Site Update

Hi my wonderful readers. I just wanted to add a quick update and a slight warning. I’ve been reviewing movies since 1999 but have only had this WordPress blog since the summer of 2011. It literally just occurred to me that I can backdate reviews. So that’s what I’ve been doing, supplying my other reviews that have never been housed on this personal blog. With that in mind, I don’t know if every new posting, even if dated seven years ago, will send out a notification to any subscribers. If this is the case…. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be a nuisance to your inbox, but then again I don’t want to lose any of you wonderful subscribers. So I’ll swear to limit my daily uploads to around ten a day. That may still be too much for some and I apologize, but I literally have 900+ reviews to add to this blog. Hopefully they may be something you’d be interested in reading (I recommend my review for Sucker Punch, which I just re-read) and it will add multitudes to the blog’s content. Thanks!

Oh, and new reviews will be forthcoming as well, especially Venom and A Star is Born later in the week and maybe A Simple Favor and Life Itself. Stay tuned.

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First Man (2018)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.

What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.

Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.

I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.

As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.

First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.

Nate;s Grade: B-

Venom (2018)

Sony does not have a sterling track record of late when it comes to their superheroes. After the dismal response to 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony reached out to the creative team at the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to better guide their flagship property. A solution was worked out wherein the MCU would essentially make a Spider-Man movie and borrow the character for their own films and Sony would reap the profits, and it worked wonderfully with 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Now Sony seems to be falling into a similar trap, getting ahead of themselves with an itch to build a larger superhero universe of properties. Venom is a fan favorite Spider-Man villain, so to give the guy his own movie even without Spider-Man is already a risk. The ensuing Venom solo film is a big gooey mess of a movie that needed to decide whether it was going to be scary, funny, goofy, serious, PG-13 or R-rated, or good or bad.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative reporter who has relocated from New York to San Francisco. He’s got a cushy job, a loving fiancé (Michelle Williams), and he loses it all thanks to his ego and drive to uncover the secret experiments of a wealthy Elon Musk-esque business magnate, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Then Eddie discovers the secret of Drake’s lab, an alien symbiotic substance that crashed on Earth. It bonds with Eddie and appears in his head as a guttural voice egging him into bad behavior and the hopeful munching of heads and bodily organs. Eddie must learn to work with his new partner to thwart Drake and another alien symbiote with plans for world domination.

Venom struggles to separate itself from the plethora of superhero films out there and forge an identity of its own, unfortunately without Spider-Man and the larger Marvel world. It’s even in the tagline: “The world has enough superheroes.” If this is the anti-superhero movie it can’t pull that far apart. The set-up was there for something potentially different. Venom could have been the villain instead of merely an anti-hero, with Eddie Brock wrestling with his inner demons in a way that evoked the classic tortured duality of Jekyll and Hyde. I think that approach certainly would have brought out more from director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad). Instead the filmmakers assert that their goo-laden superhero is a bit edgier, a bit looser with the ethics of justifiable homicide when it comes to snacks, and to make it certain they employ a clear-cut villain who has even less compunctions so as to make Venom look better in comparison. This is a pretty lazy anti-hero archetype that follows the superhero formula to the core. If the Venom symbiosis was presenting problems in Eddie’s life, or presented a lethal force that tempted him to the dark side that needed to be tamed or at least withheld, that would be one thing, but it’s the same-old tool for empowerment. Thanks to the Venom alien, Eddie is able to stand up to bad guys he shrunk from before. Thanks to the Venom alien, Eddie is able to be a better reporter and reactive citizen. Hooray. For a movie that advertised there were too many superheroes, they just flatly rolled out another.

The major problem with Venom is that nobody seems to be on the same page as to what kind of movie they are making. Firstly, Tom Hardy seems to think he’s making his own version of Jim Carrey’s The Mask, hamming it up to great comic effect, stuttering and sloshing his way from scene to scene. This movie would be vastly less interesting if it was not for Hardy and his committed performance of borderline Nicolas Cage-style nuttiness. The film became that much more entertaining once Venom and Eddie were bonded and Hardy had to reconcile the back-and-forth in his head and in public. There are moments that I’m almost convinced the movie is asking its audience to laugh at it and Hardy rather than with it, like when he takes a dip into a lobster tank to cool off. It made me think of All of Me but with an alien parasite. The buddy comedy aspect and interaction was a highlight. The movie is better when it either embraces its goofy elements or at least pretends not to be as serious. The serious version of this movie seems to infect most of the supporting players, notably Williams and Ahmed. Poor Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) is another underrated love interest, and in the one scene where she does have agency and power, she immediately gives it back over to Eddie. Ahmed (Rogue One) just looks lost, going from overblown monologue to confusing monologue, making it hard to grasp what his motivations are from scene to scene. Is it space exploration, conquering, or saving the Earth? There’s a part at the end confrontation where Ahmed and Hardy are literally fighting one-on-one and it’s hilariously mismatched. There’s no way a tiny guy like Ahmed would be able to contend with Hardy in a fistfight. That’s the more unbelievable moment yet.

The story has many shortcomings and logical constraints that exist for sloppy stalling purposes. Take for instance the opening scene where a U.S. space shuttle crashes back to Earth and lands in Malaysia (have the people of Malaysia suffered enough downed aircraft?). One of the four alien symbiotes escapes and latches onto an EMT worker, taking control of her body. We then flash forward six months and Drake’s company is testing the symbiotes and having poor results, losing all but one that bonds with Eddie Brock. Why even have four of these things? Why have two to eventually die off-screen when one would do? But really why have any of this setup? The Bad Guy Symbiote is effectively stranded in Malaysia for six months until it figures out that little white girls are the ticket to slipping past airport security guards (and I guess stupid secret lab guards as well). Why not have the breakaway symbiote be the Venom one? Why even have the means of their arrival crash in Malaysia if they’re all just winding up in San Francisco anyway? The only logical answer is the filmmakers wanted the Big Bad sidelined long enough to set up more plot, but it’s so sloppy. The same can be said about how Eddie eventually ends up face-to-face with his special symbiote. Jenny Slate’s (Gifted) scientist character is to sneak Eddie into the lab, without her supervision of where to specifically go, and for him to… take pictures of the suffering test patients? Why does she need an intermediary to take pictures? Why can’t she do this and then submit them to Eddie? If she fears that the tests are as dangerous, why does she let Eddie stumble around? When the bad guys initially give chase they use flying drones as their killer weapons. I figured they would use these aerial machines to fire at Eddie as he speeds away on his motorcycle, but no, instead they use them as kamikaze bombs. How is that effective? Why do the good people of San Francisco seem to shrug at a series of bombs going off around their city? This is pretty much the definition of modern terrorism. How about when the Venom symbiote goo is separated from Eddie and he’s taken away, and the symbiote has to escape from a hospital and it has a choice of small dog or human being as its escape vehicle… and it chooses the small yappy dog. The movie is littered with these kinds of head-scratchers and leaves the overwhelming impression that much of this story and ensuing production was thrown together in the most haphazard fashion.

The action and special effects are also pretty messy and lackluster. The Venom alien goop just looks like Hardy is constantly dripping black paint. The effects do not look drastically improved from when we first caught glimpse of a big screen Venom in 2007’s Spider-Man 3 (though no candy corn fangs). There’s a lengthy attack sequence between Venom and an entire squad of SWAT officers that takes place in the haze of a teargas cloud. It’s meant to evoke a sense of horror as Venom pops up randomly, except it just makes everything too chaotic to maintain interest. Too many sequences take place at night to obfuscate the special effects work. The final act is the worst part as Venom faces down another symbiotic goo-monster, and it ends up being a clash between a black-skinned goo monster and a grey-skinned goo monster outdoors at night with quick camera edits. Good luck trying to comprehend what is happening on the screen. It’s such a bleh villain as well, just a bigger slightly more evil version of Venom, and its world-dominating plan involve bringing the other symbiotes to Earth, which will take, by my calculations, at least a few decades, at best, of space travel time. It’s one last noisy, dumb moment in a movie filled with loud and dumb moments to pass the time.

I still can’t find a straight answer whether Venom was initially filmed as a PG-13 film or as an R-rated movie and re-edited into a safer, more commercial PG-13 form. In its current incarnation, I don’t think an R-rating would have added much more to it, but that’s because the film doesn’t feel like it was conceived as an R-rated property. That’s a shame considering it features an alien creature that eats people’s heads. There is one scene where Venom eats a mugger’s head and the next scene he reverts back to Eddie Brock, and we see Eddie leave the shop in clear sight. The dead body of his headless victim is curiously missing even though it should be in full view. What happened? Also, what happens to the shop owner who is now witness to this traumatic event? Are the police or insurance agents going to believe her tale about an alien monster biting the head off a man whose body was left in her business? Is anyone going to want to shop there again once word spreads that a guy had his head removed? The Venom movie we get doesn’t earn this scene and it doesn’t get to wave away the scrutiny it invites.

Venom is a mediocre superhero movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It says it doesn’t want to be a superhero film, but it falls under the same plot trappings. It seems like it’s a silly comedy, but then it asks you to take it seriously. It seems like a serious action thriller, but then it has a goo-covered anti-hero say, without a hint of irony, that it’s “time to save the world.” Then there’s the painfully on-the-nose post-credits scene meant to bait the audience into interest in future sequels (stop doing this, Hollywood). This is a sloppy movie on all levels. The saving grace is Hardy’s dedicated, ridiculous, tic-heavy performance, which at least smoothed over the rough patches at various points for my enjoyment. Otherwise, the best part of the Venom movie is a three-minute clip for the animated Spider-Man movie Sony is scheduled to release in December. Those delightful three minutes are better than anything else Venom has to offer in its slapdash, goo-filled tonal mishmash. Check out the underrated genre gem Upgrade instead, the superior Venom.

Nate’s Grade: C-

A Star is Born (2018)

There have been four official renditions of A Star is Born. I say “official” because other storytellers have imitated the famous formula countless times (2011’s Best Picture-winner The Artist is essentially the same tale). The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaymor and Frederick March and was about a Hollywood acting starlet. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was nearly three hours. The 1976 version swapped Hollywood for the music industry, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (a generation asks, that guy from Blade?). Now Bradley Cooper has taken to reviving this old favorite, much like a singer re-imagining a classic song. As a character says in the film, there are only 12 notes within each octave, and it’s up to the individual artists to take those same 12 notes and spin them in meaningful ways; it’s the singer, not the song. Cooper and his company have refashioned A Star is Born for 2018 audiences, and it’s an emotionally satisfying showcase for its booming stars.

Jack (Cooper) is a popular singer-songwriter with a long career of hits stretching back decades. Ally (Lady Gaga a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) is a waitress with big dreams of stardom. She writes her own songs but is afraid to perform them because of her looks. One night Jack stumbles onto her performance in a drag club, and from there he’s smitten. He invites her onstage at one of his concerts and the duo sing Ally’s song she wrote. From there they’re inseparable and Ally’s career explodes. She transitions to a solo pop act thanks to a thinly veiled villainous British manager (Rafi Gavron). Jack’s addictions and maladies seem to be getting worse as the relationship continues and Ally must choose between her blossoming career and being the caretaker for the self-destructive man she loves.

This is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, as well as a screenwriter, and he knows that the formula of A Star is Born is universal and requires little tinkering. The real draw will be in the characters and the performances, and that’s where A Star is Born 2018 shines. Cooper’s character is a talented mess and we’re introduced to both aspects early. The film opens with him playing onstage and it’s full of vigor, swagger, and all shot in a long take to keep the electric feeling alive, also highlighting Cooper doing his own strumming. This is a rock star that knows what he’s doing, we immediately sense. Then in the car ride as he desperately looks for a source of alcohol, we see how cavalier he is about his own addictions and self-destruction. He’s also suffering from tinnitus and refuses to wear hearing aids because he feels it will make it harder for him to be in the moment, thus taking away something from the authenticity of his performance. That’s a key word when it comes to Jack. He is obsessed with authenticity and using the spotlight to say something meaningful. This ethos will cause friction in his relationship with Ally as she gets molded into a pre-fabricated pop star with lyrics about butts in jeans. Jack knows deep down that his time in waning, both commercially and physically, and he is driven to make the most of it before the spotlight dissipates. In some ways, Ally is a reclamation project for his career and his person. It’s not manipulative. He genuinely wants to do right by her and give her the opportunities that he thinks she deserves. I never doubted Jack’s fidelity to Ally, especially as we learn piece-by-piece his troubled back-story with a troubled father. Jack has two significant relationships in his life, Ally and his older brother and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliot). He pushes them away while needing to draw them closer and that conflict drives the character more so than his musical legacy.

Cooper the actor does a suitably good job losing himself in the character, alternating charm and warmth and rage and stubbornness. His singing vocals are pretty solid and add to the overall impression of Jack as a character rather than an acting vehicle for a director who wanted to show off. As a director, Cooper follows the instincts of his character and has a very practical, no-frills sense of style, sticking to longer takes and pinning the camera to his performers to get every nuance of emotion across their tear-stricken faces. His camera instincts are on verisimilitude and trust in his actors, and they deliver for him. I liked the little moments that Cooper finds to let his characters stretch and for his film to breathe. The initial courtship between Ally and Jack over the course of one long night sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We can tell early on there’s something special between these two. There’s also some fine moments between Cooper and Elliot (The Hero) expressing the hardships of two hard-headed brothers tired of dealing with the scars of their alcoholic father. It’s a delicate balance so the soapier elements don’t overwhelm the pivotal sense of realism that Cooper is after. The fact that he finds that right balance throughout a 135-minute movie is an accomplishment in and of itself, let alone for a novice director, although the pacing is a bit sluggish at points.

This is rightfully Gaga’s show and she dazzles on stage and on screen. It’s tailor-made to be a showcase for Gaga and her sensational singing, so she’s got many supports from Cooper and company to succeed. Cooper is good but she is unquestionably great. It’s her movie and just as Ally becomes a star so too does Gaga. It’s not just the musical performances too, which are uniformly outstanding while still being able to be done through the lens of her character. Her performance of “La vie en Rose” is slinky, brimming with assurance, and magnetic to watch, giving the audience a sense to what Ally is capable of. You can easily see why Jack would become enchanted with her immediately. Her big moment singing her original song to a stadium of thousands is the highlight of the film. Cooper’s camera stays trained on Ally on the sidelines as she goes through a myriad of emotions, working up the courage to saunter onstage at the right time to belt out her original tune. It’s a thrilling and emotionally rousing moment that feels literally star making. You see her nerves melt away as she lets go and immerses herself in the music. The dramatic moments are just as nicely delivered, though there are the occasional bump or two. Gaga has a feisty sense of self that pushes her to push back, but she can also be achingly vulnerable and lovesick as her character falls head over heels for a troubled man. She’s present in every scene and has a strong rapport with Cooper. I fully expect her to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance and likely one for an original song.

With all that being said, A Star is Born 2018 also strangely relegates Ally’s character. Walking away, I began thinking over the movie and its characterization and I realized that Cooper and his team of screenwriters have given the rising star the least amount of material. She’s got the most screen time and her character arc is evidently clear, the rags-to-riches ascent, the naiveté giving way to hard-won wisdom and heartache. She has big dreams and gets more confident as the film continues and her career comes alive. All of that is clear, but dig deeper and you’ll discover less than you remember. Ally doesn’t even follow the track where as her notoriety increases so does her ego. She’s pretty much the same caring, humble, ambitious human being as a waitress and as a Grammy award-winning musician. I suppose her static status says something about how solidified her own sense of self is even after her dreams come true. She’s not one for the temptations of the recording industry and grater fame and fortune. I don’t think she even has a flaw; perhaps a mild lack of confidence in her performance abilities thanks to shallow male executives that equate physical looks with commercial mass appeal (Gaga herself has spoken about the negative feedback she received for years because of her looks). But a lack of confidence is a pretty weak and easily resolved flaw in a narrative. I think her big character flaw is actually her devotion to her self-destructive relationship with Jack. In order to go into more detail, I’ll be spoiling portions of the movie (if you haven’t seen any of the other versions) so please skip the next paragraph to remain absolutely pure.

Inherent with every rendition of A Star is Born is one performer on the rise and one performer on the decline. This goes with the territory, as does the falling star having some kind of crippling addiction that only gets worse. Cooper is too devoted to bringing a sense of realism to his film to merely add a happy ending. The romantic relationship between Ally and Jack is the heart of this movie but I began questioning whether it was actually a good relationship, not good in a sense of the quality of writing but good in a sense of whether it was ultimately healthy for Ally. He’s an alcoholic, a pill-popper, and he’s pushing himself too hard in a race against his irreversible hearing loss. He’s spiraling and figuratively drowning (literally in the 1954 version) and looking for a lifeline, and that’s Ally. She becomes a primary caregiver for his benders. She’s willing to sacrifice her career for him, and that level of devotion alarms even Jack, pushing him into making a fatal decision in the guise of helping her. That’s right, it’s a movie that portrays suicide not just as a tragedy but also as a misplaced gift (2016’s Lights Out did something similar to resolve its supernatural dilemma). It’s hard to tell what Cooper’s view of this decision is, whether it’s romantic or wrong-headed and cruel. Their relationship is self-destructive and Ally’s insistence on sticking it out, with a man who doesn’t trust his own will power to stay sober, comes across as a questionable asset. Should I not be hoping that she leaves and finds happiness with someone who is healthier for her?

A fun thing I noticed was the ongoing appearance of alums from the TV series Alias. The show aired from 2001-2006 and was some of the best network TV, especially its first two rollicking seasons of spy hijinks. Cooper was a supporting character on that show and he does right to his co-stars by using his own increasing leverage in Hollywood (three Oscar nominations, repeated bankabaility) to give them high-profile work. Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ lucky charm, plays Jack’s understanding and put upon personal driver. Ron Rifkin plays an addiction counselor that offers hard wisdom to Jack. I was hoping that Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner might be around the corner but alas it was not to be.

A Star is Born 2018 is a worthy and emotionally involving addition to the oft-repeated formula. It’s more emotionally grounded, eschewing sensational melodrama for something authentic and resonating after it’s long over. This is a familiar story but it’s been made relevant to a modern audience and given an emotional clarity that is richly affecting. It’s a big Old School sort of movie with big feelings but Cooper maintains a sense of integrity throughout, treating his characters as flesh-and-blood human beings. Gaga is the sensational standout but every actor does good to great work here. I wish the script gave her character more dimension and opportunity to flash even more complex impulses, but I’ll be happy with what I got. A Star is Born 2018 may be the best version yet, and that’s saying something for a story that’s been kicked around since FDR. It’s the singer, not the song, and this movie is sweet music to your ears.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Director Tim Burton seems like the perfect candidate to take on the imagery of author Lewis Carroll. I would argue that, short of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland is the most reproduced piece of literature in modern history. It’s going to take a keen vision to make these old characters interesting (the macabre American McGee video game sure felt like it could have been born from the mind of Tim Burton). Unfortunately, Burton and some 3-D wizardry are not enough to compensate for a story that only works in one dimension.

Alice (Mia Wasikoswki) is now a teenager girl who can barely remember her jaunt to Wonderland in her youth. She’s assigned to marry a simpering lord because in Victorian England that’s how women took care of their futures. Alice is more interested in taking over her dead father’s trading company. So when the time comes for her lord to ask for her hand in marriage, Alice stammers, says she needs some air, and chases after what looks like a rabbit with a pocket watch. She falls down a rabbit hole and winds up back in Wonderland, however it’s really known as Underland. It’s been 13 years since Alice visited this magical world, and in the meantime the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has ruled as a tyrant quite fond of removing the bond between head and neck. Her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), was deposed and lives in exile. The (W)underland residents live in hope that an Alice will return and free them as an old prophecy foretells. She’ll have to rely on old friends, like the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) to fulfill her destiny, and, why not, slay the Red Queen’s fearsome dragon, the Jabberwocky.

You would think that the combination of Burton, Depp, Lewis Carroll, and 3-D would produce an irrefutable masterpiece, at least from a visual and entertainment standpoint. I’m compelled to argue that the finished results are pretty much a mixed bag. The world of (W)underland seems fairly drab. Sure it was some big stuff and some weird stuff but from a color standpoint everything comes across as washed out, like Burton took one look and said, “Bright colors equate happiness. We can’t have that.” I understand the world wanting to convey a dispirited mood, but this isn’t any regular Burton film, this is Alice in Wonderland and we need a sense of, wait for it, wonder. Instead, we get an overwhelming feeling of drabness. Now, full disclosure, I didn’t catch the 3-D version of this movie for two reasons: 1) my wife’s head was hurting and she couldn’t take 90 minutes wearing nose-pinching, eye-hurting glasses that play with her depth of field, and 2) the 3-D shows were all sold out. I could tell which elements where intended to pop in a 3-D environment, namely the Hare always throwing objects as a calling card and the materialization of the Cheshire Cat. The tone isn’t too dark to scare the Disney families but at the same time there’s a bit more menace to the proceedings. The Red Queen’s bulbous, disproportionate head makes for an eye-catching visual that doesn’t get stale. (W)underland is a more hostile world but at the same time it’s not too threatening. Pretty much all the villains have some moment of redemption that makes them less threatening. The weirdest motif in the movie is eye gouging, which happens twice thanks to the same diminutive character.

Having said that, this is a visual decision that I could live with if the story engaged my senses more. Alice is now an older 19-year-old girl that has to defend (W)underland by fighting a dragon and suiting up in armor. She has to accept her destiny and be THE Alice and save the kingdom. The mystery of whether Alice is the one true Alice, look no further than the title, folks. He doesn’t remember anything from her first encounter in (W)underland and yet she has no sense of awe or curiosity. Also, why now do the residents of (W)unerland seek out Alice to rescue them? They never thought about reaching out in the 13 years the Red Queen has been ruling?

The plot is a fairly pedestrian “hero’s quest” that ends in a fairly pedestrian battle sequence where the armies of good and evil clash in CGI combat. The problem is that the original Alice in Wonderland source material really didn’t have much of a plot to it; it was really more a satire of the times, which featured Alice essentially going from one oddball to the other. The appeal was more the language than the story. It’s not the easiest piece of literature to adapt, to find a through line for a plot, so I guess making it about a hero’s destiny seems like the easiest, laziest path. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) assembles all the memorable characters but gives them little else to do, other than act mad. You may start to feel Alice’s sense of frustration after a while. Because of the threadbare story, you know exactly where the movie is going to be headed (wow, unintentional pun). In some ways this movie functions as a sequel and in some ways this movie functions as a remake, meaning that the plot is pretty much stuck trying to decide where to go next in a standard fantasy narrative device.

And then there’s the dance scene. Oh, the dance scene. How do I approach this gingerly? The climax that’s established is not Alice slaying the dragon, accepting her destiny, and (W)underland triumphing over the Red Queen’s tyranny. The climax is Depp break-dancing. You read that right, though the residents refer to his crazy legs movement as “futterwackin,” which sounds suspiciously naughty. It’s a moment so goofy, so tonally inappropriate that it shatters the entire notion of suspension of disbelief. It rips you out of the movie and all for a cheap laugh. It’s bizarre. I acknowledge that, given the fantasy framework, that the ending ought to stay in touch with the fantastical setting. But break-dancing? Would The Wizard of Oz have ended better if the Tin Man and the Scarecrow started break-dancing? At least the Tin Man could effectively perform the Robot. It’s a real-world artifact that has no place in the world of fantasy.

Depp is usually such a valued performer, digging deep into his character and reveling in their eccentricities. He’s the strangest and most exciting character actor that has become a box-office star. But that doesn’t mean he’s immune from giving a rare bad performance. While nowhere near as off-putting as his Willy Wonka, Depp’s Hatter is more distraction than anything. He comes across like a figure grappling with post-traumatic stress, causing him to mutter incomprehensibly in a Scottish brogue. He’s tiresome after a while. Carter (Sweeny Todd) can be pretty shrill, playing the same overwrought note time and again, but she still manages to give the best performance in the movie. Hathaway just sort of acts flighty and raises her arms, waltzing around like she’s trying to imitate Depp’s Jack Sparrow. She’s entirely wasted. Stephen Fry (V for Vendetta) is a delight as the voice of the Cheshire Cat, and our heroine, Wasikowska (HBO’s In Treatment) has a striking Grecian presence, even if her performance is more dour than it needs to be given the fanciful environment.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp usually make for an unbeatable creative team, but I think Disney was the key figure in this arrangement. Alice in Wonderland wants to thrill without getting too scary, wants to delight without getting too original, and wants to dazzle without getting too weird. Burton’s visual inventiveness manages to make the movie entrancing at times and bewildering when the rest of the movie fails to live up to those fleeting moments. Truth be told, I actually enjoyed the real-world Victorian scenes more than many of the ones in (W)udnerland. The film is just too disjointed and uneven to fully embrace, regardless of the 3-D upgrade. There are moments that I adored and moments that I could have lived without — like the break-dancing finale. The finished product isn’t a terrible night out at the movies, and there are plenty of enjoyable elements to savor. However, Alice plays like a familiar fantasy that takes Lewis Carroll’s creatures and rearranged them into a watered-down Lord of the Rings hybrid.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Ponyo (2009)

It was hard for me to watch the initial trailers and advertisement for this movie because the animation just looked so … simple. I was forlorn that legendary director Hayao Miyazaki was taking a step backwards. He was stepping away from the complexity of his recent works. While his take on Han Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid tale is intended for young children, I was relieved when I finally saw the finished animation. I got what he was going for: a painterly aesthetic that is seductively simple. The boy meets fish-turned-girl tale is resoundingly cute with a delightful sense of wonder; however, it really just sort of comes to an abrupt stop. The character relationships are established, the conflict of a sea princess being on land is developed, and then all the magical creatures team up and chat with the humans, and then we’re pretty much done. It’s a curiously hasty conclusion and it makes the movie feel less formalized and finished; Miyazaki is still one of the most imaginative filmmakers alive, in any medium, but Ponyo, while visually appealing and mostly adorable, suffer from shrift storytelling that ultimately makes this a cute if passing diversion.

Nate’s Grade: B

Whiteout (2009)

I was expecting bad but this is shockingly bad, notably in its lapses in basic filmmaking fundamentals. For instance, there’s a scene where Kate Beckinsale talks with a superior, and the editing cuts back and forth in the middle of every damn line between a medium shot of the actress and a close-up. The jarring effect feels like the movie is punching you in the face. The movie can’t even get watching conversations right! This Antarctica-set murder mystery seems like a neat idea until you realize it’s just another lousy slasher movie, albeit in an exotic location. The Antarctica location is mostly used to make sure that nobody can tell what the hell’s going on. Furious white flurries of snow pretty much make the onscreen action oblique, like you’re trying to look through a dirty window and comprehend what’s happening. The plot sets up a wealth of disposable characters and patently obvious suspects (Gee, will the weird, tattooed pilot have something to do with a body dropped from a plane? Stay tuned). It’s all pretty stupid with no real room for brain-dead thrills because the technical craft is so shoddy. However, the movie did make it clear that when, not if, the CSI franchise expands, they need to set it in Antarctica.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Taking a few lessons from the grisly Saw franchise, this revenge thriller follows Clyde (Gerard Butler) track and kill the men responsible for murdering his wife and child. Except that pretty gets resolved in 15 minutes. The rest of the movie is Clyde’s misguided, morally queasy assault on the justice system; the judges, lawyers, police officers that keep a dying system going, letting guilty murderers walk. Clyde is specifically targeting the prosecutor (Jaime Foxx) that made a plea bargain instead of risking his conviction percentage at a trial. This is a violent vision that wants to rewrite our very Constitution, questioning giving accused murders the same considerations as soccer moms. The movie can come across as a conservative, Death Wish-style fantasy against the judicial system and those pesky civil liberties afforded to everyone. While shrouded in the guise of being a bloody thriller, the movie’s idea of moral ambiguity is pretty thin. Its ethical arguments don’t stand a second line of questioning. Sure, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) can put together an exciting and tense sequence, and the film is filled with surprise, and Butler arguably gives his best performance since 300, but while I was entertained I was also offended at being expected to cheer every time Clyde knocked off another innocent citizen.

Nate’s Grade: C

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

Not nearly as clever as the brilliant title may suggest, Hot Tub Time Machine is a fairly silly yet sloppy comedic enterprise. The purposely moronic nature of it leads to some raunchy enjoyment, and the premise involving a time-traveling Jacuzzi allows for some fun comedic situations. The trouble is that the movie shadows our foursome of dudes (John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke) too closely. The movie presents intriguing comedic setups but spends inordinate amounts of time dealing with the fractious falling out between the dudes. We spend more time talking about old friendships than we do the sheer possibilities brought about through time travel. The pacing has some turgid moments; it takes too long to reach the magic hot tub. There’s some good humor at first when the guys believe they must follow the exact path they tread before, lest the butterfly effect destroy the future. Then they decide to walk a different path, taking advantage of their knowledge of the future. The movie doesn’t fully take advantage of its own comedic possibilities and settles for lame payoffs, like an end credits sequence inserting Corddry into a Motley Crue video (it’s not funny). There are a few Farrelly Brother-level gross-out gags, but most of the comedy happens around these guys, not because of their characters. They themselves are not exasperatingly funny, so it’s disappointing when Hot Tub Time Machine flirts with fun comic scenarios (an outlandish bet on a sporting game, performing a modern song, the mystery of how the bellhop loses his arm, Duke making sure he will be conceived in the past) only to give up and spend more time with the guys hashing out their years-old squabbles. Enough with the personal growth and reflection. Get back to messing around with the space-time continuum.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Green Zone (2010)

I have noticed that I’ve really been dragging my feet when it comes to writing a Green Zone review. I’ve prioritized it only to have something more necessary (catching up on VH1 reality shows) come to the forefront of my attention span. It’s not like the movie is bad. It may have been misleadingly advertised as Jason Bourne’s tour of Iraq, bringing back together Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), but it’s not bad. It’s a perfectly fine movie, except in this instance, given the politically explosive and monumentally relevant subject matter, “perfectly fine” sounds like a missed opportunity. This movie should be incendiary, shocking, aggravating, enlightening, and if it happens to be entertaining then that ain’t bad either. The subject matter –the false rationale for war, WMDs– deserves a sober examination. Green Zone is not that movie. Green Zone is about uncovering and righting the mistakes of the Iraq War, and I believe I figured out what keeps Green Zone from being a better, more powerful, more engaging movie — it fictionalizes a story that is already wroth telling. This is a true story that could have stood well on its own merits.

Shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is on the hunt for those weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the chief argument for invading Iraq. His team investigates suspected weapons sites but they keep coming up empty. The intelligence appears to be in sharp contrast with the reality on the ground. Miller butts heads with shady government officials (Greg Kinnear) and finds aid in a state department realist (Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter (Amy Ryan) who put her reputation at stake parroting the government intelligence as fact. The Iraqi army is disbanded and now the former generals under Saddam Hussein are conferring what the next steps should be. General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, who played Saddam in a TV mini-series) is waiting for the Americans to extend a hand, and if not then they will become an insurrection. Miller is racing to track down Al Rawi because he knows the truth in the lead up to the war, which is why those shady government officials are also trying to kill him.

Based upon reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Life Inside the Green Zone, the filmmakers have resorted to a fictional narrative informed by the real events. My biggest gripe is this: the true story is far more interesting, complicated, and relevant than concocting a story about one military man’s search for answers. The film is laid out like a conspiracy thriller, where our hero gains a small sliver of information that leads to another piece, and another and another, until finally a picture emerges. I get it. With Damon as a soldier, the audience has an obvious rotting point, a protagonist who we can easily be labeled as good. And then when he uncovers the truth, and alerts the media, it provides a tidy, satisfying end for the movie. Except that’s not what happened. In the real world, the hunt for those phantom WMDs carried on for months, and the news trickled drip by drip. There were no smoking guns, no white knights to shine the light of truth (Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame might be the closest in consideration), and there wasn’t anything as conclusive as a military officer writing a report and sending it the mainstream media.

Green Zone attempts to craft a satisfying close to the WMD hunt, and likewise the war itself. This is nothing more than revisionist wish fulfillment, wanting to insert a hero of conscious and ability during a time where we had a malaise of responsibility from those in the realms of higher command. And just to make sure they don’t make too many waves, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) wrap their crusading character in the uniform of America’s finest, making it difficult to criticize his noble hunt, striping away politics. The trouble is that the Bush Administration rarely made apolitical decisions; everything was steeped in politics, even the truth about weapons of mass destruction. So Green Zone does the audience a disservice by trying to play nice, setting up a villainous fictional straw man, and forgoing naming the names of those that led this country astray. Because of placing the film’s point of view squarely with Miller, we never get to examine the bigger picture, the manipulations and machinations that led to war. We are stuck in a very limited focus of finding the WMDs.

Now, I must ask whether or not I’m unfairly judging the movie. Hollywood has often taken fascinating and momentous true-life stories and redirected them toward fiction. Green Zone is certainly a technically proficient film. Greengrass’ trademark shaky camera is ever vigilant, always roving and looking for the action; although in a realistic war setting, the kinetic handheld camerawork can come across as potentially hyperactive. Conversations between two people can come across like intense linguistic battles. Walks down hallways can appear to be speedy jaunts brimming with purpose and anxiety. The tension just doesn’t materialize. Without a nervy story, the Greengrass visual staple can seem over the top, antsy, nervous, and also annoying. This is one narrative for Greengrass that could have improved by the dedicated use of a tripod.

Green Zone is not Bourne at all. The Universal marketing team was trying to hoodwink the public into seeing an Iraq War movie. Damon isn’t as polished and in command as Bourne. Those who argue that Green Zone is anti-American or anti-troops are grossly missing the point. Reactionary, bellicose rhetoric, without a wit of substance, is part of the reason the U.S. is currently in Iraq. You can argue against policy, including war policy, and still be considered a patriot. Patriotism is not synonymous with warmongering. It’s too bad that the filmmakers felt that the true story wasn’t good enough to be told, instead settling for a decent if unmemorable political thriller. This adaptation takes the most significant foreign policy event in modern American history, one where the ramifications will be felt for over a generation, and clears all the hard-boiled details to attach a conventional one-man-fights-for-truth tale. It’s hard to get self-righteous when the movie keeps trying to cover its own ass.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Repo Men (2010)

It’s not unheard of for different writers to independently create similar projects. Remember back in 1998 when there were two animated bug movies and two apocalyptic asteroid flicks? Granted, those were big budget studio movies and the final films had little in common other than concept or premise. Repo Men takes place in a world where people open contracts on new organ transplants, but if the buyer is late on the payment then a repo man will come and take back the merchandise. This gory premise might sound familiar for fans of the Goth opera, Repo: the Genetic Opera, which was released a whole 18 months earlier. The makers of Repo Men and Repo have engaged in a he-said/she-said argument over who originated the idea. Repo Men‘s screenwriters claim they came up with the concept in 2003, though the book the film is based was only released in 2009. The Repo team point out that their funky little musical began as a theatrical show that was first performed in 2002. The songwriters behind Repo say that the idea itself goes back to 1999 and began as a 10-minute opera experiment. I suppose we’ll never know who really had the idea first, though I’m inclined to side with the Repo musical fellas because they can back up their claims with evidence. It seems like a whole lot of squabbling over so little, but hey, that’s Hollywood for you.

In the not-too-distant future, one corporation, The Union, seems to hold sway in the world of organ transplants. Remy (Jude Law) is an expert repossessions officer who will slice open anybody 90 days late on his or her payment. His wife wants him to transfer to sales; it’s less messy. Remy’s partner (Forest Whitaker) is an old childhood friend and doesn’t want to lose his butcher buddy. One night, Remy is sidelined by some malfunctioning equipment that fires his heart. He has no choice but to get his own organ transplant. Following the operation, Remy finds that he no longer has the stomach for his old line of work. Remy’s newfound moral compass comes at a cost. He quickly falls behind in his payments and his old bosses plead for Remy to refinance. Reluctantly, they sic the repo men, including Whitaker, on Remy to retrieve company property.

Repo Men takes some nice commentary on predatory lending, pushing the hard sell knowing that the customer can never stay ahead of the mounting fees and payments. The allegory has some sharp moments. However, the movie would have benefited from being pushed further in pretty much every regard. The side characters are horribly shallow. I’m fairly certain that Carice van Houten (electrifying in Black Book), as Remy’s beleaguered wife, could have been replaced with a cardboard cutout boasting a disapproving look. She gets to glare and complain and talk about family issues and then she’s gone, replaced entirely by Beth, a mysterious organ replacement junkie. Beth could have an intriguing back story, and the concept of surgery addiction could dwell upon the human cost of beauty and “upgrading,” but alas, her real purpose is to become an oddly implacable love interest for Remy. She gets to hold his hand while they run. That’s her main contribution (except for one key scene detailed below).

The entire concept of a future world held hostage by a greedy health care corporation could use more contemplation. What is happening with society? No epidemic is ever mentioned, so why do people start contracts on million dollar organs? Do the heavy debts pass on to the next of kin? What is the legality of organ repossession? What level of competition is there out there in the market? What does the government have to say about all this? Does this mighty company supersede the U.S. government? How come Remy can’t even get an employee discount on the merchandise? Has anybody had enough surgeries to become the six million dollar man? There is a wealth of questions born from this premise, but the movie only scratches the intellectual surface and sets its standard change-of-perspective morality storyline into gear. I actually would have found the life of an organ salesman to be more dramatically appealing. What kind of ethical rationalizations take place in the mind of a man who makes his living signing saps into modern indentured servitude? I find that story direction to be more compelling than following the guys who bring back the company merchandise.

But then something weird happens. The movie gallops to a satisfying close, and then it somehow gets even better in its closing moments. I was certain that I was going to write off Repo Men but then 4 things happened to make me sit up straight in my chair (I’ll refrain from any large spoilers):

1) In a film relentlessly aping the visuals of other, superior dystopian films, there’s not much new to look at. You’ve seen this future society thing before, just with more flying cars or jet packs. I came to terms with this; it’s not every movie that reinvents how we interpret the future short of some calamity. Then when Remy breaks into the Company HQ, which is awfully easy by the way, he stumbles into the genetic organ hatchery, if you will. Rows and rows and rows of scientists tinker with organ replacements. The entire environment is a strikingly sterile white, including the scientists wrapped in bulky white biohazard suits. Then Remy and Beth make a run for it, and they are covered head to toe in black. It’s a fabulous visual image, watching the color contrasts. It’s debut director Miguel Sapochnik’s high point.

2) Once Remy and Beth move beyond this laboratory, they get caught in a hallway, and Remy proceeds to take out a mob of employees. The fight sequence is several minutes long and a clear nod to the memorable extended hallway fight in Oldboy (Remy takes out a hammer as his final weapon). Weirdly, Remy’s opponents are suit types, middlemen, office employees, numbers crunchers, but they all leap into battle to take out the corporate intruder. The fight sequence is bloody and stylish enough to please the senses, like when Remy swings a hacksaw and we get Swinging Hacksaw POV as characters duck out of the way lest their jugulars get sliced.

3) Following this, Remmy and Beth must deposit their corporate-licensed organ replacements. This involves cutting each other open, taking a bar code scanner (think a grocery check-out), and digging inside each other to get those subcutaneous scans. What’s amusing is that the scene is blatantly juxtaposed as a sex scene; Remmy and Beth intimately penetrate each other, the editing cuts to close-ups of moaning, and the other tries to soothe the pain with physical assurances, and it’s all set to a slow jam. It’s something of a bizarre sequence, especially upon further review (how effective can scanning for bar codes be inside the gook-filled human body?), but man is it interesting.

4) Just as I had come to terms with the movie settling for a conventional conclusion, the movie pulls the rug out from under you. It offers up a last-minute ending that upends the conventional framework, and, actually, presents the easy coast to a conventional stop in a new light. This is one of those rare instances where a last-minute ending twist actually improved the film. More often than not, a last-second twist is forced and the nail in the coffin of lasting entertainment.

Repo Men is a competently looking, competently entertaining sci-fi thriller that miraculously stumbles into a final act that not only works, it elevates the rest of the movie. My mild boredom vanished and I started wondering why they made me wait so long for the good stuff. Repo Men is a mixed marriage of overall tone. One second it will be darkly humorous, the next it will be satirical, the next it will pine for serious drama, and occasionally it goes for Guy Richie-styled slapstick. A sequence where Remy describes the three occasions he’s been knocked out, with visual interludes, feels like a deleted scene from an entirely different movie. The movie never really settles, touching upon a lot of areas but mostly poorly. The script desperately needed to be fleshed out to make any lasting impact. Now that I’m living in a two-Repo world, I’ll probably stick with the campy musical fun of Repo: the Genetic Opera. At least that movie left you humming.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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