Nymphomaniac volumes I & II (2014)

113648_galWhen Danish film director Lars von Trier said he wanted his next movie to be “porn” he wasn’t kidding. The controversial filmmaker wanted to explore the world of a woman addicted to sex, following her history of varied experiences over the course of two movies/volumes. Actors lined up for the notoriously demanding filmmaker. During the sex scenes, computer effects magic married the actors’ faces and upper bodies with the lower parts of porn stars. Upper half, Charlotte Gainsbourg, lower half, some pornographic double, all spliced together into one onscreen human being. Think about that little special effects ground-breaker, putting Hollywood faces into hardcore sex scenes. Knowing von Trier’s pessimistic tendencies, and his penchant for heaping abuse upon his female leads to the point of uncomfortable exploitation, you may rightly cringe about the prospect of a von Trier “erotic” movie. That’s the funny thing about Nymphomaniac; it’s all about sex, sometimes graphically so, but it’s never erotic. It’s an intriguing, sometimes maddening look at human sexuality and our inhibitions and frailties, until a horrible ending spoils it. In the end, von Trier just couldn’t help himself.

The story boils down to this: Joe (Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as the younger version) is found beaten and unconscious in an alley. The kindly, monk-like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, brings her back to his home, and tends to her wounds. Joe says she brought all of her pain upon herself. Seligman finds this hard to believe. She uncorks a lengthy series of tales about her sexual awakening and desires.

112010_galIn many ways, Lars von Trier is the best and worst candidate to present a four-hour opus on the life and times of an avowed nymphomaniac. The man approaches the idea of sex addiction in practically the most clinical way possible while still being cinematic. You can practically envision Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier, countering Joe’s sense of shame with a broader, scientific perspective. Really, this is the tale of a woman spilling her guts about all her dirty little secrets and a man nodding along, asking questions, and dismissing her self-loathing with his reason and empathy. It’s sort of like being inside a therapist’s office. I can’t say whether or not I find all the analogous asides to be interesting or simply insufferable pretension. While Joe is detailing her behavior, Seligman will stop her and provide further context, often bringing in such subjects as fly fishing, the mating habits of fish, the Fibonacci sequence, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical music. It’s almost absurd how encouraging Seligman is, dismissing every action of Joe’s sordid past through an example. After a while, it almost becomes a humorous game all its own, as we know Seligman will use every story as a stepping off point to some weird outside connection. Every item in Seligman’s bare bedroom inspires a story from Joe, which leads to a suspicion that she is something of a salacious Keyser Soze, piecing together her story on the spot; some of the coincidences with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) seems just a bit too much. Seligman’s enlightened and intellectual asides force the audience to consider deeper meaning with Joe’s actions. Is she irredeemable, does she have control over what she’s doing, is she doing anything even bad? Over the four hours of psychological examination, the doctor is out. Nymphomaniac, especially in Volume Two, is the best film yet on sex addiction. It doesn’t demonize the behavior, it doesn’t treat it as sensationalistic, and it doesn’t overtly judge its lead characters and the choices they make, nor does it spare them the devastating consequences.

The graphic nature of the film is getting all the headlines but Nymphomaniac treats its heroine as an addict trying to get a hold of herself. We begin with young Joe innocently discovering her sexuality, especially discovering the pull she can have over an almost endless parade of weak-willed men who will follow her every whim. If that was the only plot, then there would be little separating von Trier’s film from any late-night cable erotic series (“Oh, let me tell you the time I met this man and we did this…” –Repeat). Over the two movies, we get a stronger sense of how utterly trapped she is by her urges, by her addiction. When she’s dealing with the undignified death of her father, Joe finds whatever solace she can with a willing bedmate. She places herself in precarious situations chasing after that orgiastic high, which disappears at the conclusion of Volume One. The cliffhanger separating the two volumes is that Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure, which is rather problematic for a nymphomaniac. And so in Volume Two, Joe desperately searches for a means to get her groove back, at one point abandoning her own child so that she can pursue her kink. Joe goes to counseling, joins a sex addict group (she bristles at the term and prefers “nymphomaniac”), and tries to detox, at one point removing everything vaguely sexual from her apartment, including anything knob-shaped.

nymphomaniacThe film is structured as a series of vignettes and anecdotes, broken up with von Trier’s tried-and-true onscreen chapter system. As expected for a film based around anecdotes, some stories are more interesting or revealing or simply entertaining than others. The stories are a little more whimsical in Volume One but by the time we get to Volume Two, they become more punishing and sad. It’s one thing to bet your promiscuous gal pal who will have sex with the most people on one train ride home, or on a prank to stick a restaurants dining utensil up your vagina, but it’s another when an adult woman, night after night, leaves her toddler at home so she MAY have the opportunity to have her behind whipped. The young Joe stories are easier to shake off as youthful experimentation and thrill seeking, which Seligman rationalizes as well. However, they set up just exactly the path that the adult Joe was destined for. The tales in Volume Two have to ratchet up the stakes, given Joe’s absent mojo, so what was once titillating can become downright disturbing. von Trier’s four hours offer plenty of feel-bad feel-good opportunities along the human sexuality sphere. Adult Joe thinks introducing a language barrier could be enticing, so she asks an African immigrant if he’ll have sex with her. He agrees, but brings his brother along. The two men bicker in a different language, while Joe sits there, head slumped against her hand, comically waiting for these two naked men, their penises wagging in the foreground of the camera, to get to business. It’s quite a funny and ludicrous turn of events.

One story in Volume One stands out for its raw emotional power. Joe has a whole schedule of lovers visiting her door. Well one such older man wanted to have Joe all to himself but her price was high: he had to leave his wife, “Mrs. H.” Surprise, he does, and Joe is already uncertain if this new arrangement is what she wanted; her offer was better in the theoretical sense that he would never cross that line. Well the misses (played with chomping disgust by Uma Thurman) comes for a visit and she brings her kids along. She wants her children to see what their daddy traded them away for. At first, the wife acts civil with some stinging passive-aggression, but the uncomfortable incident is dragged out, and the emotions reach a fever pitch, with crying all around. It’s so uncomfortable, so potent, and so memorable, forcing Joe, and the audience, to think of the ripples of consequences from simple sexual dalliances. While Joe is having her fun, unbeknownst to her, there are far-ranging consequences that she, and by extension the audience, choose to ignore because all those pesky details would get in the way of our fun.

The most troublesome storyline is also one of the longest, with Joe having her backside swatted by a no-nonsense sadist played by Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge). This guy insists there will be no penetration and his rules are to be followed strictly. It starts out intriguing to get a sense of who this guy is and what his practices will be. Joe has to sit with other women between the hours of 2-4 AM, and maybe she’ll get picked. Night after night, she goes through this setup, so desperate to feel the spark of desire again. This situation feels like it goes on forever. There is no easy climax. Rather it sets up the darker turn for Joe’s character, as she gives up being a mother and a wife. To make ends meet she becomes a debt collector, using her knowledge of men, particularly heir weaknesses, to coax them back into paying. There’s one disarming moment when she takes great pity on a pedophile that will surprise you, and it’s the only incident that causes Seligman to disapprove. Her boss (Willem Dafoe) advises her to think of an eventual replacement she can groom, and his method is singling out a young girl with no support, becoming her world, and slowly manipulating her to do your every wish. In a von Trier film, that is what a retirement 401k package looks like. This whole storyline, including her young mark (Mia Goth) romantically falling for her would-be maternal figure, just feels misplaced, like von Trier doesn’t know how to bring his four-hour opus to a close.

Prelude-to-a-Wholesome-EveningThat’s because he doesn’t! This paragraph is going to delve into the conclusion of Nymphomaniac, so be warned that there will be major spoilers being discussed. If you wish to remain pure, skip to the next paragraph. During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. And there’s truth to what he says, namely that the world judges Joe far more harshly for her actions because she happens to be a woman committing them. If a man was performing the same stunts, or left his family, he would not be seen as damningly. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.

It’s a shame because Gainsbourg gives a terrific performance as the older Joe. The actress is no stranger to von Trier and his sadomasochist ways, having also starred in Antichrist and Melancholia. You get a sense of her character’s desperation, the thrills of her youth now gone. She’s also grappling with her own fallibility, the anger that comes from that, her antipathy with others, and the regrets and jealousy that penetrate her hard exterior (no pun intended). She’s trying to act above society, an operator who plays by a different set of rules, but it’s fascinating when the emotions reveal themselves from the sensations. And Gainsbourg puts all of herself into this role, submitting to her character’s many mental and physical tortures. Even if she has a body double pasted in, it’s still representational of her and Joe. Gainsbourg manages to draw us in, not wanting our sympathy but eventually earning it. Martin, as young Joe, gets just as much screen time as Gainsbourg, but there’s a vacancy there to her acting, a certain passivity that makes young Joe feel more like a spectator than a participant in her life. Skarsgard (Thor: the Dark World) is an appealing foil for Joe, almost comical in how accepting he is and how excited he can get with his digressive connections. The only other actor of note in the large ensemble is LaBeouf (Transformers) who affects a strange accent but sticks with it. We’ll see if his self-imposed exile from Hollywood and acting sticks as well.

112003_galI’ve spent this entire review talking about everything else rather than detailing the nature of the graphic sex, the point that earned Nymphomaniac much of its curiosity with the general public. That’s because the explicit nature of the sex is inconsequential. I understand that that may sound odd for a movie literally called Nymphomaniac, but that’s because von Trier’s movie is less interested in the salacious and tawdry acts and more about deconstructing a life lived and the increasingly fraught rationale for her choices. Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, the graphic sex is the headliner, and it is occasionally graphic and unsimulated, with more than a few vaginal close-ups. The sex is incidental, a symptom of the human condition, and von Trier’s less-than-sensational look at such a sensational topic grounds the movie intellectually. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is posing questions, pushing his audience to question our own views on sexuality and concepts of normalcy and what is and isn’t in good taste. We’re prurient creatures lapping up all the dirty details and copious amounts of nudity, but the introspection is what sticks, and it’s an incisive character study that opens up in many beguiling, illuminating, and surprisingly relatable ways…. Until the end. There’s no way to account for Nymphomaniac and just forget the ending. Four hours and for what? I cannot fathom what von Trier was going for rather than a return to his M.O. of humanity resorting to casual cruelty. If you can bear it, Nymphomaniac is a fitfully entertaining film, provocative to the end, and then it all slips away thanks to cinema’s worst practical joker.

Volume 1: B-

Volume 2: C+

The Ending: F

Nate’s Grade Overall: B

Bad Words (2014)

20-bad-wordsGiven the premise, you’d be right to assume that there are many easy laughs when it comes to Bad Words. A grown man (Jason Bateman, making his directing debut) is competing alongside children in a spelling bee, intimidating them, psyching them out, and otherwise being a rude and vulgar human being. Now, besides the fact that being older doesn’t automatically give anyone an edge over in spelling, I worried that too much of the movie would fall upon the patterned setup of Bateman just saying something inappropriate to children. Some of these jokes are funny, most somewhat expected, but the real enjoyment of Bad Words is the buddy relationship formed between Bateman and a young Indian speller (Rohan Chand). The story follows some similar beats from the more scabrously funny Bad Santa. The heart it develops in the second half isn’t quite enough to tie up everything. I applaud the film for finding a happy ending that feels at least in keeping with its tone. As a director, Bateman has a smooth handling with his actors and a sharp overall sense of comic timing, as one would hope. My issue with Bad Words is that it isn’t outrageous enough, relying on the setup or Bateman’s mean insults for oodles of easy laughs. I was entertained with Bad Words but I wish it followed the convictions of its insolent lead character and cared less about making an audience care. It’s a dirty movie that goes soft.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Best Night Ever (2014)

110786_galThere are no more reviled names in the world of comedy than the duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Together, these writer/directors have unleashed such loathsome films as Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and their most recent spoof, The Starving Games. Each film was further evidence that Friedberg and Seltzer had no grasp on the basic tenets of comedy. But, free of the shackles of a spoof formula, what could these two accomplish? That’s a question no one on the planet was seriously pondering but here comes Best Night Ever, a found footage comedy where four thirty-something female friends (Desiree Hall, Samantha Colburn, Eddie Ritchard, Crista Flanagan) travel to Las Vegas and get into oh so scandalous trouble. How original, right?

Being Friedberg and Setlzer’s first straight comedy, it’s fascinating how it fails in a completely different yet similar manner than their normal spoof monstrosities. The problem, among others, with their spoofs is that they are not structured for comedy but merely lame pop-culture references, with the reference standing in the place of what should be a joke. It’s a notable absence of comedy. With their first original work, Friedberg and Seltzer lose the references but forget to replace them with, you know, comedy. Take for instance a scenario where our four heroines hide in a dumpster. The police are outside and they don’t want to be caught. All right, this setup could afford some nice squeamish comedy. Instead, we hold onto the same painfully long night vision shot (4 minutes and 45 seconds – thanks Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at AV Club) with the ladies breathing heavily. It takes several minutes until this situation changes, when the girls start singing “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes as a patented means of soothing a panicked friend, which itself isn’t any funnier. Let’s unpack this scene. They’re in an uncomfortable place and forced to be quiet lest they alert the police. Why set this up and do nothing with it? And the supposed payoff for the scene is more a jump scare than a joke, and it’s not worth the wait. There’s also a lengthy dialogue-free montage where the girls do a scavenger hunt of activities around Vegas, most of which are fairly innocuous for a sex comedy (rub a bald man’s head?). There’s no wilder escalation. When the girls put a blacklight to their seedy motel room, it goes as expected. Oh no, semen stains are everywhere, but you keep waiting for a capper. It’s got to be more than this, something different, something a little more bizarre, like perhaps someone spelling out their name in semen. Nope. And that’s Best Night Ever in a nutshell (no pun intended): a tediously long wait without payoff or jokes.

MCDBENI EC004Best Night Ever wants to pretend it’s intended for a female audience but the writing makes it seems like Friedberg and Setlzer don’t know women. It’s a girls’ night out, and from a male perspective, which means a lot of shouting, “woo,” dancing, drinking, and all sorts of tame activities. None of these people feel like human beings, let alone friends that we should care about. Being Friedberg and Seltzer’s first R-rated comedy, the guys should be embracing the tasteless possibilities, getting their ladies into crazy scenarios that spiral out of control. Instead, the whole sad affair has such a timid feel, as if Friedberg and Seltzer decided a largely female audience would be put off by too much crass content. There’s a sequence where the ladies take pills they found in am ambulance. All right, you’re thinking, this should lead somewhere. Oh how wrong you’d always be expecting something from these two filmmakers. We’re treated to an extended sequence of the girls just dancing for several minutes, in slow-mo no less, mouthing, “Best night ever.” That’s it. Why does the movie repeatedly pull its punches when it comes to the bridesmaids behaving badly? I think it’s the misplaced idea of not wanting to rankle its target audience, that women have a lower quotient for bad taste.

Let’s explore what happens in the lone sequences where Friedberg and Seltzer decide to indulge their R-rated crassness. The ladies kidnap the valet driver who they believe mugged them. Disguised in ski masks that can’t help but trigger associations with Spring Breakers, they break into his home, strap him to his bed, and then one of the ladies eventually urinates on his face. And if that wasn’t enough, she craps on him as well accidentally. Of all the directions this setup could have gone, a woman pooping on a man’s face just seems lame, having to settle for cheap shock value over jokes. The end gives us our first glimpse of nudity, as the ladies stumble into the wrong hotel room on an amorous interracial couple. Incensed, the naked couple couple chases after them. The chief threat is an overweight black woman and, apparently, her overweight nude body is meant to be the outlandish joke. Oh look, a fat woman chasing after our characters! And so, her nudity is allowed because it’s meant to be comical (visions of Borat dancing in my head). Like other sequences, this part is drawn out and exhausts whatever brittle comic potential it may have had. Then there’s the lingering thought that the only minority characters in the movie are presented in states of undress, their nudity meant to serve as discomfort.

I understand the sexy marketing hook of making a found footage movie, but does the entire film have to be stuck in this limited narrative constraint? Can a movie not just incorporate found footage elements but be free to break away on its own, like The Purge? Alas, Friedberg and Seltzer embark on found footage and can’t even adequately maintain that guise, often failing to produce reasons for why their characters are still filming. First off, why would anyone just film themselves introducing who they are on a bachelorette voyage when, presumably, the only people watching it will be close friends? Then there’s the pesky habit where people keep holding the camera out, framing all four ladies so carefully. Then there’s the fact that the footage is seen rewinding and fast-forwarding, presenting sequences out of sequence, some with intertitles added for dates because having a date stamp for a recording wouldn’t be good enough. So, the age old question, who did all this? Who added music to the sequences? Then there’s the fact that later on the camera cuts to reaction shots and different angles in single scenes, completely destroying the illusion of being found footage. Why blur nudity in an R-rated movie in general, but even more so, if this is found footage, what hypocritical hypothetical editor is blurring certain nudity and letting other nudity pass? Nothing of substance or humor is added to this film by forcing the prism of found footage. Instead it only makes the characters dumber and less realistic than the one-note placeholders they already are.

still-of-crista-flanagan-in-best-night-ever-2014-large-pictureLet’s talk about those characters. Comedies have a long history of putting together archetypes; take for instance The Hangover, a surefire inspiration for Friedberg and Seltzer. We’ve got the smarmy asshole, the uptight straight guy, and the goofy nutball, all classic comic archetypes that can bounce off one another. With Best Night Ever we have… the… mother… the slutty one… the… actually it doesn’t matter because the characters are so poorly written that they are indistinguishable. Not one of them has a personality or anything memorable to them. They’re all one type: bland. The only way I was keeping track of who’s who was by hair color, and even that is something of a challenge at times (two redheads?). Friedberg and Seltzer hastily throw in some “character details” for some, like one one just had her husband leave her for a man and another is a mother and has a breast pump. Okay, 1): why pump milk on a Vegas trip? Is that going to keep on the multi-hour car ride home? And 2): you’d expect with a detail like that there would be a later payoff…. Nope. Like most things in the movie, the details are just hastily thrown into the mix and readily discounted.

I was morbidly curious what Friedberg and Seltzer would set their sights on when not cannibalizing pop-culture in their spoof movies, and now I know. Best Night Ever is just as inept a comedy as their previous spoof atrocities. It irritates me even more that Friedberg and Seltzer could have done any comedy they want, and this is what they delivered, a tacky and too often timid sex comedy that has far too many drawn out sequences in place of actual humor. I don’t think found footage works in the context of comedies. It provides a sense of realism, and the long takes naturally build tension, but these aspects benefit the horror genre, not so much comedy. With comedy you still need to develop setups, complicate them, provide payoffs, and make sure to provide detours from the expected. There is nothing truly unexpected from this girls’ night out, and the cheap jokes rarely build or alter, so the pained setup at the beginning of the scene remains the same by the end. The simple premise of a bachelorette party gone wrong is ripe with potential, a potential that will never see any flicker of life under the guise of Friedberg and Seltzer. I never thought I’d write this but these two can just go back to their spoofs. Of course my first request would be never to make another movie again.

Nate’s Grade: D-

Draft Day (2014)

draft-day-posterLet there be no question, while baseball may still cling to the title of “America’s sport,” the real king in the realm of sports is football. The NFL has grown by leaps and bounds and dominated American culture, to the point that the NFL Draft is an event that millions more watch than actual games in other sports. In some way the Draft is the most optimistic day in football, where every professional team thinks they’ve found the missing pieces to make that championship run, that their draft picks will all pan out. It’s a rare day where even the Cleveland Browns can be optimistic. There’s also been a shift with the fans. Decades ago, most people would fantasize about being an NFL head coach; nowadays, in the age of number-crunching and fantasy football, most people would prefer being an NFL general manager (GM), assembling their dream team. The landscape is ready for a film like Draft Day, but will the fans turn out for a fictional outing?

Sony Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) is the GM for the Cleveland Browns and he’s put the team’s future all on the line. He’s traded draft picks with the Seattle Seahawks, jumping from number seven to number one. Everyone assume that Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) is the consensus number one. Sonny has traded his team’s first round draft picks for the next three years in order to make this move. Now, with less than twelve hours remaining before the start of the NFL Draft, he has to make sure Bo Callahan is the kind of player he wants on his team. Highly regarded Ohio State linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) has sparked doubt in Sonny. Despite what the experts think, is there something amiss with Bo? Sonny has no shortage of people with opinions on what he should do: the owner (Frank Langella) demands Bo so they can sell tickets, the coach (Denis Leary) wants a prized running back rather than having to struggle with a rookie QB, and Sonny’s coworker, Ali (Jennifer Garner), wants Sonny to come clean about their secret relationship and her impending pregnancy.

113623_galLess cerebral than Moneyball but still mightily entertaining, Draft Day is a pressure-packed crowd-pleaser skillfully made to deliver big payoffs, regardless of whether you watch football or not. Like the Oscar-nominated Moneyball, the focus is less on the game than the micromanaging of the game behind the scenes with the key personalities of an organization. The movie is knowledgeable, swift, and stuffed with characters that each have their own demands, always crashing into Sonny and pulling him in a new direction. It’s easy to see why this script was the number one screenplay on the Black List in 2013; it just moves, so effortlessly, cognizant of the ticking clock at every moment and the impending stakes for our hero. It’s a man with one mission: the future of the Browns, but with infinite ways to do it, each side pushing a favorable case for themselves. There are so many permutations to putting together a team, let alone having the number one pick. And if Sonny doesn’t make a splash, he knows he’ll be out of a job at the end of the season. It’s a position rife with conflict and dramatic payoffs. There’s the pressure of the fanbase, hungering for a winner to finally root for, the pressure of the owner, salivating over the ticket sales a splashy QB can provide, and there’s the pressure of Sonny’s own father, a man who recently passed that forces Sonny to reflect on what will be his own legacy with the Cleveland Browns. As a sports fan, it’s fascinating for me to listen to experts talk about the nuts and bolts of putting a team together. As a movie fan, it’s easy to get into the film with its underdog protagonist, a man trying to get out of a hole of his own doing, which means his moments of triumph are even more resonant.

The film smartly presents itself as a combination of an investigative mystery and a high-stakes con game. Sonny has the number one pick and yet his gut is telling him something is amiss with the surefire can’t miss quarterback prospect. With the Draft that very day, Sonny is under tremendous pressure to conduct a speedy background check into Bo Callahan. Each minute that passes the more significant it becomes to know who Bo is and follow the leads on questionable evidence; Sonny can’t assign the future of the franchise to a player that will leave it in ruins (or in the case of the Browns, more ruins). Sonny has mortgaged his team’s future and the pick better be worth it. The Freakonomics guys estimated that a bad franchise QB (think the Raiders with JaMarcus Russell in 2007) could set back a team on average five years. Likewise, the film balances this ongoing mystery with a con game. Every team is trying to fleece the gullible and needy, and Sonny fields offers for his top pick, some laughable and some tempting. Once the Draft kicks off, and Sonny steers his team in the direction he desires, that’s when the film gets even more exciting. We watch the man spin and deal and conspire, flexing muscle against other teams and regaining a position of strength. It’s tremendous fun for football fans and non-fans alike just to watch a professional in their element con his way to victory.

With as much conflict that comes naturally from the setup, I wish Draft Day didn’t feel so sitcom-y at times, shoehorning in trite additional conflicts and storylines. Let’s just assess the day for Sonny: he’s the GM with the number one pick, his future and the team’s future hangs in the balance, but his father also just died, his mother insists upon an ashes scattering burial that day, he has to perform a deep background check on his would-be franchise QB, he’s been harboring a secret relationship with an assistant who wants to go public, and he’s just been informed he’s going to be a father. That’s a lot of conflict for one man in a period of one day, and the confluence of all this drama in such a short window of time is far too unbelievable. You might wager that at the end of Draft Day Sonny puts a pistol in his mouth. The romance with Ali, and his impending fatherhood, never really works, serving up Sonny an opportunity to reflect and squeeze in some exposition, a life outside of football. The romance subplot feels tacked on and malnourished. Likewise, there are characters and moments that feel like they were slapped together as apart of some broad marketing package. Ali has a hapless intern who always comically happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, it’s supposed to be funny, but it just feels forced. There’s a scene where the Browns’ coach sets a draft analysis on fire, dropping it onto Sonny’s desk, only to have Ali douse it with a fire extinguisher. Football is a theatrical game to begin with, attracting colorful characters with oversized egos, but actions like this just feel strangely silly and false.

113630_galDirector Ivan Reitman hasn’t made many films since 2001’s underrated Evolution, and one of those was the horrendously unfunny, misogynistic My Super Ex-Girlfriend, so the prospect of “an Ivan Reitman film” doesn’t have the same draw as it once did. His touch with actors is still kicking. Costner (3 Days to Kill) is great in a role suited to his talents. Even with a thankless role, Garner (Dallas Buyers Club) can be a winning big screen presence. The film is packed with great actors filling out even the smallest of roles (hooray Sam Elliott, Chi McBride, Terry Crews, Timothy Simons, and Kevin Dunn). Boseman impressed me more with a handful of scenes here than in the entirety of 42 as Jackie Robinson. The best decision Reitman makes as a director is to present the movie as the breezy two hour-entertainment it is, keeping the pacing to the floor. However, Reitman gets drunk on his use of split-screens. It begins on an interesting note, with one side transitioning beyond the division of the split-screen. Then it happens again and again, sometimes repeatedly in one scene. It was a neat visual device that Reitman just can’t let go of, which might actually get some people queasy with the sliding scenes.

Time for a personal disclosure: as a diehard fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes and a relative fan of the ever-suffering Cleveland Browns, this movie was tailor-made for my own sports fandom. The people of Cleveland will especially enjoy this movie. During my preview screening, when the Seahawks brass asked, “Who would be that desperate?” and the scene cut to a skyline of Cleveland, my audience cheered. That’s us, they all agreed. The world of Draft Day also exists in a slightly parallel plane where the Dallas Cowboys have won “a lot” including recent championships. Enjoy that fiction, Dallas fans. In the original draft by writers by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, Sonny was the GM of the Buffalo Bills, but cosmically it just feels correct that it’s the Browns, a team defined by its long history of letdowns, epic collapses, draft busts, and comical mismanagement. It’s eerie that the Browns themselves are faced with a similar situation for the 2014 Draft. Many pundits predict the Browns will select a new franchise QB with their number four pick, but are any of these young men up to snuff? Are there character concerns for Johnny Football? Should the Browns give their own promising quarterback another chance after a season-ending injury before starting over at the position? Eerie.

Draft Day isn’t exactly the football equivalent of Moneyball, but it’s close, though more mainstream in appeal and execution. As a football fan, I’ve been looking for an intelligent and analytical look behind the scenes of the most physical of American sports. In 1999, Oliver Stone came close with the noisy and expansive Any Given Sunday. With this movie, we have a mixture of genres (mystery, con, existential drama) that turn the sports movie into something greater. It’s fun, often humorous, breezy, charming, and agreeably entertaining even when it takes one too many forced detours amidst all the conflict. You don’t have to be a football fan to have a good time with Draft Day, though it helps. This movie very well may be the highpoint of the Cleveland Browns’ season this year.

Nate’s Grade: B+

God’s Not Dead (2014)

gods_not_dead_xlgBefore I dive deep into the unfortunate indie film, God’s Not Dead, allow me to disclose my own leanings. While I can objectively deconstruct and analyze a film, as I intend to with this one, allow me to state that I consider myself a Christian. I also happen to have several friends of different faiths including some who are atheists. We can civilly discuss our differences without having to demonize one another, finding merit in the different tracks people take to add value to their time on this Earth. Well somebody should have let God’s Not Dead know that the world isn’t so didactic, and the best way to reach people is not to loudly declare your own sense of superiority. This is such an angry little movie disguised with a misleading happy face.

Josh (Shane Harper) is a freshman assigned to Professor Radisson’s (Kevin Sorbo) introductory philosophy class. He’s been warned early on that the prof has a target for Christians in his class. Sure enough, on day one, Radisson offers his class a tempting offer: if they will turn in a slip admitting God is dead, then they will automatically get a good grade and the class will move on to other thinkers. Josh can’t do that, so Radisson challenges the coed to prove the existence of God over the course of three classes. Josh’s peers will serve as the jury of this theological trial.

gods-not-dead-618x400It should go without saying that God’s Not Dead feels like it exists in a world that doesn’t come close to resembling reality. That’s fine, movies don’t have to be a perfect reflection of our world, but when a film purports to be the reaction to the persecuted, it has to bend over backward to create its illusion of persecution. One of the big giveaways early on was the fact that all but one person in a full class would acquiesce to admitting, “God is dead” for a better grade, especially a school in the South (the film was filmed in Louisiana). The next giveaway was when Josh’s girlfriend threatens to break up with him if he goes through with challenging Radisson. Her thinking: if Josh gets a poor grade in one class his freshman year, he’ll never be able to go to law school, and their future plans will be kaput. Who thinks this way? Another giveaway was the representation of academia, namely the professors at the university, all of whom come across as snobby, self-satisfied, smug, and mean-spirited even to the point that they’re mocking their own colleague’s girlfriend to her face. People don’t behave like this. Then again this is more of a parable than a story, and more of a conversion exercise than a movie.

The genesis of this movie feels like it was spawned from a collection of e-mail forward bogeymen, in particular the notion of Christian persecution. For starters, a far majority of this country identifies as Christian, as do the politicians making and enforcing the laws. This is very much a Christian country, so why do certain people feel they are under attack? Even accepting the premise, the movie is rife with creaky subplots that don’t add weight to the film, only padding. There’s the Chinese student who wants to gravitate toward Christianity, whose father warns him to go with the flow lest they upset the Chinese government (COMMUNISM!). There’s the Muslim student forced to wear a headscarf and who secretly listens to Billy’s Graham’s son on her iPod, afraid of what her traditional father would do if he found out (MUSLIMS!). There’s a blogger that writes for “The New Left” who wants to ambush good Christian celebrities like the Newsboys and one of the bearded gents from Duck Dynasty (he looks eerily like my critical colleague, Ben Bailey) with her position of outrage (LIBERAL MEDIA!). In light of the controversy over the Duck Dynasty patriarch saying gays are on par with terrorists and black people were more cheerful in the Jim Crow days, it’s even more unusual. These additional storylines are grafted on with such witless care, belaboring the running time.

Radisson is the prime bogeyman, the smug, self-satisfied atheist intellectual (LIBERAL! COLLEGE! ATHEIST!). No college professor is EVER going to force his or her students to declare God dead in class. They would be disciplined severely and booted. Radisson can spout out a few famous names, but really the man resorts to bullying and intimidation, including physical threats against Josh. There’s no way a dean would allow this to stand. The classroom, and higher education in general, is meant to provoke discussion, especially for a philosophy class. The notion that a philosophy professor would think only in reductive right/wrong terms is idiotic. The entire idea of college as this liberal brain-washing ground that infringes upon the freedoms of Christians, a feeling cataloged in the end credits with reported legal cases, falls apart when you understand that college is about the exchanging of ideas. A Christian viewpoint is but one viewpoint, and within that group the variances are many. Simply being exposed to differing views, texts, and people is not cause for alarm, unless, of course, the person is too insecure in their own faith. The anti-intellectualism argument seems to believe that the more knowledge one is exposed to, the more choices they have, the less trustworthy they can be with making up their own mind.

godsnotdeadThen there’s just the overall poor nature of Josh’s debates. If you’re going to put God on trial, then devote the majority of the movie to this exercise. Cut the many subplots just floating around gunking up the narrative. Josh is in charge of presenting a compelling case for the existence of God. He opens with the notion that man cannot prove God exists but they also cannot disprove God. Huh? Josh, you’re tasked with proving the Almighty and you start with this rhetorical nonsense? Let’s apply this logic elsewhere: I can’t NOT prove that eating ice cream spares me from getting struck by lightning. An intelligent case can be made for a Creator, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, Josh relies on circular logic while blasting others for circular logic. He cites Genesis as the accurate scientific account for the Big Bang, saying science had it wrong, forgetting that science is, pardon the term, an ongoing evolution building off the previous ideas and breakthroughs. He also grossly misrepresents the theory of evolution, the timeframe of developing life, provides a ham-fisted rationalization for the existence of evil, and finally resorts to pressuring Radisson to admit he is a lapsed Christian who has never forgiven God for the death of his mother. Because, you see, an atheist can’t simply come to their beliefs logically. The final head-scratcher is when the class unanimously votes with Josh “I am Spartacus” style, not a single soul, in a philosophy class no less, quibbling over the flawed presentation (Hey, he made animated PowerPoint slides! That’s all we need). I also doubt that any modern-day college class would be filled to capacity especially a class as potentially boring and esoteric as a philosophy class for eighteen-year-olds.

Let’s focus on the really nasty core of God’s Not Dead, which states explicitly and implicitly that anybody who is not a Christian is without morals and judgment. Josh, in his concluding argument, cites Dostoevsky (though it’s really a character in his book) saying, “If God does not exist then everything is permitted.” His argument boils down to the concept that those who do not believe in God are without moral clarity. That’s generally insulting and downright hostile, presupposing that the only reason people treat other human beings with kindness and respect is because of religious faith and not, you know, an innate personal sense of  right and wrong. Newsflash: no one religious group has a monopoly on moral values. Hammurabi didn’t need Christianity to come up with a system of moral laws to live by in 1700 BC. I don’t kill my neighbor merely because I fear cosmic retribution. Likewise I don’t help a person in need because I want my brownie points; I do it because I know it’s right. The entire movie exists in such a black and white terms, and to keep up with this edict every non-Christian is presented as a terrible, often mean-spirited human being. The Muslim father believes in God, but not the Christian God, and so he must beat and threaten his daughter for her clandestine conversion. The superficial businessman (Dean Cain) has riches but at what price? The liberal blogger has her career but in her time of need nobody close to comfort her. The film posits that atheists or non-Christians are without morals and cannot be truly happy in life. It’s this gnawing and unnecessary sense of superiority that infuses the film, leaving an unsettling aftertaste of smugness for a movie purporting to castigate others for their own smugness.

Let’s talk about the liberal blogger and Radisson for a moment. It’s not enough that we can’t allow intelligent people to have differing perspectives and beliefs, and respect those differences; no every person with a different view on God must be punished. The liberal blogger finds out she’s dying from cancer. Big spoilers ahead: Radisson is fatally hit by a car. Our kindly reverend character has just enough time to get Radisson to profess his love for Jesus on his deathbed before stepping off into the light. And so, our voices of dissent are unceremoniously killed off. Literally we jump from the death of a man outside to an extended Newsboys concert that asks people to text bomb their pals, a text which just happens to be the name of the movie and the Newsboys’ 2011 album. It’s a little unseemly from a dramatic standpoint but from an ethical standpoint more so.

kevin-sorboI’ve expended a lot of words examining the content of God’s Not Dead, so allow me to judge it as a film. For starters, there are way too many subplots that eat up valuable time, mostly people on the periphery meant to provide validation to Josh for his actions. Tonally, several of these segments clash, especially the kindly minister and his wacky misadventures trying to drive to Disney World. The time in the classroom is the hook of the film but it gives us about equal time with the liberal blogger or the Muslim daughter or any other distracting side character. Also, the filmmakers have the annoying habit of cutting to another scene and then back while their first scene continues to play out. I assume they’re forcing parallels but in reality it’s just shoddy editing that disorients an audience. Then there’s the sequence where the Muslim girl’s younger brother is entering her bedroom, going to discover what she’s listening to on her iPod, and it’s played hilariously like a horror movie with the lurking shadows. There are directing choices that take away from the potential drama of scenes. From a technical standpoint, God’s Not Dead looks slightly better than other Christian widespread releases, but the filmmakers are worse storytellers than the Kendrick brothers (Courageous).

The acting is inoffensively bland with one notable exception. Despite what you may think, Sorbo (TV’s Hercules) is actually pretty good as the raging atheist. He digs into his character’s pool of anger and arrogance and produces a performance that weirdly feels moderately grounded, even for a character that is not. I don’t really know why the Duck Dynasty cameo was necessary but I suppose the filmmakers felt they needed additional star power to lure their target audience.

God’s Not Dead is a surprisingly mean little film that hides its purpose under the auspices of evangelism. I expected a pro-Christian message and it has every right to put forward its own viewpoint, but the film isn’t so much pro-Christian as anti-everyone not already following the same limited interpretation of Scripture. This is not an inclusive film that will reach out to those lost sheep. Putting aside the poor filmmaking and plotting, the misplaced persecution complex, and the straw man arguments, the most disappointing aspect of God’s Not Dead is the illusion of intellectual rigor. The merits of Josh’s less-than-stellar arguments are not the point, though any person skilled in critical thinking should be able to poke holes in his faulty rationale. The point of the film is to feed into an unjustified sense of being wronged, that even though Christians are a clear majority in our country, that somehow they are under attack simply because others are allowed equal opportunity to share their own valid views and beliefs. In the black and white universe of God’s Not Dead, there is only one way to be happy, to be moral, and if you’re not on this team than there’s no way to achieve anything of substance in your life. Do you see the difference? It’s not that my side is good, it’s the notion that my side is better, that your side is worse. It’s a distinction that adds a decidedly sour note. This is a movie after all where the purveyors of atheism have to be struck down with death. God’s Not Dead is likewise striking ‘em dead at the box-office, but you should hold the movie to a higher standard.

Last note: the very title is a misuse of Nietzsche’s quote. The full quote is, “God is dead and man has killed him,” which implied man no longer needed religion to serve as its lone basis of moral authority.

Nate’s Grade: D

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Capt2-Payoff-1-Sht-v8-Lg-c563dA welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the second Captain America film brings the square superhero to our modern-day and presents a complicated national setting where the enemy is the U.S government. The challenge with a Captain America (played by Chris Evans) movie is just how outdated his whole sensibility seems, an irony-free nationalistic hero. Smartly, the filmmakers have pushed his loyalties to the test, and the movie transforms into something along the lines of a Jason Bourne thriller, where the government is hunting down a rogue fugitive. It’s certainly the most timely superhero film since 2008’s The Dark Knight, and the political commentary on the NSA spying and drones is a welcome big screen subversion. But the action is still what people come for and in that the Winter Soldier is quite an entertaining movie. Directed by the Russo brothers, known mostly for their comedy work in TV like Community, the movie packs quite a punch with a variety of action/thriller sequences, each well staged and well developed. My favorite might be Nick Fury under assault and desperate to escape in his car from overwhelming enemy forces. An opening sequence rescuing hostages on a boat serves as a great reminder why Captain America is indeed so super. The movie does have some issues but nothing so large as to derail the enjoyment. First off the villain is way too obvious, but also the movie lets the U.S. government off the hook, falling back on a select evil group that has been undercover perverting the government. Secondly, the Winter Soldier of the title is one plotline that doesn’t feel needed or well integrated. It’s another super soldier for Cap to combat and this guy has a mysterious link to our hero. It feels like one plotline too many, a story that deserves better attention on its own. Still, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an engaging, thrilling, intelligent, and altogether entertaining addition into Marvel’s sprawling cinematic canvas.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Noah (2014)

noah_ver2Meticulous director Darren Aronofsky gained a lot of creative cache after Black Swan raked in over $200 million worldwide, a Best Actress Oscar, and heaps of critical acclaim, including from myself (not to imply I was a deciding factor). The man had what all artists dream of, a perfect moment to seize whatever creative project his heart desired. And what he chose was to remake the biblical story of Noah for the masses, with an artistic fury and idiosyncrasy the likes of which audiences have never witnessed. The decision left many scratching their heads, wondering why Aronofsky would waste his time with a story already well told, in an outdated genre (Biblical epic), that would likely turn off evangelical ticket-buyers with any deviations and turn off mainstream audiences with any devotion. It looked like a big budget folly with no way of winning. The box-office is still unwritten, though I suspect the effects will net a pretty penny in overseas grosses, but as far as a creative statement, Noah is far more triumph than folly.

Noah (Russell Crowe) is living his life in isolation from the communities of king Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone). Noah and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), their two older sons Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman), youngest son Japheth (Leo Mchugh Carroll), and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), are living on the outskirts of civilization, aided by a group of fallen angels. Then Noah is given apocalyptic visions of an oncoming flood and the mission to save the world’s animals. After speaking with his 900-year-old grandfather Methusselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah is convinced what he must do, and it involves a lot of intensive manual labor.

Noah-Movie-2014-ImagesAronofsky treats Noah and the beginnings like Greek mythology mixed with a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic, and it’s madly entertaining. The visuals are stirring, large-scale, and sumptuously memorable (the Earth covered in spiral weather patterns is a standout, along with Noah’s visions and a Tree of Life-style triptych narrating the birth of life). The film has come under fire from conservative critics for its creative deviations from the Bible, but sidestepping a larger conversation, why should a movie be punished because it wants to entertain a wider berth of people than the faithful? Does it truly matter that the people refer to the Big Guy as “The Creator” rather than “God”? Would these people even use the word “God”? This just seems like a petty battle of semantics. It seems like certain critics are looking for any nit to pick. Sure giant rock monsters that were fallen angels might make people snicker, but why should this aspect of the story be any more preposterous than a man and his family gathering two of every biological creature on the planet? I loved the rock creatures, I loved how Aronofsky introduces them, I love how they walk, I love that Aronofsky even finds a way to give them a redemptive storyline, offering an emotional payoff. Seriously, why should these be any harder to swallow for narrative stability?

There were fears that Aronofsky would be less than reverent to the source material with his additions and subtractions bringing it to the big screen; Noah is a Biblical epic for our modern age but also one fervently reverent to the lessons of the tale. First off, a literal version of the Genesis tale would be boring and short. There is going to be some additions and they should be welcomed. What Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel (The Fountain) have done is taken a story filled with casual larger-than-life events and given it a smaller human perspective that is thought provoking. When Noah’s sons ask about wives, it’s personal planning but also a necessary part of, you know, repopulating the planet. They’re being anxious teen males but the small, relatable plot line also finds a way to relate to the larger picture, a tactic Aronofsky frequents. There’s a focus on family, fathers and sons, jealousy, but it really comes down to a personal level, differing perspectives about the overall purpose of man. The human-scale provides a richer context for the Biblical tale’s better-known aspects, like Noah turning to the bottle. As a result, we get the special effects spectacle without sacrificing the potent human drama at work. While the movie may never refer to “God” by name, it’s respectful and reverent.

noah2Another aspect about what makes Noah so daringly visionary is that it doesn’t blink when it comes to the darkness of the story. Over the years popular culture has neutered the tale of Noah into a cutesy tale about a guy on a boat with a bunch of happy animals. I think we’ve purposely ignored the lager picture, namely how truly horrifying the entire story is. It’s an apocalypse, humanity is wiped out; children and babies are drowning. Everybody dies. The later brilliance of Noah is that it doesn’t mitigate this horror. Once Noah and his family are inside, the floods having arrived, they painfully listen to the anguished wails of those struggling for life in the waters. The movie forces the characters, and the audience, to deal with the reality of a world-destroying cataclysm. Noah’s visions of the ensuing apocalypse are beautifully disturbing. The film takes place eight or nine generations removed from Adam, and God is already willing to take his ball and go home. After watching mankind’s wickedness, you might sympathize with The Creator. Aronofsky’s film has an unmistakable environmentalist stance (how does one tell this story without being pro-nature?), but he also shows you the brutality of mankind. The citizens of Tubal-cain have no respect for life, at one point kidnapping crying young girls and literally trading them for meat to eat. Resources are dwindling and people are pushed to the brink. There’s some sudden and bloody violence, as death is not treated in the abstract or with kid gloves. This is no cutesy story for the little ones. No stuffed animal tie-ins.

Of course once the flood occurs, the story seems like it’s at an end, Noah and his family having only to patiently wait out before starting over. It’s during this second half where the movie becomes even more personal, challenging, and philosophical. Noah believes that his family was spared to save all of those creatures born on Days 1-5, not so much Day 6 (a.k.a. mankind). He accepts this burden with solemn duty, declaring that his family will be the last of mankind to ever walk the Earth. However, spoilers, his own family pushes him to the test of this declaration. His adopted daughter is pregnant. There is hope that mankind can continue if the child is a girl. Noah sticks to his guns, saying that the child will live if a boy but killed if a girl. Now we’ve got a ticking clock, so to speak, while in the ark, and it manages to be a personal test of Noah’s own faith. How far will he go to enact what he believes to be God’s plan? He’s single-minded in this regard but he’s no zealot, more a flawed and troubled man of virtue trying to make sense of an improbably difficult conundrum. That’s the stuff of great drama, finding a foothold in a debate over the nature of man, whether man is inherently evil and shall lead, once again, to the ruination of God’s paradise. Can Noah place the personal above his burden? This looming conflict tears apart Noah and his family, forcing them into hard choices. Even assuming the film wouldn’t end with Noah butchering his grandchildren, I was riveted.

There’s an intellectual heft to go along with all the weird, vibrant spectacle. The film doesn’t exactly break new ground with its fundamental arguments and spiritual questions, but when was the last time you saw a Biblical movie even broach hard topics without zealous certainty? Definitely not Son of God. There’s an ambiguity here to be admired. Noah isn’t a spotless hero. The villain, Tubal-cain, actually makes some good points, though we all know they will be fleeting. Tubal-cain is actually given more texture as an antagonist than I anticipated. He’s a man who interprets man’s mission on Earth differently. Whereas Noah views man’s role as being stewards of the Earth, Tubal-cain views man as having been given dominion. They were meant to reap the pleasures of the Earth. Before marching off to take the ark, Tubal-cain pleads for The Creator to speak through him; he longs for a connection that he feels is missing, and so, perhaps a bit spiteful, he declares to act as the Creator would, laying waste to life. That’s far more interesting than just a slovenly king who wants to live to see another day.

Noah-2014-Movie-ImagesAronofsky also benefits from a great cast that sells the drama, large and small. It’s been a long while since Crowe (Les Miserables, Man of Steel) gave a genuinely great performance; goodness it might have been since 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma remake. The man can do quiet strength in his sleep, but with Noah he gets to burrow into his obsession, which just so happens to be sticking to the edict that man does not deserve to spoil the Earth. It’s a decision that challenges him throughout, forcing his will, and Crowe achieves the full multidimensional force of his character. He can be scary, he can be heartbreaking, but he’s always rooted in an understandable perspective. Connelly (Winter’s Tale) overdoes her mannerisms and enunciation at times, like she’s practicing an acting warm-up, but the strength of her performance and its emotions win out. Watson (The Bling Ring) is winsome without overdoing it, Hopkins (R.E.D. 2) provides some comic relief without overdoing it, and Lerman (Percy Jackson) gets to thrive on angst without overdoing it. In short, you’ll want these people to live. Winstone (Snow White & the Huntsman) is always a fabulous choice for a dastardly villain.

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a labor of love that maintains its artistic integrity amidst special effects, threats of infanticide, and giant rock creatures. Aronofsky has forged a Biblical epic that reaches beyond the pew, providing added surprise and depth and suspense. The man takes the modern fantasy epic template and provides new life to one of mankind’s oldest tales, staying reverent while opening it up for broader meditation. It’s a weird movie, but the silliness is given a wider context and grounded by the emphasis on the human perspective. It’s a dark movie, but the darkness is tempered with powerful feelings and a sense of hope that feels justified by the end. It’s also a philosophical movie, but the questions are integral, the stakes relatable, and the answers hardly ever easy to decipher. This is a rare movie, let alone an example of a Biblical film, that succeeds by being all things to all people. It’s reverent, rousing, thought provoking, exciting, moving, and a glorious visual spectacle of cinema. Aronofsky’s epic is a passionate and thoughtful movie that deserves flocks of witnesses.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

112446_galWes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.

In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.

115032_galFor Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.

The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.

115052_galThe fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.

The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Nate’s Grade: A

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets-Most-Wanted-PosterThe Muppets are back, though their new film seems to vaguely be recreating the amusing if somewhat slight Great Muppet Caper. The same blend of Muppet-staple sweet goofiness and anarchy is still a pleasure to watch, causing me to laugh throughout; it’s just that there are more leaden stretches between the laughs. The side stories have more interest and humor than the main storyline where Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious Russian doppelganger. Ricky Gervais is wasted as a criminal sidekick and he doesn’t bring much energy to the film. Fortunately Tina Fey, as a gulag prison guard, and Ty Burrell, as a Pink Panther-like Interpol agent, rise to the occasion. Burrel, teamed up with Sam the Eagle, made the movie for me. Their comic interplay and rivalry is the best and gives way to the best use of sight gags. It’s an amusing and agreeable film but there’s a noticeable spirit missing, possibly from the departure of living Muppet Jason Segel as an actor and a co-writer. I was shocked that Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the 2011 movie, was the same man behind these new tunes. With the exception of maybe two songs, the remaining majority of the songs are downright dreadful. Within minutes of leaving my theater I could not for the life of me remember one of the tunes. The celebrity cameos are also less fun, many poorly integrated into the film, just the actors appearing and then vanishing. James McAvoy just walks onscreen to deliver a package. Is that the best use of everyone’s time? Still, while a noticeable step down from 2011’s The Muppets, the movie still has enough of the Muppet charm and silliness to entertain. It’s just missing some of the magic that made their return so special.

Nate’s Grade: B

Adult World (2014)

MV5BMjIzNDY1NjgzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzMzMDEwMTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_People often celebrate independent films as an oasis of creativity in comparison to the cookie-cutter blockbusters that populate Hollywood. However, indie film can have just as many formulaic, half-baked, cookie-cutter films that waste your time. Case in point, the indie comedy Adult World, a movie that feels out of time and place.

Amy (Emma Roberts) is a recent college graduate who has big dreams of being a poet. Her idol, Rat Billings (John Cusack), even lives in town, giving her ample stalking opportunities. But Amy only seems to get rejection slip after rejection slip in the mail. Her parents cannot afford to bankroll her lifestyle, and so Amy sets off on her own, shacking in with a transvestite, and gaining a job at Adult World, a small mom-and-pop porn store. Amy holds onto hope that she can become a great poet with Rat’s mentoring.

adult-world-movie-stills-ff8a8e06cf485219The movie feels overly quaint, like its premise, and much of the character interplay, came from a script from 1996 that was lost until now. The entire enterprise feels painfully dated in scope, humor, and its sense of peculiarity. I don’t even know why the filmmakers decided to set the movie in modern times. The excuses they devise for why a mom-and-pop porn store exists in the world of 4G wi-fi Internet never come close to working. Yes, we still have the traditional brick-and-mortar porn stores to this day, but those have a wealth of selection. This is like a tiny store with a few walls of movie titles, movies that people rent and return. Remember those, video rental stores? Again, dated. The very existence of the porn store disrupts the credibility of the film; not to suggest it would be perfect without this one plot element. There’s such a dated sense of titillation having a desperate woman land a job at a porn store. Oh no, she’s out of her element! The problem with the porn store is that they never do anything with it. There are perhaps four jokes directly related to the fact that it is an adult novelty store, but beyond that it would have been the same if they just sold toasters (note to self: look into potential market for adult novelty toasters). At no point does it prod our heroine along her journey or really have any larger impact besides the place where she meets her eventual love interest. The mom and pop that own the store are never seen again after their introduction, meaning the film even abandons one of the easier comedic scenarios of the elderly, folksy pornographer.

The entire storyline of a would-be poet slumming it at a porn store, learning some hard lessons, and finally finding her footing, well the whole thing just feels so much like a byproduct of 1990s filmmaking, when the broader commercial impact of indie film was being explored. The middle-class suburban girl being pushed out of her comfort zone by a band of quirky misfits in a fringe setting, well it just feels so dated. Even so, that doesn’t mean that this kind of story setup will flounder. Under the right care, even dated material can succeed, but Adult World coasts on the supposed outrageousness of its premise and characters. The trouble is that these people are more of less indie film cartoon characters with no real depth to them. Amy is mostly a brat but we never seem to go beyond the surface of her oversized ego and sense of certainty in her talent. Her relationship with the self-loathing Rat is meant to open herself up the harsh realities of the world, the rude awakening of every post-grad. Except he’s really just a jerk that treats her like garbage and eventually humiliates her. At no point do you get the impression that either character is really having much of an impact upon the other, beside general annoyance or frustration. Then there’s the character of Rubia, a transvestite Amy meets on the bus and within ONE DAY Amy asks if she can move in with this total stranger. Again, the idea of the kindly transvestite who becomes the heroine’s roommate, doesn’t that feel so dated too, so desperate to be edgy? Rubia is also ill defined and one-note. I’m surprised the filmmakers had the restraint to not give Rubia a tragic back-story.

ADULT-WORLDWith all that said, the movie is never as funny or as interesting or as edgy as it seems to believe it is. I may have laughed once or twice for the entire movie. I certainly wasn’t attached to the characters by any means. There’s a segment where Amy and Rubia discover Rat driving through town, so they hop on a bike and pedal after him. It’s played out like it’s supposed to be this stroke of comedy, complete with backbiting comments from Rubia, but it’s never funny and it just continues to play out, never altering to possibly become funny. Here’s something that is funny: after Amy’s parents tell her they cannot afford to pay for her poetry submissions, she runs away from home. The funny part isn’t her decision-making or the act of running away itself. The real funny part is that we don’t see or hear from Amy’s parents again for over an hour. Did her mother and father not care that their only child has disappeared? Are they secretly relieved? Amy doesn’t even refer to her parents, so we’re left wondering if there may be a missing person’s report floating around somewhere. It’s details like this, and the lack of taking advantage of the comic possibilities of the porn store setting, that showcase just how terribly Adult World goes about developing its shoddy story.

Then there’s the overall sludgy look of the film itself. Filmed on location in Syracuse, New York during a wintry period, it’s as if director Scott Coffey (Ellie Parker) wanted to communicate the misery of his characters with a visual style that made you feel their pain. This is one of the crummier looking wide releases I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is just dreary but without any strong sense of visual composition. I know this was a low-budget effort but Coffey and his team do such little work to hide the limitations; the set dressing is pathetically bare when it comes to locations, like the porn store. Every shot, every scene just reminds you further that Adult World just didn’t have the money, or the right people for the money. Coffey’s other sin is his mishandling of his actors. Roberts (We’re the Millers) and Cusack (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) are two very capable actors but they seem abandoned here. Cusack is just a misanthrope who treats every moment with annoyance, and it gets tiresome. Roberts is all over the place, needing a gentle tug to help bring her histrionic character back to a suitable reality.

I cannot think of any reason a person should take useful time out of their day to watch Adult World. The film isn’t funny. The characters are bothersome and lacking depth. The essential premise, the hook of the movie, is incidental and inconsequential. There is just a general malaise about the film, a lack of development that saps the characters and the story. Oh sure, things occasionally happen, or characters will magically reveal insights, but it’s always in the most hasty, inorganic fashion. Even the title is so on-the-nose to be annoying absent further examination. By the end of the movie, I think we’re left with Amy realizing that she might not be as talented as she thought, but hey, at least she has an arty boyfriend now. If this is a late blooming coming-of-age tale (a la Frances Ha) it misses all the necessary elements that push our heroine to grow. Instead, we’re saddled with a crummy looking movie with poorly developed characters, a nascent sense of comedy, and a plot that feels quaintly dated at every turn. If this is what growing up looks like, take it from me and skip Adult World.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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