Tag Archives: Tanya Wexler

Great Star Turn, Terrible Movie — “Jolt”

In “Jolt”, Kate Beckinsale plays a woman with intermittent explosive disorder. According to the movie, this gives her superhuman strength and martial arts talent that makes her a shoe-in for the CIA. After all, what intelligence agency wouldn’t want someone they can’t control? When we find Lindy, she’s in between jobs as a bouncer.

Lindy controls her violent outbursts through a vest that delivers jolts of electricity. Anytime she feels an impulse coming on, she presses a button, receives a jolt, and calms down. After her boyfriend is murdered, she sets off on a path of vengeance to find the killer.

This is a pretty bad take on intermittent explosive disorder, but sometimes we overlook a film’s problematic core when it’s just one of a host of glaring issues. It becomes a “forest for the trees” situation as you watch.

“Jolt” is like when you nail your elbow on a door but you’re distracted by that really uncomfortable numbing sensation by slamming your shin into a table, causing you to step on a Lego and rush upstairs for ice so fast you cram your head into a low-hanging pipe. At that point, picking the worst problem is less about what to do and more about taking a moment to appreciate just how much of a mess can be created at this one focal point in the universe.

The first blaring klaxon is that we’re introduced to Beckinsale’s Lindy by way of a needless prologue. It’s narrated by someone we won’t see or hear from again for an hour-and-a-half – but don’t worry, it won’t even matter then. I’m all for a good narrator, but not one who dominates the first few minutes and then completely disappears. What’s more, “Jolt” is determined to keep Lindy mysterious and ill-defined. This could be a strength, but it directly undermines a prologue meant to ground us with the character.

Each new scene in “Jolt” introduces a new failure on the movie’s part. Despite a few brief flashes of violence Lindy imagines, there isn’t a real action scene in this action movie until 40 minutes in. It’s also an action comedy, which the police officers pursuing Lindy will remind you of as often as they can. Bobby Cannavale and Laverne Cox play such incompetent cops that they feel lifted out of “Reno 911”, “Police Academy”, or real life. Cannavale’s entire motive for being convinced Lindy’s innocent is that he wants to sleep with her and misreads the kind of person she is. Cox’s entire motive for Lindy’s guilt is that Cannavale’s reasoning for believing she’s innocent is absolute nonsense. I mean, she’s right even if her conclusion is wrong, and there’s a lot you could do with this, but there’s no consequence attached to any of it. It’s just an excuse for them to bicker in some of the worst writing that’s ever been put to screen. Every moment they’re on-screen plays like a farce, when nothing else in the movie does.

Look, don’t get me wrong. When you go in for a Kate Beckinsale actioner, you’re expecting a competent, mid-budget throwback determined to carry the torch of 90s gothic action movies. You’re not expecting hundreds of millions in visual effects or a who’s who of action stars. You’re looking to see heroes and villains toeing the line of BDSM fashion while hotly debating vampire bylaws, taking occasional breaks to see which werewolf can cleave a distinguished English actor’s jaw the furthest. I like to think this is how golf started.

They’re an acquired taste. You’re not looking for “Avengers”, you’re looking for costume design, dry wit, efficient pacing, enough extraneous lore to fill a Ken Burns miniseries, and quick bursts of splattery violence.

Beckinsale can sell an action scene. This ranges from the superhero-esque choreography of the “Underworld” franchise to the martial arts of the “Total Recall” reboot and the more practical, realistic fights in films like “Vacancy” and “Whiteout”. Whatever combination of Beckinsale and stunt actors has played these roles has conveyed extremely solid action scenes again and again.

All this is getting round to stressing that “Jolt” utterly fails her. Beckinsale is there, she’s doing the work, she’s delivering the dry wit, she’s hauling the entire film forward clenched between her teeth in as fun a way as someone can, but outside of her, this is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

What’s frustrating is that “Jolt” can’t settle on what the hell it is. Beckinsale’s scenes with Jai Courtney are a romance where she feels seen for the first time. Her scenes with the designer of her electroshock vest, Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Munchin, are some of the film’s best and are full of acerbic wit. Her scenes with the detectives are straight-up farce and it’s often hard to tell how intentional this is or isn’t. I mean, the baby-tossing scene obviously is, but often the film communicates this too late and it doesn’t fit at all into the rest of the world “Jolt” is painting.

What is that world? It’s the dark, bleak, gothic, “It can’t rain all the time” universe you expect out of a Beckinsale action movie, complete with an old, scenery-chewing English villain so bad he’d be twirling his mustache if he hadn’t, you know, like outlawed mustaches altogether so he could eat people’s faces more easily. Not literally, that’s not an aspect of the plot, but if it had been I wouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, I would have been pleasantly surprised because at least the film would have been clearer about what it was trying to be.

Worst of all, the film’s central metaphor works on Lindy finally “uncaging” herself from her electroshock vest and learning that her anger is something she can use to solve a problem. It is a power and something she should have allowed herself much earlier. That can be an amazing metaphor for women taking hold of their anger to make change. It’s a really shitty metaphor for people dealing with mental health issues such as the intermittent explosive disorder the film builds itself around. It’s especially shitty given that we’re shown numerous flashbacks where Lindy doesn’t control her anger and maims and kills innocent people as a result.

Those flashbacks were fine in the moment because they’re comedic and it’s communicated they’re not meant to be taken at face value…except we’re then asked to hold those kinds of actions accountable in order to cheer for Lindy and see her freed from a form of impulse control in a way we’re expected to take at face value. Lindy’s reckless cruelty is meant to be a dark humor we don’t take seriously – yet when the film asks us to take the power of her anger more seriously, we also have to take the casual murder of innocents, baby hurling, and blowing up residences where others live more seriously.

Is it a farce making fun of action movies and cliché dialogue? In the cop scenes, yeah. Is it trying to be a successful action movie? In assault-the-tower, torture, and fight scenes, yeah. Is it a witty comedy? When Beckinsale and Tucci go at it, yeah.

Half the problem is that it never fully gets there. A lot of the farce doesn’t play and the physical comedy is terribly blocked out. The chase scenes are awful and serious action is so delayed it becomes compartmentalized from the rest of the film. Beckinsale and Tucci deliver on the verve of witty comedic scenes in order to make up for where the dialogue fails them.

The other half of the problem is that “Jolt” doesn’t commit fully enough to any single aspect. I love films that cram together divergent genres. Last week’s “Gunpowder Milkshake” effortlessly glided between genres, influences, and styles of art. Or if you don’t sell every genre you’re going for, you can go all in on at least one of them. That makes an anchor for the others to work off of – look at “Shadow in the Cloud” from earlier this year.

“Jolt” just doesn’t have follow-through on any of these aspects. Every time we shift genre, half the cast feels completely out of place. Beckinsale visits the physical comedy farce despite never existing in it. Cannavale and Cox visit the action despite never existing in it. No one burrows into one of these genres deeply enough for it to make those shifts feel consequential, and no one glides between the genres in the way needed to guide viewers through those shifts. That’s not a criticism of the actors – that’s the fault of direction and – here at least – the screenwriting.

Above all, I’m shocked that this is something Tanya Wexler directed. Her film “Buffaloed” came out last year, and it is both a successful comedy and a biting social commentary. The performances are all phenomenal, led by Zoey Deutch and Judy Greer. Hell, the woman even made Jai Courtney interesting. Wexler was able to glide everyone and everything across genre and commentary in a way that is often sublime.

Her prior film “Hysteria” is a comedy about the invention of the vibrator that’s considered one of the more unique and creative comedies of the 2010s. Wexler was on something of a roll, until now.

Above all, I blame this on Scott Wascha’s screenplay. Maybe this was intended as a more straight-up actioner. Maybe it was supposed to be a “Hudson Hawk” style send-up. Something, somewhere along the way got unbelievably muddled and lost.

None of this torpedoes my faith in Wexler. Her talent for witty slam cuts of flashbacks and imagined violence are one of the few comedic aspects of “Jolt” that works. The art design is inspired in moments. She has nothing to prove, and every director has a bad movie in them.

Tucci does what he can in limited screen time. Cannavale and Cox just don’t seem to be in the same film as anyone else, and that’s not their fault. Courtney’s already the internet’s punching bag for his performances and whether deserved or not, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of point in trying to sink the Titanic even deeper.

As for Beckinsale, it’s a mark of success that it’s taken this long in her career for an action star like her to deliver a truly bad movie. That’s not a period of competency that Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sylvester Stallone can claim.

Hell, Bruce Willis came out with three movies this past week that wish they had the scores of “Jolt”. You have to add the IMDB scores of “Cosmic Sin” and “Out of Death” together (5.6) to match that of “Jolt” (5.5). His standout is “Midnight in the Switchgrass” at 4.3. As a rule, I hate IMDB scores, but you get the idea.

Beckinsale is by far this film’s strength and she combines sheer charisma as an action hero with timing that can make a bad line of dialogue feel intentional and weighted. It’s rare that you can watch a movie you think is a failure and come out thinking more highly of the star who at least dragged it halfway out of the well.

Beckinsale elevates this film from completely unwatchable to a bad film that has its moments. That doesn’t sound like praise, but believe me it is. It’s almost worth watching to see someone do that, but at the end of the day the key word there is almost and that’s the strongest possible angle of endorsement I can give “Jolt”.

You can watch “Jolt” on Amazon.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — July 23, 2021

In researching this week’s new entries, I came across a show called “Etheria”. It’s a horror anthology where every episode features a new story directed by a woman. Its listed as premiering on Shudder this week, though it seems to have been there last year in a film festival format. It’s also been available on Amazon since August 20, 2020.

That listing sent me researching. Etheria Film Night is a film festival that features short horror films directed by women. Yet despite premiering less than a year ago in its series format, the “Etheria” website says six seasons have already been made. Five seasons totaling 48 episodes seem to be available on Amazon. I believe this has been done by bringing prior years’ entrants into a season format. Either way, “Etheria” has flown under the radar, with only 22 reviews for its first season on Amazon.

These episodes are best understood as short films. Some are 20 minutes, some are fewer than 10. Still, realizing there’s a 48-episode-and-counting horror series out there directed exclusively by women is phenomenal. It’s not new, but realizing that it’s out there and so under-seen is blowing my mind right now. Go check it out on Amazon or Shudder.

Let’s dive into the new entries:

NEW SERIES

Outlier (Acorn TV)
co-showrunner Kristine Berg

This Norwegian noir was shot in the Arctic. A crime profiler returns to the Sami community where she grew up. She wants to solve a murder others think has already been resolved. The Sami people are an indigenous people who live in the northern regions of Scandinavia.

Kristine Berg writes and directs with Arne Berggren. Berg has written extensively in Norwegian television.

You can watch “Outlier” on Acorn TV.

NEW MOVIES

Cousins (Netflix)
directed by Ainsley Gardiner, Briar Grace Smith

“Cousins” follows the lives of three Maori girls. One is stolen from her family and put in an orphanage. The film tracks their separate experiences, and speaks to the unfathomable internal violence of colonialism.

Both Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith are Maori directors. Gardiner was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film in 2005, and has produced a number of Taika Waititi’s films, winning best film at New Zealand’s Film and TV Awards for “Boy”.

You can watch “Cousins” on Netflix.

CW: sexual assault

Test Pattern (Starz)
directed by Shatara Michelle Ford

A Black woman is sexually assaulted. Her boyfriend takes her to the hospital. They don’t have a rape kit available. They refer her to another hospital. The night drags on, the pattern repeating, the woman treated more as offender than victim, each hospital referring her to the next.

This is the first feature from writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford.

You can watch “Test Pattern” on Starz.

Jolt (Amazon)
directed by Tanya Wexler

Kate Beckinsale plays a bouncer who’s gone through a kind of shock therapy to manage her anger. When her boyfriend is murdered and she becomes the suspect, it’s up to her to express that anger by beating dudes up. Oh, and to track down the real killer, of course.

At more than $2 billion worldwide box office, multiple hit action movies, and her own franchise, Beckinsale might be the most bonafide action star who’s rarely thought of that way. She’s reliable, and she’s elevated a lot of mid-budget actioners.

The other big draw here is director Tanya Wexler. She helmed the exceptional “Buffaloed”, which had a sharp sense of humor, laser-focused social criticism, and enabled Zoey Deutch to deliver one of the best comedy performances in recent years. Wexler has a knack for getting her actors to buy into roles and feel comfortable testing genre boundaries.

You can watch “Jolt” on Amazon.

Arab Blues (MUBI)
directed by Manele Labidi

A woman returns to Tunis after years of living in Paris. Her goal is to open up a psychotherapy practice. Golshifteh Farahani stars. You may recognize her from an exceptionally strong supporting performance in last year’s “Extraction”.

This is the first feature film from French-Tunisian writer-director Manele Labidi. She’s also written and directed extensively for theater and radio.

You can watch “Arab Blues” on MUBI.

Mezquite’s Heart (HBO Max)
directed by Ana Laura Calderon

A girl in Northern Mexico wants to help her heartbroken father by playing the harp. The instrument is only played by men, according to tradition, but she’s set on her dream.

Writer-director Ana Laura Calderon primarily works as an editor. This is her second narrative feature film as director. You may also find the film listed as “Corazon de Mezquite”.

You can watch “Mezquite’s Heart” on HBO Max.

Milkwater (Netflix)
directed by Morgan Ingari

Milo meets a gay man at a bar. She decides to become the surrogate for his child. The two struggle with how it changes their understanding of their own lives.

Writer-director Morgan Ingari has worked a number of other jobs on indie projects, such as assistant director and script supervisor, on her way toward her first feature film.

You can watch “Milkwater” on Netflix.

The Last Letter from Your Lover (Netflix)
directed by Augustine Frizzell

A journalist tries to solve a mystery at the heart of a love affair decades prior. She sifts through a trove of letters, the film interweaving her story with the one she begins to learn. Felicity Jones and Shailene Woodley star.

This is Augustine Frizzell’s second feature film as director after 2018’s “Never Goin’ Back”.

You can watch “The Last Letter from Your Lover” on Netflix.

Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans (Netflix)
co-directed by Johane Matte

Netflix’s family-friendly, animated series “Trollhunters” was originally created by Guillermo Del Toro. It formed the basis for a universe that included two other animated series: “3Below” and “Wizards: Tales of Arcadia”. After three successful seasons of “Trollhunters”, characters from these shows unite to fight an evil order.

Johane Matte directs with Francisco Ruiz-Velasco and Andrew L. Schmidt. Matte has directed on all three series of the Arcadia universe. She got her start as an assistant animator on 90s TV fare, and progressed to a storyboard artist for shows like “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, “The Legend of Korra”, and “The Penguins of Madagascar”.

You can watch “Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans” on Netflix.

Mass Hysteria (Shudder)
co-directed by Arielle Cimino

Salem witch trial re-enactors get themselves caught up in a contemporary witch hunt in this low-budget comedy.

Arielle Cimino directs with Jeff Ryan. It’s the second feature the two have directed together.

You can watch “Mass Hysteria” on Shudder.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you like what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

How to Sell Late-Stage Capitalism: A Comedy — “Buffaloed”

Some of the best comedies are also cultural horror pieces. They focus in on one absurd aspect of how we live, exploiting it for laughs while also making us recoil at the truth of it. This is the case with “Buffaloed”, where we follow a woman named Peg who’s hell-bent on taking hold of the Buffalo debt collection industry.

That may seem small potatoes, but Buffalo, New York, is one of the debt collecting capitals of the U.S. It houses a number of agencies that buy debt for pennies on the dollar, and then try to collect as much of it as possible. Often, they’ll collect more than they’re owed. They’ll make threats in order to collect. They’ll lie about the law and break it themselves. They’ll take advantage of older people who might not remember the debt’s already been settled.

Why would following someone who idolizes this industry be interesting or amusing? Peg is someone who’s idealistic about the cult of sales on which debt collection is based. She’ll willingly trade being able to make it day-to-day for a risky scam that has an outside shot of making her rich. She’s emblematic of a philosophy about money that plunges people into debt in the first place, a philosophy that tells us to invest rather than save, to hoard rather than share, to look out for ourselves rather than our communities.

There can be a certain fascination to watching bad guys who are so exceptionally precise at their manipulation that they run circles around the good guys. The prototype for this is Iago in “Othello”. The concept survives to this day in shows like “House of Cards” and its U.S. remake, or movies like “There Will Be Blood”. That plays differently after four years of Trump, though. Perhaps those we have to fear aren’t the cinematic genius masterminds, but the desperate hustlers who whip their followers into a fanatical frenzy.

Zoey Deutch’s Peg is no Iago. She’s desperate to escape her social class, to escape debt. She has schemes on schemes. She also has the gift of convincing herself, and her family and employees, and perhaps even us as the audience that she wants to do it the right way. She wants to reform the debt collection industry. She wants to make it work for the industry and for those in debt. We know that’s not possible, but if anyone can take a run at it, maybe it’s her – even as she erodes what is and isn’t legitimate.

She’s just good enough at it to ride the line between success and prison. She has just enough of a gift to shift in and out of each. There’s no middle ground for her. She grew up in a house with debt collectors breathing down her mother’s neck. Her mother (Judy Greer in a very overlooked role) runs a struggling, off-the-books business. Peg looks down on her for that, while having endless, misguided faith in the memory of a scam-artist father who passed away and passed his debts onto all the rest.

How is any of this funny, let alone one of the best comedies of the year? Brian Sacca’s screenplay and Tanya Wexler’s direction eviscerate one of the most predatory and loosely regulated industries in the country. Different debt collection agencies go to war like wannabe mafias over who’s buying what debt, at what cost. They raid, threaten, and SWAT each other. The movie educates about the industry even while building comedy off how pathetic and desperate it all is.

Peg herself might be a sociopath. Or she might be a good, caring person who has to act the part of sociopath to stand up against threats. Or she might be a sociopath who acts the part of good, caring person because it keeps her enablers where she needs them. She hires outsiders because she believes in them, identifies with them…or because she knows she can control them more easily. She doesn’t want to betray her lawyer boyfriend because she cares about him…or because she knows he’s a useful resource for her. We never know which, and Deutch’s performance balances on this line perfectly. We’re scared for her, worried for her, and rooting for her while we also legitimately distrust her. That Deutch can sell us on all of the above at once offers us a deceptively complex comedic performance – something that becomes more layered because it is so comedic in nature.

That’s more real and worrisome than an Iago. There will always be someone sensible who resists an Iago. His shortcoming is that he never believed his own lies – they were logical lies, not emotional ones. A Peg, though? She’s an icon. Who needs logic when emotion overrides it? Even as a viewer, I can say I empathize with her and may even believe in her. I want her to succeed because her panic, desperation, resolve, determination – they’re all so identifiable, even when her success is built on eroding the very lines of legitimacy she tells everyone she’s trying to reinforce.

Iago speaks to the audience and we know he’s evil. We follow him because his actions are happening outside of us, on a stage, or the page, or in a movie. We’re not necessarily legitimizing them by wanting to know what happens. Peg speaks to us and we’re confused about who she is even in that moment, but she sure seems to believe it so why wouldn’t we give her a chance? On some level, that legitimization is happening inside of us as the viewer. There’s a larger barrier to enabling Iago or the logical villains like him. There’s almost none to enabling villainy from someone you actually like and can identify with. “Buffaloed” can read us, and then take advantage of it while calling it out and making it plain as day to us.

It clarifies how this identification plays into the cult of sales, including debt collection, by making us buy into a movie that is using the same strategies to claim our emotional investment. Its comedy renders us empathetic, and its absurdity makes it both funnier and more horrific. It’s a rare film that can call out exactly how it’s getting you to emotionally invest in a toxic character, and in so doing further convince you to do exactly that. It convinces you to set aside your better judgment because this is someone you believe in and want to see succeed despite common sense and logic. It’s a movie that’s emblematic of the current culture of the United States.

“Buffaloed” is a clever comedy that kept me laughing across a very efficient hour and a half. It’s an utterly brilliant character study that resonates far longer than that – except I don’t know if the character it’s studying most is Peg, or me as the viewer.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Buffaloed” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Zoey Deutch plays Peg. Judy Greer plays her mother, Kathy. Lusia Strus plays Frances, Lorrie Odom plays Backer, Paulyne Wei plays Jin, Barbara Gordon plays Mrs. Cooney, and Jayne Eastwood plays Rhonda. Kate Moyer plays Peg as a child. There are a few other brief speaking roles.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. A lot of the conversation revolves around business decisions – debt collection, rent, sales strategies, ethics, theft. Peg’s conversations with her mother often revolve around her future, her dreams, and her mistakes. These include discussions of men – how she impacts her brother, her belief in her late father, her sort-of-boyfriend, but are usually more broadly around Peg’s life.

Some of the business conversation treads into talking about men because all of her competition in debt collection is run by men, but it usually leans more toward Frances and Backer talking to Peg about her business.

You can watch “Buffaloed” on Hulu with a subscription, or see where to rent it.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.