A young mother (Felicity Jones) is dying from a terminal illness. Her son Conor (Lewis MacDougall) escapes into the world of his art and imagination to cope. This includes envisioning a giant living tree voiced by Liam Neeson who visits Conor to tell him three stories, and in the end he demands one from Conor. It’s a Hollywood cancer weepie with stylistic fantasy elements, kind of a Lifetime TV approach to Pan’s Labyrinth, and I must say I was rather unmoved through every drop of treacle. Part of my problem was that Conor has this larger-than-life fantasy creature… who only tells him stories, which lead to extended animated sequences that are beautifully rendered in watercolor paints. What’s the point of having a giant monster if all it does is tell you stories? He might as well be anything and any size then. The plot also follows a very familiar path as Conor must confront his grief and anger as his mother, one of those regular movie characters who become heavenly and wise when stricken with cancer, declines in health. I felt removed too often and kept at the fringes. Rarely did I care about these characters and that’s because the movie didn’t give me a reason to. Yes she’s dying, and yes he’s sad and troubled, but so what? A Monster Calls needed to lay more foundation with these characters who come across very thin. The ultimate purpose of the monster is a rather pat revelation and the emotional climax felt undeserving of all the swelling strings on the musical score. There just isn’t anything in A Monster Calls that separates it from a pack of maudlin imitators. The actors all do pleasant work but they aren’t given more than the barest characters to work with, which forces an audience to feel things simply by grief association. Coming from director J.A. Bayona, a visonary who startled and amazed with The Orphanage and The Impossible, I’m even more confused and let down that a man this talented would choose this. Also, at no point does a CGI tree monster Liam Neeson utilize any specific plant-based set of skills.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Polynesian-based animated musical Moana is a throwback to the Disney formula of the 1990s that became so familiar and entrenched. The time away has made it a welcomed return, especially when executed to this magnificent magnitude. A formula by itself is not a problem, in theory. Many of our favorite movies follow storytelling paths that others have trod well before, but it’s all about the level of execution, building characters that an audience cares about, a conflict that feels involving and escalating, and payoffs that are naturally setup throughout the plotting. With a formula, it’s not the song it’s the singer, and Moana is a splendid and delightful animated movie that should enchant all ages with colorful characters, catchy songs, and the familiar formula of old given surprising and rewarding depths. It’s a lovingly made movie I fell in love with.
In ancient times among the Polynesian islands, the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole the literal heart of the goddess Te Fiti, a shining green emerald responsible for creating life. Many years later, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is a teenage girl next n line to be the chief of her people. Much is expected of her for the betterment of the island but Moana would rather be out there on the water, a passion that her father forbids. Her island is in dire trouble when the food supplies are rotting or disappearing. Moana’s eccentric grandmother (voiced by Rachel House) tells her what must happen: she must venture out to sea, find Maui, retrieve his magic fishhook, and force Maui to return Te Fiti’s heart to the source. Moana sneaks away and embarks on a great adventure that will test her skills and her sense of who she is and what her calling should be.
With a few clever nods, Moana intimates to its audience that it knows what they expect and will be delivering the best of the old formula without being slavishly lockstep in its execution. The Disney formula of the hero or heroine yearning for something grander from their supposedly drab existence became a crutch after the apex of the Disney Renaissance in the mid 90s. The overprotective father who doesn’t want their daughter or son to break far from tradition will also be plenty familiar. With Moana, the masters who kickstarted that Renaissance, directors Ron Clements and John Musker, return to the formula but also know what to subvert, what to tweak, and what to dive right into. While it’s not as subversive as mildly revolutionary for a Disney movie as Frozen, this is still a movie that anticipates the connections an audience will make and knowingly tweaks them. On her island, Moana has a cute little pig sidekick who you expect to make the journey with her… except it doesn’t. Instead the brain-dead chicken, a reliable source of comic relief, is her traveling animal companion. Moana prickles at being called a princess; she’s the daughter of the chief and actually already functions in a ruling capacity. “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he nonchalantly retorts. There’s also a lesson in what constitutes good and evil as all the villains and reprobates of legend are far more ambiguous. There’s also a refreshing lack of a central romance. We have a strong heroine whose goal is completely unrelated to romantic love. This girl has bigger things on her mind than boys.
This movie is primarily a two-hander as we witness Moana and Maui interact, grow, and change, much to our amusement. I can’t recall another Disney film that had such a small focus on a limited number of characters and this decision pays dividends. While only 103 minutes, we really get to understand these two people and what drives them and what fears keep them from accomplishing their goals. Moana is a terrific character. She’s pulled in different directions from her sense of duty and her own ambition to explore the world outside. She’s feisty but still clumsy, empowered but still filled with doubts, independent but considerate of others. After all, her plight is to save her people. Pairing this character with Maui provides plenty of narrative sparks, especially as Maui is forced against his will by the power of the ocean to assist in doing right with Moana. Newcomer Cravhalo makes quite a debut. Her singing voice is flawless but I was highly impressed with the emotion she was able to convey through her vocal performance. She makes you care deeply for her character because she brings such life to the lively Moana. Johnson’s boundless charisma is amazingly channeled into the character thanks to the animators. Johnson isn’t lazily sleepwalking in his performance like so many celebrity vocal actors. Moana and Maui both intrinsically have their identities tied up in their sense of obligation to others, and this provides a common area for them to bond and also to stretch as characters. Theirs is a dual journey of self-discovery and defining themselves on their own terms. The actions of others and their demands do not have to define you. The charged interplay between Moana and Maui, two characters at cross-purpose in their goals, is a scenario that places them in our focus and endears them to us as they deepen.
The fantasy setting also allows for plenty of fun and imaginative diversions and turns. The mingling of man and god with the whimsical and weird magical creatures made me think of the great Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) as a direct creative influence. There is a delightfully wonky sequence with a wild band of pirates that are best described as living coconuts from a Mad Max film. Their floating ships are patched together with ramshackle planks and pieces and a thunderous drumbeat for pacing. All that’s missing is a coconut with a flaming guitar. It’s such a visually delightful and daffy segment and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Maui’s living tattoos (traditional hand-drawn animation) provide further personality and serve as his conscience. The underwater land of monsters is also begging for further exploration. Maui’s shape-shifting powers are brought to the forefront during key battles with the giant lava monster Te Ka. Even when the movie isn’t dazzling you with a song or its character development it can pull off inventive and visually gorgeous world building that sucks you in.
While not hitting the earworm heights of Frozen’s best, the songs in Moana are uniformly good and, even better, advance the story and give additional light to characters. Lin Manuel-Miranda is still a musical genius and imbues the sounds of Moana with Polynesian culture and history, lots of powerful percussion and harmonies. Moana’s personal theme of “How Far I’ll Go” has some wonderful melodic turns especially as it builds, and it’s a fine musical throughline for her journey with each repetition building in emotion. I enjoyed the Hamilton-style rhyming flourishes as well as the extended rap interlude on The Rock’s jaunty signature song, “You’re Welcome.” That tune is quite playful with a strong hook and it boasts all Maui’s accomplishments and his hefty ego, but it also has a narrative purpose. Maui uses the song to distract Moana and steal her boat. My current favorite might actually be the outlier on the soundtrack; “Shiny” is an absurdly enjoyable Bowie-esque glam rock number from a giant crustacean admiring his fascination for all things shiny. Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows) superbly sinks his teeth into such a theatrical and comical villain. It’s a short scene but Clemente’s impression is irresistible. His song is also a strategy, allowing Maui to steal back his fishhook while the opportunity for gloating distracts the giant crab. The songs are a reflection of the characters singing them and serve narrative purpose, which is a rarity in big-screen musicals. The musical score by Mark Mancini beautifully matches Manuel-Miranda’s songwriting themes and provides a lush sonic backdrop.
This has been an absolute dream of a year for animated movies. From Zootopia to Kubo and the Two Strings to the heartwarming indie Life Animated, the movies have enchanted and entertained and also dared to challenge, uplift, and engage an audience. These are more than mere babysitting tools for exhausted parents to put on; these movies are some of the best of the year, animated or live-action. For my tastes, Moana is just a touch below Zootopia due to the latter’s complexly inventive world and articulate social commentary. However, Moana is a lavishly produced adventure with great characters, more than a few pleasant surprises, and an emotional core that becomes more evident as the two characters we’ve grown attached to come full circle. The visuals are lively and colorful, the plotting is carefully paced and comes to a meaty conclusion, and the emphasis is on the relationship of the two main characters and their function. There was nary a moment during Moana where I wasn’t smiling from ear to ear. Do yourself a favor and savor this second Disney Renaissance because since 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph the Mouse House has been on a near unprecedented creative tear. This is starting to get to peak Pixar levels, folks. What can I say except… you’re welcome?
Nate’s Grade: A-
Forgive me the indulgence but please hear me out on this peculiar observation. In 2005, Brad Pitt stars in a movie where his onscreen wife may be a spy and he may need to kill her, and his marriage to Jennifer Aniston ended shortly thereafter. Flash forward over ten years and Pitt is starring in another movie where his onscreen wife may be a spy and he may need to kill her, and his marriage to Angelina Jolie is now coming to a reported end. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances in something so personal as relationships, but if I was Pitt’s agent, I think I might advise against all future projects that even come too close to this cursed storyline. Allied wasn’t worth it, pal.
In 1942, Max (Pitt) and Marianne (Marion Cotillard) are husband and wife and also spies for the British government. They’re enjoying life back home with their infant daughter Anna when Max gets some startling news. His superior officers are investigating whether Marianne is secretly a German spy. He is to learn for himself what is real and if she is indeed a spy Max is ordered to kill her or he himself will be executed for treason.
Allied already starts dangerously when the majority of its opening act is set during WWII Casablanca, setting up an unwinnable comparison. We’re meant to watch these two secret agents go about their clandestine operation and fall in love. One of those things happens. Oh sure, for the purposes of the plot, Max and Marianne fall in love, but no member of the audience is going to believe what they see. Pitt and Cotillard have anemic chemistry together and their characters are too stilted to draw us in (rumors of an onset romance between the stars seem unfounded by the results on screen). They achieve their first act mission, get their kill, but they don’t really encounter complications. It all proceeds just a little too easily and we fail to get a sense of their capabilities as spies. They practice the cover of husband and wife but only in superficial appearances that come across more like Marianne chiding Max (“A real husband would offer his wife a cigarette first”). I recognize that these people are spies and thrown into danger but we need to invest in them as characters if the rest of the movie is supposed to matter, let alone their relationship together. There are no supporting characters of importance. Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex) pops up as Max’s lesbian sister and you’d swear she’d have some significance, but nope. When Max is investigating Marianne, it never feels like the pieces are coming together. Rather it feels like we’re just getting new pieces, some lucky and some less so. The plotting feels too disjointed and arbitrary. Screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) is one of the best working in the industry, especially when it comes to crime thrillers and naturally drawing out tension. I expected more from him with Allied, but then that will be a trend with several aspects of this mediocre movie.
Here’s the problem with this premise: it’s too limiting. Either Marianne is a spy or she isn’t, and if she isn’t that makes for boring drama. You’re stuck so more and more obstacles have to be put in place to merely delay the inevitable reveal because that’s all the movie had. A solution could have been an Act Two break that revealed Pitt’s character to be the real spy, allowing the audience to reflect back on his action with a new lens of understanding. The crux of Act Three would then be Max’s moral dilemma of whether he turns himself or whether he frames his wife and in doing so erases evidence against himself. It would be a far more challenging and ethically murky scenario than a rather rote finale where the characters follow their predestined paths. I also think summary execution of a spy is a waste considering the value of covert information or even posing as a triple agent. I think the entire story should be told from a different perspective (okay, now spoilers). Little Anna is far too young to know what happened to her mother and I imagine there will need to be a cover story even for the official cover story. My pitch would be tell this story in the mid 1960s when Anna is now in her early twenties and discovering the larger world. She starts to come across testimony or nagging pieces of evidence that contradict her father’s story of what happened to Marianne, and her death now seems very mysterious. As she uncovers the old evidence she learns that her own parents were spies, a truth that had been kept from her, and all the evidence points to dad being the killer. The Act Three confrontation between harried father and daughter would then reveal the actual truth and that Marianne took her own life out of guilt and a desire to spare her husband punishment from his remorseless superiors. The lie was meant to comfort but now it discombobulates a family and a woman’s understanding of her parents and her relationship to them (end spoilers). Doesn’t that sound like a better version of Allied, dear reader? I certainly think so.
Director Robert Zemeckis (Flight, The Walk) is such a skilled craftsmen but this movie just gets away from him. You sense his urge to insert effects sequences into what should be an ordinary period thriller, and so we get distracting sequences that either rip you from the reality of the movie or might make you titter unintentionally. Max and Marianne’s coupling scene involves having sex in the front seat of their stranded car in the middle of a sandstorm. It would have been far more effective and possibly erotic if the camera had merely stayed in that confined space and let the building passion bubble over, all while the light becomes more and more faint from the sand storm, adding all sorts of sensual lighting opportunities with obfuscation and shadows. Instead, Zemeckis has a rotating camera shot that goes on for about a minute steady without cuts and zooms in and out of the car, inside and outside the dusty sand storm. It stops any sensuality from building. Another example if that Anna is born during the Blitz, and yet again instead of being in a small space and leaving more up to the imagination, Zemeckis and his special effects team have to recreate the air assault which increases the melodrama in a bad direction. Zemeckis has never really done a straight thriller and I can feel his flagging interest as he searches for special effects sequences to hold onto as some sort of anchor. I don’t think his skillset was the right balance for this story and the execution it needed to prosper.
It really doesn’t feel like Pitt (The Big Short) wants to be in this movie at all. Rarely have I seen this lethargic a performance from usually one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood. Part of it is the withdrawn and conspicuous nature of his spy character but it’s more than that. I don’t know if he feels like he understands his character or is that committed to the script, and so it feels like he’s just coasting and waiting for the end. It reminded me of the disastrous Oscar hosting duties from a sleepy James Franco and an overcompensating Anne Hathaway. Cotilard’s character is the gregarious and charming one, and so it feels like she has to do all the heavy lifting to compensate for the dearth of Pitt’s performance. Cotillard can be a brilliant actress with powerful instincts down to her very marrow, as last evidenced in 2014’s devastating and humane drama of personal desperation and dignity, Two Days, One Night. She has to play the more active role, first as the charmer and then as the mystery. She works much better as the charmer. I don’t think either actor knew fully who their characters were and stumbled forward.
Allied is a strange movie where the director, the star, and the screenwriter each didn’t seem to know what movie they wanted to make. Each major participant, short of a game Cotillard, doesn’t even seem like they want to be here, as if this was a school assignment that they’re doing the minimal amount of work to fulfill a requirement. Allied just feels like one of those big studio misfires where nobody was on the same page. The story lacks characters to connect with and complications that feel connected to them and their circumstances. The plot follows the path of least resistance and arrives at its predetermined destination right on time, to the monotony of its audience. Pitt’s somnambulist acting makes the movie and his lead character harder to enjoy. There’s a definite lack of intrigue with this premise and its ultimate execution. I expect better from Zemeckis, Pitt, and Knight, and I’m sure they’ll deliver with their next projects. In the meantime, skip Allied since it certainly feels like the cast and crew weren’t in alliance.
Nate’s Grade: C
At this point the Laiki studio (ParaNorman, The Box Trolls) has earned as much good will and credibility as Pixar in their pre-Cars 2 prime. I almost was going to write off their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings. For the first forty minutes or so I was somewhat indifferent to it. Sure the stop-motion animation was stunningly realized and the creation of the environments was very meticulous, but I just couldn’t connect with the movie’s story of a young boy, Kubo, and his quest to claim magic items to thwart the advances of his dangerous and estranged mystical family. Then the first big set piece happened and then the next, and then the plot made some deft reveals and provided a strong emotional foundation, and I was hooked. This is Laika’s first real action film and the wide shots and long takes do plenty to serve the action and allow you to further marvel at the painstaking brilliance of these hard-working animators. It’s a full-fledged fantasy epic that tickles the imagination and provides a poignant undercurrent of emotion especially during the final act. As Kubo declares his real strength are his memories of loved ones past, I was starting to get teary. It’s a lovely message to top off an exciting and involving action movie with creepy villains and side characters that do more than throwaway one-liners. Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones) gives a very expressive and emotive performance as our lead. Charlize Theron is outstanding as Kubo’s maternal protector who just happens to be a monkey. Rooney Mara is also genuinely eerie as an ethereal pair of flying sisters trying to snatch Kubo. Matthew McConaughey isn’t the best vocal actor due to the limited range of his vocal register but he’s still enjoyably daft. The Japanese setting and culture are recreated with loving touches that celebrate rather than appropriate. I still regard the arch silliness of The Box Trolls as my favorite film but Kubo is more than a worthy follow-up. The slow start is worth it by film’s end, so stick with it if you start to doubt yourself, because the emotional wallop of Kubo and the Two Strings, not to mention its creative high points, is well worth the invested effort.
Nate’s Grade: A-
I may be the last person on the planet to have finally watched Zootopia, Disney’s first quarter hit of the year, and I am very glad that I did. I was expecting something cute with the premise of a plucky rabbit (voiced winningly by Ginnfer Goodwin) joining forces with a wily grifter fox (Jason Bateman) in the sprawling animal metropolis, but what I wasn’t expecting was a fully thought out and stupendously imaginative world and a message that is just as thought out and pertinent. The anthropomorphic animal land is filled with colorful locations and plenty of amusing characters. It’s highly enjoyable just to sit back and watch. I knew I was in for something radically different and dare I say more ambitious when there was an N-word approximation joke within the first ten minutes. This was not a movie to be taken lying down. My attention was rewarded with an engaging relationship between the two leads, careful plotting, endlessly clever asides without relying upon an inordinate amount of pop-culture references, and ultimately a noble and relevant message about the power of inclusion, tolerance, and rejecting prejudice. The larger metaphor seems slightly muddied by the late reveal of who is behind the conspiracy to make the animals go feral, but I wouldn’t say it undercuts the film’s power. The characters charmed me and I was happy that each ecosystem factored into the story in fun and interesting ways. There are plenty of payoffs distributed throughout the movie to make it even more rewarding. Zootopia is a funny, entertaining, heartfelt, and immersive movie with great characters and a world I’d like to explore again. Given its billion-dollar success, I imagine a return trip will be in short order and we should all be thankful. Something this spry and creative needs to be appreciated.
Nate’s Grade: A
Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) are a young couple deeply in love in the late 1950s. The only problem: he is white and she is black. The laws in their native Virginia forbid marriages to different races. The Lovings traveled to Washington D.C. to be married and then had to live as fugitives before ultimately getting caught and exiled under threat of jail time. Eventually an ambitious ACLU lawyer (Nick Kroll, broadening his range) challenges the legality of the miscegenation law, which will lead to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling striking down laws barring interracial marriage.
The ordinariness of the Lovings betrays the kind of movie moments we expect from great historical turning points, namely moral grandstanding and stentorian speechifying. We’re so used to accentuated versions of history because, deep down, that’s what our storytelling impulses crave because the real thing is often less streamlined and usually more boring. We want Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln admonishing his fellows with the power of his oratory. We don’t necessarily want to watch President Lincoln rewrite his speeches for grammatical mistakes. With all that being said, I appreciated the approach that writer/director Jeff Nichols took with Loving because the very point at the heart of the movie is just how powerfully ordinary Mildred and Richard Loving are. Their love is meant to be ordinary, their relationship relatable. They’re meant to be just like you or I. This thematically taps into the message of the movie about the fundamental human rights of American citizens to love who they love regardless of what others may think. There is nothing dangerous or subversive about their marriage. There is nothing radical. The rationale for why the state would care so much about a marriage can be flabbergasting, including one judge’s written opinion that God created separate races and placed them at separate points on the globe thereby never intending for them to mix. This was considered acceptable legal justification for discrimination in the 1960s and it’s absurd. The other argument against interracial marriage is that biracial children are a harm to larger society… somehow. It’s easy to look back to the past and shake our heads with a fury of moral indignation and say “How could they do that?” but some of these exact same legal arguments have been used in the twenty-first century to justify denying gay citizens the same equality. In that sense, Loving shows us how far we’ve come but also how far we have to go to make sure that human beings are simply considered human.
If that wasn’t enough the movie also makes a powerfully compelling case about how the state’s miscegenation laws were an offense to human decency. The Lovings are given the legal ultimatum to separate or be exiled from the state, their families, and the home they were making for their family. They have been banished for loving the “wrong” person. Mildred and Richard try living out of the state in a D.C. suburb but it’s not the same; Mildred misses the quiet and relative safety of the country as well as the warmth of her immediate family. They decide to sneak back into Virginia and lay low, and you get a genuine sense of the day-to-day anxiety of having to constantly look over your shoulder and fly under the radar lest someone throw you in prison for loving another race. The degradation and dehumanizing effect of the miscegenation laws is on full display with how Mildred and Richard must act like criminals afraid of their country of laws. They may be used to the glares and hateful comments from intolerant onlookers but it’s another thing when the power of the state is employed to enforce that same hate. The wear and tear of their love perplexes some of the Loving friends and family. Mildred’s brother and sister each take turns blaming Richard for knowingly bringing this heap of trouble upon their beloved sister and for taking her from them. Her brother confesses he doesn’t know why he doesn’t just divorce her and stay together, satisfying the definition of the law. It’s a pertinent question that asks what is the value of marriage? He could readily be with Mildred and save themselves the persecution, but why should they have to settle for something less with their love? Why should they have to be second-class citizens?
This is very much a duet of a movie and Negga and Edgerton deliver admirable, understated work that cuts deeply. I was most impressed with Edgerton (The Gift) who has the more private and insular character. He’s not seeking the spotlight and doesn’t want to be a civil rights crusader. Richard Loving isn’t exactly a man prone to those speeches we crave and he’s certainly not a man to blurt out his feelings. Edgerton has to play within a tiny frame of emotional reference and he makes it work. When he does start to break down, his stoic defenses melting under the pressure and soul-killing compromises, the moments carry even greater emotional weight. Negga is the more emotive of the two but even much of her performance lies in her large, expressive eyes, taking in the collective injustices and triumphs. Using approximately the same Southern accent from her plucky performance on AMC’s Preacher, she radiates warmth and goodness and a sense of indomitable perseverance. It’s a performance that speaks in small gestures and small moments. Much of the film is Negga and Edgerton working together and each lifts the other up, providing the right space needed. There’s a physical intimacy that says much as each member of the relationship seeks out the other’s touch, grip, presence for comfort. It’s a delicate and understated duet of performances that bring the Lovings to faithful life.
Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) is the kind of filmmaker that astonishes me with every new movie. He reinvents himself with every picture and he takes genres and redefines them, shaping them to his needs, while never losing sight of tone and characters and narrative payoffs. He’s already delivered one of the best movies of the year with Midnight Special and now he impresses yet again, this time turning toward awards-friendly Important Stories of History. Nichols’ sense of place is implacable. He’s also superb at developing characters and giving them the time to properly breathe. He keeps the spirit of the story linked to his subjects, Richard and Mildred Loving, and makes sure we understand their plight and the larger issue at hand. This isn’t a film that’s going to hit you over the head with its message; in fact you could make a claim that perhaps the movie is too insular. As presented, the Lovings are relatable but we’re only given a fraction of insight into who they are as people and what makes them tick. There’s much subtext here to unpack. It does feel like we’re fighting through the defenses of Mildred and Richard to better know them. This specific approach allows the movie to keep in spirit with the ordinariness of the Lovings and their unknowing place in the history of civil rights, but it also caps the potential emotional impact. We’re invested in them as people but not as completely as characters. It’s a minor criticism perhaps but it’s really the only one I have for Nichols’ movie.
Given our recent turbulent political environment, Loving is an even more significant film. Jeff Nichols has crafted a poignant and affecting movie that passes over easy histrionics for a better representation of history and its characters. These people didn’t want to change the world; they just wanted to live out their lives. Mildred and Richard Loving are regular people living regular lives and that’s the ultimate message of the movie and their love. Having won their Supreme Court battle, the couple returns home to their original plot of land Richard bought in Virginia with the purpose of building his wife a house. Somber text appears in the sky to inform us that Richard would die in a car accident a mere six years later. It left me with a pall thinking about what a short span of time this man had to cherish the woman he loved without recriminations before it all came to a tragic end. It doesn’t seem fair, and I hope that’s a message other audiences take with them. When demagogues try and use religion in place of civil law to justify state-sponsored discrimination, saying the love others share is inferior and somehow a danger to their own lives, that’s when people need to remember the Lovings. This life is too short to harangue others about whom they choose to give their love to. Here is a beautiful, gentle, and restrained film that reminds us that the power of love is in its superhuman perseverance.
Nate’s Grade: B+
A comedy with no reason to exist is a lousy thing and it’s even worse when that comedy seems to know it, and thus is the pitiful state of Bad Santa 2, a sequel that feels far too stale. I wonder if the original movie was as enjoyable as I recall or if in the ensuing 13 years we’ve just become more inured to the casual vulgarity of these movies, but I was left bored by the overwhelming listlessness of this comedy. Billy Bob Thornton returns but he’s generally on autopilot. The loose plot involves another score, this time engineered by his mother (Kathy Bates), but really it’s mostly a hangout film with nasty characters insulting each other in painfully provocative ways. I was getting restless and the comic set pieces are to a whole poorly developed and routinely settle on the easiest joke, which is again witless shock value. There’s no range, no unexpected turns, so much of the comedy falls flat, the same smutty joke repeated with little variance. Stay tuned for a tepid end credits sequence that justifies the “graphic nudity” of the rating (hopefully Snapchat does not get any ideas for the tie-in). Without a stronger plot and characters, the shock value begets diminished returns, and even my preview audience was deadly silent for long stretches. I laughed about ten times total, not enough to justify a theatrical viewing but perhaps enough to keep it on TV while folding laundry. The strange thing about a dark comedy is that it feels like all the consequences from the plot were cut in editing as several storylines and their reasons to exist fail to fully manifest. There are payoffs you anticipate that never come and storylines that seem created entirely for reasons that never arise. The most consistent comic presence is Brett Kelly replaying his now grown-up simpleton from the first movie. Kelly is the only actor who plays a different note, providing a dose of unyielding optimism that befuddles. If you’re a big fan of the original and just looking for another fix perhaps Bad Santa 2 will provide enough nasty humor to satisfy. By the end I felt drained from this thoroughly pointless affair.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.
This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.
Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.
I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.
The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.
The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.
Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.
Nate’s Grade: B-
There was no stopping Titanic in 1997, iceberg be damned. James Cameron’s epic disaster movie had all the momentum of the times, and yet it’s a smaller movie that captured more of the critics and was far more deserving of the ultimate Oscar prizes that year. L.A. Confidential was based upon a James Ellroy novel that many argued was unfilmable. Enter journeyman director Curtis Hanson and novice screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and the pair stripped the book down from eight main characters to three, kept the spirit and essence of the book alive while rearranging the storylines for large-scale popcorn thrills. It’s been nearly twenty years since L.A. Confidential first seduced big screen audiences and its powers are still as alluring to this day. It’s a neo noir masterpiece.
In 1950s Los Angeles, not all is what it seems. The captain of the police, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), is looking to keep the peace in the City of Angels as outside criminal elements are looking to fill the void from Mickey Cohen going to prison. Three police officers of very different stripes find themselves on the edges of a complicated murder case stemming from a massacre at the Nite Owl cafe. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the son of a famous police captain and wants to rise up the ranks as quickly as possible. He’s a political animal and unafraid of ruffling feathers. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a bruiser of a man who enforces his own level of justice when it comes to men who beat or harass women. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a happily shady officer who serves as a consultant for a hit TV police procedural. The Night Owl case takes them into many sordid corridors of sex, money, and power, including Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), part of Pierce Pratchett’s (David Strathairn) stable of prostitutes meant to look like movie stars, the mysterious self-serving sources to tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), and good cops and bad cops on the controversial L.A. police force.
This movie is a master class in plotting and structure, enough that it should be taught in film schools. By nature noir plots are meant to be busy and mysterious, and a guarantee for mystery is a Byzantine plot full of plenty of suspects, dispirit elements, and strange coincidences that eventually coalesce into a larger picture. The beauty of what Hanson and Helgeland have done is that they have made the script complex yet accessible, able to lose one’s self in the tangled web of intrigue but still able to see how all the myriad pieces fit perfectly together by the conclusion. There is an efficiency to the screenwriting that is mesmerizing. It all seems so effortless when you’re with storytellers this gifted or who have a divine connection to the source material. Forgoing the customary slow builds of recent film noir like the oft-cited Chinatown, L.A. Confidential just moves from the opening narration. Within the first 25 minutes, the movie has expertly set up all three of its main characters, what defines them, their separate goals, the obstacles in place, and previews how they will intersect into one another’s orbit, and then the Nite Owl case explodes. Every scene drives this narrative forward. Every scene reveals a little more depth to our characters or fleshes out a superb supporting cast. Every scene cements that contradictory theme of the glitzy allure and unseemly darkness of the post-war City of Angels. My only quibble is that before the truncated third act the movie resorts to a few easy shortcuts but by that point Hanson and Helgeland had more than earned their paces. This is one of the greatest modern screenplays, period (WGA listed it as #60 all-time).
There are so many remarkably assured sequences but I want to emphasize one in particular – Exley’s interrogation of the three Nite Owl suspects. “Oh I’ll break him,” Exley promises his superior before entering into the first interrogation room. At first you’re with the other officers and morbidly curious with his arrogance. By the end, your jaw hangs in amazement at the intuitive pressure this man is expertly applying. It’s a terrific moment that allows Exley to masterfully manipulate three different men, taking pieces and running toward accurate insinuations, building momentum and clarity. Each man is different and each man offers a new piece of the overall puzzle. A slight reference by one unlocks another’s confession. An overheard sound byte pushes another into self-defense. I’m convinced it was this scene that ensured robust and thorough interrogation was a crucial element of the gameplay for the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, a noble misfire that definitely looked to replicate Hanson’s film as a user experience.
Noir is one film genre with a visual code that can get the best of directors, but Hanson played this to his advantage. Classic noir is filled with criminal activity and the allure of sex and violence, typified perhaps best in the position of the untrustworthy but oh-so-sexy femme fatale. Yet the majority of film noir was produced in an era of censorship thanks to the implementation of the notorious Hayes Code, making sure that audiences didn’t enjoy the sordid elements too far. Free of these restrictions, some modern filmmakers take the opportunity to revisit the noir landscape and fill in the blanks of old, furnishing an outpouring of unrestrained exploitation elements. Brian DePalma’s 2006 film The Black Dahlia (also based on an Ellroy novel) gets drunk on this mission, though “restrained” has never been a word I would associate with DePalma’s filmmaking anyway. My point, dear reader, is that it’s easy to get lost in the superficial trappings of the genre: sexy dames, corrupt lawmen, temptation, shootouts, schemes, and chiaroscuro lighting. It’s easy to dabble in these elements because they’re so nostalgic and celebrated.
Hanson did something different with his 1997 masterpiece. He builds upon the audience expectations with noir but he doesn’t let his complex story and characters come second to the visual spectacle of the famous genre. L.A. Confidential is in many ways a movie that straddles lines; old and new, indie and Hollywood classicism, and film noir and drama. It’s an adult film that doesn’t downplay its darkness, brutality, and moral ambiguity, yet when it comes to those exploitation elements, especially sex, it’s almost chaste. The relationship between Lynn and Bud seems refreshingly square, like it was pulled from Old Hollywood. The entire movie feels that way, an artifact that could exist any decade.
Hanson was something of a journeyman for most of his career, directing competent thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. As Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote in his eulogy for Hanson (he died in September 2016, a fact I shamefully didn’t know until writing this review), after 25 years in the industry the man became an earth-rattling auteur after the age of 50. That is a rarity. Who knew the guy had something this singularly brilliant within his grasp his entire career? The care he puts into the screen is evident from the opening montage onward. There’s an elusive magic to the filmmaking on display, a bracingly divine sense of how to move the camera for best effect, how to escalate and deescalate audience nerves. He knows his story structure and characters inside and out, but he also knows how to play an audience. His time making serviceable studio thrillers certainly helps him during the film’s climax, a bloody shootout that’s also a mini-siege thriller.
Hanson also assembled an incredible crew to enable his vision. The technical elements recreate the early 1950s L.A. time period with beguiling immediacy; the cinematography by Dante Spinotti (Heat) gives a sense of the darker elements just under the surface without having to overly rely upon the film language of staid noir visuals. Peter Honess’ sharp editing provides a downright Thelma Schoonmaker-esque musical orchestration to the proceedings, especially as the multiple storylines and developments spill onto one another. Speaking of music, the score by Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek) is thick with the jazzy overtones of the genre. It’s a score that simmers with sexual tension and malevolence. The casting director deserves a lifetime free pass. There are a whopping 80 speaking parts in the movie, and each person is a great hire that builds a richer film.
While the plot of L.A. Confidential sucks you in right away, its characters take hold the strongest. Film noir is one genre that has a codified cheat sheet of character archetypes, and this movie fulfills and subverts them, finding surprising and gratifying ways to further round out these figures into complex and nuanced human beings. The three main characters all provide a different approach to law enforcement and when we see them start to work together it’s a wholly wonderful turn of events. Bud is the muscle, Exley is the brain, and Vincennes is the charm, and each one attacks the Nite Owl case and its subsequent leads from different angles that best apply to their set of skills. Each of the three characters discovers new pieces of evidence, new contacts and suspects, and when they start to work together it not only provides a payoff with the combined evidence but with the satisfying nature of their teamwork. That’s because they become better people when they work together and each moves closer to some moral redemption.
Bud is the loyal cop with a hair trigger and a penchant for being a white knight to abused women. His personal history of abuse makes him seek justice, often by his own fists. He has a rigid moral code of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to cross lines to achieve it. He’s also tired of being a bully and wants to be more than just the muscle. Exley is a straight arrow with a strong sense of moral righteousness and a mind for politics. He knows how to play sides for his own gain. He’s not afraid of making enemies within the department, and his opportunistic choices create many. He’s trying to forge his own path outside the shadow of his father, a famous lawman who was gunned down by a random purse-snatcher (“Rollo Tamassi”). He has to learn that he can’t do everything on his own. Finally, Vincennes is in many ways the face of the department as an ambassador to the world of TV and film. He’s succumbed fully to the glamour of Hollywood but he’s also full of profound self-loathing, trying to count how many compromises he’s made in life and where it’s gotten him. The appeal of the old life is crumbling and his detective instincts are reawakened, spurring Vincennes into the fray and surprising even himself. It’s extremely rare for any movie to successfully develop more than one protagonist, let alone three, and yet L.A. Confidential achieves this milestone so that when we alternate perspectives there isn’t a drop in viewer interest. Each man brings something different and interesting, each man reveals new hidden depths, and each character is fascinating to watch in this setting.
The gifted actors take the already excellent written material and elevate it even further, turning an already sterling movie into one of the all-time greats. Almost twenty years later, it’s fun to see these famous actors when they were young and, arguably, in their prime. Spacey (House of Cards) was on a tear at this point in his career, between his two well-deserved Oscar wins, and having the time of his life in every role. His character seemingly has the least complexity, a man who knows he’s sold out but believes himself to be enjoying the ride, but Spacey offers poignant glimpses of the man behind all that oily charm and sly glances. There’s a scene where he stumbles across a mistake of his making and the subtle, haunted expression playing across his face is amazing. The man was capable of expressing so much, and still is. Crowe was still a couple years from his big breakout in 2000’s Gladiator but he put himself on the Hollywood map as Bud White. He’s a coil of anger and pain looking for an outlet, and Crowe is magnetic as hell. His glowers could burn right through you. Pearce (Memento) was another knockout that solidified leading man status thanks to his performance as the rigidly self-righteous Exley. He’s a character that thinks he’s above moral reproach, and his humbling is a necessary part of solving the case. Exley is constantly surprising his peers and it feels like Pearce does the same, showing exciting new capabilities from scene to scene, from his stirring hire-wire act with the interrogation scene to his understated glimmer of fear through a poker face. These three performances are golden.
Nobody better represents sleaze than Danny DeVito’s character and the man brings a merry lechery to his tabloid journalist/exposition device. His unquenchable thirst for the worst in humanity to sell more papers feels even more sadly relevant given the media climate that contributed to the recent presidential election. Kim Basinger (Batman) won an Oscar for her somber performance, which reinvigorated her career. She’s good but I can’t help but feel that she won the Oscar in a weak field (my choice would be Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights). David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) is enjoyably nonplussed as a man who specializes in delivering vice. James Cromwell used every bit of audience warmth associated as the loveable farmer from Babe and used that to his advantage. His pragmatic police captain is a father figure for Exley and the audience and perfectly sets up a turn that leaves the audience spinning even twenty years later.
There are little details the could go unnoticed but confirm for me just how much thought was put into L.A. Confidential. Exley is chided by his superiors for wearing glasses as they think it makes him look weak. As the film develops and he gets more immersed in the Nite Owl case, his compulsions against violence and rash judgment start to waver about the same time he stops wearing his glasses, a subtle symbol of his difficulty to see things for what they truly are. I enjoyed that our introduction to Lynn is in a liquor store and she’s wearing a winter cloak that strongly resembles a nun’s habit. It’s a memorable costuming choice and also suggest Lynn’s penchant for straddling the line of devotion. The Patchett “whatever your heart desires” line of high-class prostitutes has allusions to our current media culture of celebrity worship and personalized sexual fantasies. It naturally ties into the exploitation of the dream factory of Hollywood that takes young ingénues with dreams in their head and squashes them pitilessly. It’s not the first film to explore the darker side of the film industry but that doesn’t make its themes lesser.
L.A. Confidential feels like the noir thrillers of old but stripped down to its essentials and given a new engine. It’s something that celebrates noir thrillers of old and Old Hollywood but it isn’t so lavish to either the genre or older time period that it loses sight of its own storytelling goals. The elaborate plot is complex and intensely engaging while still being accessible, populated with memorable and incredibly well developed characters, each given their own purpose and own insights that contribute to the larger whole. Hanson’s lasting accomplishment is a near-perfect masterpiece to the power of story structure and characterization. The three lead detectives are compelling on their own terms and the movie keeps them separate long enough that when they do come together it feels like a payoff all its own. Hanson recreates the world of classic film noir and makes it his own, using new Hollywood to lovingly recreate Old Hollywood. It’s the kind of movie I can watch again and again and discover new depths. It gave way to a wave of success for its participants. Hanson never quite delivered another movie on the level of L.A. Confidential, though I’ll posit that In Her Shoes is an underrated character piece. Helgeland has become a go-to screenwriter for many projects low (The Postman) and high (Mystic River) and became a director for A Knight’s Tale and 42. It’s a movie that plays just as strongly today as it did almost twenty years ago, and that’s the mesmerizing power of great storytelling and acting. L.A. Confidential is a lasting achievement that proves once more the power of our darker impulses. It’s stylish, seductive, smart, subversive, and everything you could ask for in a movie.
Nate’s Grade: A