What is it about old stories that we enjoy so much? I pose this question after watching a commercial for the TV movie, Killing Jesus, based upon Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling novel. While it’s based upon a popular book, what can possibly be told with this newest rendition of the death of Jesus that hasn’t been shown a thousand times in other movies? There was even a movie that was released in theaters last year, Son of God, which covered the same territory with equal reverence. There’s something to be said for good stories and the universal appeal of the familiar, but why do people constantly pay more money for new renditions of the same old same old? That question leads me to Disney’s live-action Cinderella, a fairly faithful and warm-hearted rendition of the oft-told tale. I can’t exactly muster many reasons for an audience to dust off their best glass slippers and run out to the theater, but if you’re looking for the comforts of old and some family-friendly entertainment, then Cinderella will charm with its modest and achievable goals.
Cinderella (Lily James) is the titular put-upon heroine suffering under the cruelty of her two stepsisters and her new Stepmother (Cate Blanchett). Cinderella thinks back to the advice her mother gave her at a young age, to always be “kind and courageous.” One day she rides off into the countryside and comes upon a handsome man who just happens to be the Prince (Richard Madden). He’s smitten with their exchange and convinces his father to open the royal ball to all members of their kingdom, in order to see his special someone once more. His adviser (Stellan Skarsgard) is against such matters because he wants the Prince to marry for a political alliance, not for love. Cinderella is forbidden from attending the ball by her Stepmother, but luckily she has a Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) who, with a pinch of magic, will make sure Cinderella attends in style and steals the Prince’s heart. None of this should be rather new to you, dear reader.
The first aspect of Cinderella I enjoyed was how it attempts to ground the story without losing a sense of magic to the proceedings. It’s still a fantasy film under director Kenneth Branagh (Thor), but there’s a concerted effort to place these characters in a world that resembles more of our own than the animated landscape from Disney’s original 1950 classic. Thankfully, half the movie isn’t spent with anthropomorphic mice wearing clothes and escaping the clutches of a house cat. There are a handful of helpful mice but at least they don’t talk and are mostly kept as cute accessories rather than co-stars. The reality of Cinderella’s hardships, especially after the death of her parents, is given an appropriate degree of solemnity. I also appreciated that the Prince is given an entire character to portray, one where his pursuit of a bride is placed in a political context about the security of his kingdom. He’s pressured to marry several available ladies for various political reasons, but he’s smitten with the girl he saw in the woods one fine day. The movie also succeeds in advancing a stronger, more developed relationship between Cinderella and her Prince. Instead of love-at-first-sight, they interact before the ball, and there is terrific chemistry between James and Madden (HBO’s Game of Thrones). There’s also a rather nice subplot between the Prince and his father (Derek Jacobi) that opens up their relationship. It’s a subplot that could have just as likely never existed and yet there’s something touching about the love shown between father and son. These moments, and the care to develop them, allow the characters to feel like flesh-and-blood people and to charm us all over again.
Another tilt toward greater narrative realism occurs with the villains, played by Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Skarsgard (Thor 2). While she’s still an arch villain, the treacherous Stepmother, who has no actual name, is given a generous treatment by Blanchett and especially writer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass). The movie actually attempts to articulate her position, one where a woman of her age is left with few options to secure her family’s stability after the death of a husband. She clearly knows how society sees her waning value and Blanchett does a good job of casting that bitterness in way that you’re still reminded why she’s so furious and devious. I was so pleased I wanted more. I wanted the Stepmother to break down and admit that Cinderella is proof that her father will never love the Stepmother the same as Cinderella’s mother; she’ll always be second place to a ghost, and Cinderella is a constant reminder of this. Blanchett is also deliciously dishy as the wicked stepmother every moment she’s onscreen. Skarsgard can’t compete with the main attraction, but he provides an interesting secondary antagonist as he schemes behind the scenes to ensure the Prince marries a specific maiden with a reliable family name. He’s seemingly devoted to strengthening his kingdom, and he can’t let something as important as a marriage securing an alliance to fall aside because the Prince happens to be in love with a commoner. The extra dose of political intrigue is further attempt to ground and humanize the fairy tale, and it mostly succeeds.
That’s not to say that the movie is without its fantasy pleasures. It is still a Disney movie about a famous Disney princess, and as such it maintains a bouncy, exuberant tone that keeps the heavier moments of drama from getting too heavy. Carter (Les Miserables) works wonders as the Fairy Godmother; she’s only in the movie for a solid ten minutes but she makes every second count. She has a silly nature that provides a welcomed jolt of scatterbrained comedy. Carter is clearly having a ball of her own with the role. The magical coachmen and assorted helpers supply extra cuteness. I also appreciated the quick fix of just creating a spell so that Cinderella’s step-family doesn’t recognize her at the ball. However, I never understood why all the artifacts of magic disappear at midnight but the shoes are left behind. Are they not magic too? Maybe only one of them happens to be magic and that was the one left behind. As presented, the shoe fitting is merely a ceremony rather than the missing clue toward finding the absent Cinderella.
So with all that said, does the new live-action Cinderella justify retelling what is one of the most retold stories in cinema history? I’d conclude a mild affirmative. It’s a charming adaptation that develops its characters with greater attention to detail, providing flights of fancy but also further humanizing the good guys and the bad. It’s no a deconstruction of the fairy tale, nor is it a revision, but it’s a faithful attempt to take what works but ground it in a slightly more realistic context, and it works. It’s at turns magical and touching and fun and buoyant and heartwarming. The casting all around is excellent, with every role impeccably chosen. Blanchett and Carter are great fun, and James and Madden have a winning chemistry. The technical merits are up to the same challenge, as the costumes and set design are gorgeous. Of course the aims of a new Cinderella movie are modest. Even if it benefits from a reworked attention to detail, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. It’s still the same story with the same major plot beats and the same ending we’ll all expect from the moment the Disney logo appears onscreen. The greatest achievement of Branagh’s Cinderella is that it makes you ignore these impulses. You find yourself once again returning to a familiar world and enjoying it all again.
Nate’s Grade: B
A return to the world of Divergent yields little forward momentum, in fact just enough to end on the point that I thought where a sequel would naturally begin. Turns out we needed a whole other movie, Insurgent, to arrive at this obvious narrative next step. Insurgent picks up with Tris (Shailene Woodley) and company on the run following the coup of two of the five social factions. Tris is a Divergent, able to apply herself to multiple factions, and she and her kind are the only ones who can open a secret box left behind by the founders of this post-apocalyptic civilization. The film does enough to hold your attention and we get to visit the other two factions we missed the first time, providing further shape to what is still a confusing world. I think the Divergent series will always fall short of the YA pacesetter, The Hunger Games, but they offer their escapist moments of entertainment. The second film is a bigger, louder, and more heavily coated CGI affair, especially the magic box’s mental trials that amount to a repeat of the first movie’s psychological trials of fear. Woodley is the strong center of the film and she processes her own PTSD over being forced to kill friends in order to survive; you do start to sense that Woodley is growing restless with the franchise. The third book is, as required by the mandate of milking YA franchises, being split into two movies, and while it served little to the Hunger Games, I hope better for the Divergent series, a group of movies inferior and somewhat mystifying but still interesting enough. For now.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Fast and the Furious series has never been more popular, which is crazy to think about for a franchise entering is sixth sequel. Then in November 2013, it suffered its biggest shock. Actor Paul Walker was killed in an automobile accident. The already-filming seventh film was put on hold, pushed back a year for release, and retooled to accommodate the new tragic reality that one of the core members of a popular series going back to 2001 was no longer walking this Earth. With this context, it’s hard not to apply an added level of gravitas and dramatic weight to a series that previously skirted by on its fun and outrageous stunts. It’s weird to watch an actor’s final filmed moments, knowing this is the last time you’ll see that face, hear that voice, on screen again. I’m already dreading that painful realization in November that, with Mockingjay Part 2, this will be the last cinema will see of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. With tragedy hanging over it, Furious 7 does an admirable job of sticking to what it does best while serving as a fitting tribute and sendoff for Walker.
Coming on the heels of the events of Furious 6, Dom (Vin Diesel) and his crew have dispatched Owen Shaw (Luke Evans, collecting a paycheck for one scene lying in bed). Shaw has an older brother, Deckard (Jason Statham), who swears vengeance and comes hunting after Dom’s team, killing Han in Toyko (events previously seen in 2006’s Tokyo Drift). Then Shaw hobbles Agent Hobbes (The Rock), leaving him sidelined for much of the movie. Dom and Brian (Walker) place their families in safety and then set off to eliminate Deckard Shaw. Little did they know that the government has a similar interest. Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) promises to help Dom in his quest if Dom agrees to a secret mission to rescue a computer hacker (Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel). This hacker, codenamed “Ramses” has developed a device that taps into every camera and microphone on the planet to track anyone anywhere. If Dom can secure the device, Mr. Nobody will use it to track and take down Deckard Shaw.
What elevated the Fast and Furious films into new heights of critical and commercial acclaim are the over-the-top action set pieces that don’t just defy the laws of physics, they obliterate them. There’s a fine line between stupid action and stupidly awesome action, and I think Michael Bay is still trying to finesse this understanding. Under the guidance of director Justin Lin, the franchise got bigger and ballsier and enjoyably insane. The action set pieces were huge and wild and well developed with organic complications and world-class stunt driving. The set pieces of the last few films have been stunners, and at its height, the franchise can make you feel giddy like a child watching the unreal unfold with such delight. There’s a tremendous and infectious high watching a well-executed action scene on such a large scale. With every movie our expectations are hungrier, and the franchise has found a way to satiate our action movie demands (for my money, Fast Five is the best). Furious 7 is the first Fast film not directed by Lin in ten years. James Wan, best known as the director of horror films Saw and The Conjuring, stepped into the director’s chair and he assimilates well into the “house style” of the franchise. However, I found myself missing Lin’s touches; he has a natural feel for choreographing action sequences with style and a clear eye for orientation. I found the editing for Furious 7 too choppy and several action sequences hampered by not getting a better sense of the wider surroundings and what was happening. Wan acquits himself well and keeps things running smoothly, though Furious 7 is a slight step down but still plenty entertaining.
Let’s talk about those giddy highs of Furious 7, because they are certainly there, though I wish there was more of them. Am I just getting greedy or building a tolerance? There are two standout moments that made me squeal. The first involved a set piece involving cars parachuting out of a transport plane. The next was a car crashing through the window of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper into another skyscraper and then into another skyscraper. Your brain tells you that there are no way any of these moments could truly happen in reality, and that in these circumstances it’s majority CGI, but if you’re like me, you just do not care because the sheer scale of awesome is too enjoyable to pass up. When you can pull off large-scale and imaginative action that manages to also maintain a strong sense of fun, then you’ve landed upon something special. The previous Fast films have been able to maintain that giddy high for a more sustained period of time, but I cannot deny that the same thrills and over-the-top pleasure is present with Furious 7.
A factor that added to my enjoyment is that Furious 7 never dawdles or dwells too often during its 137-minute running time, save for an extended resolution for Walker. This has never really been a franchise that has soared on the strength of its characterization. Seven movies in, I still don’t really care for any of the characters except for The Rock and that’s mostly because he’s The Rock. I was happy that the film was always active to distract me from how one-dimensional and boring most of these characters are, even the villains. Statham (The Expendables) is the best villain the franchise has had so far but even he seems to be stuck in a lesser gear, failing to capitalize on all his abilities with a car chase franchise. The Rock vs. Statham fight shatters all breakable furniture within near proximity, but you still suspect it should be better given the participants. Djimon Hounsou (Guardians of the Galaxy) is wasted as a number two villain who mostly just shouts orders for people to fire weapons, and martial arts superstar Tony Jaa is definitely wasted as a number three villain, an elevated henchman with too few opportunities to bust a move. MMA fighter Ronda Rousey appears briefly as an Abu Dhabi security chief. She performs well, pummeling Michelle Rodriguez while in evening wear; however, you quickly realize that Rousey is not an actor. She’s no Gina Carano (Fast and Furious 6), and speaking of, when is this woman going to finally be cast as a super hero? She’s practically a living Wonder Woman anyway and she has that “it” factor.
When the movie tries to be dramatic, it starts to stall, which is probably why it relies mostly on platitudes about family (“I don’t got friends, I got family,” Dom says in a weird retort). Jordanna Brewster is once again written to the side as the Concerned Wife, and the movie still doesn’t seem to know what to do with the re-emergence of Rodriguez’s Letty character. She got her memory back in the previous film, but now she’s having trouble readjusting, but before this can develop into an actual plot she disappears again and then the big action just kicks in. There’s enough of a team built up to provide diversity, with Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson serving as comic backup. There’s a sense of camaraderie that doesn’t feel artificial, and the small moments together are perfectly nice, but thankfully the movie has the good sense to know what the audience is paying to see. It’s here for the fast car, eye-popping stunts, and gratuitously framed camera angles highlighting women’s derrieres (there are a lot of thongs in this movie).
With the specter of Walker’s passing, the movie also presents a ghoulish game of looking for the tricks to work around his untimely absence. Reportedly the actor had filmed “most” of the movie and the remaining scenes, retooled after months of production being on hiatus, were completed by Walker’s brothers and some CGI sleight-of-hand. Perhaps I just have a more trained eye for spotting the cinematic wizardry, but by my judgment it sure didn’t feel like Walker was present for most of what was eventually used in the movie. I noticed a lot of wider shots and scenes where Walker is not facing the camera to speak or he’s at an odd angle. At no point did the movie become a strange uncanny valley experience of discomfort; movie productions have digitally attached faces before to other heads, notably for Oliver Reed in 2000’s Gladiator. If you’re not looking for it intently then it will all pass seamlessly. The film’s final ten minutes end up becoming an extended sendoff for the character of Brian, but really it’s the actors saying goodbye to their friend. It’s reverent and respectful and might be the most honestly emotional moment in the series history, which I know isn’t saying exactly much.
I mentioned Phillip Seymour Hoffman in my opening paragraph, and I don’t think anyone is going to confuse Walker for Hoffman in terms of acting talent, but that doesn’t negate or mitigate loss and grief. Personal confession: when I was writing for my college newspaper, I interviewed Walker over the phone for 2003’s Timeline, which if you haven’t seen it, and I’m assuming that’s the majority of readers, is a terrible movie. I’m not going to pretend I had any terrific insight into the man, but I found him to be a good guy with a level head who hadn’t let fame get the better of him. One could argue that the character of Brian was not significant enough in the context of a big, dumb action franchise to deserve this sort of emotional catharsis, but loss is felt, and Furious 7 has two missions: to entertain and to memorialize Walker. While the action as a whole is not up to the same caliber, it’s still plenty engaging and has enough of its characteristically dizzy thrills to be memorable and worth seeing on a large screen. On the second count, it lets Walker race off into the sunset in a way that feels appropriate, sincere, and without tipping over into complete melodrama. In that regard, this is the Fast and Furious movie that had the most to accomplish and it succeeds. It’s a near certainty that there will be a Fast and Furious 8, or a Furious 8, or a Fast 8, or whatever you call it, but for now it’s a chance to take a breath and add a dose of reflection for a series normally about the ridiculous.
Nate’s Grade: B
With all respects to Ice Cube’s would-be family series, the subtitle of the third Hobbit film could have been “Are We Done Yet?” Originally planned as two films, the prequel series based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel was expanded to three, and it’s clear what motivated this decision. Each Hobbit film has made at least $900 million dollars, but goodness has it padded an already bloated series beyond repair. The best part of the second film, which looking back is the best in the new trilogy, Smaug the dragon, is gone in the first ten minutes. What follows is a pointless and tedious series of events, mostly CGI armies crashing into other CGI armies. It’s hard to find much to care about after six plus hours especially when it amounts to squabbles over treasure. It’s also bothersome that the antagonist for a solid hour is Thorin who adopts… gold madness suddenly, and then loses it just as suddenly and as contrived. You can feel the weight of all this filler trying to stretch what amounts to a protracted resolution into a full-blown movie. The battles are relentlessly soulless and have lost any weight to reality. There’s one standout action sequence involving a crumbling tower acting as a makeshift bridge. Beyond that, get ready for overlong battles involving lots of fake soldiers and monsters. With no larger goal in motion, you’re just waiting for the bad guys to die so we can go home. While Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest film in the series, it’s still about 120 minutes longer than it needs to be. The business of the Hobbit has affected the artistry of The Hobbit, and only Tolkien apologists would lap up the extra time in Middle Earth.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Jason Reitman was a director on the hottest of hot streaks with Hollywood. His first three films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air) were hits but also an ushering of a new creative voice that felt mature, engaging, and immediate. His 2011 film Young Adult was divisive but I loved its nihilistic narcissism and satire. It looked like this guy couldn’t miss. Then in the span of less than a year, Reitman released Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children, two surprisingly misguided movies. Men, Women, and Children aims to be a Crash-style mosaic of modern-life in the digital age, but what it really feels like is a twenty-first century Reefer Madness.
The movie feels like it was made in the 1990s, like it should be a companion piece to the equally over-the-top and alarmist Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net. The movie’s thesis statement amounts to “the Internet is dangerous,” but this is a statement that everyone already acknowledges. The ensuing evidence from Reitman is so scattershot, so melodramatic, and so cliché-ridden, that it feels like an inauthentic lecture that is already past its prime. Firstly, did you know there is porn on the Internet? I hope you weren’t standing up when I dropped that bombshell. The film posits that because pornography is widely available with a few keystrokes, it has desensitized (primarily) male sexuality. It presents a slippery slop scenario, where the user more or less forms an addiction to online porn and has to keep going to more extreme places to chase that new high. This leads to their inability to accept their imaginations for pleasure or actual flesh-and-blood females. It’s not like Men, Women, and Children is a case study but this feels like the same alarmist rhetoric that’s been hashed since the 1970s. The characters are allowed to have their lives ruined by their pornography addictions, but the storytelling feels particularly disingenuous when it’s squared with the film’s heavy-handed message. That core message is about the inability to communicate with the people around us thanks to modern technology meant to connect us 24/7 (oh, the unexplored irony). The message of the movie isn’t anything new or profound but it’s cranked up to such a comically over-the-top measure. I have no doubt the filmmakers were well-intentioned but their heavy-handed and tin-earned approach is a wild miscalculation that makes the film, and its dire message, more unintentionally funny than meditative.
It also hurts the film’s overall thesis/message when there are so many characters and storylines vying for attention. Reitman attempts to cover just about every aspect of Internet ills as if there is a mental checklist. We’ve got the porn addiction (check), there’s also a faltering marriage where both parties seek out online affairs (check), an fixation with online role-playing games (check), exploitation of teenagers for personal gain (check), stilted communication via social media (check), harmful communities encouraging body shaming (check), cyber bullying (check), and let’s just throw in general malaise (check). The plot is stretched too thin by the multitude of storylines, many of which fail to be interesting or find some shred of truth. There are two mother characters in this film that simply do not exist in real-life, at least the “regular” social milieu the film wants to portray. Jennifer Garner’s character is so obsessed with her daughter’s online life that she literally goes through every text, every tweet, every online post, and is also secretly recording her keystrokes. This militantly paranoid mother is such a broad and farcical caricature of parental concern. At the other end of the spectrum is Judy Greer’s mother, a failed actress trying to vicariously live through her teenage daughter. She’s photographing her daughter in provocative poses and outfits with the intent to jumpstart a modeling career, but it sure comes across like jailbait child pornography. There’s little chance a character could be this naïve and self-deluded to justify running a pervy website to market her underage daughter. Both of these characters are so removed from relatability that they become the two opposite poles of the film’s cautionary message.
I think Reitman was looking for something along the lines of American Beauty, but that movie had a group of characters that were fleshed out and given careful attention. The characters in Men, Women, and Children rarely break away from their one-sentence summations. That may be the biggest disappointment. Reitman has been exceptionally skilled at developing characters. However, the people that populate the world of Men, Women, and Children are really just slaves to the film’s message, plot points that rarely break away from their overtaxed duties. The teenage characters come across as the better half, especially a budding relationship between the ex-football star (Ansel Elgort, Fault in Our Stars) and Garner’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12). While their story is still underdeveloped, the actors work toward something that approximates reality, which is sorely missing throughout the movie. Sure, Dever gets to say clunky lines like, “I have a secret Tumblr account. It’s the only place where I can be who I am,” but at least this storyline goes beyond the obvious. The anorexic teen storyline has a lot of potential, even if she follows the same steps as every disappointing and disillusioned deflowering tale since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even the cheating spouses storyline goes slack, taking on the malaise of Adam Sandler’s character. The greater irony is that both parties use the same online service, Ashley Madison, to cheat on one another, though only Sandler pays for the service. I’ll give you one sense to how poorly developed these characters are. Sandler and Rosemarie Dewitt play Words with Friends in bed. She plays “gaze” (insight: she’s feeling undesired), and he responds with the word “sag” (insight: he’s feeling a deficit in passion).
To make matters worse, the entire film is taken to new pretentious levels of ludicrousness thanks to the entirely superfluous narration of Emma Thompson. She’s a disembodied god commenting on the foibles of these lowly mortals stumbling around, and the narration constantly cuts back and forth to the Voyager satellite and its trek through the outer reaches of our solar system. Huh? Is any of this necessary to tell this story? It creates a larger context that the movie just cannot rise to the occasion. Thompson’s narration provides a further sense of sledgehammer irony, with Thompson’s detached narration giving added weight to describing things like pornographic titles. The movie keeps going back to this floating metaphor as if it means something significant, rather than just feeling like another element that doesn’t belong muddying the narrative and its impact.
The biggest positive the film has going for it is the acting by the deep ensemble. Nobody gives a bad performance, though Sandler does come across a bit sleepy. The problem for the actors is that a good half of the movie is watching characters read or text. Reitman at least gooses up his visuals by superimposing Facebook screens and online texts, but the fact remains that we’re watching people type or scroll through the Internet. It’s not quite cinematic and feels better suited for a written medium (the film is based on a book by Chad Kultgen). You haven’t lived until you watch actors texting for two hours.
At this point in his career, I’m getting worried about the direction Reitman is headed. He started off with four very different but excellent movies, two in collaboration with Diablo Cody. Each was elevated by its careful concentration on character and by its darkly comic worldviews. With Labor Day, Reitman took a sharp left turn into a Douglas Sirk-styled domestic melodrama. It was misguided and corny and could be written off as a momentary misstep. Now with Men, Women, and Children, Reitman has delivered two miscalculated and soapy melodramas that lack any of the acuity and creative voice of his earlier films. Men, Women, and Children especially feels like an alarmist and heavy-handed message about the evils of technology and how it’s warping modern communication; if the film was better written, had fewer characters, had more relatable characters, ditched the pretentious narration, and focused its scattershot message into something more nuanced or definable, then there might be something of merit here. It’s not that the commentary is entirely devoid of merit, but Reitman’s overblown approach does him no service. Men, Women, and Children plays out like a hysterical and outdated warning that is too feeble to be effective and too thin to be entertaining.
Nate’s Grade: C
Nobody quite expected the second act that Liam Neeson is currently having. Before 2009, he was seen a dramatic leading man best known for portraying the titular businessman in Schindler’s List. And then Taken came out, and the world decided they liked their action stars with a dash of actorly gravitas, the kind of which was all too lacking from the likes of your Van Dammes. After so many films of Neeson pointing guns and barking at people, you forget that the man can act. That’s because, with few exceptions, the Neeson canon of action vehicles have been found enjoyable but insubstantial, momentary pleasures to be forgotten. The same can be said of Run All Night, a promising urban jungle thriller that’s a step above in several areas but ultimately another mildly entertaining film where Neeson points guns and barks at people.
Jimmy (Neeson) is a man haunted by his memories of his life as a hired gun for his pal, mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Jimmy is a drunk who is living off of Shawn, holed up in a crummy home, and eking out his lonely days. He walked out on his son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), when he was young because he wanted him to have a better life. Jimmy thought his misdeeds would create a bad influence. Shawn is also experiencing his own problems with fatherhood. His son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is ambitious, dangerous, and addicted to drugs. He agrees to a business arrangement with Armenian mobsters before dad gives him the A-okay; when dad balks, Danny is on the hook. He murders the two Armenian mobsters who are looking for their money back. Unfortunately, Mike just happened to witness this execution. Jimmy defends his son, shooting and killing Danny. For the rest of a very fraught night, Jimmy tries to protect his son from the many forces of violence that Shawn has sent for vengeance.
The premise of Run All Night is strong unless you say it out loud and examine it. I admire the film’s manner of weaving together storylines in a way that they feel like they’re crashing into one another and yet you could see their trajectory coming. That’s not to mean it’s predictable, which it is of course, but that the conflicts are properly established and set in motion. However, when you analyze the revenge-laden intricacies, it can seem like self-parody: “You murdered my son before he could murder your son. So I’m going to murder you.” “Oh yeah? Well I’m gonna murder you before you murder me for murdering your son before he murdered my son.” Gentlemen, commence your murdering. It reminded me of 2002’s Road to Perdition where a crime lord who readily admitted that his son was a dangerous hotheaded screw-up and had made a mess of things… and yet, he had to stick by him because… family. It’s a frustrating contradiction but it’s believable enough to hold onto. I just wish these crime guys could objectively calculate how guilty and irresponsible their kids are and cut them loose. Seriously, what exactly was Danny thinking when he killed the Armenian mobsters? Did he not think they were going to retaliate? Danny is the kind of irritating screw-up you want to strangle because he endangers others with his constant failures.
Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) has done his genre homework, and Run All Night is a slightly above average thriller that finds ways to flesh out its tropes amidst the urban jungle. After a steady first act, the majority of the movie is a series of chase scenes, several of which are shot and edited well by Neeson’s favorite director of his run and gun pictures, Juame Collet-Sera (Non-Stop, Unknown). The chase scenes make smart use of geography and the way Collet-Sera cuts back and forth with his parallel lines of action does a nice job of quickening pulses. A chase through a train terminal is well choreographed with Jimmy having to out run and out muscle goons and Mike ducking from encroaching police presence on the platform. Ingelsby has a knack for setting up organic suspense pieces and letting them loose. The final act feels a little pat from an action standpoint as well as a moral climax, but it does work. While the characters are birthed from familiar genre archetypes, the film adds interesting shadings to them. Jimmy’s loyalties are tested and he has a strong personal revelation that ties into this theme. The movies finest moment is likely a tense sit-down between Shawn and Jimmy shortly after the events of the night has been set in motion. It’s like Harris and Neeson are competing to see who can be more intimidating Oscar-nominated actor. Bonus: Bruce McGill (Lincoln) plays Harris’ number two and I love some Bruce McGill.
And yet, I kept wishing for Run All Night to go back to the power of its possibilities. There’s a segment where the movie truly feels like it’s being taken to the next level, namely after the crooked cops have been taken out. Instead of just Maguire’s muscle coming after them, now Jimmy and Mike have the NYPD hot on their tail and none too happy about cop killers. That’s another category of antagonists, another chase participant. I also wanted the movie to keep going, bringing in the Armenian mob, which would be incensed and seeking vengeance after their ambassadors were killed. This movie could have had three categories of antagonists (Shawn’s goons, NYPD, Armenian mob) chasing after Jimmy and his son, and the ongoing conflict would have been terrific. The more people that are on the hunt, for their varied reasons, the more possibilities there are for strong and escalating suspense pieces. It could have easily gotten too complicated and convoluted for a mass audience, which is probably why the movie doesn’t reach its true suspenseful potential and follows a conventional route. The NYPD angle is only really incorporated during a building-wide search of an apartment complex where Jimmy and son are hiding. Likewise, the addition of a contract killer played by now Oscar-winner Common (Selma) is a wasted antagonist that doesn’t add much more to the group of bad guys. He’s better at killing, sure, but he doesn’t offer anything new except some hardware. He’s essentially an elevated heavy. He’s meant to serve as the threat after the threat, and no surprise, he does. I wish the character had more personality because he’s just too rote to separate himself. He’s just another ho hum killer in the mix.
There’s a plot point that annoys me to the point that I need to talk about it in more detail, though to do so requires some spoilers, so tread carefully, reader. At one point, Jimmy insists his son does not pull the trigger and kill Common. His wish is that his son would turn out better, and so he doesn’t want him to be forced to commit murder. They leave the contract killer who, you guessed it, continues to try and hunt them down and kills innocent people in the way. I understand the moral imperative Jimmy is going for, but let’s analyze this. It’s self-defense, he’s determined to come back and kill you, and you know innocent lives will suffer if he stays alive and well, whether on this job or future jobs. If ever there was a situation where maybe Mike isn’t going to be racked with guilt into the odd hours of the night debating the descent of his soul into moral decay, this might be the one. It’s one of those moments where the characters have to behave this way because the plot demands it and we need, as stated above, a threat after the main threat. Again, I’m reminded of Road to Perdition, which had a much better additional hitman.
Some things are better enjoyed at your leisure, and Liam Neeson’s action ouvere fits into that category. With few exceptions, a Neeson action film checks the boxes of what you’re looking for in genre entertainment, and with a strong Neeson finish, but rarely will you be surprised or elated. Entertained, sure, for the time being. Run All Night is an action thriller that has its moments and some well-drawn suspense sequences, and I appreciate that it tries to provide more depth to the main characters besides their preferred killing weapon of choice. However, there’s just too much squandered potential, underwritten supporting characters, and heavy-handed messages about the sins of the father. Run All Night is a solid genre thriller that does enough well to be worth your time, though you certainly don’t need to exert any energy to run out and see it.
Nate’s Grade: B-
With each passing film, it regrettably is becoming more evident that District 9 seems to be the possible exception for writer/director Neill Blomkamp. It seemed like a new visionary had broken through who could meld heady themes with rousing sci-fi spectacle, a champion of both the visceral pleasures of genre movies and the satisfaction of narrative complexity. After two more films under his belt and with complete creative control, it’s starting to look like Blomkamp’s sense of storytelling is a bit more limited than District 9 would have lead on. The man is excellent at putting together concepts, and he likes to delve into major themes and messages, but the execution has been hobbled and the themes are simplistic to the point of being childish. Perhaps the man is suffering from unrealistic expectations or perhaps the greater world is finally seeing that Blomkamp has been remaking the same movie over and over with diminishing results each time. If you disliked 2013’s Elysium, you’ll probably have an even lesser opinion on Chappie.
In the near future, Johannesburg, South Africa is being policed by a series of rabbit-like robotic “scouts” created by Deon (Dev Patel). His boss (Sigourney Weaver) is happy with the results but very wary of Deon’s interest in artificial intelligence. Deon takes an old robot and installs his A.I. program, giving it sentience. But before he can marvel at his newest creation, a pair of grimy criminals, Yolandi and Ninja, kidnaps him. They dub the new sentient robot Chappie (Sharlto Copley) and plan on making use of him for a heist. Deon strongly disapproves, promising to come back so he can nurture Chappie’s creativity. Yolandi becomes “Mommy” who wants to encourage the robot’s sensitivity, Ninja becomes “Daddy” and wants to toughen him up, and Deon the absent father figure. At work, Deon’s rival inventor, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), is anxious for any opportunity to promote his own police force, a giant flying mech warrior known as the Moose. Unlike Deon’s robotic scouts, a human operator controls the Moose. Discovering Chappie is exactly what Vincent has been waiting for to destroy his competition.
Chappie is a tonally inconsistent mess that ends up being a weird, garish, and unsatisfying hybrid between Robocop and Short Circuit. It jumps around from being a slapstick comedy, a sentimental unconventional family, an urban warfare action thriller, and a science fiction film exploring the possibilities of artificial intelligence. The tonal shifts can be quite jarring; one moment the movie wants you to feel sorry for Chappie getting beaten (he’s a helpless robot!) by a group of hoodlums (why does a robot fear pain anyway?), and the next moment Blomkamp wants you to laugh at the trashy gangster shenanigans. If the film could ever settle on one tone and take the time to develop it properly, Chappie might have been salvageable. Of course this assumes that Blomkamp restrains himself from explaining everything to his audience. He’s not exactly a subtle filmmaking when it comes to his deeper allegories even with District 9, but it just gets insulting how little faith he has with an audience, bludgeoning them silly. At one point, “Mommy” reads Chappie a bedtime story and it’s about the black sheep, the outcast, and just from that alone, we get the thematic connection. That’s not enough. Blomkamp has “Mommy” explain the thematic significance. Okay, fine, now he’s made the message explicit but even that’s not enough. “Mommy” then literally points to Chappie and says, in case anyone still wasn’t getting it, that he is the black sheep. It’s an illusion of greater intellectual depth that unravels as the film chaotically continues.
Let’s get to the biggest problems with the film: Chappie and his would-be adoptive parents are annoying. While Chappie is a technically impressive visual effect with a motion-capture performance by Blomkamp staple Sharlto Copley, the character is far less winsome. Why would a robot be acting like a child? It’s because Blomkamp wants to rely upon easy sentiment and emotional manipulation to get you to feel for his characters when the story alone is incapable of achieving this. Chappie as a personality is something of a blank slate, and this is filled by the trashy gangster wisdom of Yolandi and Ninja played by South African rap duo Die Antwoord. They’re pretty much playing themselves, credited as their stage names, they wear their own merchandise, and their exaggerated, beyond-ironic-back-to-pseudo-reverent garish style is off-putting in large doses. THEY’RE THE MAIN CHARACTERS. That’s right, two non-actors who plays themselves are the main characters. The movie relies on many Die Antwoord tunes to highlight its sense of funky nihilism. As performers, I’ll admit that there is something unique to them, but it’s foolish to give them a whole movie to carry. It feels like Blomkamp took the profane comic relief characters from another movie and said, “Hey, what would it be like to stretch them out for a whole movie and raise a kid?” Either you find a “gangster talking” robot with gold chains hilarious or you don’t.
The world of Blomkamp seems like it’s stuck on repeat, setting his futuristic steam punk tales in the slums of South Africa, but is this location really integral to tell Chappie? It was essential to District 9 because that movie was an allegory about the apartheid, but none of that specific history of culture plays into this movie in any meaningful sense. The setting then becomes inconsequential, though I could level the same charge at the overwhelming movies set in New York or Los Angeles. The world building of Chappie, like much of its narrative elements, feels half-hearted and curiously rendered. Yolandi and Ninja are threatened with seven days to pay off their debt, but you never feel like there’s a sense of urgency, as if the movie would prefer you forget about this ticking clock. This secondary bad guy seems to be the source of all crime in Johannesburg. Deon has created a widespread police force and yet it never feels like the other characters treat this with the magnitude it warrants. Likewise, Deon doesn’t seem to treat artificial intelligence as a big deal. Then again his boss, of a huge robotics corporation I want to emphasize, has to have artificial intelligence explained to her (again, Blomkamp of little faith). There’s also the way the movie is mired in weird office politics. Vincent is jealous that another program was successful and makes his program look bad, so he works to sabotage Deon’s robots so his project will get the go ahead. Vincent’s project is a glaringly obvious rip-off of the ED-209 from Robocop. It seems so strangely isolated, as if Vincent never thought about selling a flying mobile tank to the lucrative military. The most outlandish moment in the movie might be when Vincent points a gun to Deon’s head, threatens him, all within full view of a slew of co-workers, and then sheepishly retreats with the excuse, “It’s not loaded. Just a joke, mate.” How does this guy still have a job? Is the human resources department of the future replaced with robots as well?
Here are a small number of other directions Chappie could have gone that I think would be more compelling than what we get, and these just came to me during the movie. Instead of having the robot officers being responsibly used, why not have the world as a police state overrun by these sentinels, an oppressive regime worth toppling. Then Chappie ends up being a robot that’s captured, reprogrammed by revolutionaries, and fights against his programming for what he believes is truly right. Isn’t that a better setting, and far more topical with the current militarization of police forces dominating news? This scenario is better than a work force of robots that most characters shrug over. Then there’s Vincent’s plot to sabotage the robotic scouts (mild spoilers). Instead of just turning the robots off and letting chaos reign, wouldn’t it be a far better angle for him to turn the robots against the civilian populace? Instead of broken robots we have killer robots. Again, it adds a greater sense of urgency but also a route that would seem far more in keeping with the nature of Vincent. Chappie is filled with these hypothetical plot detours you see in your head and wish the film had taken. The movie that Blomkamp delivers is a profane fairy tale that teases a greater experience that fails to materialize.
Chappie is one of those movies you sit and keep hoping it’s going to turn a corner, to get better, to finally capitalize on the setups its been throwing around, to coalesce tonally and magically reveal the madness behind its sloppy methods. Unfortunately, it just remains a disappointing film that feels like several revisions away from proper execution. The plot elements don’t come together. Worst, Blomkamp cannot trust his audience to get even the simplistic metaphors on display. It’s two movies in a row where Blomkamp has miffed on his story. His sense of visuals is unmistakable, and he sure knows how to fill his movies with cool stuff. I imagine his pitch sessions are great with studio execs. It’s just now becoming more apparent that his major shortcoming comes to realizing these stories. There’s a host of other miscues with Chappie. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’ll never be seeing Die Antwoord as the lead actors in another movie again. Maybe Blomkamp hired them just to get a discount on playing their music throughout the movie. Blomkamp has recently been hired to direct an Alien sequel, and I hope he takes full advantage of this opportunity to creatively leave behind his old stomping grounds. Otherwise in space, no one can hear you yawn.
Nate’s Grade: C
The appeal and drawback of con artist films is that you know you’re being conned. You want to be fooled, but at the same time you’re conditioned to never take anything you see at face value, to be waiting for the turns and reveals and twists, and because of this fact it is rare for a con artist film to deserve more than one viewing. Focus fits this description. Will Smith is a smooth con artist who takes Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) as his apprentice, but then he dumps her just as their feelings for one another get too real. It’s a shame then that the film peaks during its first act, when Smith and Robbie are first working together to shake down a gloriously irresponsible gambler played by B.D. Wong. The two lovebirds meet again in Argentina as they’re both circling the same rich mark. It’s fun to watch them mess around with one another and spar, and Robbie really shines, but the plot is just too formulaic to be anything more substantial. It’s fun and entertaining in spots, but the end is a cascade of twists that further muddle and complicate an already convoluted con caper involving secret race car fuel. The problem is you’re never engaged enough to forget you’re watching a con, and so you’re always suspecting every angle and doubting every character, which Focus eventually does confirm your suspicions. It’s nice to watch Smith transition into a less flashy role, though his effortless charisma still shines. It’s the kind of role he should be taking more often. You won’t have a bad time watching Focus but you won’t remember much in the morning.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Why wouldn’t Frankenstein’s monster (henceforth referred to as Adam) be the focal point in a war between heaven and hell? And why wouldn’t the angels really be gargoyles and live in cathedrals? And why wouldn’t the demons be trying to get their demony hands on Dr. F’s book on reviving the dead? And why wouldn’t we jump ahead 200 years to modern-day, where “Adam” should be a rotted corpse? Transparently an attempt to replicate the surprisingly enduring Underworld franchise, this secret supernatural war is a lame monster movie disguised as a lamer superhero film. It’s also absurdly idiotic in just about every capacity, as if no department had any communication with one another. Aaron Eckhart grumbles and trudges his way through this awful mess but you can feel his disdain for the entire enterprise. It’s not even deliciously campy, choosing to try and re-envision the classic monster in a modern and realistic setting. The action sequences are mundane when they’re not incoherent. I, Frankenstein feels like a movie version based upon the video game of some other source material. It’s loud and inept and campy but mostly outrageously dumb. I can’t wait to watch someone else in Hollywood recycle this cheap plot setup for a desperate supernatural franchise (“Okay, the Creature from the Black Lagoon finds itself in the center of a war between centaurs and…”). When people talk about the dregs of Hollywood, and the echo chamber of stripping away creativity, let I, Frankenstein be a prime example of the worst of us.
Nate’s Grade: D
Many movies follow a proven formula very closely, but sometimes a well written, well executed formulaic movie can remind you how appealing that formula can be, and that is McFarland USA, an inspirational Disney sports film that warmed my heart. Kevin Costner stars as a science teacher and sports coach for a working class California town mostly populated with Mexican-American immigrant families. He sees the endurance and speed of several students and decides to form a cross-country team, even though he’s never coached anything related to track in his life. What follows is a mixture of the inspirational teacher film and the inspirational sports team film. Thankfully the screenplay and director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) take their time to flesh out the runners, giving them personalities and different degrees of depth, troubled by real-world problems without easy answers. The movie works as a great tool for empathy as it respectfully illuminates the limited economic opportunities and backbreaking labor of so many Mexican-American immigrants toiling in our fields. The movie creates an amiable sense of community and even though moments can feel contrived, I always had a smile on my face. The people came across as people, complicated, proud, hopeful. It opens up a world and showcases just how hard these people work to assist their families. Costner is a stable anchor for the film but it’s his young cast that really give the film its lift. The emotions are genuine and the uplift is earned, thanks to careful plotting and generous characterization. McFarland USA is a feel-good movie that’s better than good and a perfect film for the whole family.
Nate’s Grade: B+