Monthly Archives: December 2008
This is one crackerjack of a story. The true-life tale of a mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), who loses her son, only to have the LAPD give her a different boy is easily gripping. The pace is a bit elegiac but the movie never gets boring, partly because Christine is beset by a multitude of adversity by the corrupt members of the 1920s LAPD who want the case to go away. Changeling can seem to fall prey to outrage cinema, and the audience is clearly going to demand some justice after watching Christine undergo a torture chamber of abuse. And justice is what we get. The last 45 minutes of this movie is protracted courtroom sequences where the antagonists get stomped upon with righteous fury. It just keeps going on and on, as if to compensate for the massive grievances Christine endures. Writer J. Michael Stracynzski (Babylon 5, my wife’s favorite TV show of all time) makes the drama stick close to the facts of the case, which is admirable but it also makes Changeling anchored to reality when there is nothing, repeat nothing, subtle in this movie. It’s hardcore melodrama all the way through, but I didn’t mind one bit. Jolie’s frantic performance suits the melodramatic material. She leaves it all on the floor, as they say in sports. Clint Eastwood doesn’t seem to be too enraptured by the material, routinely slipping into his understated direction that seems at odds with such a juicy story. Changeling feels like a tremendously fascinating story that isn’t necessarily presented in the best fashion. Still, this is fine stuff.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The adaptation of the hit stage play, with its original leads, is an intellectually stimulating experience and a fluid adaptation from stage to screen, thanks to director Ron Howard. The acting is top-notch; Frank Langella may not readily resemble President Richard Nixon but he inhabits the man completely. In a surprising twist, Frost/Nixon is not a heavy-handed story that merely beats up on an antagonist that can no longer defend himself. Nixon’s faults are not excused but the man is presented in a deeply humanistic portrayal. This isn’t a mustache-twirling rogue but a man who came from abject poverty, who rose above his critics who dismissed his humble beginnings, and who has regret and shame for what transpired while he was in office. And he’s funny. Nixon is a funny man. Characters are not just political punching bags here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, based upon his stage play, brings tremendous excitement to the art of debate, framing it like a boxing match. The sparring side notes present some of the more fascinating details between the series of four interviews between Nixon and British personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). But here’s the thing. Frost/Nixon is an entertaining movie but once it’s over it completely vanishes from your brain. It leaves little impact. The movie tries to make Frost’s coup a bigger deal than it was. The film is constantly trying to convince you of its importance. It’s a swell time for two hours but after that, what? Obviously the grilling of the president for getting away with crimes in office is supposed to be a statement on the outgoing President Bush, but what? Should we hope that an unassuming figure much like Frost will be able to get Bush to open up his soul? Get Regis Philbin on the phone.
Nate’s Grade: A-
An intelligent and rather crackling heist movie that also happens to be based on a true story. The 1971 British bank heist has so many characters involved that you may need a helpful cheat sheet, especially when it comes to varied loyalties. There are three separate groups all playing their own game, and when the heist doesn’t go exactly according to plan, and then the movie gets even more complicated. It’s a flavorful and funny heist movie that also doesn’t ignore the severe repercussions and life-and-death stakes. The Bank Job is an engrossing crime caper that still manages to thrill and surprise an audience.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Maybe the American public just doesn’t care for the jolly green giant. The second incarnation of a big screen Hulk flick is better paced, with more action sequences and better special effects, but I just kept shrugging my shoulders the whole time. I was never truly engaged by the movie at any point. Edward Norton fills the role of Bruce Banner for the second go-round and does an admirable job. The climax involving one giant CGI monster battling another giant CGI monster gets tiresome. This is a fairly middle of the road movie that might pass the time but does little else with style.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Director David Gordon Green is likely the most observant auteur today when it comes to exploring the realities of life in small towns. Snow Angels is a somber drama that follows an estranged couple (Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale) going through the hard times of life in a snowy rural town. The couple is also beset by some tragic accidents that come in at the appropriate time, an hour into the film, which means that we’ve gotten to know the characters enough to build a relationship with them and also that there will be plenty of time left to watch these characters react. The movie has a handful of interrelated characters that don’t all sustain the same level of interest. Watching a band geek lose his virginity to a smart girl (Oliva Thirlby, deflowering her second 2008 virgin) is just not comparable to other storylines. Snow Angels has an astute sense of resignation throughout, like the characters know they will forever be stuck in dead-end jobs and live the rest of their lonely lives as fated. The movie takes some very dark turns but they feel authentic to the drama. Green creates such a rich portrait of despair and the inequities of small town life.
Nate’s Grade: B
Being a conservative in Hollywood is like being a gay Republican – tough business. Director David Zucker has a notable history with comedy, having helmed Airplane!, the Naked Gun series, and the back half of the Scary Movies. He says that he converted to conservatism in the wake of 9/11, and Zucker actually wrote and directed a short for the 2004 Republican National Convention that was deemed too edgy for the Grand Old Party. Conservatives have also garnered the reputation for not having the best sense of humor, and Zucker’s An American Carol will do little to change this belief.
Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) is an egotistical, fat, liberal documentary filmmaker whose latest work is titled, “Die You American Pigs.” Catchy, ain’t it? Malone wants to abolish the Fourth of July (would we just skip to July 5th?) and plans to protest a Trace Adkins concert for the troops. A batch of inept Islamic terrorists want to bomb the concert and decide into tricking Malone into assisting their goal. He will score them media passes to get onstage at the concert venue. Following the Charles Dickens’ playbook, Malone is first visited by the spirit of his idol, John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin), who horrifies Malone by saying war is sometimes necessary (really, conservatives are trying to reclaim Kennedy?). Three spirits will visit him although he spends almost all of his time with the ghost of General Patton (Kelsey Grammer). The ghostly general takes Malone on a trip to see what the alternative versions of U.S. history had the country avoided war at all costs. Malone stays defiant until he meets up with the Angel of Death (also Trace Adkins, because?) and sees the error of his “America-hating” ways. I don’t want to spoil things too much but the movie ends with an expanded Trace Adkins concert saluting the brave men and women in the armed forces.
Some from the opposing political viewpoints will find An American Carol to be infuriating. To those angry few I say get over it, because this movie is simply too lazy to get angry over. It barely reaches 77 minutes before the credits roll. Zucker and company tend to stretch their canvas too broadly, to the point that they aren’t exaggerating to lampoon but setting up cheap jokes. Michael Malone is fat. Michael Malone smells. Michael Malone falls down. Liberals hate America and want the terrorists to win. It’s so easy to write this material because there’s nothing topical or nuanced or even socially relevant. The movie beats reliable figures of conservative agita. When the movie tries to slam college professors as being dippy hippies brainwashing teens about the insurmountable ills of America, it just gets dumb (those people spend 10-15 years studying in a specialized academic field). There is no teeth to any of this satire because it’s all just recycled caricatures with the wit ground down. There isn’t anything of true satirical substance here. I don’t even get some of the satire, like the ACLU is depicted as a cluster of zombies with briefcases. What does that mean? Needless to say, the skewering of Arabs is mostly cartoonish and offensive. The flick constantly makes fun of the documentary art form, saying they are inferior to “real movies.” Because Michael Moore has an Oscar does that mean that the history of documentary film has to be slandered as being nothing more than transparent propaganda (at an awards ceremony, the top documentary is honored with the “Leni Riefenstahl Award”)? Marginalizing an entire art form seems rash, especially considering that Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed over $220 million worldwide. As of this writing, An American Carol, a “real movie,” has grossed seven million and counting.
The film deals in distasteful absolutes. Every idea is presented crudely in black and white. By the film’s standards, being anti-war and anti-troops are inseparably linked. In my mind, and this might be crazy, but it seems to me that the most pro-troops one could be would be hoping for them all to return home alive and healthy. An American Carol attempts to justify the ongoing War in Iraq, though it conveniently only ever flashes to combat in Afghanistan, the war that a majority of the public agrees with. It makes a case that war is sometimes necessary, though it has to flash back to Hitler and World War II to find a morally justified military engagement that everyone can feel god about. I agree that war is sometimes a reasonable option, but the movie paints all pacifists as wimpy appeasers. George Washington (Jon Voight) even steps in at one point to argue for the necessity of war in reference to the War on Terror. Did the filmmakers forget that Washington spent great expense to keep the nation out of foreign wars in his two terms? Isn’t it also condescending and objectionable to have Washington say freedom of speech is misused when it goes against the government? I think the Founding Fathers would realize the importance of freedom of speech, including offensive speech. Isn’t it also somewhat ironic to use slave-owners as mouthpieces for the merits of freedom? An American Carol says that disagreement is the same as dissent; so refusing to support one’s government blindly during a time of war is traitorous. Criticism is not anti-American. It’s insulting to all rationale human beings. Zucker and crew make their case look just as myopic and dismissive as those they choose to ridicule.
The acting neither hinders nor helps the material. Farley is a game comedian but he cannot do much with such lightweight material. There are several celebrity cameos including James Woods, Dennis Hopper, Bill O’Reilly, Mary Hart, David Alan Grier, Gary Coleman, Leslie Nielsen, Zachary Levi, Kevin Sorbo, and Paris Hilton. When Zucker is calling favors into the likes of Paris Hilton, you know things cannot be solid.
Here’s the problem. It’s harder to satirize from a conservative point of view. Conservatism believes that the status quo is best or that things were better back in the day. Liberalism believes that society can always improve, so a liberal point of view would tweak the present situation in order to call attention to remaining improvements. A conservative point of view would make fun of that possible change. This is the same reason why documentaries, like it or not, typically have a more progressive bent, and it’s because the filmmakers are presenting a case for change or outrage. Why would anyone devote himself or herself for years to create a film that says the world is peachy? Now I’m not saying that conservatism and humor are conflicting concepts, but it just makes it harder to be smarter. Making fun of Good Night, and Good Luck is not trying hard enough. How dare George Clooney make a film about the media cowering and failing to question our elected leaders and have it be applicable to today’s world.
The Zucker gag-a-minute spoof style doesn’t necessarily translate well to political satire. I wasn’t expecting much with An American Carol. When they exploit 9/11, taking Malone to the wreckage of the World Trade Center to make its case, well the movie stops being a satire and just implodes. It hits its tired targets with a sledgehammer. The satire is extremely lazy, the slapstick is dumb, and the movie specializes in being obnoxious, coloring the world in two extremes. This isn’t satire. This is just cheap and petty. Seriously, making fun of Michael Moore is like four years too late. Moore is a figure worthy of satire but the best that the movie can come up with is he’s fat and hates America? That he’s angry because he couldn’t get girls when he was younger and all those studly military recruits did? That’s not satire, that’s just excessive name-calling. An American Carol presents a new low for Zucker and I think even he knows it. On the DVD commentary track, Zucker, co-writer Lewis Friedman (BASEketball), and actor Kevin Farley basically lambaste the final product, often criticizing their own movie. The derisive commentary track is more enjoyable than the film itself.
Nate’s Grade: C-
This lavish and long-winded spectacle is curious, all right. Director David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac) has all the technical wizards at his disposal to produce a near three-hour fantasy about life, love, and death. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button works around the bizarre gimmick of a man going through the process of aging backwards. It’s loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, adapted by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and the results are befuddling. Benjamin is a handsomely mounted and incredibly expensive work engineered for one purpose: to win Oscars. Benjamin Button is a film that strives for making grand statements and wringing a maximum amount of tears, but it’s also a film that lives more in a series of moments than as a cohesive whole. It’s a fine piece of work but feels overburdened by its urgent desire to be profound.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born on the day the first World War ended in 1918. He is born as a small infant that better resembles an 80-year-old man (in Fitzgerald’s short story he is born as a full grown old man, which means it must have been fun for his mother). Benjamin is aging backwards but his mind is still as it should be, so while he is all wrinkly, arthritic, and covered in liver spots, Benjamin is like other small kids who want to make friends. Benjamin’s father (Jason Flemyng) is horrified by his son’s condition and abandons him at the steps of a nursing center. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) raises Benjamin as her own child and he grows up (down?) surrounded by a colorful cast of elderly residents (one woman remarks that a young-old Benjamin looks just like her ex husband). It is here that Benjamin meets the love of his life, Daisy (played by Cate Blanchett in her older years). She’s enchanted by Benjamin’s condition but she has her youth to live and Benjamin is left behind. Daisy becomes a trained ballerina and tours the world. Benjamin goes on a series of escapades, like working on a tugboat, traveling to Russia and having an affair with a diplomat’s wife (Tilda Swinton), and discovering his biological father and the family business of buttons. But he’s always been waiting for Daisy, and eventually they “meet in the middle.”
The very nature of the premise means that the movie isn’t going to have many pure, joyful moments. The idea of a romance that needs to take 40 years to connect, and even then has a limited shelf life before they go in their separate aging directions, is beautiful and heartbreaking. Waiting decades for a glimmer of your happiness with your mate, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Benjamin Button explores a similar situation covered by vampire-immortal romances, where you must endure watching your precious loved ones grow old and die. The entire movie radiates with an overwhelming sense of melancholy. The movie manages to find humor and grace amidst its melancholic dirge. The reflections on mortality are ever-present though rarely profound. It may not say anything new or original but it has many things to say about life, death, and the fleeting moments in between. By that notion, the film is structured so that the beginning, where Benjamin is a young old man, it’s more comic and beguiling, then as he and Daisy match up we finally get the pairing we’ve been pining for from the start. The pent-up passion provides great conflict, and then we barely get to enjoy the coupling before reality strikes. The final twenty minutes of the film, where old Daisy cares for old young Benjamin, are incredibly moving and have an indelible symmetry to them, watching an old lady lead a child by the hand.
So then why do I feel so hesitant about fully accepting this movie? The story follows a similar Gump like pattern of incidents but the movie refrains from being mawkish. The main character is mostly passive with little personality; he’s nice but take away his unusual condition and not many folks would remember their time with Mr. Button. Before he gets with Daisy the film feels a bit episodic with the chapters of Benjamin’s life, and they are entertaining asides but they fail to amount to much more. Benjamin Button feels like something important is absent; it’s not cold as others have claimed but it feels, perhaps, remote, stopping just shy from being a full emotional investment by keeping the audience at a somewhat objective distance. This may be Fincher’s own design because Fincher ensures that a film about living life to the fullest doesn’t degenerate into sentimental claptrap. The end hits hard but not as hard as it could if I was more invested in Benjamin as a character. The Hurricane Katrina framing device seems tacked on, but then again the story mostly takes place in New Orleans and Katrina is rather noteworthy, you could say. The “elderly lady recalls her life story” is reminiscent of Titanic, and might not even be necessary though it offers Daisy the ability to look back over her years with added insight. The layers of realistic makeup piled onto Blanchett are impressive, though I worry what would happen if the actress had to go to the bathroom.
Technically, the movie is nearly flawless. The visual effects are astounding, seamlessly allowing Pitt to play the role even as a young child. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a glorious experience to watch but a mildly curious experience to register. The film is so meticulously crafted and it has all the right components of a tragic romance for the ages, but it somehow misses the mark. It’s an entertaining and moving film but it leaves something to be desired. The most resonant moments are also the ones that are the simplest, the ones that lack the window dressing of expensive special effects. I appreciated the film’s expressions of symmetry, but I have the nagging feeling that Benjamin Button both tries too hard and perplexingly doesn’t try hard enough. It keeps audience involvement at a distance, wishing to comment on humanity without embracing humanity. It is difficult for me to articulate what is lacking, because it is an enjoyable if overly long movie, but it falls into the “almost” category of poignant filmmaking. It’s almost a challenging movie, it’s almost an affecting movie, it’s almost a movie worth falling in love with. The film’s story and sensitivity and scope cannot match the technical audaciousness.
Nate’s Grade: B
The dog dies. There. You’ve been warned. I feel that everyone walking into this movie needs to know exactly what they will endure. It’s not just that the cute, rambunctious yellow Labrador of the title dies, it’s how. The cause of death is fairly ordinary for an aged pooch, but it’s how the film Marley & Me goes about wringing every possible tear that should be known (so spoilers already, folks). The whole process is drawn out to maximum drama. We get the parents, John and Jennifer (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston), discussing the sad realities of what must be done. We see each of their three children say goodbye to their beloved dog before he goes off one last time to the vet. We see the oldest child, who knows fully well what will happen, tear up and hug the dog’s face. But putting the dog to sleep in between scenes is not an option for this movie, and so we witness the slow process with John caressing his beloved dog as the life slowly ebbs away. And, to hammer home the sentiment ever harder, the movie cuts back and forth between the dog dying at the vet’s office and to John’s children watching a home movie montage of Marley through the years. John, who has been dubbing his canine “the worst dog in the world,” then whispers into Marley’s ears that he was, in fact, a “great dog.” Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. Then we have the kids return one more time for a doggie funeral. Each kid buries a message they wrote for their dearly departed dog including one that hopes that there is lots of things to chew on in heaven (the kid also drew a picture of the dog with angel wings and a halo). My friends, I am a grown man but even I was no match for this emotional onslaught. I felt like a battered prizefighter, thinking I had enough willpower to collect myself and then the movie hit me again with another blow. If you can sit stone-faced then I envy you and, at the same time, I pity you.
So there it is. I feel that every interested party in Marley & Me needs to know what will devastate them in the end. The film follows the marriage of John and Jennifer, who both work as reporters in Florida. She’s got the better gig, and he’s running around town tying to report on methane leaks and writing obits. John envies his friend Sebastian (Eric Dane) and the fame and credibility he has as a serious journalist who travels the globe. Sebastian suggests that John get his wife a puppy to delay her biological clock. And so one fateful day, John blindfolds his wife and takes her to a puppy farm. She picks the cheapest puppy out of a pack of Labradors (Note to self: there is always a reason a puppy is cheaper than its peers). They name the new addition Marley. John’s cantankerous editor (played by the cantankerous Alan Arkin) orders him to start writing a column. He’s absent column ideas until he starts writing about the comic misadventures of owning a dog. The column becomes a hit and Marley becomes a boon of inspiration, when he isn’t eating everything in sight, edible and non-edible alike.
Marley & Me is a curious creature. Much of the plot follows a repetitious formula of Marley being destructive. He eats pillows. He chews on clothes. He eats drywall. He bursts through a screen door. He chases after people. He eats plants. He eats jewelry. He eats anything and everything. Probably half of this movie is watching Marley destroy something while John and Jennifer run around. For a decent portion, Marley & Me will play out as a cautionary tale to parents about dog ownership. Now, for pet owners, the movie will be seen as amusing and truthful, and I can attest to this. My two-year-old mutt Atticus will routinely chew on things he is not supposed to, notably my wife’s shoes and underwear (we still love him). However, I’m not about to turn this quirk of pet ownership into the majority of a screenplay. If you eliminated Marley from the story all you wouldn’t be left with much to warrant watching.
The rest of the film really focuses on the nuts and bolts of holding together a marriage. John and Jennifer have three children and their marriage experiences some strained times, but they bounce back. They’re both fairly nice people. The non-dog moments of the film play out in equal amounts of mundane and fantasy. The mundane moments are mostly the marital glimpses between john and Jennifer, where we see them engage in realistic arguments and conflicts and reach believable resolutions. The fantasy angle occurs whenever we flash back to John’s writing career. John is ordered to take a column, and then when he’s offered it full-time he wavers. His editor then quickly says he’ll double his salary. The movie is also filled with little moments where everyone tells the main character how great they are, how special what they’re doing is, and this always feels too hackneyed for me when the main character is also the author. It’s ego stroking (look out for the main character of Nate Zoebl to be dubbed way too awesome by every other character in the upcoming film, “The Life and Times of Nate Zoebl — Man of Humble Awesomeness”). Most of the time spent at John’s work is boring, probably because most storylines would be boring when compared to the wacky antics of a dog.
Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) shepherds the comedy along nicely. The pacing is swift for a two-hour dog movie. Frankel includes a peculiar sequence shortly after John is assigned his column. John rapidly narrates the next few months of his life with Marley, and the movie cranks up the speed on the visuals. It strongly reminded me of a similar experience in 2002’s Rules of Attraction, where Victor (Kip Pardue) quickly narrates his months of debauchery spent in Europe. It’s a strange connection to be made with a family film.
Marley & Me is definitely going to hit people in different ways. As a loyal dog owner, it made me want to rush home and hug my 45-pound fuzzy baby. The movie presents the chaos of life as something to be cherished, much like Marley. It channels Wilson’s lackadaisical charm and the movie comes across as amusing, chipper, and then downright wrenching once the old dog’s time has come. I’ve been reading about angry parents and grandparents that took their young ones to this movie and then left with crying, shell-shocked little tykes. These people feel that it is wholly inappropriate for young ones to be subjected to the trauma of losing a loved one. Apparently they didn’t read a review where the author’s first sentence was, “The dog dies.” I don’t think Marley & Me will be responsible for therapy bills but this flick examines the enjoyment and heartache of pet ownership like few others. And yeah, the ending is laid on really, really thick, but it shows how a creature could destroy many of your personal possessions and still be considered man’s best friend.
Nate’s Grade: B
The 1951 original The Day the Earth Stood Still is considered a sci-fi classic for a reason. Versatile director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) used a robot and an alien invader to help hold a mirror up to the world, asking how humanity was treating its brethren. The technology is easily dated and the tone a bit stately, but the movie is a complex, thoughtful, and relevant tale that begs for caution and kindness. It still holds up much better than most sci-fi chestnuts from yesteryear. And of course anything that film audiences have warm feelings for will be repackaged by Hollywood into a new more mass-appealing product. That means that big-budget Day the Earth Stood Still remake is likely to have no real improvement over the original. Well, it is in color. That’s an improvement for some.
A giant glowing spaceship lands in New York City’s Central Park. A glowing figure exits the craft and enters our world. This figure is Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) who is an alien creature in the guide of a human body. He has been sent by a community of planets to judge the inhabitants of the Earth. You see, the universe is an awfully large expanse of space but it has a limited number of habitable planets. The rest of the universe is taking note of how human beings have treated their home, and they may just decide that the planet is better off without us. Klaatu is helped out by a sympathetic scientist, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). Eventually the alien escapes and the entire U.S. government is on high alert. Helen is trying to convince Klaatu to not rush to judgment. She’s also trying to connect with her angry step-son Jacob (Jaden Smith) after his father died in war. He’s not very trustful of Klaatu and, like plenty of other people, wants the alien dead.
Whereas the original was a cautionary tale about the Cold War and mutual destruction, and Klaatu was a peaceful Christ-like figure, the new version skips all this. It would rather recycle a message that human beings need to be nicer to Mother Nature. Now, this is an important concern but it’s harder to take seriously when the movie pretends it’s all about doom and gloom and then basically wimps out on an ending. The film is ready to wipe humanity off the globe and even gets a head start with what looks like swarms of microscopic metallic locusts. But then Klaatu looks out at mother and child, embracing as the world they know may come to an end, and concludes that human beings deserve yet another chance because they have the ability to “change.” That’s all it takes? This kind of cop-out ending reminds me of The Happening, another eco-horror movie that wanted to kill off all those pesky humans but then decided they could walk the Earth a tad longer and hopefully wiser. I’m sorry but this is weak. Profess an environmental message but do something with it, don’t thump your chest about taking personal responsibility and then skimp on repercussions. Remember filmmakers that this is fiction. You have the ability, nay the right, to destroy mankind on screen while I safely watch and consume popcorn.
You know what else keeps hurting the weight of the environmental message? The lousy relationship between Helen and her step-son Jason. This entire storyline needs to not exist. I recognize that the original movie had a substantial storyline where a single mom and her precocious son befriend Klaatu, but that doesn’t mean this remake has to reignite old storylines if they just simply won’t work in this retelling. Every time the movie spends significant time with Helen and Jason I felt like the Earth was standing still. This storyline just does not fit. The kid comes across as bratty and dumb and I actually wanted him to be micro-locust food at some points. He’s angry because his father died and that makes him argue that “Kill them all” is a serviceable foreign policy position. Whatever. This storyline is handled so terribly that every moment of drama it is intended to evoke hits with a resounding thud. When the little kid suddenly turns on a dime and helps his alien fugitive, there’s no explanation. He says he’s afraid of being alone. Well what did you think would happen when you called the U.S. government to come and abduct you? I swear that I do not have a heart of stone, and I love children, but every moment of this character felt false and annoyingly so. That’s why The Day the Earth Stood Still grinds to a halt whenever it switches back to this kid. It makes the whole alien threat a lot less menacing when we spend more time with this kid. Don’t we have far more significant things going on in this story than one kid working through his grief and learning to be less bratty?
Director Scott Derickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) doesn’t have a firm handle on how to establish an exciting action set piece, and he also makes his points very bluntly, though that’s also due to the script by David Scarpa. The beginning is the best part of the film, as scientists are whisked away by government authorities who can only say that the threat to the planet is grave. Interest is piqued at this point, as we, like the scientists, try and discover with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety what exactly the Earth is facing. It doesn’t much improve after the 15-minute mark. The movie just looks so drab. There is a discerning lack of action or excitement in a movie that threatens to eliminate the human race. The movie has long boring stretches that almost kill all momentum, and then the movie tries to compensate with an avalanche of special effects.
There are plenty of intriguing concepts and conflicts that fall by the wayside. In the original Klaatu hid among human beings and came to understand people, but in this new version he’s on the run from the start. I don’t necessarily need some tired fish-out-of-water comedy with Keanu, but seeing him learn about humanity before making a judgment is vital to his character. The remake opens in 1928 with aliens taking a DNA sample from a mountain climber (also Keanu Reeves) and then they use his blood to create a human host. What if that guy is still alive and sees his face on the news? What about his family going through and wondering what connection they might all have to the fate of mankind? Wouldn’t it have been easy just to swap Connelly’s character into this role and thus she is the descendant of that mountain climber and has to look in her grandfather’s face as he proclaims humanity’s end? That storyline would be more interesting and playful than anything with the step-kid.
Occasionally sci-fi movies can be partially redeemed by superior special effects. The Day the Earth Stood Still has some pretty shoddy effects that didn’t look much better when I watched the film in IMAX. The aliens have scrapped the older model flying saucers and decide to travel in giant glowing spheres, which may be awe-inspiring to see in person but it’s mostly lame to watch on screen. It’s not even that hard of a CGI effect to perform. The new likeness is completely wrong for Gort, one of the most famous movie robots of all time. In the 1951 original, Gort was a teen foot tall robotic guardian for Klaatu. Derickson has made Gort 40 feet tall and he looks weirdly like an Oscar statuette. The awesome robot is ridiculously captured by the U.S. military so that they can try and drill into it, which makes no sense at all. Then the robot transforms into that swarm of robo-locusts and that’s the last we see Gort in action. That’s just dumb. I would much rather see a giant robot wrecking havoc than a swarm tear apart Giants Stadium. The filmmakers decided that a hazy cloud would be more visually interesting than a giant robot. Give me more Gort!
I must say that hiring Reeves was the smartest move that the movie made. Reeves’ naturally stiff and aloof line delivery works nicely as an alien trying to some to grips with his new flesh and blood body. Reeves consistently entertains and adds a dash of fun that is mostly missing in this humorless and stubborn remake. Connelly works with what little she’s given, and man can she make her eyes glisten in the most beautiful manner, tearing up at a moment’s notice. Most of the other actors are wasted in stock roles, including Kathy Bates as the Secretary of Defense and Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm as a man who only serves to spout exposition. That’s the dashing Don Drapier, and you give him exposition? I won’t belittle Smith’s performance because in all honesty the kid is a fairly good actor. It’s not his fault he got stuck playing a dumb character that routinely hijacks the movie.
The newest Day the Earth Stood Still does little to justify its existence. This remake would have been better served either cribbing more of the superior original film or just cut off all ties. The remake tries to incorporate plot points that don’t work while also trying to tell its own environmental tale with bigger effects, which also doesn’t fully work. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a plodding and unnecessary remake that fails to stumble into an exciting scenario despite the fact that it involves aliens threatening the planet. But hey, it is in color.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Wrestler came out of nowhere to be hailed as one of the most stirring dramas of the year. Who would have possibly guessed that a movie that stars Mickey Rourke in spandex would be one of the best films of 2008?
Randy “The Ram” (Rourke) was one of the biggest professional wrestlers in the 1980s. His pay-per-view battle with “The Ayatollah” in 1988 is legendary to wrestling aficionados. But nobody ever stays on top forever. Twenty years later, Randy is a self-described “old broken down piece of meat.” He’s barely staying afloat working at a supermarket during the day. On weekends he adorns his old tights and fights in wrestling bouts at VFW halls, where small numbers still flock to see the scripted carnage. Randy is fighting against the ravages of time and is determined to stick it out with the profession that has both made him a super star and also left him broken and lonely. He can relate to Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a 40-something stripper that gets disrespected by customers because of her age. Randy seeks out his teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) to attempt to be a father for the first time in the girl’s life. Then a wrestling promoter wants to stage a twentieth anniversary rematch between Randy and “The Ayatollah” (who runs a successful used car business in Arizona now). The opportunity means Randy has one more shot in the limelight before his health sidelines him for good.
There isn’t a note in The Wrestler that feels misplaced or a moment of drama that feels false or contrived. The scenes of emotional revelation feel genuine and aren’t delivered with deliberate emphasis, like Randy’s moving speech where he tells his neglected daughter how rotten of a father he was, which he accepts bitterly, but he pleads to fashion enough understanding just for his little girl not to hate him. The Wrestler skews against convention and ends on its own terms, following the fated trajectory of its tragic hero. This isn’t a generic or sentimental tale of uplift and redemption. Randy is eager to make amends for a lifetime of bad decisions but he is also keenly aware that he has little to offer and that the outside world has little place for him. The Wrestler is a tender tale about a man trying to find his place in a world no longer familiar to him. Randy tells Cassidy at one point that the only place he ever truly feels pain is outside of the ring.
The film skillfully explores what is fake and what is real in the wrestling world. The matches may be predetermined but the injuries are very real. These muscled warriors are essentially pro stuntmen with some charisma and their bodies are their offering to the screaming masses. They give everything they have for the crowds but what do they get in return once the applause dies down? After witnessing the bloody aftermath of an especially brutal match, which included Randy being lacerated with barb wire and having a staple gun decorate his back, it’s easy to wonder why any sane person would subject themselves to this kind of punishment and for so long. Cassidy is in another profession that tends to grind up and spit out its star attractions. She reaches out to Randy not out of romance (a lesser film would have demanded she fall in love with the big lug) but out of a desire for human companionship, for something real. These two characters are both at a crossroads and must come to grips with the cold realization that the world has passed them by.
The script by Robert Siegel came alive for me in the details. I love discovering that Randy endures shame that his real name is the more effeminate-sounding Robin. I love that the film shows a scene where a batch of old wrestlers sit next to folding tables and hawk tapes of their greatest matches that no one wants to relive but the old timers. I loved that Randy’s long walk through the bowels of the supermarket to greet his “fans” at the deli counter mirrors his entrances to wrestling bouts.
Astonishingly, Darren Aronofsky directed this movie. The film departs sharply from Aronofsky’s highly artistic yet stylistically mannered previous films, like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. He strips away the style pyrotechnics and follows a no-frills docu-drama approach. This dynamic helps accentuate the raw and harsh reality of the film. It’s the most relaxed direction the man has ever done. He’s able to churn the myriad of emotions and broken dreams into a powerful character study that never feels manipulative. The Wrestler feels remarkably intimate and emotionally bruising.
The Wrestler is built to be a one-man show and it’s a terrific show. Rourke’s performance is invigorating and the former Hollywood bad boy channels his own personal history of regret and missed opportunities. The line between character and individual is noticeably blurred. Rourke’s busted and mangled face tells a long history for Randy. The physical shellacking that the 52-year-old Rourke takes is brutal, and you realize that he throws his body into the performance with wild abandon for a man his age. I cannot imagine this film working or having nearly the poignancy with Nicolas Cage in the lead role, which is what was originally planned (Cage might have had a more bizarre haircut). Rourke is the role. It is a perfect marriage of actor and character. The character of Randy is the latest in the long film tradition of the noble loser that must fight to reclaim his victory, which makes for a deeply empathetic experience. Randy is a gentle giant, courteous even to the people that insult him and his glory days. You will feel the man’s every high and low. When he’s working at the deli counter and begins to have fun, joking around with customers, you’ll feel his sense of revelry too. When he’s lonely and invites a neighbor kid over to play an old 8-bit Nintendo video game featuring Randy, you’ll feel the same ache of sadness to connect. When Randy screws up, you’ll feel the same angry disappointment. When Randy is out shopping for wrestling props and playfully involves others in “testing” them, you’ll feel the man’s amusement and sense of peace. Other actors might have given in to the setting and played Randy as a caricature, but Rourke plays with subtlety when he could have gone big. He’s reflective and somber and has a well of repressed anger buried deep within. It’s a performance for the ages and cements Rourke’s cinematic comeback.
The Wrestler is a rich and engrossing character study that aches and wheezes with the pain of real life. Randy is a man that’s lived a hard life, by design, but at his core he is a kind and decent man. The film takes after its star and proves to be quiet, unassuming, brutally honest, and deeply affecting. Rourke bares his own tortured soul by playing Randy, and his performance is unquestionably one of the best of the year. This is a surprising, heartfelt, and equally heartbreaking movie that finds many truths through the self-dawning of its title hero. It’s not the wrestling matches that I’ll remember most, no sir. I will remember the small interludes, like Randy dancing with his daughter, the beer he shares with Cassidy as they lament the 1990s, the love and brotherhood backstage between with the wrestling opponents, Randy delighting the kids in his trailer park by pretending to fight them. Randy may not find solace or stability outside the ring but the people around him prove that Randy was bigger than “The Ram.”
Nate’s Grade: A