WTF is “The Devil All the Time”??

Growing up, my dad would show me a lot of movies that he would insist were classics in his time but we would both realize throughout the duration of the film that they either hadn’t aged well at all or just plain kinda sucked and didn’t make sense. That’s basically how watching Netflix’s latest, The Devil All the Time feels. Outside of the fact that it was released just this week and features an inexplicably star-studded cast of Hollywood’s ripest up-and-comers, the whole thing feels of a different time… a time when you could get away with vaguely traceable narrative ties and oversimplified, ham-fisted messages that don’t seem to make any tangible commentary on the world we live in today or at the very least, what we can learn from the days gone by.

Simply put: I spent the whole movie saying, “huh? What the fuck is this?”

It’s the latest entry in the Netflix oeuvre of movies “so serious, all the actors probably had their faces scrunched, even when the cameras weren’t rolling,” joining the ranks of The Cloverfield Paradox, Outlaw King, The Outsider and The King. Netflix is both perpetuating and simultaneously the victim of the notion that “really fucking serious = quality.” I’m not saying something heavy can’t be good but just make sure that while you make something heavy, that you also make it, you know, good.

I guess the biggest “message” of the movie is that people use their faith as a way to justify their shitty actions and behaviors or possibly at least feel better about them? It’s such an obvious cautionary idea that I’m fairly certain nearly every major religious text warns against in some fashion. And that’s what so frustrating, from the moment the movie starts, we get it; boy, oh boy, do we get it. This is nothing new. This is not an innovative take on the idea. This is just that one, simple idea, illustrated in the most cartoonish fashion possible.

Because the book is set in West Virginia during the mid-40’s through early 60’s, and director Antonio Campos is so reverent to the text, the movie is set then and there as well but you can tell he’s screaming at the audience, “just pretend it’s the Deep South! Deep South, okay?! Please!! Deep South!” 

Everything plays like it was made by someone who only knows about Southern culture from Hollywood touchstones. The folks are God-fearin’, Bible readin’, baby producin’, hand workin’, renegade justicin’ folks who may not know much about books and math and the finer things and whatnot but they sure do know a thing or two about what’s right and what’s wrong. The first act of the movie tells the audience it takes place just off the heels of World War II but clearly wants to paint a picture of life in the late 1800’s and because this takes place in the make-believe, Hollywood version of the South, that’s just fine.

Characters do things like grab their children by the hair and smack ‘em around when they stop payin’ attention to their prayers for like one second, sacrifice their dog to please their almighty, vengeful God, and theatrically dump jars of spiders on their face in front of a congregation to illustrate just how deep their faith runs, because, again, we have to pretend this is really the South in the 1800’s. The whole thing feels like a movie you would look up online after watching and find out won Best Picture in 1959 for its unflinching portrayal of gritty southern culture but has just about 0 relevance or believability today.

So, in spite of all these glaring flaws, what’s most jaw-dropping about this movie is its stacked cast. It’s led by Tom Holland, so he can show off his tough, brooding side, but features performances from Bill Skarsgård (somehow as an ol’ fashioned southern man, despite looking like he’s straight out of Scandinavia or possibly another galaxy), Haley Bennett, Robert Pattinson, the notoriously choosey & indie-driven Riley Keough, Sebastian Stan, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke and Eliza Scanlen, essentially a highlight gallery of Hollywood’s soon-to-be and existing premier movie stars, all in relatively throwaway roles. What about this movie made them say, “this, right here: this is the movie worth spending a month shooting in Alabama for,” despite the roles being incredibly flimsy? Is it just one of those things that they wanna have on their highlight reel?

“Look, I did a movie where I had a Southern accent… do you see my range, Mr. Producer?”

Sebastian Stan, famous for being a handsome, fit dude, gained weight for his role in this movie. He gained weight for it! He’s chubby in this movie! This throwaway performance was somehow important enough to him that he decided it was gonna be worth it for him to go through the process of putting on and then losing weight after production wrapped. Why would someone be so dedicated to something so profoundly mediocre?! It’s baffling! Most of these esteemed performers are killed off after just a few scenes! And not in a Brad-Pitt-in-Burn After Reading kind of way where they get to absolutely crush it in like three or four scenes and then get killed, but rather, they just show up, aren’t given much to do and then drop dead. It’s mind-boggling. Who hypnotized these actors into doing this movie? The Hollywood hypnotist that Netflix hired deserves a massive raise.

So, what is this movie really about, other than: boy, oh boy, Southern folk sure do like to murder each other over seemingly nothing, with very little follow-up from law enforcement? It’s being marketed as some kind of Southern Gothic, religious thriller that’s posited as Tom Holland’s quiet, gruff, tough guy vs. Robert Pattinson’s creepy, flamboyant, corrupt preacher. And, yes, that is a part of the movie, but honestly, not a huge part, or at least not as huge as the movie wants it to seem. The trailer would have you believe that this is a slow-burn showdown between the two ideologically opposed characters over the course of two hours and 15 minutes that ends in a bloody eruption, in the style of Tarantino. On one end, you have Tom Holland as the only non-God-fearin’ man in town, who just might have a clearer sense of right & wrong than any of these church-goin’ folks and on the other end, you have Robert Pattinson as the charmingly intense preacher who just rolled into town but uses his reverence and stature to manipulate and exploit his congregation both sexually and mentally. Oh baby… we got a showdown!

Except we don’t.

I’m all for a slow burn movie but sometimes you burn so slowly, there isn’t enough match for all the flame you want to show. There’s so much prolonged setup, trying to explain who the characters are and why they will become who they will one day become, that the movie is left hastily playing catchup once the story is supposed to get rolling. We meet Tom Holland about 45 minutes into the movie and Pattinson about 15 minutes after that. That leaves an hour and 15 minutes left to put these characters at odds, let it simmer, boil and build, then explode and then wrap it all up; not to mention all of the various side story breadcrumbs you’re fed along the way. There’s not enough time. In The Irishman, it’s okay that there’s 50 minutes of prologue and backstory before we meet Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa because the movie is 3.5 hours long: we’ve still got plenty of time to spend with him, baby! (What a betrayal of everything I hold dear, to use a Scorsese movie as an ideological benchmark.) But in The Devil All the Time, we don’t have nearly that much time to spend with these characters and thus, no one is given enough time for us to connect with them.

This brings me to something that really pains me to write… this should have been a miniseries. I respect the hell out of Campos for adapting this book as a movie. Movies rule. Movies are king. There’s just nothing quite like telling a knockout story within the confines of the medium of cinema. I’ve seen some very good miniseries (that word is singular & plural?) before and have thoroughly enjoyed them but when you can perfectly puzzle together a story into a movie, that’s just what does it for me, and I can tell that Campos feels similarly; he helmed the anthology miniseries The Sinner a few years ago and still felt that this book would only be done justice as a movie. I respect his dedication to the medium.

But here’s the thing: if you’re adapting a book into a movie, you gotta take some liberties. You gotta turn this into a movie and not just a book on screen; there’s not enough time for that. Books are long. Movies are short. It’s not a seamless transition. Campos is far too reverent to the original text to make this into a movie. He doesn’t want to ditch any of the narrative threads and I get it, because as soon as you start making changes, every douche who read the book will pop up, out of the woodwork to say, “but, but, but, it was different in the book!!” Some people just don’t understand that books and cinema are two different artistic media that have different storytelling needs.

The reality is, when adapting a book into a movie, a few douchebag bookworms’ heads gotta roll. Just keep your eyes on the road. Otherwise you end up doing multiple scenes with two serial killer characters that don’t seem to have any relevance to the story until an epilogue scene that makes you go, “huh, so that’s why they were in the movie… okay.” And when you do get to the very rushed confrontation between Holland and Pattinson, you might say to yourself “wait, I think this is the first time these characters have even spoken to each other. And I’m pretty sure Robert Pattinson has only been in like two scenes before this.”


Quick aside: Robert Pattinson sucks in this movie. I know he’s the one thing everyone is praising about it and is one of the big draws to watching it for a lot of people, but he’s just not good. Just because you’re really “going for it” in a role, doesn’t mean it’s good. I know right now it’s a la mode to celebrate every strange thing Robert Pattinson does in a movie because “he used to be in silly vampire movies and now he does weird things!” That’s cool, I get it; but, like I was saying before, when you’re being weird, you should also try to be, you know, good? Believable? Not a major fucking distraction? You get the idea. I’d bet Campos wasn’t overly thrilled with the direction Pattinson took the character but was likely too nervous to tell him that he was… bad at his job. At least that’s what I hope.


If you want to make a book into a movie, you need to run it through the movie machine, you need to pull it apart and figure out what’s cinematic about it and run with that. And while I respect Campos for trying to maintain the integrity of the book, it does his movie no service, trying to tell a story it can’t maintain the breadth of.

When I set up this blog that exists for no reason other than for me to read my own opinions that I agree with, I wanted to try my best not to be negative, in case anyone else ever read it. There’s so much negativity out on the internet, I hoped to try my best to try to find things that I could champion and celebrate. At worst, I wanted to take a deep dive into something I didn’t like or relate to and poke & probe at it to see why it bothered me. My intention was never to just fully dump on something but… The Devil All the Time might have left me more confused after watching it than any movie in recent memory, and not confused in the good, Christopher Nolan, kind of way but confused as to what the fuck it is and why it exists. I know a lot of hard-working people came together and tried their best to make this a success and I respect them for that. I hope in the future that they continue working and make things that are great, whether I like them or not.

But I did not like this. At all.

Is This New Trash or was Trash Always Like This?

Just two fellas on the prowl for a niiiiiiice paycheck.

Last month saw the release of the Netflix original film Project Power, which has been marketed to the masses as the big budget popcorn movie we all would have otherwise flocked to theaters to see but were treated to the convenience of having at home. I’m sure, after watching, the masses all had a somewhat similar reaction, ranging from “huh… that wasn’t very good,” all the way to “huh… that was pretty good.” You know, the full spectrum of passionate reactions. More so than anything, a movie like Project Power leaves general audiences confused: why was something that I was told was gonna be massively cool so plainly bland? It’s a pretty standard marketing ploy: put a new spice on the slop and the piggies will eat it up… but it’s still the same slop.

This is nothing particularly against Project Power. I would place myself on the “huh… that wasn’t very good” end of the spectrum but it’s far from an offensive assault on the brain. It’s a mediocre superhero/action movie that probably would have been theatrically released in February or March or even August (if the studio execs were feeling particularly saucy about it) in any given year and turned an okay profit (with a random, tiny batch of passionate fans that beg for a sequel that the actors tease might happen over the course of the next six years and eventually comes out and no one gives a shit – whaddup, Pacific Rim?).

But Netflix wants you to believe you’ve never seen something like this before, or at least not in a long time. Not just in the sense that it’s an original film and isn’t based on any preestablished IP but even further in the sense of legit movie stars like Jamie Foxx and JGL (I will not call him anything else) getting to play around in a pulpy action thriller that the whole family can enjoy. They want you to be reminded of movies like Mr. & Mrs. SmithSmokin’ Aces or any of the mid-2000’s Will Smith action movies like HancockI, Robot or I Am Legend, movies where big-time movie stars got to run around and have fun in a relatively breezy action movie that didn’t make you think too hard. It harkens back to a subgenre that got eaten alive by comic book franchises and YA adaptations in the late aughts. 

2004 Will Smith has no idea that people won’t be interested in his movies in like four years. If only we could go back and warn him.

So, while it might seem like a smart move to make something that harkens back to those mid-2000’s summer blockbusters with a flair of superhero antics to keep it with the current times, to me, it seems like a fraught cause. Those 2000’s action movies got eaten alive for a reason: they fucking sucked. Much like Project Power, none of those five movies I mentioned above are good or memorable in any way. Say what you will about Marvel movies or The Hunger Games, but I’d watch any of those over a 2000’s-era action movie like Shooter. A Marvel movie may seem generic to us now, since we have so many, but those movies are carefully crafted and made with someone in mind and the same goes for something like The Hunger Games. You can make something for a mass audience while still maintaining some level of audience specificity. Movies like Project Power are destined to fail because they’re for everybody. And when you make something for everybody, you end up making something for nobody. It’s like putting out a bowl of M&Ms at a party: no one is gonna get mad about it but no one’s gonna get excited about it either… it’s just a safe choice that will go relatively unnoticed.

I suppose it doesn’t matter. Netflix isn’t in the business of quality. Yes, they like to woo auteurs like Scorsese and Kaufman over by telling them they can have a budget to do whatever they want for any sort of prestige project they’re interested in but outside of that, they’re mostly interested in making half-decent trash that passes the time on a lazy evening. Sometimes you end up with something rad like Extraction but more often than not, you end up with Project Power or Bird Box. It doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to have an attractive thumbnail image on the screen that a family of five can all shrug their shoulders at and say “yeah, I guess I’d watch that.”

Passive consensus, that’s where Netflix thrives. They have the unique ability to give us the tasty, mid-budget dramas we’ve been craving the return of for the last ten years, and thought they were going to provide, but instead, have elected to serve up the action trash we threw away 12 years ago but this time a little more colorful but overall less fulfilling.

When We First Met is a Charmingly Odd Piece of Cinema

 

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When We First Met is a true testament to the sheer force of nature that Adam Devine brings. For a movie that should be, at its best, “passably enjoyable while it’s on in the background,” Devine works 110% to bring it up to “passably enjoyable while you actually watch it.” It’s almost remarkable how hard he works to try to bring this movie up from mediocrity; his relentless effort is more interesting to watch than the actual movie around him is. He didn’t have to try so hard; he easily could have phoned it in and taken his Netflix paycheck and been on his merry way, but he doesn’t… he genuinely wanted to raise the bar for this movie and because of that, I have an incredible respect for him.

The movie functions as a rom-com Groundhog Day, in which Noah (Devine) needs to re-live the same night he meets Avery (Alexandra Daddario), the love of his life who friend-zones him because he waited too long to make a move. Of course, hilarity and hijinks ensue, or at least that’s what the movie attempts. Each time Noah goes back in time, he has a new method of flirtation he’s trying which leads to various different futures for him and Avery with equally varying amounts of amusement for the viewer.

Other than Devine, what helps sell the movie is how damn earnest it is. Its naïve charm works to its favor which is almost refreshing. In another world, there is a gross-out, hard R-rated version of this movie that would be an absolute slog to sit through. A version with constant F-bombs and genital references to cover up the lack of anything interesting. It was nice to watch something that was so unabashedly PG-13. Having said that, just because you’re PG-13, doesn’t mean you can’t take any risks. The movie’s biggest flaw is how squeaky clean it is even when it tries to deal with adult themes like sex, one-night stands, hookup buddies and drinking. In one timeline where Noah becomes hookup buddies with Avery after trying out a “douche” persona to woo her, he asks her what her favorite sex position is, but the movie is afraid of anything beyond a parental, focus-group approved impurity, so she never responds. “Yes, they can briefly talk about sex existing, as long the nice girl doesn’t admit to enjoying anything too salacious.” You can be 100% PG-13 and still try to have fun with it. The movie is essentially for high schoolers and everyone knows how much high schoolers love content that their parents approve of.

Ultimately, the movie continues to ride along on the charm of Devine alone. The rest of the cast just tries to anchor the world around him with varying success. Though she’s basically given nothing to do, Daddario is a pretty perfect choice as the girl Noah just can’t seem to get it right with but her fiancé, played by Robbie Amell, is about as interesting as a wooden plank. Why not make some of the other characters slightly interesting? Give them a personality of something more than just “person for Devine to bounce off of.” There is a good cast in here: use it! At the very least, Shelly Hennig gets to play a few more notes than the rest.

This movie accomplishes what it sets out to be: something that is on and offends no one. The problem is with that is it’s such a dreadful goal to have, let alone achieve. Of course, I don’t want the R-rated version but it would be nice to see this movie maintain its romantic earnesty while still showing us something even slightly exciting. I can see the executives trying their hardest to make this something pleasant to watch for everyone (maybe slightly skewering towards teens) but when you make something for everyone, you end up making it for no one. That’s why you have to hire Devine to lift the entire thing up on his shoulders and carry you. If we don’t get scenes where he thinks he knows the piano but doesn’t or him drunkenly exclaiming he has a “play-doh” face, or anything else he throws himself into, then there would really be nothing worth even mentioning about this movie. At the very least, we can say, “damn, Adam Devine really wants me to like this movie.”

It really is a testament to Devine: you can replace any actor with someone else and it wouldn’t make a difference but if you lose him, you should really just shut down production.

Netflix: The Savior & Destroyer of Mid-Budget Movies

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While it may be doing damage to the classical theatrical experience, Netflix investing in mid-budget movies is unfortunately a net positive. As we’ve come to find in recent years, studios seem to mostly be making two kinds of movies: giant tentpole blockbusters, like “The Avengers” and the teeny tiny indie that they hope will be the next “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Why gamble on a movie that costs $50 or $65 million that may only end up grossing $98 million back? It makes much more sense to dump truckloads on something that will make billions or spend as little as possible on something that might turn out to the charming little hit of the season? It’s a reliable business model; I get it.

But mid budget movies are something we desperately need. It’s nice to see a few A-listers in a dramedy, courtroom drama or cop movie. Unfortunately, much like romantic comedies, they have become few and far between. Yes, you’ll see them from time to time when the right kind of money and star power come together: a movie like The Judge (an overlooked gem) doesn’t get made unless it has the undeniable box office gravity of Robert Downey Jr, and the 2010 remake of True Grit doesn’t get made unless it has the Coen Brothers directing with an all-star cast. The problem is, these used to be the movies that dominated most of the movie calendar and there would only be blockbusters in the summer and Christmastime; now we have movies like Deadpool and Black Panther, that come out in February and Logan come out in March. This year we’ll get a Venom movie in October. Even Avengers: Infinity War was changed to the last weekend in April for maxim box office receipts.

So where can a mid-budget movie thrive if no studio will pay for them? Netflix. For a few years now, Netflix has been testing the waters in terms of original movies. They’ve made some attempts at Oscar bait (Mudbound, Beasts of No Nation & First They Killed My Father) and they’ve even thrown their hand into blockbuster territory (Bright), but now they’re starting to realize where they can really thrive: mid-budget movies that studios are too scared to make. In 2018 they’ve already dropped, Mute, The Cloverfield Paradox, Game Over Man and When We First Met. All of those would have had a hard time finding a home at a major, theatrical studio.

So why is it unfortunate that Netflix is carrying the mid-budget torch when no one else will? It’s simple: all movies are meant to be seen in theaters. That’s it. There is no counter argument. You should see art in the medium it was created for. I have plenty of friends that tell me “I just saw (insert movie title here) and it thought it was shitty.” Oh really? Did you see it in theaters? “No.” Did you watch it on a phone/computer/TV/airplane? “Yes.” Then you did not see the movie, you watched it. Seeing a movie implies that you went to a movie theater to literally see that movie. I re-watched Interstellar a few weeks ago… but I didn’t see it.

Movies are meant to be seen in a theater. You cannot have distractions. I don’t care how fucking sick your home theater setup is, it is not as good as a movie theater. In a movie theater, you have no control over anything and that is how it should be. At home, you can talk to the person next to you, you can check your phone, you can get distracted by literally any outside visual stimulation. Film is a long-form version of visual art. If you break the tension with anything, then the moment is lost. I know lots of you may think that just seeing something in your room won’t distract you, but it will; it’s how the human brain works. We see things and then we think about them.

I have friends that have told me “I won’t see a movie in theaters unless it’s some Avatar-level of visual effects” (you know who you are). That is an awful way to see movies. All cinematic stories deserve to be seen without being interrupted, without being paused to take a crap, without your roommate coming in and loudly cooking in the kitchen.

That’s why Netflix is a necessary evil. I’m grateful that The Meyerowitz Stories is able to exist because of Netflix but I also wish I could have seen it in a theater. As time goes on this will only get worse. There is one simple cure to this: go to the movies. See things that look interesting to you; I love blockbusters too but if we aren’t careful, eventually a movie like “The Nice Guys” won’t even have the power to grant a theatrical release and eventually, we’ll all just end up going to the movies to see which new superhero is fighting which new supervillain.