds of court orders. It isn’t just about getting something in the will or an equivalent document; it’s a new kind of old boy’s club which threatens the civil rights, health, and economic security of old boys and girls. It’s all for short-term gain. 

In this new, completely uncertain era of COVID-19, “Guardians, Inc.” is the most important thing Americans can watch. We are hurdling towards a new kind of vulnerability for older Americans. It behooves us to understand what our friends and loved ones may be facing in addition to likely worse health outcomes. We also must realize that we will all be part of the eldest age bracket one day, and it’s important to know what to watch out for. This is not just exploitation. This is nothing less than economic terrorism. It may often be on a local and family level, but it is a national crisis that may only get worse with time. Whatever you work for all your life, you deserve to have at the end of your life. That is part of the American dream. Abusive guardianship robs our most vulnerable fellow citizens of the American dream.

-George Napper

“Guardians, Inc.” is now available to stream on Netflix as part of their original series Dirty Money

‘First Cow’: Kelly Reichardt’s foodie masterpiece


Kelly Reichardt is the most gifted American filmmaker working today. Her films explore the human condition in gentle, compassionate, and ultimately surprising ways. But that’s why her films are also an acquired taste. If you’re not a fan of films that move slowly, then hers just aren’t for you. But if you’re a more patient filmgoer, the rewards of her work stretch far beyond the screen. Reichardt’s films always give me so much to chew on, and how appropriate for her latest, First Cow, to be so focused on food and how it impacts history and daily life. 

Traveling with a band of fur trappers in the pioneer days of Oregon, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is a skilled cook in a place and time where those are scarce. While searching for wild game and mushrooms, Cookie happens upon King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who needs his help getting out of a scrape. Later, after that deed is done and Cookie’s group is disbanded, the two find each other again at a pub. King Lu offers the shy and wandering Cookie shelter in his home, a cozy little shack on the outskirts of a larger settlement. For context, nearly every building in this film is ramshackle and held together with a bit of elbow grease, given the setting and time period.

With King Lu’s modest savings and Cookie’s culinary skills and pay from the expedition, the two friends pool their resources to sell baked goods at market. But there’s just one more ingredient they need: milk! That’s where the cow of the title comes in.


She’s owned by Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy Londoner with a near-monopoly on the little village. Cookie and King Lu milk the cow in the dead of night and then sell the ‘oily-cakes’ (basically little doughnut holes with honey and cinnamon) the next morning. It’s a charming scheme they have going, and while the quiet, patient Cookie makes the pastries, King Lu, the better salesman, is the face of the operation. In the evenings, he validates Cookie’s dreams of starting a hotel in already-developed San Francisco. Although the film doesn’t illustrate it through conventionally dramatic means, you understand just how unique their friendship is in this unforgiving landscape and society.

As their business grows and more and more people taste Cookie’s creations, the film becomes absolutely ebullient. I have never felt so much emotion watching people eat on screen in my entire life. What’s immediately impressive about that is that this ebullience is so much a part of Reichardt’s filmmaking DNA that even if you’re familiar with her work, it sneaks up on you. I think back to the horseback ride in Certain Women. Whereas that film used the language of budding romance, this film uses the language of budding friendship and community.


It also shows what a softening of heart food can provide. In our modern world of convenience, we almost always take for granted the love and care that can be put into food or any other essential craft. Good food speaks to us on a human frequency, blocking out all the noise and taking us to the most pure place possible: joy. 

Of course First Cow is about more than doughnut holes. It’s a historical film which even in its softness reflects the hardships of the time. It’s a film about the legacy of Native Americans and other people of color in the pioneer days. Again and finally, it’s a film about friendship. There is no more noble human interaction than to make a true friend. First Cow shows us why. 

-George Napper

2 hr, 1 min; rated PG-13 for brief strong language

‘First Cow’ is now playing in limited release in the US

Pixar’s ‘Onward’: a deeply resonant fantasy story


I am halfway through the audiobook version of Jia Tolentino’s excellent Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-delusion. It’s a book which chronicles and critiques the rise of social media and its subsequent neural pathways. Tolentino posits that we live in world where not only is our personal information being sold to the highest bidder, but where we’ve also been conditioned to love the functionality and efficiency of that system and believe that it truly helps us define and create our best selves. 

Deep down, most of us know we don’t love that system. Social media and its new form of faux-democratic delusion ultimately sucks a lot of genuine feeling out of life, sometimes in ways we don’t even consciously process. There is something to be said for lying in a hammock on a summer day or playing with the dog without the constant dull roar of likes, mentions and follows in the background. 

Those genuine, unfettered moments are truly magical. They make you sit up and take notice of what wonders life is capable of showing you. Enter Pixar’s Onward, a film whose central culture clash gets at the heart of what makes those magical moments so… well, magical.


Writer-director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) creates a new fantastical world here, one where magic and mythos used to exist, but currently seems antiquated. Sure, this world is populated by elves, trolls, and centaurs, but modern convenience has stripped away 99% of its wonder. Save for toadstool houses and castle turrets on skyscrapers, this environment looks very much like our own.

For true believers like elf Barley (voice of Chris Pratt), this world can seem very oppressive. He’d be an outsider in any world, but his love of magic, wizards, and quests is comparable to folks in our world who prefer books to TV (not that there’s anything at all wrong with that). He’s a rebel of a bygone era, whereas his little brother Ian (voice of Tom Holland) is just trying to fit in in high school. When they find a magical gift from their deceased father whom Ian never met, they discover they have the power to summon him back for a day — well, at least his bottom half, anyway. To finish what they started, they go on a road trip which turns into one of the coolest adventure stories I’ve ever seen Pixar pull off. 

The reason I mention Tolentino’s book here (please read or listen to it if it sounds at all interesting to you) is because it’s commenting on a similar sort of culture clash in the real world that we don’t fully acknowledge anymore because we’re so used to it. Online engagement and self-preservation is almost the new way of being a human being. In Onward, living without magic or adventure is the new way of being a mythical creature. The relative stillness and ease of the toadstool suburbs is reward enough. The quests are over, there are no more new frontiers.


But Barley is a genuine explorer, and he brings Ian around to a sense of personhood and courage that can’t come from technology. Admittedly, the film starts slow, but it builds to a thematic crescendo that genuinely warmed my heart. The promise of meeting his father for the first time compels Ian to step out of his comfort zone to make sacrifices for his brother, and vice-versa, although Barley is sacrificing in order to give Ian that catharsis. The two brothers aren’t fighting like we typically see in films made for families and children, but their world-views do clash rather consistently. What I very much appreciated was that the film had the courage of its convictions; it doesn’t conclude in some wishy-washy ‘both sides are right’ way — Barley’s world is one where righteous bravery and valor win the day. The ultimate takeaway is, do the right thing for the people you love and don’t let them settle for complacency. Be encouraging, be positive, be a friend.

I adore Onward because it feels like a call to love in a time where ‘Love’ is a Facebook button.

-George Napper 

1 hr, 42 min; rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements

‘Onward’ is now playing in theaters worldwide

Temper your expectations for solid new ‘Invisible Man’ take


For a film like this, I think it’s relevant for me to point out that I am not very good at predicting twists. Of course there are some that are glaringly obvious, I’m not a moron (we can agree to disagree if you like), but by and large I don’t find myself approaching movies like a detective. And so it gives me no pleasure to report that The Invisible Man blew me away while I was watching it, but had me seriously frustrated within a half-hour of leaving the theater. In regards to the twists in particular, you can perhaps take my initial enjoyment with a grain of salt if you’re more inclined to pick up on these things.

My frustration mainly stems from the fact that I want to love this movie. I wish it was the best horror film of the year. I think its new faked-death stalker premise for the classic Universal monster of its title is quite daring and Leigh Whannell’s direction — especially on a $9 million budget — is inventive and visually striking. I also agree with the majority of cinephiles today in believing Elisabeth Moss to be one of the finest actors of her generation. She certainly carries this film and makes complex, emotional silence look effortless to convey on screen. She can say more with one look than most actors can with pages of dialogue. 

Where this new iteration falters, however, is in its plotting. It’s perfectly paced to be a crowdpleaser; it zigs when you think it will zag, it keeps you on your toes in both near-silence and in chatter, and a few of the twists are genuinely shocking, if only in a “I can’t believe this movie just went there” kind of way. But there are several times where character development and cohesive narrative structure are sacrificed on the altar of tautness and tension. There are characters who die only because the script demands something interesting happen at that point. It’s easy to see all this through the lens of spousal abuse by a crazy man, and indeed that’s what the movie sells as the motivating factor of its plot points. But intentional or not, when certain characters are attacked by or die at the hands of the invisible man, it feels like it’s only happening because the writer was too lazy to develop those victims any further. The film may get more tense and viscerally engaging the more isolated Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) becomes, but it certainly becomes less interesting. 


The reason I feel that shift into pure action mode contrasts so bitterly is because the first half of the film perfectly juggles its disparate tones. After a bravado near-silent opening sequence in which Cecily escapes her abusive millionaire tech-wiz husband, her gradual steps to get her life back on track along with her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and family friend James (Aldis Hodge) are really convincing. As she finds safe haven in James’s home, there is a genuine sweetness between her and James and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). It mimics the speed and tone at which people generally come out of abusive situations — slowly and with genuine TLC. 

But it’s not that the film’s horror sections and its character-driven sections are at odds with one another that’s the issue; it’s that the balance is so good early on that it shows us what the movie could have been. The second half is where we get most of the twists, and even though it may seem like the writing is one step ahead of the audience, when you really step back and look at it, it’s filled with a lot of cheap tricks.


Again, that isn’t to say that the entire movie is a cheap trick. I just wish that this premise had been given some room to breathe, to dig deep, to explore, and not to be fodder for a few ham-fisted moments. Even though it’s generally a fresh and bold take for this intellectual property, that doesn’t make where some of its strands end up any less cliché.

What’s so inspired about the action in this movie is that it takes its time and surprises you with nuances of physical blocking and stunt performance. I just wish the same attention had been paid to the subtle art of panache in storytelling. Sure, it zips along and at least gives lip-service to justify its every move. But truly great cinema is meant to be savored, not devoured. I say that because I wish this was a film that didn’t sour upon the second bite. That first bite was so delicious! 

-George Napper

2 hr, 4 min; rated R for some strong bloody violence and language

‘The Invisible Man’ is now playing in theaters nationwide

‘The Lodge’ should have been called ‘Blaming the Victim’


It’s difficult to imagine a more hateful film than Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Lodge. I have read many critics praising the film by comparing it to The Shining and Hereditary, but I would ask, when does similarity become less than homage and sit firmly in the realm of ripoff? Just because you’ve assembled horror cliches in a way we haven’t seen before doesn’t mean your film isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. There is one major exception to this, but we’ll get to that later.

SPOILER ALERT (but please don’t waste your time seeing this film)

Here are a list of cliches The Lodge indulges in to ultimately come to its trite, nasty, and uninteresting conclusion:

  • Someone commits suicide at the beginning of the film
  • Evil and/or misunderstood stepmother
  • Grieving family
  • Religious cult
  • Old cabin in winter
  • Dog dies for sympathy
  • Major plot points and transitions illustrated by a dollhouse
  • Falling into freezing water under ice
  • Dad has to leave for work out of nowhere
  • Family members do not communicate
  • Horny teenage boy
  • Horny teenage boy facing no consequences for spying on someone naked
  • “The power’s out!”
  • “Phones are dead!”
  • Gun with a few bullets left
  • Creepy kids
  • Kids in peril
  • Women in peril
  • Duct tape over mouths
  • Crosses and crucifixes
  • “REPENT!”

If you’ve seen any horror film in the past 50 years, you have seen 90% of The Lodge. The 10% that is original and that could have made this interesting involves the kids tricking their vulnerable stepmother into believing she’s in purgatory. She was raised in a religious cult, and has been deprogrammed to some degree, but certain things can trigger her memory and lead her back into her original brainwashing. The kids are aware of this and they use it to their advantage simply because they don’t like her. She has done nothing to them except have the audacity to marry their father.


Riley Keough is a great actress, but this script gives her nothing of note to do until the final sequence in which she sings an eerie hymn before exacting her revenge. But here’s the thing – they don’t even show you her full revenge. The one thing that could have given the audience catharsis (because by the end you will hate these kids, there’s no way around it) is communicated only by a cut to black. This film exhibits the worst kind of hipsterism and edgelord mentality, and it expects you to think it’s got something of substance on its mind. There is no substance here. There are only cliches and hatred.

The stepmother here is trying to fit into society. The kids don’t want her to, and they force her back into the darkness.


I suspect there will be many hundreds of people coming out of religious cults in America in the next decade and beyond. We’ve already seen some of the Westboro Baptist Church folks deprogram themselves. How shitty, then, to make and widely distribute a film which says, “If you’re crazy now, you’ll be crazy forever.”

***P.S. This is an unbelievably slow and tedious exercise. If you don’t like slow-moving films, avoid this one like the plague.***

-George Napper

1 hr, 48 min; rated R for disturbing violence, some bloody images, language and brief nudity

‘The Lodge’ is now playing in theaters nationwide (sadly)