Monthly Archives: May 2012
Men in Black III (2012)
It wouldn’t be a Men in Black film without script problems. The first film languished for some time, originally taking place in Kansas of all places, before director Barry Sonnenfeld became attached and insisted upon a New York City location. The 1997 sci-fi buddy cop comedy was a hit, and rightfully so, and Will Smith became a megastar. Then the 2002 sequel’s climactic action sequence had to be rewritten due to the fact that it was originally going to take place in the World Trade Center. If only that lackluster sequel had gone through more extensive creative revisions. However, these past hiccups don’t seem to come close to Men in Black III, which to Sonnenfeld’s admission, started shooting in late 2010 without a finished script. It had a beginning, an ending, but nothing definite to tie together. So the whole production took eight months off to work on the meat of that movie sandwich. Hollywood movies, especially modern films of huge-scale budgets and set release dates, have routinely started production without completed scripts, including Gladiator, Jaws, Apocalypse Now, and Lawrence of Arabia. Naturally, those are the exceptions to the rule.
Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) has escaped from pison and out to seek revenge on the man who put him away and took his arm – Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). Boris travels back to July 1969, when a young Agent K (Josh Brolin) thwarted the big bad Boris. Boris kills Agent K and alters the future. The Earth is now vulnerable to an alien invasion from Boris’ species. Agent J (Smith) has to travel back in time to save his old partner and the planet.
It’s been ten years since the spotty Men in Black II and almost four years since Smith has been seen in a movie. Where did the time go? Fortunately, this third movie hews closer to the droll brilliance of the first film. Part of that is a sharper story with a more clearly defined goal and a return of the playful exuberance that belies the franchise. Also, I must say that absence has made the heart grow stronger, because I’ve missed Smith’s effortless charisma onscreen. Agent K is such a natural fit for the guy and it’s just fun to watch him stumble through strange alien encounters (this time we learn all super models are aliens; listen good, young women of America who punish themselves to fit this image of beauty). Time travel is usually employed when a franchise seems like it’s all out of gas; it’s usually more focused on the comic fish-out-of-water possibilities, which there are a few in Men in Black III. As one characters notes, 1969 wasn’t exactly a great time for black people in America, and J combats casual racism, black panic, and ignorance with a defiant attitude that is amusing to watch. I’m glad the whole race-relations reality was addressed, though it’s also for the best that the movie doesn’t get bogged down with scenes of Agent J conflicting with bigoted authority. Men in Black III remembers that we’re here to have fun, and the screenplay by Etan Coen (Tropic Thunder) has a light-handed touch. I enjoyed the opening jailbreak sequence with Boris, though I would have thought a lunar prison would have better security. Bill Hader (Superbad) has a fun cameo as a self-hating Andy Warhol, really an undercover MIB agent, though the idea that Warhol’s Factory artists as aliens seem a tad simple. The glaring cameo omission was Jon Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) as a scotch-drinking MIB ladies man of legend.
As evidenced from the trailers and marketing, Men in Black III is really Brolin’s movie. The guy establishes an uncanny Tommy Lee Jones impersonation. The eerie brick-faced stoicism, the melodic lilt of his voice, the syncopation of his speech patterns; Brolin nails it all. Watching his interaction with K are the film’s most enjoyable segments. At this point in the series, Agent J and K have gone beyond the rookie/mentor phase and now have something of a friendship, though their arguments at year fifteen of their partnership sound more like the arguments they would have in year two (you need to “open up” and be less grumpy, sounds elementary). Still, there is a personal connection to this case that eluded the last movie, and it gives the film a sense of urgency even when the comic shenanigans seem to hog the spotlight. The personal reveal in the last act didn’t have as much emotional power for me, mostly because I did the math and realized whom a certain unseen character of significance was before we got their true identity. The end does give the film series a circuitous sense of finality.
For a franchise that seems like it can go anywhere at any time with limitless possibilities, the worst thing you can do is be shut off to better avenues of storytelling. Take for instance the climax at Cape Canaveral, which itself is a rather anticlimactic sequence involving the launch of Apollo 11 (don’t they know that alternative 1960s history was sooo summer of 2011?). J has his time travel doohickey that lets him travel back. He gets to use this device once during the climactic fight, allowing him to travel back one minute in time so he knows how to properly duck. That is it. What a fantastic waste. If you’ve got a device that essentially allows for unlimited do-overs, then I want this device to be an integral part of the climax. I want J to have to regularly use it to fix past mistakes and learn more and more from each time jump. Just memorizing how to duck is lame. The entire subplot with Agent O (Emma Thompson in the present, Alice Eve in the past) and her dalliance with K is so carelessly thrown away that I wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to include it. Then there’s our villain, Boris, whose name itself is even lazy. He’s just a bad dude with some sort of insect that lives in his hand and shoots spikes. That is it. He’s a guy who can fire projectiles. So what? What about that makes him interesting? An unrecognizable Clement (Flight of the Conchords) does his best but the character just doesn’t have anything about him that deserves special attention; he could have been any villain (I think Vincent D’Onofrio was undervalued in his go-for-broke physical performance as the first film’s villain). I did like the idea of Present Boris arguing with Past Boris, but like most promising ideas in Men in Black III, this space-time sparring is never fully realized. While enjoyable, there’s little you’ll be able to think back on with Men in Black III and say, “That was well developed.”
Paradoxically, I think Men in Black III has a character that might simultaneously be the best and worst thing about the film. Allow me to explain. About halfway in, we’re introduced to the alien Griffin, played by the great Michael Stuhlberg from A Serious Man and TV’s Boardwalk Empire. He’s a creature who can see nigh unlimited timelines, all the variations of choice and possibility play out before his eyes, one after another. He never knows which timeline he’s in until the moment occurs, thus he’s constantly worried about every moment to come in his life. This foreknowledge sounds like a wretched curse, and with Stuhlberg gives a forlorn edge to his character’s eccentricity. So when J and K meet the guy, there are some clever moments, like when Griffin details every peculiar aspect of chance that lead to the 1969 Mets World Series victory. The moment, and by extension the character, is a nicely reflective idea that every moment is a miracle of causation. Griffin is just an interesting character. Here’s where the worst part comes in. Rarely is he treated as a character because, you see, Griffin is really a magic plot device. He can tell the Men in Black agents whatever they need to do at any point, instantly providing a narrative cheat. When in doubt, just ask the guy who sees the future and he’ll steer you without fail to the next necessary plot point.
I saw this movie in 3D, not by choice mind you, and for the first half hour it felt like one of the better 3D conversions out there. Sonnenfeld’s camera plays a lot with depth of field and primarily forward-backwards movement, which made for a slightly elevated viewing experience. But somewhere around the halfway mark, I swear the movie forgot it was supposed to be 3D and the dimensional differences became negligent. It never really recovers, and so I advise all potential ticket-buyers to skip the 3D screenings.
With most time travel escapades, there’s going to be some plot holes. Working with a flurry of alien technology, it would have been exceptionally easy for the filmmakers to just explain away the plot holes with some magic device, much like the Paradox Machine in Dr. Who. Hey, there’s a machine that makes sure we don’t have paradoxes? Good enough for me. It’s like in Thank You for Smoking when Rob Lowe’s character explains why actors would be able to smoke in an all-oxygen space environment: “It’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. ‘Thank God we invented the… you know, whatever device.’” The fact that Men in Black III doesn’t even address its biggest plot hole astounds me. If Agent K is killed in 1969, then he was never alive to recruit Agent J into the service. Let’s even assume that J’s credentials would still get him noticed and staffed with the MIB; if Boris killed Agent K in the past, then there was no reason for Boris in the future to travel back in time to kill Agent K. Again, these aren’t nit-picky gripes, these are major, easily understood plot holes, and I’m dumbfounded why no characters even address them. I could nit-pick over why Boris decides to go to 1969 when he just as readily could have gone to a time when K was a child and thus more vulnerable. Surely a child is easier to dispatch than a 29-year-old man.
Men in Black III is a far improvement over its stilted predecessor, but it still ends up falling well short of the potential it flashes. It’s intermittently amusing with some fun cameos and some visual panache, but this movie should have been stronger, stranger, and more playful with its central time travel conceit. It’s hard to work up that much distaste for the movie, especially since it has such a lively, jocular feel. Not all of the jokes work, but enough do, and the movie maintains an overall pleasant sensibility, zigzagging in imaginative directions that most Hollywood movies never beckon. It’s the stuff that works that illuminates the potential left behind as it goes into summer blockbuster territory. Men in Black III is an example of diminished returns, yes, but some franchises start so high that even latter, lesser sequels will have more entertainment value than their competitors. While it won’t set the world on fire, Men in Black III exceeds expectations and provides enough entertainment that it’s worth a look and little else.
Nate’s Grade: B
On the surface, the classic board game Battleship would seem like a rather peculiar property to develop into a feature film. Unless someone was going the crafty Das Boot route, why would anybody even want to adapt the board game? And for that matter, why would anyone want to adapt the game and add killer aliens from outer space? Well actor-turned-director Peter Berg looked at the classic board game with the little pegs and the declarations of battleships sunk and said, “There’s a big summer movie in there.” With a hefty budget of $200 million, which is becoming alarmingly the norm for summer tent pole releases, Berg’s efforts have given birth to Battleship: The Movie. If it becomes a hit maybe it will start a trend. Who wouldn’t want to see Hungry, Hungry Hippos as a monster movie, or Connect Four as a searing domestic drama about alcoholism?
Off the Hawaiian Islands, the Navy is conducting an annual series of international war games in the Pacific. Oh but little did they expect to have to combat intergalactic foes. Alien spaceships crash land to Earth, emerging from the Pacific and creating a force field barrier. Along for the high seas action are the stoic Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard), his screw-up little brother Alex (Taylor Kitsch), a Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano), and a mess of other Navy personnel, including pop star Rihanna. On the other side of that force field is Alex’s girlfriend, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), a naval physical therapist who finds herself in the middle of the aliens communications plans. The handful of Navy ships, some American and some Japanese, must figure out a way to topple the aliens before they get their communications up and running to broadcast that Earth is ripe for the taking.
For some, Battleship will be the symbol of everything wrong with big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, a perceived slapdash effort meant to appeal to as many mass markets as possible, combining clichés and empty action sequences into a cacophony of noise deigned entertainment. And for most of those charges, I cannot defend Battleship. It has its fair share of clichés, gaps in logic, and some especially corny moments (WWII geezers save the day!). And yet, I found myself becoming entranced by Berg’s siren song, laughing at the comic relief, enjoying the stock characters enough to root for their triumphs, and having a total gas with the action sequences. I was shocked at how much fun I was having with Battleship. Perhaps that means that from a mechanical standpoint it knows all the pinpoints of the summer blockbuster model and knows how to craft a satisfying crowd-pleaser of an action movie. Or perhaps it just means I have lost my mind. Or maybe this is Berg’s expertly crafted satire of the Michael Bay School of filmmaking, brilliantly capturing the beautiful bombast and cheery jingoism of Bay’s career, especially when those salty WWII vets get to strut in slow motion. A movie based upon the board game Battleship is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and Berg’s nautical adventure wants nothing more than to entertain the masses. Whatever the case may be, Battleship, weirdly enough works, and for some significant stretches, it works really well in the mold of summer spectacle.
I’m relieved that Berg has left behind his rigid docu-drama cinema verite approach he’s patterned after working on 2004’s Friday Night Lights. Berg’s verite style felt completely mismatched with 2008’s Hancock, an inexplicable global hit. With Battleship, Berg’s cameras settle down and give you plenty of action to soak up. Berg’s first foray into action, 2003’s The Rundown, was like the announcement of a great new talent and the herald of The Rock’s ascent in action. I’ve been waiting for Berg to return to that style he displayed with The Rundown, a slick, highly stylized flair, brimming with robust energy that popped at all the right moments. Thankfully, with his biggest budget yet, it’s like the return of the old Berg. Perhaps it’s just a reaction against the overindulgence of the “shaky cam” action style popularized by the Paul Greengrass Bourne films, but it’s nice to be able to actually follow what is happening. Berg’s cameras find different and exciting ways to frame the action. I enjoyed the speedy zoom outs to illustrate the size of the field of battle. The visuals really do feel like Berg is parlaying Bay’s shooting style, the tawny glow of people’s skin, especially women, a.k.a. sex objects, the fetishized ogling of giant toys/military hardware, the soaring camera. But unlike most of Bay’s pedigree, it’s spectacle on a mass scale without turning into a glorified video game.
The action in Battleship is huge but never dull. The scale of the demolition does not get out of hand because the movie works in shifts, focusing on pockets of action before ramping up to something even bigger and better. The alien tech, particularly the spheroids that munch through metal like the Langoliers (please, somebody tell me they remember that Stephen King TV movie), is impressively powerful without feeling completely over matched. Being totally obliterated in the movies has its own thrill, but seeing a slug fest between man and alien is more compelling. Watching the Navy go blow-for-blow and eventually triumph through ingenuity in the face of adverse odds makes for some pretty satisfying action. The Navy is learning through trial and, much, error about how to combat these alien antagonists. I enjoyed the tactile nature of the battles. I must say I found the film to be weirdly informative about the attack features of naval war vessels. I don’t know if its genius or absurd that the movie finds a way to organically squeeze in the actual Battleship game play (the alien bombs also look like pegs from the board game). The aliens are something of a mystery and kept that way. When we do see them minus their Halo helmets, you wish they kept those helmets on. They have some unexplained moral code, as we cut to alien POVs that scan for threats, choosing to spare innocent lives in other circumstances. When the alien spacecraft fist appear, they take up position in a row and wait for their Earthly challengers to strike. It reminded me of the fighting sequences in turn-based RPG video games. These aliens are more sporting than your typical interstellar advanced civilization just interested in conquest. These aliens are into turn-based RPGs. These aliens are nerds.
With all that surprising praise now established, Battleship the movie is still chock full of ridiculous moments and a rather leaky plot. The subplot involving a double-amputee veteran getting back his groove via alien invasion never feels well grafted to the major storyline. It feels like it was crowbarred in after the producers or Berg saw real-life double-amputee Gregory D. Gadson and declared, “This man needs to be in a movie.” He’s likeable enough but over the course of 130 minutes you realize likeable isn’t the same as being a skilled actor. This entire subplot involving Gadson, Samantha, and a computer techie (the amusing Hamish Linklater) strains credulity even for a dumb action movie. The fact that three easily over matched people can take out a load of well-armed aliens with little more than a Jeep and a briefcase mitigates the life-and-death stakes at sea. If these alien bad guys can lose so stupidly, then what’s the hold up? Also, the movie inserts a lot of bizarre tension between Japan and the U.S., like it’s trying to iron out the last unresolved conflict from the Second World War. The term “inelegant” cannot come close to describing the nativsm conflict and its dopey resolution. And then there’s the fact that the movie is long giant recruitment ad for the U.S. Navy. I suppose after the Marines had their own alien-fighting flick/recruitment ad last year (Battle: Los Angeles), the other branches of the armed services felt left out. I pray no one ever enlists over something this silly. No major life decisions should be made over the big screen adaptation of Battleship, people.
There’s a paucity of solid characters here. We get the bad boy younger brother who will discover his mettle and leadership by the end (by the by: having characters keep talking about how much “potential” somebody has is the annoying non-fantasy equivalent of talking about a prophecy being fulfilled). Kitsch comes off better than he did in Disney’s costly flop John Carter, but he seems too stiff and sullen for a leading man. If Battleship sinks, expect his leading man status to get dry-docked (okay, I’ll lay off the puns). Decker (Just Go with It) is still working out the kinks of transitioning from model to actress. Her romance with Kitsch is about as contrived as these things get in big action movies, a pathetic bone thrown to a deflated female audience who would rather see Decker in What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The additional seamen, including Rihanna’s acting debut (insert your “S.O.S.” joke here), are given one-note to play for over two hours. And as far as Ms. Umbrella-ella-ella is concerned, it’s certainly not the worst acting debut by a pop star (see: Crossroads, or better yet, don’t). Most disappointing is Neeson (Taken) who spends the far, far majority of the movie on the wrong side of the force field. I want this guy kicking ass and not barking impotently into a phone.
I don’t know if I can look myself in the mirror and declare, with solemn dignity, that Battleship is a good movie by the normal standards of objective excellence. Screw it, I had far too much fun with this film to stand back and pretend the movie’s flaws are too overpowering. Berg has slapped together what may be the most formulaic, pinpointed Big Summer Movie I’ve witnessed in some time, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t win me over. They may be pushing buttons but Berg and company pushes them so well. Plus, I’m still uncertain whether or not the entire bloated affair is really the most expensive, subversive swipe at Michael Bay ever attempted. This is probably just wishful thinking from a critic looking to justify liking this movie. It’s got plenty of action, though doled out into bite-sized portions before the ACDC “Thunderstruck” montage ramps up the finale. Every now and then, you need a movie that gives you the right kind of stupid, and Battleship is the right kind of stupid for the summer movie season.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Shark Night 3D (2011)
Piranha 3D was a horror movie that knew exactly what it was doing, and good gravy it did it well. Here was a horror comedy that brilliantly provided campy thrills, over-the-top mayhem, salacious T&A, and a jubilant sense of humor. It was a glorious 1980s-esque exploitation film adapted to modern times. In the wake of Piranha 3D came the pitiful Shark Night 3D, which was marketed with a similar celebratory exploitation angle. Besides the unifying aquatic threat, the two movies, however, couldn’t be any more different. Shark Night 3D is to Piranha 3D what Branson, Missouri is to Vegas.
It’s spring break on the Bayou, and seven friends are heading out to Sara Palski’s (Sara Paxton) family house on the lake. Nick (Dustin Milligan) has a full course load as a pre-Med major, so he’s looking to relax and finally make a move with his crush on Sara. Along for the ride are geeky Gordon (Joel David Moore), future NFL first-round pick Malik (Sinqua Walls), his girlfriend Maya (Alyssa Diaz), the rebellious party girl Beth (Katherine McPhee), and her ex-boyfriend, the self-absorbed Blake (Chris Zylka). Their revelry is interrupted when they discover that the lake is filled with all kinds of sharks. A group of menacing local rednecks terrorizes the gang and plan to feed them to the sharks.
What this movie reminds me of are the watered down soft-core “comedies” that used to grace the late night airwaves on the cable channel USA. Somebody had the bright idea to take movies that were primarily made to titillate with casual T&A; when you strip away those base exploitation elements, which in this case was sex and nudity, then you’re left with 90 minutes of strained filler and really flat jokes. That’s what Shark Night 3D (in non-3D) feels like. Ignoring the fact that Paxton (Last House on the Left) runs around in a bikini for 90 percent of the movie, the film is lacking guts of all kinds. The closest you’ll get to skin is some brief side boob from American Idol alum, and quizzically ever-present actress, Katherine McPhee (The House Bunny). I want to state for the record that giving McPhee a nose stud and some lower back tattoos is the unconvincing PG-13 translation of making her into a “bad girl.” I wouldn’t be as miffed about the omission of the exploitation elements if the movie presented a compelling story or some well-orchestrated suspense sequences. It presents itself as an exploitation film, replete with plenty of underwater POV shots of bikini bottoms but it pulls back at every opportunity, cruelly teasing the audience with the promise of something better, but better never comes.
Its ideas of suspense revolve around lame jump scares and quickly resolved sequences where characters are picked off by the sharks. The movie sets up a dramatic scenario and doesn’t waste much time. Characters get picked off with mordant efficiency, and yet there’s no pizazz to these deaths, no memorable or gruesome moments. Hope you like seeing people pulled under red water. Unlike Deep Blue Sea, an enjoyable campy outing, these sharks are just regular sharks and yet they behave like genetically engineered killing machines, leaping out of the water to snatch prey at high altitudes. They even know how to break an onboard motor, which sounds like the work of a shark suicide bomber. There’s never really a great explanation for why the sharks are even doing in a lake. Granted, it’s stated to be a salt water lake and spillovers from high waters have been known to deposit oceanic creatures inland, but then the dumb redneck characters take credit for the shark attacks. They say they put them in the lake. I don’t believe this for a second, nor do I believe that these goons are secretly clever when it comes to advanced technology. Their whole scheme, which includes one of them philosophizing about “moral relativism,” is completely unbelievable, as well as their crazy get rich quick scheme.
If you’re not going to deliver the goods, at least don’t pretend that your sharks-eat-college-kids horror movie is some serious work of art. Sadly, the thing that can save any low-rent horror movie, a sense of humor, is noticeably absent with Shark Night 3D. It goes all the way in the other direction, trying to churn serious drama out of ridiculous situations. Characters are prone to delivering long monologues that let us know how scared they are or of some past trauma. Sara is haunted by a drowning scare that put an irreconcilable rift between her and her ex-boyfriend, who happens to be one of the sinister rednecks. The stupid melodrama in this movie is played completely poker-faced serious. When one male character loudly bellows that his girlfriend, who died via shark, was the most important thing in his world, it’s something of a head-scratcher. Before this lady fell victim to nefarious shark attack, we knew next to nothing about her beyond superficial descriptions, namely her race and her designation as “girlfriend.” We don’t even see anything of this so-called relationship, so when the feeding frenzy starts and the characters start getting picked off, the wails of drama are comically misplaced. When that character tries to go back into the water to attain vengeance against the animal that took his woman (“They took one of ours, now I’m gonna take one of theirs”), it feels absurd and hilarious. The movie hasn’t even done a credible job to make us believe the significance of the character relationships.
The screenplay by Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg relies on stock roles almost to a degree of self-parody (the athlete, the smart wet blanket, the doofus, the virginal girl next door, the vampy girl – hey Cabin in the Woods, I got your lineup right here). You would think given the scenario of shark-infested waters, all you had to do was remain on land. The old chestnut about cell phone signals is here again, but I refuse to believe that Sara’s family house does not have a landline phone. I thought maybe for one shining moment Shark Night 3D would move into an unexpected direction, and then it didn’t. After our first shark victim struggles to pull through, our med student Nick takes charge. I thought it would have been great during this moment, when we fully expect Nick to be indispensable given his medical knowledge, that he gets eaten by a shark. Alas, my dreams of convention upheaval were not to be met. If you can’t predict every twist and turn the movie makes, including the heroic sacrifice and the “twist” betrayal, then you haven’t lived long enough to move on from the kiddie pool.
Shark Night 3D is a schlocky, tiresome, neutered exploitation film missing the elements that make exploitation films worth watching. After a while, it just becomes exasperating. This movie is 90 minutes of being lead around without a payoff. It wants to be a fun, campy movie, but then why does it take itself so seriously and lack the slightest sense of humor? It wants to be considered amongst exploitation horror movies, with nubile teens being stalked in their bikini bottoms below the murky depths, but then why does the movie pull back at every opportunity for sex and gore? Shark Night 3D is a movie that will appeal to no one. If you want thrills and chills, you’ll be disappointed. If you want T&A, you’ll be disappointed. If you want some good shark action, you’ll be disappointed. If you want a workable story and characters worth rooting for, you’ll be disappointed. If you love sharks, you’ll be disappointed, which is a real disappointment. The only people who won’t be disappointed will be the people who grew up on those late-night USA cut-for-TV soft core flicks. To those few people in their bubbles of ignorance, Shark Night 3D might be the best movie they’ve ever seen.
Nate’s Grade: D
Dark Shadows (2012)
Dark Shadows was a daytime soap that aired for only a brief period of time as far as soaps are concerned, 1966-1971, but it was enough to make a lasting impression. The supernatural soap featured vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night, entangled in high-stakes drama and romantic excursions – it was the Twilight of its day. Director Tim Burton and his attached-at-the-hip collaborator, actor Johnny Depp, were fans as children and have kicked around a big-budget big screen version for years. Now that Dark Shadows hits theaters, you’ll be left wondering whether they really ever liked the original show or secretly despised it.
In the 1770s, Barnabus Collins (Depp) is the son of fishing and canning magnate in colonial Maine. He has a fling with Angelique (Eva Green), one of his family’s servant girls, and unfortunately for him, the gal is also a witch in her spare time. She curses the Collins family, killing Barnabus’ mother, father, and the woman he loves. She then turns him into a vampire, riles the villagers into mob mode, and Barnabus gets trapped in a coffin and buried for good.
Two hundred years later, a construction crew unearths an old coffin and out pops Barnabus from his prison. The world is a very different place. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is running the Collins family manor and canning company, which has fallen on hard times. A rival canning company is snapping up fisherman contracts, and this company is led by none other than the same ageless Angelique. Elizabeth tries to conceal her distant relative’s unique “condition” from the rest of her family, her brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), grieving the loss of his mother, moody 15-year-old daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), and caretaker, Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). The Collins family also has a new hire, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who looks strikingly like Barnabus’ lost love from 200 years ago. He becomes smitten with the new lass, who may be the reincarnation of his lost love. That’s enough to rev up Angelique’s wild sense of jealousy, as she tries to get her long-desired man and destroy anyone that stands in her way.
Is this ever one ghoulish mess of a movie. It never settles on a tone; is it supposed to be a larky tongue-in-cheek send-up, a Gothic melodrama, a dysfunctional oddball family comedy? What is this supposed to be, because whatever it is, it isn’t entertaining. Oh sure, it’s entertaining in a, “Where the hell is this going?” kind of way, but so is being kidnapped by a drifter. The movie feels like it has a box filled with ideas, and every so often it just shakes up that box, reaches inside, grabs one and says, “Let’s give this a try.” The screenplay, credited to author Seth Grahame-Smith (Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), is awash with half-baked ideas and poorly developed characters. The live-in doctor, played by the second stalwart of the Burton Repertory Players, Helena Bonham Carter, is a hoot. Carter (The King’s Speech) has got an edge to her and an interesting dynamic with Barnabus, but sadly her storyline is tied up far too quickly. The character of Victoria is a rather interesting one, a girl who could communicate with her ghostly former relatives, who happen to look just like her. The gal was sent to a mental asylum by her parents and escaped, compelled to come to the Collins mansion. Why in the world wasn’t she the movie’s protagonist? That is a far more compelling perspective than a goofy vampire who speaks all old timey. Seriously, the Barnabus stuff is your basic fish-out-of-water comedy, lazily commenting on the times. There is no joke that is too obvious for this movie (Barnabus inquires why Carolyn has no husband; Barnabus is fascinated by a lava lamp; Barnabus thinks Alice Cooper is an ugly woman – sigh). A lot of the shapeless narrative would be forgivable if the movie was just funnier. Barnabus is just not that fun of a character. His anachronistic verbiage gets dull when you discover that seems to be the movie’s one joke. You may start tuning him out like I did.
The movie feels like a collection of subplots and no main storyline to gather traction. We’re told that the youngest Collins, little David, is enamored with Barnabus, though considering we’ve only seen the two together in like one previous scene, this seems like quite a leap. Unless David has gotten particularly skilled at hiding behind rocks, we haven’t seen any of this. The entire character of David and his sleazy father could be eliminated and they would only minimally affect the story. And then there’s the late revelation that one of our characters has a hidden secret identity, a revelation that fostered no setup. When the character looks into the camera to explain and ends with a curt, “Deal with it,” it’s like Grahame-Smith himself is speaking directly to the audience, mocking it for hoping that the movie would actually do a good job of setting up and paying off character development and relationships. Stupid audience. Why can’t you just be happy with all that neat Tim Burton set design?
The final melee between the Collins family and Angelique keeps reminding you of the dashed promise of the flick. Angelique, in her witchy withiness, summons dark forces to make statues come alive. Well, sort of. They flail their arms a tad. And then she makes the walls bleed. Well, sort of. The dripping blood stops after just a few inches from where it began. If you’re going to make the house bleed, I want Shining-level torrents of the red stuff. The tonal inconsistency, matched with the muddled plot and scant character work, makes for a pretty frustrating bore of a movie.
You could usually count on Depp (Alice in Wonderland) for at least committing himself to another bravura weird performance, but the material fails him. He’s caked with alabaster makeup, given claw-like hands thanks to additional knuckles (why…?), and he’s trying his best to transform a list of peculiarities into a character, but like most things concerning the movie, it does not coalesce properly. I actually think the most entertaining actor in the movie is Green (Casino Royale). There’s not much to her role but at least she has fun with it, bringing an admirable level of energy while her peers remain laconic, content to submerge into the 70s scenery. She shows a nice flair for comedy heretofore unseen. Strangely, Green adopts a slightly raspy voice that sounded like an imitation of, none other than, Helena Bonham Carter. If Burton’s note to his film’s young, frisky, sexy antagonist was, “Sound more like my wife doing an American accent,” then I think we’ve butted into something personal best left between husband and wife.
Ultimately, I have no idea who this movie is going to appeal to. The fans of the original soap will surely not be pleased with the jokey, tongue-in-cheek manner that Dark Shadows treats its source material. Fans of Burton’s stylized, dreamy, Gothic fairy tale visuals will find the film tedious and a poor waste of the man’s talents. Even the casual Depp fan will probably find the movie mostly unfunny, weird, and boring. The tonal whiplash never settles down, and the plot is replete with half-developed characters, ideas, and plot points. It just seems to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, but that’s not the best way to tell a story. Not even Burton’s visuals or Depp’s performance can save this movie. Dark Shadows is unquestionably amongst Burton’s worst films (2001’s Planet of the Apes debacle takes the crown), made all the more inexplicable by the fact that Burton and Depp are self-described fans of the TV show. Maybe we all have different definitions of “fan” that I am not privy to. This movie deserves a quick death.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
Relationships are serious business. In most Judd Apatow productions, they’re funny business. With The Five-Year Engagement, there’s romance to be found in surprising places, but the omnipresent feeling is one of dread. All those advertisements highlighting the comedy will start to melt away, and what you are left with is a funny, if bittersweet, anti-romantic comedy, more uncomfortable with hard-hitting truths than congenial laughs. My theater even had a few walkouts.
Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are happily in love. He’s a sous chef in a trendy San Francisco restaurant and she’s eager to gain a graduate fellowship at UC-Berkley in psychology. She doesn’t get accepted to Berkley, but the University of Michigan offers her a spot. Tom and Violet agree to put their wedding on hold and move to Michigan so that she can take advantage of an amazing opportunity. Michigan is not to Tom’s liking, especially since he can’t find a fulfilling job and settles with making sandwiches at a campus sub shop. It’s all just temporary, he keeps reminding himself. Then Violet’s two years gets extended, and Michigan isn’t just a temporary pit stop, it’s possibly home. Tom’s disappointment spirals, and he and Violet begin to drift apart, he resenting her for giving up his own dream to support hers. She begins getting emotionally attached to her Psychology professor, Dr. Childs (Rhys Ifans), in ways that straddle the mentor-student boundaries. Meanwhile, Violet’s sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), gets pregnant after a one-night stand with Alex (Chris Pratt), Tom’s best man and coworker, at the couple’s engagement party. They get married, have kids, and Tom and Violet are still stalling. This is the story of two people who deserve their happily ever after except life keeps putting obstacles in their path to the altar.
You will be unprepared for how sobering The Five-Year Engagement can be. Some of these arguments between Tom and Violet cut right to the bone with an exacting level of painful authenticity. The level of uncomfortable intimacy can make the movie feel grueling. At the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s some Apatow version of a John Cassavettes flick. There’s still plenty of comedy but the film is much more of a drama than any previous Apatow production. Part of the squirm factor comes in the very nature of the premise. The Five-Year Engagement picks up where most rom-coms end, with our happy couple together at last. We know these two are meant for one another; however, the majority of the screenplay involves watching two likeable, funny, loving people drift emotionally apart. Eventually they get back together in the end in a mad rush to staunch the gloom prevailing over the movie. It’s a hard act to watch people drift apart, losing the connections that once bound them together, and witnessing the glow of romance fade into complacency and resentment. Again, this is all handled in ways that find humor in uncomfortable places (like Tom, hopped up on painkillers, apologizing for smiling during sad news), but it can still be uncomfortable, and I don’t know if the ending, while happy, will justify the journey for many audience members.
I was shocked how much I found myself relating to the plight of the characters in The Five-Year Engagement, so much so that I simultaneously felt an extra level of engagement and discomfort. I will spare you the gory details, as I am a gentleman first and foremost, but relationships that just fizzle out rather than ending in some abrupt manner (infidelity, commitment issues, lack of availability, etc.) are not any more enviable. I related to the general sense of malaise that can plague a long-term relationship, the feeling of being forever a plus-one in your spouse’s circles, the resentment over the demands of a job or school, the small cracks that mask a lot of pain, the kind that is suffused with rationalization that to assert what you feel is to be selfish and inconsiderate, the loss of intimacy, physical and emotional, the guilt of being unhappy or making someone unhappy, and the sad realization that maybe love just wasn’t enough. What happens when nice people who are good for each other are just dealt rotten circumstances? Phew. I feel like I’m turning this into a therapy session. Let’s talk about something inappropriate in the next paragraph.
The biggest reason for sticking it out, both for Tom and Violet and the audience, is that Segel and Blunt have terrific chemistry together. Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is a big endearing lug of a man, and putting his career on hold to support his fiancé gives him an extra surplus of sympathy as we watch him spiral into despair and then resentment. He’s a funny, likeable guy, and we know he and Violet are meant for one another and we want them to get together, even as this looks less likely to come true after the circumstances that push them away. Granted, you must swallow the hard-to-believe reality that Tom couldn’t find a decent job in Ann Arbor, a college town that has to have some fine dining along the outskirts of town if not in the city. Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) makes me fall in love with her yet again with a performance. Just like in 2011’s Bureau, she creates a charming, vibrant, luminescent portrayal of a person in love, so much so that I am envious of the man of her affections (her pantomime of “Circus Solei sex” made me feel all warm and fuzzy in multiple places). Violet has her own share of flaws but that just made her more relatable. I enjoy the way Segel, as a screenwriter (he co-wrote the movie with his regular collaborator, director Nicholas Stoller), is charitable with his characterization. He’s not afraid to make himself look mean and hurtful and wrong. He’s not afraid to make the girlfriends in his movies, even the ones who are about to dump him, justifiable in their decision-making. This is not a case of good guys and bad guys; it’s much more like life where everyone can draw good reasons, and the consequences just suck. Out of all of the Apatow films, Segel has done the best job of making his characters feel most like actual people than broad comedic types.
Luckily, the movie has its funny, peculiar little moments to make the drama bearable. I appreciate the little touches of comedy, which percolate through the heaviness. The wide supporting cast is peopled with the usual blend of oddballs and loudmouths. Pratt and Brie provide an ongoing foil as the couple who didn’t seem right for one another, made initial impulsive decisions, but have stuck it out and are happy; instead of waiting for the right time they embrace the mantra that there is no perfect time in life but the present. Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) is great as a smart-aleck who grows into a responsible father. Brie adopts a British accent and becomes even more adorable, as all fans of Community would know. She’s quite funny as Violet’s sister and has a standout sequence where she and Violet have a very adult conversation in front of children so they disguise their voices as Cookie Monster and Elmo. The juxtaposition is a hoot and yet also a nice moment to add characterization. I also enjoyed seeing Chris Parnell (TV’s 30 Rock) as a sad sack faculty spouse stay-at-home father who clears his misery with kitting. There are some gory comedic set pieces around arrows being shot into legs and toes getting amputated, but the movie’s best comedy comes in the small moments, from Tom ‘s patchy “I’ve stopped caring” facial hair, to a self-described “pickle nerd” played by Brian Posehn, to the percentages of every undergrad named “Ashley” or “Zack,” to Tom’s hopelessly overmatched chase with Professor Childs, to a running gag about grandparents dying before Tom and Violet wed.
I would like to take this time and observe that the University of Michigan, as well as its tenured professor, is responsible for the disruption of happiness between a young couple in love. How many other couples have you destroyed, U of M? When will your taste for suffering ever be quenched? And no, I’m not just saying this because I’m a diehard Ohio State Buckeyes fan, as well as a grad student. My point being: Michigan wants to kill Tom, Violet, and every person you hold dear (In short: Go Bucks).
You’d think with a title like The Five-Year Engagement they wouldn’t want to overstay their welcome, but like most Apatow productions, the film runs a bit on the long side. About 20 minutes into the movie, I felt the need to go to the bathroom. I rationalized staying put. Then about 90 minutes in, that urge became overwhelming but I reasoned the movie had to be over soon. And I kept telling myself that… for another 30 minutes. Then I just ran out and did my business, feeling the elation of relief. At over two hours, the movie feels excessive. Because of the drift away structure, the movie feels especially long in the second act, where we get hurtful scene after hurtful scene, and where Tom and Violet go their separate ways and start dating new people (the fact that Violet dates her smarmy professor feels realistic and yet also like a gut-punch to Tom). Some of the colorful characters that typical people Apatow productions feel more forced than usual, especially Violet’s collection of fellow psych grads played by the likes of Kevin Hart (Think Like a Man) and Mindy Kaling (TV’s The Office). They don’t seem well grafted to the story. The happy ending, while welcomed, also feels unlikely given the proceeding drama, and its brash adherence to rom-com conventions is a tad disappointing.
Watching the dissolution of a relationship is something of a hard sell to mainstream audiences, though Vince Vaughn was able to get audiences to see his anti-romantic comedy, 2006’s The Break-Up, which admittedly had bigger names and a lighter touch on the material. The Five-Year Engagement has its share of comedy but it’s pretty sublimated to the heavy drama of watching two people in love fall out of love and battle resentment, self-destruction, and apathy. Segel and Blunt are so good together we’re willing to give them a wider berth to stretch their wings, sow their oats, and eventually find one another again, falling back in love after a flurry of obstacles, realizing that finding and connecting with your right person is an ongoing process and not some prize to be awarded. I found myself connecting with the movie in several ways, so much so that it made me fee dour for the rest of the evening (you may feel differently). The movie gets so many subtle things right about how relationships can sour, and yet it still manages to overstay its welcome and fill its roly-poly narrative with annoying characters. At least the movie has helped me discover my perfect woman: Alison Brie with a British accent. However, Emily Blunt will also do in a pinch.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Avengers (2012)
For the past four years, Marvel has been seeding its all-star super hero collective in the storylines of its summer blockbusters. And with six super heroes, The Avengers carries some super expectations. The creative mind behind the film is none other than Joss Whedon, best known for creating and shepherding cult TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. Not exactly the first name you’d think Marvel would assemble to front a $200 million movie. For geeks, Whedon has become a reliable standard of quality (the patchy TV show Dollhouse notwithstanding). Here is a man who can marry big ideas with sharp characterization and delightfully skewed dialogue. In Whedon, geek nation has a savior, and Marvel knew this. The Avengers is 142 minutes of geek arousal stretched to orgasmic heights.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the agency S.H.I.E.L.D., has a dire need for Earth’s mightiest heroes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has traveled through a portal and plans on conquering Earth thanks to an approaching alien army. Fury has tasked Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) a.k.a. Iron Man, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a.k.a. Captain America, and special agent Natasha “Black Widow” Romanof (Scarlett Johansson) with stopping Loki and rescuing one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own agents, the skilled marksman Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner), who is under Loki’s devious mind control. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), would like to cite jurisdiction and bring his wicked brother back to his home world. The only person who may be able to locate Loki’s path is Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a guy with his own anger issues. With this many egos, it’s bound to get dicey. As Banner puts it, “We’re not a team. We’re a time bomb.” Can they put aside their differences to unite to save the Earth? Does a Hulk smash?
Whedon, the king of clever genre deconstruction last seen in the excellent meta-horror film Cabin in the Woods, plays it relatively straight, giving his big, effects-driven film a straight-laced sense of sincerity. It’s not making fun of these sort of big-budget, effects-driven smash-em-ups, it just wants to deliver the biggest smash-em-up yet. To that end, The Avengers achieves maximum smashitude (trademark pending). By its rousing finish, the movie has become so massively entertaining that you forget the draggy first half. The scope of this thing is just massive. The last thirty minutes is solid action across miles of crumbling, just-asking-to-be-exploded city landscape. But the trick that Whedon pulls off is how to orchestrate action on a monumental scale without losing sight of scale, pacing, and character. You’d think with a full deck of superheroes that somebody would be shortchanged when it came time for the rough and tumble stuff. Not so. Instead of fighting one another, the prospective Avengers work together in all sorts of combinations. The characters are well integrated into the fracas, making particular use of their abilities, and finding new locations of focus every few minutes. This expert hero shuffling keeps things feeling fresh amidst the constant din of chaos.
In fact, the movie finds time to give every hero his or her due, finding a small moment to reveal some characterization. I thought Whedon’s biggest challenge was going to be the juggling act of balancing so many heroes and so much screen time, but the man found a way, like he regularly does, to squeeze in character with ensemble action. The Hulk fares the best. After two movies, it feels like Whedon has finally nailed the character; granted, this success may be credited to the fact that Bruce Banner (all hail Ruffalo) is kept as a supporting character. The struggle of the character being likened to a recovering addict is a smart way to present the character without getting too morose (I enjoyed the revelation that the “Hulk” half prevented Banner from killing himself). When he’s told his mission is to smash, you can feel the exuberant joy of an unleashed Hulk id. The Hulk had two great audience-applause moments that made my theater go berserk. I also really liked the attention given to Black Widow and her lonely back-story. Hawkeye was a complete badass, though he only gets to do fun stuff in the madcap finale. The trouble with the hero team-up franchises is that not everyone’s on the same level of power. Thor is a god for crying out loud, Iron Man has super weapons, Hulk is Hulk, Captain America at least has superhuman strength but what do Hawkeye and Black Widow bring to the team? When you’re competing with all that power, being good with guns or a bow seems pretty puny. And with Hawkeye, there’s going to be a limit to his effectiveness unless he has a magic bag of replenishing arrows. Still, Whedon finds ways to make the heroes badass and humane in equal measure, and surprisingly funny, which is welcomed.
It’s hard to believe that Whedon had only directed one feature film before (2005’s Serenity, based upon Whedon’s canceled Firefly show) being given the keys to the Marvel universe. He’s directed several TV episodes of his signature shows but the man has never produced anything on this scale before. Given a gigantic canvas, Whedon delivers the goods. His action sequences are rollicking and fun and, best of all, shot and edited in a fashion where you can understand what is happening (take some notes, Hunger Games franchise). The action is well choreographed and elevated with organic complications and particular attention paid to location, like the Nicky Fury airship. Whedon is a master of the plot payoff, setting up his elements and then piloting the narrative to satisfying conclusions and integrations (Cabin in the Woods is also a pristine example of this gift). If you’re going to introduce an airship, you better believe that sucker is going to threaten to crash. I’m glad that Loki was brought back as he was the best Marvel big screen baddie yet, though I’m disappointed they essentially put him on ice for an hour.
The technical elements are ably polished even for this kind of film. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) is terrific, utilizing bright color in a way that the visuals pop. The special effects are top-notch and you just feel immersed into the action. The destruction is cataclysmic but rarely does the movie feel phony. I was impressed by the Hulk designs and the sequences in inky space with our alien adversaries. For that matter, are these aliens robots? It’s unclear whether the giant flying centipede-like ships are creatures. The 3D conversion is one of the better outings due to the fact that it doesn’t keep throwing stuff in your face. Plus, viewing Johansson’s leather-clad assets in 3D certainly has its own appeal, as does Gwyneth Paltrow in jean shorts. Hey How I Met Your Mother fans, Cobie Smulders looks practically smoldering in her S.H.I.E.L.D. agent outfit too. Okay, I swear I’m done with the female objectification.
I hesitate calling The Avengers the greatest super hero/comic book movie of all time, as the teaming hordes of Internet fanboys foaming at the mouth are wont to do. If your definition of a comic book movie is a giant sandbox with all the coolest toys, then this is your film. This is a comic book turned flesh. The Hulk and Thor fight and prove who is the strongest Marvel man, that’s got to be a geek’s wish come true. Many of the infighting sequences felt like, servicing the tastes of the fanboys, and after a while the constant hero on hero action felt tiresome. I get that we have a clash of egos going on here, but the movie suffers from a lack of narrative cohesion, by which I mean that the first hour of the movie feels like a series of guest appearances by heroes on loan. The movie doesn’t fully come together until the point where the team comes together; I doubt Whedon intended that symbiotic relationship. The movie feels more like a patchwork of standout scenes and memorable moments that a fully formed and cohesive story. If you haven’t seen the previous four Marvel movies (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America), you’ll be pretty hard-pressed to follow the story. Loki’s motivation and plan seems rather sketchy other than causing discord amongst the heroic ranks. His powers seem inconsistent and vague. Also I found the musical score by Alan Silvestri to be bland and unworthy.
The Avengers is sure to be geek nirvana for many of the comic book faithful. It’s an audience pleaser of mass scale, and I’m sure that your theater will be cheering in abundance. Whedon has pulled off the near impossible. The movie is a thoroughly entertaining, exciting, and witty popcorn spectacle of the first order. But where the movie hits the ceiling, at least for me, is that it ONLY wants to be the best super hero movie and this seems like limited ambitions. It’s like making the very best possible women in prison movie (great, but is this really all you set your sights on?). I had a great time watching Whedon’s handiwork but I wish it mined the outsized territory for bigger themes, a little more than audience-satisfying pyrotechnics, something I feel that X-Men: First Class did a better job of handling. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed The Avengers and it’s a fantastic start to the summer movie season, but by no means is it The Dark Knight or even aspiring to be, and that’s okay. Enjoy the busy escapades of Marvel’s next smash franchise. Who knows when they’ll be able to wrangle everyone together for another adventure, but judging by the sounds of ringing cash registers, the answer is sooner than we think.
Nate’s Grade: B+
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