Monthly Archives: November 2012
Rise of the Guardians (2012)
Dreamworks animation has long existed in the mighty shadow of Pixar, but as of late the studios might be at a creative crossroads. After the excellent Kung Fu Panda films and How to Train Your Dragon, suddenly Dreamworks animated movies matured beyond feverish, pop-culture explosions and into character-driven, colorful, and genuinely heartfelt family films. I don’t think we’ll be getting something as dismal as Shark Tale again with the current path the studio is blazing. Rise of the Guardians looks like the pilot for a new lucrative Dreamworks family franchise. It’s easy to see the appeal for a superhero assembly of fantasy figures, though is every region going to have working knowledge of the Tooth Fairy? The movie just looked too silly to function for me, but I was optimistic after raves from a few trusted friends. Perhaps my own childlike sense of wonder is permanently replaced with a heart of stone, but I found Rise of the Guardians to be a somewhat entertaining but mostly stilted, intellectually and emotionally, journey.
The guardians are an ancient group of holiday-themed characters entrusted with keeping the sense of wonder alive in children. There’s Santa Claus, a.k.a. North (voiced by Alec Baldwin), and his army of yetti workers, the tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and her own collection agency of tooth-gathering fairies, the Sandman, in charge of the sweet dreams of children, and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), an Australian jack rabbit with a bit of a chip on his bunny shoulder. The world is threatened by Pitch (Jude Law), a bogeyman who desperately desires children to fear him again, because belief is what powers the Guardians. To stop Pitch and his array of nightmare creatures, the Guardians must add another member to their outlet, Jack Frost (Chris Pine). Except Jack has no interest in joining this fuddy-duddy group and would rather do his own thing, which usually involves wrecking havoc. Jack’s desperate to find out his past and figure out why he was chosen for his immortal role and what it will take to make kids believe in him.
Ultimately, I just couldn’t really get into this movie. It’s set up like an Avengers team of children’s fantasy figures, but I felt like the movie failed to make me emotionally connect with their plights. The Jack Frost protagonist was another tired variation on the selfish, plays-by-his-own-rules cowboy character that needs to learn a dash of personal responsibility and putting others first. But his goal is essentially to be… seen. He’s worried kids will never see him because they won’t ever believe in him. That’s a fairly abstract existential crisis for your main character to have, and one that I found too odd to care about. The entire core of the movie revolves around children’s sense of belief, and unless you’re twisting this into some general statement about the purpose of faith (the Man in the Moon = God?), then I find it all to be silly considering we’re talking about the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny. I mean, the main kid (Dakota Goyo) has to be eight or nine years old and still fervently believes in these mythical creatures, to the point that he is literally the only person on the planet who believes at one dour point (sheesh, talk about how easily disillusioned kids can get these days). We’re celebrating a kid going into adolescence believing in these things. That just smacks me as a little weird if you stop and think about the film’s implications. This kid is going to grow up socially warped. Then again his beliefs are proven right, so maybe it’s just the rest of us cynical bastards out there who need to adapt. I guess I’m going to go accept my fate and be a crotchety old man now.
The plot feels too airy for my liking, too frenetic to get to the next set piece or chase sequence. It doesn’t feel like it ever takes the time to settle down and develop its characters or story. As a result, we’re left with a fairly middling backstory for Jack Frost that should be easy to figure out, but we’re also stuck in a world that doesn’t feel like the rules have been sufficiently explained. Case in point: the Tooth Fairy keeps all those baby teeth in one huge archive because, you see, the teeth hold memories. I guess. But then Jack’s after his own teeth to retrieve his forgotten past (yes folks, we have an amnesiac protagonist). I’m okay with this so far though it’s a tad forced, but when Jack does get those teeth, he’s presented with memories at the age of 18. I know people suffered through poor dental hygiene hundreds of years ago, but you cannot expect me to believe that Jack is still losing baby teeth. This is just one example where the movie didn’t come across as fully formed. The Guardians all seem to possess different super powers involving space-time travel, but then they don’t seem to do anything with these abilities that matters by the final battle. Pitch has the ability to craft nightmare creatures and all he does is end up making wispy evil-looking horses. That seems like a waste. There are not enough payoffs here with all the imaginative possibilities.
Rise of the Guardians has some enjoyable moments but it practically relies upon you to supply all the work as far as character empathy. We’re familiar with these magical figures, and so the movie gets by because we put in the emotional connection to Santa and the Easter Bunny, but the characters just don’t register on the page, at least with this story. I don’t know if David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbithole, Inkheart) was the best candidate for the job, but he doesn’t give me enough reasons to engage with the movie. The characters are lackluster, their conflicts feel too abstract, the conclusion feels superfluous, and the world feels poorly defined, developed, and unsatisfying.
I like Chris Pine (Unstoppable) as an actor, but the man brings absolutely nothing to the table when it comes to voice acting. Baldwin (Rock of Ages) and Jackman’s (Real Steel) performances are defined by their respective accents. I feel like Hollywood needs some sort of seminal moment to go back to genuine voice artists rather than hiring whatever celebrity. Yes we all enjoyed Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin, but are you going to tell me that Pine’s vocal work was so exceptional he had to be cast? It’s like having celebrities provide the voices for the helium-sounding Chipmunks. The best voice actor in the film is clearly Law (Sherlock Holmes) who does such a good job I felt more sympathy for him than I did Jack Frost. I know it’s commonplace in movies for the hero and the villain to have some duality, but I wasn’t probably supposed to jump ship as far as loyalty. Maybe I just found the actual kids in the movie to be annoying so I didn’t mind a magical creature preying upon their collective childhood fear. It reminded me of the space cloud villain from 2011’s Green Lantern flop, where I wondered if this fear-sucking cloud sought out the delicacy of children’s fears first.
To top it all off, I found myself left rather cold by the visual aesthetics of the movie. It has this overly androgynous, big-eyed anime feel, and I kept getting the sense that the whole movie looked like an extended video game cut scene. This movie even had Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) and the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakens (Skyfall) as producers or visual consultants, so I’m even more baffled at how visually poor I found the movie. The colors are so muddy and the visuals felt so limited for me, especially considering the imaginative parameters of the characters and their respective worlds. I thought Pitch seemed oddly similar in visual approach to Hades in Disney’s underrated Hercules. The action sequences had some nice visual panache to them as far as choreography, but I couldn’t stop thinking how cruddy and dreary everything looked.
Rise of the Guardians is based upon a series of yet-to-be published books by famed author William Joyce, who won an Oscar himself the previous year for the animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I feel like that short was a better representation of magic and imagination than this film. The humor, the life lessons, the character development, it all felt so stilted to me. I thought the conflicts were too abstract and hard to care about (oh no, people have stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy!) and the world and rules felt too amorphous, poorly explained and creatively handicapped. If you’re going for a fantasy setting with larger-than-life figures, each with certain gifts and powers, hen I want the promise of that setup to be fulfilled. Rise of the Guardians isn’t a bad movie by any means but it left me cold and indifferent. It’s meant to strike at my childish sense of wonder, but I felt too often like a cynical adult, picking apart the frailties of its storytelling and muddy visual designs. It felt like it was missing the best magic of all: gifted storytelling. You’ll probably have more fun than I did, but that’s just because I probably have no soul.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Steven Spielberg’s long in the works biopic of Abraham Lincoln could have easily been retitled, The Thirteenth Amendment: The Movie, such is the narrow band of focus. Lincoln is an engrossing, handsomely mounted study in the political machinations that went into passing the 13th amendment to outlaw slavery. Unless you’re a fan of history or politics, I can’t imagine that this movie is going to prove that engaging for you. This is a big movie about Big Moments with lots of people with beards giving speeches. Daniel Day-Lewis does a tremendous job as our titular sixteenth president, giving the man more foibles and traces of humanity than I can remember from any screen portrayal. Liam Neeson (The Grey) had long been attached to be Spielberg’s Lincoln, but I cannot fathom any other actor in the role after seeing Day-Lewis’s amazing work. I think he’s a shoo-in for his third Oscar. It’s intriguing to witness what a political animal Lincoln was, able to play off different sides to get his way. In the end, you may even feel a stir of patriotic pride, inspired by the good that government can grant with the right leaders for the right causes. The supporting cast all provide great performances, from Sally Field as the volatile Mrs. Lincoln, to James Spader as a conniving lobbyist, to Tommy Lee Jones as a stubborn curmudgeon… so basically Tommy Lee Jones. Just about every speaking part is a recognizable character actor. Who’s going to turn down the prospect of a Spielberg Lincoln movie? The tighter window of focus allows the movie greater depth as an important political juncture in our nation’s history, but Lincoln could have also been the 19th century equivalent of that Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just a Bill.” This is an easy movie to admire but I think a more difficult film to love, to fully embrace.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
I am in love. It’s been days since I watched Silver Linings Playbook and I’m still under its spell. It’s a movie that gave me such rapturous emotional peaks, a deeply satisfying crowd-pleaser that doesn’t just nail the big moments, it crushes them. This is a movie that works so well with just about every facet of storytelling, from acting to writing to directing, that you’re liable to be in awe as I was.
Pat (Bradley Cooper), a high school history teacher, came home one day to find his wife in the shower with another man. He admittedly lost it, beating the man bloody, and has been remanded to a state psych ward for the past eight months. It’s determined that Pat is an undiagnosed bipolar case, and the court orders him to stay on his meds and stay 500 feet away from his now ex-wife, Nikki. Having lost his home, Pat is living with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver), both of whom don’t know how to help their troubled son. Pat is convinced he can win back his wife. He starts conditioning by running, wearing a garbage bag to better sweat off the pounds, and meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s been fighting through depression after coping from the sudden death of her police officer husband. She agrees to help Pat get in contact with his ex, passing a letter, but at a price. He must compete with her in a dancing competition. They spend hours practicing their routine, getting to know one another, and stabilizing one another, providing a foundation for healing and success.
The story itself isn’t anything groundbreaking; you could glibly label it as the “bipolar rom-com” and it does adhere to that structure for the second half. But this is David O. Russell we’re talking about, the man behind 2010’s The Fighter, yes, but also offbeat dysfunctional family comedies like Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. The man has a way of working within the framework of conventions and finding the rough edges, to make stories at once familiar and excitingly new. Is there anything groundbreaking with Silver Linings Playbook? It’s your boy-meets-girl formula at heart, but the execution is so extremely sure-footed, so exceptionally handled, that the movie leaves you buzzy and beaming. Once it ended, I wanted to run around, shouting from the rooftops for people to run out and see this movie. You want others to share in something so special and affecting. I felt a similar passion after seeing the unconventional romance Safety Not Guaranteed, and I’d advise any fans of Safety to certainly check out Silver. Being a rousing, crowd-pleasing sort of movie is not necessarily a yoke to weigh down its artistic integrity. As if enjoyment and creative accomplishment are opposing forces. I freely admit that Silver Linings Playbook is a masterful movie that knows what it takes to get an audience cheering, and I was thrilled to be part of that cheering throng. Here is a movie that just makes you feel good, and when was the last movie you saw that made you feel glowing with happiness?
This in an emotionally rich film; I was so happy after my screening that it felt like a high I didn’t want to come down from. To engineer a reaction that enhanced, that enlightened, that potent, well I must sing the praises of Russell and his actors. I bought into the love story and family drama big time. The payoffs are meaty and numerous, and I often found the film to be sincerely moving. There’s a great satisfaction in watching two oddballs find their special someone’s, and when the characters are this interesting, this human, and so well portrayed, it makes every stop along the journey that much more engaging and emotionally triumphant. It’s got an ending that pulls it all together in spectacular fashion, giving us exactly what we want while feeling earned and on its own eccentric terms. This is a deeply felt and compassionate film, one with as much uplift as acerbic rebellion. You feel like these people really do love one another. Silver Linings Playbook has memorized the playbook on how to win over an audience, but it always comes down to the same Xs and Os: strong characters, a compelling story, and people we genuinely care about, and that includes distaff supporting characters too.
The characters are so interesting and beautifully flawed, and the actors are so in tune with one another, delivering bar-raising performances that take the movie into another realm of enjoyment. When actors are given plum roles about people with mental illnesses or disabilities, it must be very enticing to overindulge in tics and self-conscious mannerisms. That doesn’t happen with Silver Linings Playbook. Beyond an uptick in tempo, the actors portray their parts as characters rather than ailments. If anything, the acting in this movie is practically restrained given the circumstances. What’s more, Silver Linings Playbook is a fine example of what can happen when the cast works in tandem, challenging one another to up their game. It’s like every actor felt revived from all the talent on display. Russell knows how to push his actors like few other directors, and while this has lead to notorious Internet videos of his actors losing their cool, it’s also given way to raw performances that burn in your memory. Russell gets his actors to bring their A-game and then some. The Fighter got three Oscar nods for acting and I wouldn’t be surprised if Silver Linings Playbook gets three as well (I think Lawrence and De Niro are locks).
Cooper (The Hangover) has always had a certain smirking, leering quality about him, a guy used to portraying louts with charisma. I have never seen him tackle anything nearly as challenging as what he does with Pat. He’s unpredictably combustible, ready to explode at any moment, but also empathetic, trying to do better. Pat isn’t meant to be seen as a loveable loser. This guy has serious problems he’s working through. Cooper is simply incredible, showcasing skills and nuance you didn’t know the man had, radiating with an intense outpouring of spontaneous energy that doesn’t ever feel forced. Cooper is not bouncing off the walls here as some wild-eyed loony, playing upon codified ideas of what a bipolar person behaves like. He’s a deeply complicated guy, processing challenging and contradicting feelings in a brain that doesn’t necessarily follow the rules. He has so many impulses leading him in different directions. Pat is obsessed with his goal of impressing his wife, so much that he seems blind to the tangible connection he’s formed with Tiffany, and we yearn that he realizes the catch in front of him. I was won over completely by Cooper’s committed, attentive, anxious, and lively performance.
Readers will know that I harbor a serious crush when it comes to the talented actress, Lawrence (The Hunger Games). I was expecting her to be great in this movie, as this is pretty much my default setting with the actress at this point. I was not expecting what she delivered, a performance that is so enthralling, so astonishing, that you’ll be left stupefied that a woman at only the young age of 22 could be this phenomenally gifted. Lawrence had several scenes that just left me speechless. Lawrence is in elite territory now as far as I’m concerned. Her command of the character is just about impeccable, and you perk up every moment she’s onscreen. She’s a damaged woman recovering from her own powerful grief, but she’s so many things at any one moment. She can be lusty, provocative, angry, sullen, commanding, vulnerable, and hurtful. There are scenes where she will bounce around a plethora of emotional states, but each one gradually shifts to the other, making the transformation genuine and another layer to the character. If she were just some crazy girl we wouldn’t care if she eventually got her happy ending with Pat. With Lawrence’s talents, and Russell’s sharp writing, Tiffany becomes a figure worth fighting for, a bruised romantic that finds her rare kindred spirit who accepts and appreciates her messiness.
The supporting cast from top to bottom may not be at the same level as Cooper and Lawrence, but their output is also impressive. De Niro (Limitless) hasn’t been this good in ages, delivering a few monologues that will hit you square in the gut. Weaver (The Five-Year Engagement) is something of an enabler for the family, but she also gets her moments to shine and reassert her strength and dignity. Chris Tucker (in his first non-Rush Hour movie since 1997) is the least Chris Tucker I’ve ever seen him. He’s downplayed his motor mouth tendencies completely, and he’s a wonderful presence as he ducks in and out. He even teaches Tiffany how to “black up” her dance, a fact that most heterosexual males in the audience will be thankful for this time of year.
Russell deserves serious credit for portraying mental illness in a manner that doesn’t dance around the seriousness of the condition. Statistically one in three people suffer from a mental illness at some point in their life, and I’ll even admit that post-divorce, I too fell amongst those ranks (I’m a statistic!). In the case of Pat, He’s not just some unfeeling jerk who says inappropriate things or has problems reading social cues. He’s a guy going through serious personal struggles, same with Tiffany. These are not jokes. They are not send-ups of mental illness; they are people. At no point does the humanity of these characters get lost. We will laugh at their inappropriate comments, sure, but we are never laughing at them from some cushy sanctuary of superiority. I also think Russell examines an interesting, more socially-acceptable form of mass mental illness, namely the OCD-nature associated with sports superstitions. Smart and capable people can get caught up in the allure of superstitions, and when it concerns sports in general, groupthink overpowers. I consider myself a sports fan as well (I’m a double statistic!) and fully accept the ridiculous nature of fandom, but I thought it was a clever move for Russell to hold the mirror up to our own cracked community and its irrational behavior. And as any Philadelphia sports fan will acknowledge, they take fandom to a whole other level.
At this point, I don’t know what more I can write about this movie without coming across as a complete, frothing madman. Football, mental illness, ballroom dancing! I’m smitten big time with Silver Linings Playbook. I’m completely in the tank for this film. Future viewings (already planning one soon) will probably highlight certain minute flaws I’ve failed to notice the first go-round. And even if those flaws become more apparent (yes the final dance is something of a contrived climax) I simply do not care. The movie’s many virtues far exceed any shortcomings that could potentially arise. It plays to some familiar rom-com elements but it goes about its business with its own funky charm. The acting, writing, and directing are all on such a heightened level of excellence, it’s amazing just to watch all the parts work together so masterfully. I wasn’t just won over by this movie; I’ve become its disciple. I preach the gospel of Silver Linings Playbook. Here is a rapturous feel-good movie that doesn’t feel like it’s pandering or dulling its edge even after it takes some conventional turns. Cooper is terrific, Lawrence is astounding, and together they form the couple you cheer for. Silver Linings Playbook is everything you’d want in a stellar movie. I can’t wait to watch it again and get caught up in its wondrous spell once more. It took a long ten months but The Grey has finally been knocked off the perch. Silver Linings Playbook is nothing short of the best film I’ve seen this year.
Nate’s Grade: A
The day at a fast food eatery began like any other. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of the branch, has to shepherd her small group of employees through a hectic Friday evening. Then she gets a phone call from an “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy). He tells her one of her workers, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer. Sandra takes Becky into a storeroom and confronts her. Becky is aghast and professes her innocence. This is where things start to get out of control in writer/director Craig Zobel’s potent indie pressure-cooker. “Officer Daniels” insists that Becky be searched, then strip searched, and then worse, and Sandra and the employees begrudgingly go along. After all, it’s an officer of the law telling them what to do. Except that “Officer Daniels” is no police officer. This whole incident is an awful prank, and the people involved will never be the same.
This really is an indie horror movie, flipping the oft-repeated cry, “Don’t go in there,” with, “Why are you still doing this?” You may have to watch portions of this movie between your fingers. I was squirming and crying out at numerous points. The tension and dread just continue to mount, and you watch the characters slowly degrade, as they’re asked to do more insidious acts of humiliation in the name of compliance, and to watch them carry on the path of shame. It’s a step-by-step process of human degradation, so that the more disturbing moments of sexual obedience don’t feel entirely implausible given the journey through hell the characters have endured. It is impossible to watch this movie silent and detached. This is a provocative film that will garner many reactions but it’s also something of an endurance test. How long can you watch? How far can you watch these characters descend? The movie hooks you early and then you almost feel complicit, but you’re completely taken over by morbid curiosity.
The movie is a powerful modern-day example of the Milgram experiment, the famous psychological exercise where a figure in authority, who assumes all responsibility, gradually gets average people to commit increasingly harmful acts to others. As long as people believe they are following orders, they can be convinced to do almost anything by someone in control. It’s easy to sit back and judge these characters, scoffing at how naïve they seem to be. It’s always easy for us to say what we would do in hypothetical situations, that is, until they happen. Compliance is an intriguing analysis of the shifting facets of power, authority, and manipulation. “Officer Daniels” enlists a host of tricks and verbal intimidation to persuade his victims to do things outside their better judgment (the caller’s true profession is a brilliant backstory). After a while, Sandra looks to be developing some slight Stockholm syndrome as she empathizes more with the plight of the phony officer on the phone than her employee. He provides just enough sympathy and validation she’s looking for to win her over. He also plays people against one another; he implores Becky to spare Sandra any extended grief, which often cows her into consenting. “Officer Daniels” isn’t the only one manipulating others; Sandra pressures employees to become involved in the situation, using her position of power to squeeze others into getting what she wants. There are numerous victims and culprits here.
Zobel could have easily given over to the exploitation elements of his story and made a very tawdry, voyeuristic exercise in sexual dominance. We watch as Becky bares all of herself and then goes even further, as “Officer Daniels” instructs male attendants to physically inspect her body cavities. It is a credit to Zobel’s sensitive direction that Compliance does not come across like a glorified S&M masturbation fantasy. He treats the incident very seriously, providing clear distaste without going overboard into preachy condemnation or superiority. It’s amazing that Zobel’s script finds so much empathy for his participants. You may be surprised at how relatable and “normal” these people seem. You may even recognize some of them. They’re all trying to do the right thing at heart, but that distinction gets extremely blurry as the night carries on. The point of Zobel’s script is that these people could be us. The added empathy makes the downward spiral all the more stomach-churning, as we want these characters to take a stand, to wise up and question the voice of authority.
Dowd (Marley & Me) is downright heartbreaking and deeply frustrating in the movie. We get a clear sense of the pressure she’s under in her position, but she’s really the focal point of the movie. Walker (TV’s Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23) is the martyr of the piece, and her slow resignation to the humiliation is deeply affecting, but this is Dowd’s movie. The longtime character actress takes the character of the dowdy Sandra, striving for respect, and transforms her into a figure worthy of Greek tragedy. She can be vindictive and, well, bossy, but she’s also a figure struggling for respect and validation and what she feels is morally just. We watch as her confidence starts getting chipped away, the flickers of doubt that she must tamp down because now she’s gone too far to reverse course. I don’t imagine that a movie as small as Compliance will be remembered around Oscar time, but I’ll certainly recall Dowd’s sad and transfixing performance.
I’d like to share a spooky bit of personal connection to the film. No I’ve never experienced anything this heinous before, but there was an offhand music cue that caught my interest. When we cut to the dining area early on, there’s an Admiral Twin song playing. Who is Admiral Twin? Why they’re a brilliant pop-rock band from Tulsa, Oklahoma that I’ve been singing the praises of since 2000. I’ve won over friends with my discipleship, but the band is still relatively unknown, playing few performances outside of their native Tulsa. Given the phonetic approximations of my name with the film’s writer/director, and the inclusion of an obscure indie band that few know (but should), it seems likely that Zobel may indeed be some far off relative of mine or, more likely, myself. I must have crafted an entire film without ever knowing about it. This seems like the most probable scenario.
I don’t want it sound like Compliance is some grueling exercise in group sadism. In lesser hands, it might have devolved to that. It’s a fascinating and provocative game that challenges and incenses an audience. The movie is a sickening but compulsively watchable dramatic experiment that will leave you talking for hours once it concludes. It’s an uncomfortable sit, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. The events in the film seem unbelievable and yet it’s based on a true story. This stuff happened, people. Not only that, it happened multiple occasions in multiple vicinities. What does that say about human nature? Will we only be as good as society lets us be? If we are absolved of responsibility, how far removed from our own sense of ethics will we go? Are we all susceptible to this moral failing under the right circumstances? I think that’s the truly terrifying and lasting lesson of Compliance. These people could be us, both victim and unwitting antagonist. Destined to stir debate and become a college ethics course favorite, Compliance is a gripping movie that will make you cringe but also give way to some scary introspection. How far would you go?
Nate’s Grade: A-
Holy Motors (2012)
I like movies that are different. I like movies that can be hard to understand. Holy Motors, a surreal French film, is both very different and very hard to understand. The movie follows a man as he goes about transforming into nine different characters, each with their own bizarre mission. Is he performing? For whom? Who is behind all this? Does he ever stop assuming false roles? Questions such as these hardly matter in movies such as this. You’re either transported by the lyrical weirdness and unpredictability, or you find it tiresome and much ado about nothing. After a while, I just gave up with this movie. I’m not a fan of weird for weird’s sake and I felt like that was all I got with Holy Motors. I’m sure you could write a doctoral-level thesis decoding this movie, but why waste valuable hours of your life? This movie is nothing but strange imagery that adds up to precious little. I thought the concept of playing roles/manufactured realities was better explored in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. When a Kaufman movie is more accessible than your film, your name better be David Lynch or you’re in trouble. I’m sure several fans of the obscure and outrageous will find amusement at the sheer randomness with Holy Motors. It’s got martial arts acrobats, Kylie Minogue breaking out into song, magical resurrection, spontaneous band performances, talking cars, and for good measure chimpanzees. I hope you get more out of it than I did. I found the enterprise to be more tedious than titillating, more frustrating than fascinating, and not worth the trouble of fashioning meaning from the discarded puzzle pieces.
Nate’s Grade: C
Breaking Dawn: Part Two (2012)
Ignoring the ironic nature of the Breaking Dawn Part 2 poster taglines declaring love to be “forever,” the box-office juggernaut that is the Twilight franchise is coming to an end. Based upon Stephenie Meyer’s outrageously popular series of books, we’ve followed the love life of Bella Swan as she’s experimented with human, vampire, and werewolf. The studio heads decided to take Meyer’s final book and split it into two books. Breaking Dawn Part 1 had a wedding, honeymoon, pregnancy, supernatural birth, and Bella’s death/resurrection. And yet, that movie was still crushingly boring. My hopes were substantially low for Part 2, despite director Bill Condon’s (Dreamgirls) best efforts to jazz up all the awful plotting, characters, and romance. Then a funny thing happened. I started enjoying myself, and then the movie took some chances that I felt were daring considering its rabid fanbase. And then watching Breaking Dawn Part 2 became more than watching the film, it was also the experience of watching the audience. To that end, the movie delivers and I may rue these words but I kinda sorta almost liked enough of it.
Bella Cullen nee Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her husband, immortal vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson), have gone through the wringer. In her waning days as a human, Bella got knocked up during her honeymoon, and her half-human half-vampire baby killed its mama on the way out. Now Bella’s a vampire and a mom (note to self: start writing new script – “Single Mom Vampire”). Her daughter, Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy’s face on a whole lot of other people’s bodies), is rapidly growing. She’s mistaken for a vampire baby, which is a punishment worthy of death. This news gets Aro (Michael Sheen) to rustle up his Volturi forces, a group of vampires with super powers. They’re coming for the Cullens and little Renesmee. The friendly vampires scour the world, gathering “witnesses” to the tyke’s half-vampire status, but really they’re gathering an army to defend themselves. It’s super vamp against super vamp and heads will roll.
I clearly understand that I am in no way the target audience for this franchise and that my reams of pithy words will find little traction in the hearts of the Twi-hard faithful, but I’d like to state that I’ve never been a hater of the movies. Well, let me rephrase that. My thoughts ping-pong from liked okay (Twilight) to hated (New Moon) back to liked okay (Eclipse) back to hated (Breaking Dawn Part 1), and now here we back are to liked okay. Consider it a double-dip recession in quality. I still view the whole franchise as an exercise in pre-teen wish fulfillment, but I’ve already written extensively upon that theory so I won’t bother re-litigating that battle. With all that said, I found myself oddly enjoying myself for sustained durations. It’s just as silly as the other movies but finally we can move on from mopey Bella and her dubious romantic triangle. Finally we don’t have to suffer through two hours of kids making (new) mooneyes at each other (did I just out myself as “old”?). By this I mean finally something ELSE happens rather than the incremental coupling of Bella and Edward. Granted their kid is really more a prop than a character, but at least the story has taken one gigantic leap forward. Finally Stewart can actually smile and, you know, do things of actual consequence!
It’s no secret that the Twilight saga, as its monetary benefactors would like to dub the franchise, has noticeably been better the less time it spends with its female protagonist, Bella. Breaking Dawn Part 2 might just be the least Bella-filled episode yet, a cause of celebration for my brethren who view Ms. Cullen as an infuriating, insufferable, insulting protagonist. At least in this movie she develops a sense of self-identity, though too often that identity falls into the camps of Wife and Mother. With this movie, she’s adjusting to life as a vampire, so we get cutesy scenes of her hunting prey, learning how to fake looking like a puny human, and arm-wrestling the strong cocky vampire guy to, you know, for the strides in girl power. Too little too late, Bella. I find it more than a little funny that Bella’s super power is passive in nature, fitting a passive protagonist that waist for people to give her meaning and tell her what to do. I should stop before another rant unspools as I’ve done on previous Twilight writing occasions. In short: Bella sucks.
We’re introduced to a lot of new characters in this movie and each brings some sliver of backstory to develop. I’m not saying they’re all deserving of attention or interest, but at least these new clans of vampires brought some much-needed life to what has often been a claustrophobic, monotonous love triangle. Opening up Meyer’s world and seeing other vamps with special powers are a fun detour that I wish had taken place sooner. I liked seeing Lee Pace (TV’s Pushing Daisies) as a soldier from back to America’s colonial days. I’m left scratching my head why certain vampire members were added to the ranks when they didn’t even show up for the final showdown. What was the point of having Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) show up and be all skeptical about the group’s chances of winning… and then not have him join? So he was skeptical from the start and then remained so, choosing to sit the finale out. Well I’m sure glad we spent time on him then. Also, the movie falls into the trap of establishing super-powered beings that are too powerful. We get one guy who can control the elements. Not just one or two but freaking all of the elements. He’s like Captain Planet minus that dumb kid with the lame heart power. During the climactic battle, this kid uses his power ONCE. How do you give him a wealth of super powers and then sideline him? There’s also an Amazon vampire who can control people’s vision, namely making them see whatever she wants. How are these two assets not utilized for tactical supremacy?
I had the suspicion that Breaking Dawn Part 2 might be the best film in the series simply by the fact that it’s the one with the most Michael Sheen. God I love this man. His last-minute turn in the appalling New Moon banished the suicidal thoughts swirling in my head. Even when he’s in bad movies, Sheen is usually the best thing about them (see: TRON: Legacy or the Underworld films). Here’s an actor who knows exactly how ridiculous everything about this universe is, and by God he sinks his teeth in. The benefit of added Sheen cannot be overstated. The movie greatly benefits by having a strong outside threat early. Only the third movie, Eclipse, had an external threat from the start, and that gave the film a much-needed sense of urgency. I was with Sheen and the Volturi on this one. They were merely following the laws of vampires meant to protect their own kind. Vampire babies are a no-no since they cannot control their otherworldly urges, so they and their makes must be destroyed. You know you’re in for a darker Twilight when early on we witness a baby getting tossed into a roaring fire. I admit that I have a susceptibility to falling under the sway of magnetic villains. Perhaps this speaks to some character defect of my own. It probably just speaks to the fact that movies often have boring heroes and charismatic villains. Sheen is so hammy and delightful and I just wanted more of him amidst the melee that punctuates the end. The man even looks like he’s about to lead a marching band during the battle and he’s still badass. Such is the awesomeness of Michael Sheen. Of this there can be no question.
But then the Condon and series scribe Melissa Rosenberg do something almost extraordinary given the slavish devotion to the series fans have. They divert from the source material in broad strokes during the climactic vampire brawl. I won’t go into exact details but the preview audience I was with was absolutely losing their collective minds. Women were screaming, cries of “Nooo” rang through the room; all around me was the echo of consternation and shock, women trying to absorb the reality of what they were viewing. Sitting with them, taking in their shrieks and lamentations, the general horror of what might happen next… it was a thing of beauty. I can almost recommend seeing Breaking Dawn Part 2 simply to be part of this experience. However, you’ll have to act quickly and be selective. You’ll need a packed theater filled with vocal Twi-hards, likely an opening weekend evening crowd, the kind that openly cheer shirtless revelries from the male co-stars. And then just sit and wait, knowing that soon all that revelry will turn to shock. I sound so mean-spirited explaining this and that’s not my intention. I didn’t necessarily enjoy the discomfort of the Twi-hards. I enjoyed the bewilderment. It felt like the theater was alive, coursing with the energy of alert uncertainty. Anything could happen, including some very not nice things. To be one tiny drop in an ocean of furious estrogen, well it’s an experience that deserves mentioning. Its strange experiences like this that make me love going to the movies, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a combination of words I’d never thought I would write about any Twilight film.
Also, though my expectations were never that high to begin with, I have to credit Condon with fashioning a fairly exciting action brawl, one that’s surprisingly graphic at spots for a PG-13 movie primarily aimed at young girls. The series has been building up to a massive showdown, and the movie itself has been putting the feuding factions into place, so it’s satisfying that the finale truly feels climactic and delivers some thrills. For the record, Meyer’s book was free of any climactic battle. This movie is chock full of decapitations. I cannot recall another PG-13 film that had this many beheadings. I think you could watch a drama set during the French Revolution and you wouldn’t witness this many people lose their heads. Is there no other ay to kill a vampire? What ever happened to the good old fashioned staking of the heart? These kids these days; all they want to do is decapitate. To dull the grisly spectacle, the beheadings are weirdly bloodless. Condon does a bangup job of setting up plenty of mini-payoffs and duels throughout his busy action centerpiece. Then when it looks like the carnage is at an end, the movie takes a page from the Final Destination playbook, which Twi-hards will probably find relieving. I thought it was a major cop-out but whatever. Let the kids have their happy ending.
Before you get your hopes up too extravagantly, this movie still offers plenty of stupid. I don’t care how you explain it, the imprinting thing is stupid incarnate. I still find it eternally creepy that Jacob couldn’t have the mother so he settles for the daughter. The fact that everyone treats this development so seriously makes me laugh. And oh boy, let’s talk about those Amazon vampires. First off, I find it hilarious that Meyer’s vision of vampire clans from around the world really just boils down to Europe and the Amazon. When they stepped onto screen wearing, and I kid you not, loin clothes and tribal markings, I was flabbergasted. Doesn’t anyone find this depiction to be at least deeply ignorant and culturally insensitive? I’ll stop short of calling it quasi-racist; though attaching “quasi” to anything lets you get away with most declarations (“This movie is quasi-watchable”). But when our big battle over a frozen lake takes place, why are these Amazon characters STILL wearing loincloths in the frozen landscape? Then there’s the annoying fact that Renesmee rapidly grows, meaning that Bella and Edward get to skip out on actually raising a baby. If Meyer intended to punish these kids for having sex in Part 1, then she needs to follow through on her antiquated sexual hang-ups.
As the franchise draws to a close, I’m trying to take stock of the five films and their overall impact (sadly, we all know with the potential riches, a reboot is likely only five years out). The end credits play out like a gauzy yearbook for the franchise, visually highlighting every significant speaking role, including the two different actresses who played villainous Rachel. The Twilight series has been very good to me as a writer; I’ve produced long-winded reviews with each new entry, and the opening-day people watching has become part of the spectacle I enjoy. That’s really what we’re dealing with here – spectacle. It’s all gooey romantic fantasy nonsense with some pretty bland characters, questionable messages for young girls, and such deadly seriousness. If we were grading on a curve, I’d say Breaking Dawn Part 2 is actually tolerable thanks to nominal character development, less whiny Bella, an influx of new characters, extra Sheen time, a better sense of humor, and a climax that truly feels climactic.
I can’t say the Twilight movies have gotten better as they’ve gone, though Condon has proven to be an apt choice to steer this franchise to a close. He’s given the franchise a bit more life, a bit more blood. I’ll never admit that the love story of Bella and Edward deserved five full-fledged movies, but I recognize the significance Twilight stands in many young girls lives. Fans will eat this stuff up. They’ll certainly enjoy the Bella/Edward sex where she doesn’t end up bruised. For them, it ends in a fitting sendoff, even after the jolts of text deviation morphs into giggled recounts on car rides home. For them, Breaking Dawn Part 2 will be the perfect ending to their beloved series. I can’t imagine anyone indifferent to the series working up that much interest, but I can say with sincerity that Breaking Dawn Part 2 is the best film in the Twilight series and potentially worth seeing for the rollercoaster ride of bewildered fan reactions. Now that the last blood has been drained from this franchise, let’s move on to more important items… like the next Hunger Games movie.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Sessions (2012)
When The Session (formerly The Surrogate) debuted at the Sundance film festival, it seemed like Oscar catnip. You’ve got Oscar-pedigree cast, the limitations of disability (iron lung), and writer/director Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance) certainly knows a thing or two on the subject. He’s a polio survivor himself. But the story of a man in an iron lung’s sexual reawakening, as my mother would say, is a harder sell to the public. The movie has enough bizarre intrigue to garner a curiosity factor in many, and the sweeping acting and light-hearted tone will win over many a follower. I just wished that Lewin had focused more on his central character than what’s below the waist.
Mark O’Brian (John Hawkes) is a 37-year-old virgin looking to fix that oversight. The problem is that he’s suffered from polio all his life and can only be outside of his iron lung for upwards of a few hours. He’s not paralyzed, mind you; it’s just that his muscles don’t work too well. To move forward, Mark is set up with a sex surrogate, a sort of alternative therapy that is intended to help the disabled learn how to take control of their bodies for healthy physical relationships. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) has a set of rules as she goes about her business. There will only be six sessions to limit any emotional attachment. Mark is certainly a challenge, a man who doesn’t have muscle control below his neck (he confides that he hasn’t seen his penis in over 30 years). Together they work on getting Mark experienced and aware of his own body and abilities.
The Sessions is essentially a two-actor showcase (William H. Macy as a helpful priest is really just an ear to listen/audience surrogate), an ongoing dialogue and set of interactions between Mark and Cheryl. The script could have worked as a play though film certainly does open up the viewing possibilities when you’re dealing with an immobilized character. From that stand point, The Sessions is often a fascinating and funny portrait of a world that few of us will ever comprehend. We seem to have this concept that immobility is a death sentence; In Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank preferred death over disability. There’s the standard uplifting personal tales of success, the triumph of the human spirit, that sort of thing when we talk about disability in the movies. The Sessions is different. It’s all about sex, and it’s refreshingly frank about the realities of sexuality for those with disability. The human body is an amazingly adaptable creation, so no matter the setback, there is still plenty hope of having a relatively healthy sex life. Beyond a section in Murderball, I cannot think of another movie to explore the reality of sex for those with disabilities. It’s like a wondrous combination of two topics that makes people feel uncomfortable. So, in short, this is not going to be a movie for everyone.
That’s too bad because The Sessions is an engrossing story of a man trying to experience a world of human sexuality denied to him due to cruel circumstance. Mark is a relatively nice guy, a poet, though he can be a little quick with the emotional attachment and declarations of love. Can you blame the guy? I believe some will argue that limiting the focus to Mark’s sexuality, and his desire to shape himself into a better lover, is a misuse of the narrative potential. Some will chide that the film could be the indie version of any number of horny male sex comedies. To some degree, I can agree with this assessment, mostly because I wanted to follow more of Mark’s life and the movie is only 90 minutes long. But I also think the strict focus on human sexuality is also a boon for a movie like this. The fact that you could place a movie about a man in an iron lung and, say, American Pie in the same conversation is a testament that we are losing some of the stigma of disability. This guy wants to get laid. Period. And we can be grown up about this.
Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) is excellent in a role that requires him to do all his acting from above the neck. He’s convincing in every detail, down to his pained, willowy voice and his handling of a pointer for his mouth is first rate. Beyond the physical tics, Mark exists as a complex character that Hawkes is able to fully open up. He’s caustically funny, overcome with self-doubt, sweetly naïve, yet he’s also just like every other man on the planet. Hawkes doesn’t overplay the physical restrictions so it doesn’t end up being a performance dominated in showy actor traits. It’s a sweet and affecting performance that moves in small waves but makes a noted impact. Expect the man to get his second Oscar nomination this winter, as respected actor + disability is a combination they cannot refuse. Also, Hawkes is completely deserving of praise.
Hunt (Soul Surfer) has been grabbing a lot of headlines for the amount of skin she exposes, but her performance deserves more attention than a secondhand reference to her nudity. To be fair, it is copious nudity of Helen Hunt. I think she recites more lines while in different states of undress than clothed. It’s so much nudity that when you close your eyes, you may still be able to see it (not complaining here…). She does a lot of fine acting while naked. It’s hard exactly to get a bead on her character. She seems displeased with her insensitive husband, though he has to have some level of understanding to be okay with her profession. It feels like she’s looking to Mark as… something more, something else, but then it feels like her rationality returns and she returns back to the parameters of her job title. It’s a strong performance and the movie is at its best when Hunt and Hawkes are together. I just can’t help but feel if the ending wasn’t so blunted (more on that below) than maybe her performance would hit an even higher register.
The actors are so good and the movie is so tender, I almost forgive it for lacking a proper third act (some major end spoilers to follow). Naturally the number one concern you’d imagine for a sex surrogate would be the danger of building emotional attachment. This is why Cheryl limits her sessions to six max. That doesn’t stop attachments from forming. Mark and Cheryl are dreading the conclusion of the sessions, having grown close emotionally as well as physically. So to spare them lingering pain, Cheryl suggests they stop early. Mark reluctantly agrees. There, ladies and gents, is your second act break. But then rather than get a third act, the movie simply gives you a slightly extended resolution instead. Mark meets a nice volunteer at the hospital and flirts with her, crowing with pride to inform he is no virgin. But then… we cut right into Mark’s voice over telling us that he spent the last five years of his life with this new woman. We get an introduction and then immediately jump to the end of the relationship. I understand that without Cheryl’s kindness and education, Mark’s long and healthy romantic relationship would not have happened. I understand that he’s able to succeed because they broke down barriers of confidence together. This doesn’t stop the ending from feeling missing, absent the payoffs we yearn for in drama. It’s a curious and muffled close to a movie that was so interesting and audacious.
The Sessions is more than just an Oscar-bait disability movie. It’s really an arty version of a sex comedy with some extraordinary participants played by skilled actors. It has a frankness that’s refreshing and it’s never less than interesting, exploring the minutia of Mark’s life and the difficulties he overcomes. It’s not exactly a triumph of adversity, per se. It’s not exactly a chamber piece devoted to characters even though two dominate the conversation. The Sessions is a hard movie to pin down. It’s perfectly enjoyable and funny, touching, disarming, and well acted, but I can’t help but feel like Lewin should have aimed higher. To focus solely on Mark’s budding sexuality seems rather limiting for the character, and the disappearance of a final act proves bewildering, blunting the dramatic climax, thwarting further involvement. I’ve seen the film twice now and my opinion of it improved slightly the second go-round, but I’m still left scratching my head over that ending. I get it, I just don’t get why Lewin felt like racing to the end rather than exploring the conflicts and personal struggles of his characters. I suppose there’s some testament to sticking to the facts but that doesn’t matter when it comes to telling me a good story. I’m of a mixed mind here because The Sessions has plenty to recommend but I also feel that the film’s finale and light-hearted, limited sense of purpose hamstring the emotional impact of the whole enterprise. Disabled people can lead healthy sex lives. I get it. Now show me more signs of that life.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)
In my lifetime, I’ve developed a fine taste for schlock cinema. I appreciate a jolly good bad movie that knows what it is. With that said, when you’re bad at being bad, then that’s a special case of bad, and such is the case of the hip-hop martial arts junk that is The Man with the Iron Fists. It looks like the kind of campy schlock I’d eat up, and with Russell Crowe as a murderous lascivious scoundrel to boot. The problem with this movie is that it has hip-hop artist RZA as a writer and director. It’s not horribly directed but RZA doesn’t have a firm grasp on action, relying too heavily on wires and spurts of graphic blood. But where the movie completely misfires is with a script that feels cobbled together with subplots belonging to other movies. There’s a basic vengeance storyline, but the first hour of this mess is awash in confusion with a flurry of characters and storylines that fail to coalesce. It feels like everything is just rattling around waiting to be given greater significance. It has a few memorable moments but just as many tacky eye-rollers, like Crowe pulling out anal beads with his teeth. The Man with the Iron Fists just feels so flat overall, lacking a jocular tone or a distinct personality that would have given it a little life. I appreciate the detail that RZA put into his violent world, but I’d appreciate it more if he worked harder at developing a clear story that also was engaging. For all its exploitation elements and fantastic characters, the ultimate sin of The Man with the Iron Fists is that it’s just too boring for too long.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The James Bond franchise, one of the most enduring of all time, has been open to criticism since it came back in a big way with 2006’s Casino Royale. Fans have started to whine that the Bond movies are no longer the Bond they remember, and they’re probably right. In 2006, the producers decided to go back, reboot the series, and introduce a more grounded Bond, a man with more demons than quips. This backlash to a successful reboot seems so funny to me, especially considering the dubious nature of these older Bond movies. Can we all just take a moment and objectively admit that half of the Bond movies are absolutely awful? Skyfall is the third in the new Daniel Craig Bond era, and it’s received universally ecstatic reviews. It’s a fine work, surprising and satisfying in equal measure, but it’s no Casino Royale for me, but what can be?
James Bond (Craig) is recovering from a serious injury after a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), accidentally shoots Agent 007. In her defense, he was atop a speeding train battling a baddie and her boss, M (Judi Dench), ordered her to fire. In the weeks that follow, Bond is struggling to adapt. He’s lost a step physically and now has to deal with his own doubts. Naturally, this isn’t the most opportune time for crises of faith. MI6 is under attack by one of their own, a former agent turned powerful techno-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem). The man has a serious grudge against M and is exposing MI6 undercover agents to punish her. After an attack at MI6 HQ, the agency is left scrambling and sends Bond out to nab Silva, even if Bond isn’t physically ready to return to field duty. Silva is determined to kill M and destroy the agency that left him for dead.
While Skyfall is indeed a good Bond movie and worlds better than 2008’s Quantum of Solace, it still cannot meet the rapturous applause it’s receiving among critical circles. It starts off strong with a nifty action sequence in Istanbul (the go-to action setting for 2012). Bond is chasing a bad guy, and we go from foot chase to car chase to rumbling on top of a speeding train. And there are natural complications that take advantage of geography! When Bond hops on the train, he climbs into a construction crane to fight back, smashing open the back of the train car. It’s a terrific opener that gets things starts briskly, and the sexual chemistry between Craig and Harris (28 Days Later) is palpable. Then the movie pretty much deflates in the second half. There’s a build-up to the villain and his master plot, but once that plot is revealed the film can’t live up to the hype. There are enough plot elements that feel important but eventually get discarded. Here’s a minor example: Bond is given a handgun programmed to his palm print, so it will only fire with Bond wielding it. It’s the only gadget in the movie, so you’d expect it to be utilized in a significant way. One nameless thug uses it then gets eaten by a Komodo dragon. That is it. Seems like an awful waste of funds for it to be thrown away so casually.
The last act has a protracted finale in Scotland, exploring Bond’s ancestral home and his tragic backstory. I’d like to think the insights we’re offered are important but I don’t believe they are. Bond was an orphan (the best recruits, says M) and Albert Finney (Big Fish) was his quasi-father figure/caretaker. It’s not enough to compensate for the slack pacing and encroaching boredom present. The good guys are holed up in an estate, waiting. And that’s what you want in a Bond movie, let alone any action film, for the heroes to sit and wait. An action movie should be building to a climax of intensity, thematically as well as plot-wise. Skyfall is that rare Bond film that flirts with coming undone; each passing action sequence seems less interesting than the one before.
With Mendes directing and Roger Deakens, the greatest working cinematographer, at his disposal, this has to be the best looking Bond movie. The shot compositions are often stunning, making fine use of the visual space and the balance of light and shadow. There are even some shots that might remind you of Mendes previous films like American Beauty or Road to Perdition. Added with some above average action, it makes the thrills an even better sight. There was a fight sequence in a Chinese high-rise almost completely in unbroken silhouette, with the neon tentacles of advertisements dancing in the background. It’s a wonderful image. Even when the movie was losing me at points, I could at least admire the visuals. I was worried that Mendes would not have a deft feel for action. After all, another indie director mostly known for dramatic work, Marc Foster, helmed Solace. That selection did not work out so well, though the script was notably weak. Mendes, on the other hand, can stage some pretty exciting action sequences with judicious editing, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. He’s not exactly a knockout when it comes to constructing action sequences, but the results are more than adequate for a guy whose last two movies were Away We Go and Revolutionary Road.
For the previous Craig entries, it feels like the movies have borrowed more from Jason Bourne than Bond. They’ve gone for a grittier, darker, more realistic portrayal. Skyfall takes a very interesting angle with the character, showing a Bond coming to terms with his physical limitations. It’s a Bond that has to confront his most nefarious foe: aging. Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells the agent that the whole spy business is “a young man’s game.” In the old days, you needed men with lairs in volcanoes and giant doomsday lasers. Now you can send the world into irreversible chaos with a laptop. Skyfall is at its most engaging when it confronts the old world of spies and the scary new world of technology. Can the Queen and MI6 compete or will they be left behind? Bond and his organization must confront their limitations and mortality, and this added dimension of vulnerability makes the series far more emotionally resonant.
Here’s my main problem with the villain: it’s a bait and switch affair that leads to unfulfilled potential. Silva has been spoken of with such awe, a man who could bring governments to their knees with the click of a button. He’s made out to be this dangerous cyber-terrorist genius. So what happens for the second half of the movie? He chases people around and shoots guns. It’s like Skyfall completely forgets what made their villain special. Bardem gives a flamboyant performance with an extra dash of actorly nuttiness, but it’s nowhere near the memorable menace of 2007’s No Country for Old Men. That’s an unfair comparison, I know, but where the movie really starts losing it is when Silva loses it. He becomes just another garden variety psychopath, though one with a creepy oedipal complex. Psychopaths do not work in the James Bond universe. Agent 007 needs a foil that is smart, not crazy and a mad genius rather than mad. I recognize that Silva’s psychological shambles is meant to be a sign of the potential fate of all agents, let alone agents that are given up by M. That doesn’t mean you abandon all the traits that make the villain who he is. The problem with Silva, despite a rather jarring monologue about the effects of surviving a cyanide capsule, peaks with his first appearance. He has a grand entrance and places Bond in a very precarious position, forcing him to confront his physical failures. That’s the villain I want to see. And the awkward handsiness of Silva will also lead many to question whether he’s gay, which wouldn’t matter if the movie wasn’t so clunky.
It also feels like Skyfall may be the conclusion to this incarnation of Bond. I know Craig has been signed for two more films, and that’s great news as he’s fully made the character his own at this point, but the movie seems to setup the Bond we’re better acquainted with. We started from scratch with Casino Royale and now the familiar world, with the reemergence of familiar characters, is coming into focus. The scenes with the new Q (Ben Wishaw), a gangly whiz kid, are enjoyable and they contribute thematically to the old vs. new/age vs. youth conflict at heart. This feels like a transition film, meant to pass from the bruising realism into the polished pyrotechnics of the franchise’s past. There’s a reason the famous gun barrel shot happens to conclude the movie, because by the end of those 142 minutes, it now feels like the formation of James Bond has completed. There are also plenty of in-jokes and references for Bond aficionados to lap up. Even the (lackluster) title song by Adele is in the vein of the old Shirley Bassey numbers.
While not living up to the exultant hype machine, Skyfall is certainly a good Bond movie, though not nearly good enough to be in the conversation of the best. The action starts strong but is prone to diminishing returns especially as the movie transforms into a more ordinary action thriller. The most memorable sequence is in the opening, which isn’t a very good sign for the rest of the movie. It’s still a suitable action movie, and one that pays closer attention at character for a character that’s lived for 50 years in various film incarnations, but just because it pays more attention to character doesn’t mean it does it well. Perhaps I’ve just become spoiled after the artistic and commercial heights of Casino Royale. This is still an entertaining movie that often looks great and has some great actors doing suitable work. We’re still far and away from the loonier Pierce Brosnan episodes, so there is that. I imagine audiences will be more favorable than I am and make Skyfall the most successful James Bond film in history. That’s fine because it feels like, with everything established, that we’re about to hit a new and exciting phase with Craig’s version of the character, and that will leave me shaken and stirred.
Nate’s Grade: B
The advertising for Flight has highlighted the sexier elements, the star wattage of Denzel Washington and director Robert Zemeckis, and the thrills of the air disaster. What you get is a different matter. The first thirty minutes prepares you for one movie, and then Flight takes off in a different direction, a path that fails to capitalize on the potential of the subject matter.
Whip Whitaker (Washington) is one hell of a pilot. He miraculously lands a downed airplane, limiting the loss of life to six. He is also a hell of a drunk. Whip also happened to be drunk and high on cocaine at the time of the crash. As the airline investigation searches for the causes that lead to the crash, Whip and his team, longtime friend and union ally (Bruce Greenwood) and high-priced ethically sketchy defense lawyer (Don Cheadle) try and protect their own. The media is agog in hero worship with Whip, but they don’t know about what awaits in his blood test drawn at the scene of the crash. As Whip prepares for possible criminal charges, he meets a recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and the two form a connection. He hides out at his father’s old estate, invites her along, and they struggle to stay clean and fly right. But temptation is too powerful a beast for Whip, and he will continue to make poor decisions.
It’s really a modern-age version of The Lost Weekend or The Days of Wine and Roses. It is an alcoholism story. We’re all familiar with them at this point in the movies. A part of me thinks addiction stories are some of the easiest ones to write; you take a flawed character, introduce the addiction, have them determined to get sober, and then provide temptation after temptation. And that’s kind of what Flight feels like. The compelling elements of the movie, notably the legal ramifications of the crash and the political maneuvering, get too often sidelined by a repetitious mélange of Whip getting drunk or thinking about getting drunk or trying not to get drunk. There are many ups and downs, but the cycle of addiction and abuse starts to grow weary, especially when the movie offers more interesting and unique story avenues worth exploring. The airplane sequence is a taut, horrifying, intense sequence. The legal wrangling resulting from it seems like the stuff of good drama. The airline is trying to limit its monetary damage, the lawyers are trying to cover for their clients including having the dead crew stripped from the fatality numbers, and all the while the investigation is getting closer to uncovering Whip’s secret. That’s the movie I wanted to see with Flight. The majority of what I got was a by-the-books addiction parable with some good actors. The movie seems to be going in too many different directions.
Zemeckis’ return to live-action is welcomed and long overdue, and it’s great seeing him direct real people in real environments again, even if the finished film is flawed. His interests seem more with the special effects-laden crash, a harrowing sequence for the ages. When it gets to the addict stuff, it seems like Zemeckis goes on autopilot himself, bowing to the strength of his charismatic star sucking everything into his orbit. The movie becomes an acting showcase for Washington’s abilities at the expense of a completely coherent plot or tone. At times the film seems cavalierly comic, particularly with John Goodman’s character that gets treated like an endearing figure. He’s Whip’s chief source of drugs and his chief enabler and his casual nature with hardcore drugs, and the film’s noncommittal stance, gives the movie a strange, unsettling quality. Then there’s the religious aspect that feels like it flew in from a whole other screenplay (I can’t tell whether the film is dismissive of religion or just flippant). Plus Zemeckis just can’t help himself when it comes to on-the-nose literal music selections (after Whip gets high due to his compatriots, the elevator plays the Muzak version of the Beatles’ “Some Help from My Friends.”). It’s at this point I’m so happy for Zemeckis to be back making live-action movies, I’m probably giving Flight an even bigger pass than it may deserve.
I’m not sure the Nicole character provides anything substantial to this movie, let alone the movie treating her as a co-lead for the first thirty minutes. In between our moments of watching Whip on the plane, we have scenes of Nicole going about her sad day. I’m wondering how in the world these storylines are going to connect and why we have to leave the drama of the plane for the mundane life of an addict eeking out a desperate life. These should not be parallel storylines; the audience interest is not divided here. Nobody is complaining about spending too much time with Whip and the plane crash. No one is saying, “I wish I could see that woman’s sad life some more.” Why did we even need to see Nicole before she meets Whip in the hospital? Were all of those early scenes just too essential to lose in a movie over two hours? Thematically, I can understand that Nicole presents a romantic possibility but also a reward for Whip if he stays clean and sober. Seeing him screw up this pseudo-relationship is another example to convey the self-destructive nature of Whip. I get that. But if this woman were really integral to the plot, she wouldn’t vanish for the entire final act.
It’s easy to see why actors are always attracted to addict roles. They’re usually showy parts that allow for many opportunities to bottom out. Rest assured, Washington (Safe House) is uniformly excellent, portraying a deeply flawed individual prone to grandiose self-delusion and justification for his behavior. We’re so used to seeing Washington play the calm, cool, collected men of dignity, men who seem preternaturally gifted at leading others. With Flight, he becomes far more vulnerable, a self-destructive character that pushes others away and betrays the trust and faith of others. He’s not fighting some larger external force; he’s battling his internal demons that continually lead him astray. He can be petty, mean, weak, delusional, and downright unlikable at turns. It’s a strong performance that anchors the film. The other actors all provide admirable backup duties, from Cheadle to Greenwood to a brief appearance from Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as an airline investigator. I want to single out James Badge Dale (HBO’s The Pacific) for the impression he makes with a part that amounts to one single scene in the movie. He plays a gaunt cancer patient sneaking away for a stairwell smoke (“Wouldn’t want to give my cancer cancer”), joined by Whip and Nicole. He’s so good with the gallows humor and surprisingly poignancy that I wanted the camera to just start following him.
I want to point out one quirk during my movie going experience with Flight. I was easily the youngest person in my theater by 20 years minimum. I don’t enjoy seeing movies with a predominantly elderly crowd because they do not follow the agreed-upon rules of movie decorum. They often engage in conversations or provide a running commentary. A man two rows behind me had his watch beep for a solid minute to inform him, and the theater, it was now seven o’clock. Either he didn’t hear it beeping (which defeats the purpose) or couldn’t figure out this new-fangled 1980s watch technology to turn it off (which also defeats the purpose). Anyway, what I really enjoyed then was the audible reactions when Flight’s beginning, its very opening images, was a pair of naked breasts. The first scene features Whip and flight attendant Katerina (My Name is Earl’s Nadine Velaquez) getting dressed after a wild night of booze, cocaine, and sex. Whip talks to his ex-wife on the phone, and in one ongoing camera shot, we watch Velaquez walk around completely naked. Then she leaves off screen… and comes back still completely naked. Now I mention this because it delighted me to no end to listen to the grumbling of the older audience members. And yeah, the nudity is fairly gratuitous but I’m happy Zemeckis was able to rankle my elder audience before the second second of film.
Flight is also unique in the sense that it may be the only film I know of to posit that drugs and alcohol could save lives. Will is drunk and high while flying, but he saves the day because of his impairment. Ordinarily in the event of a crash or a dive he would revert to his training; every pilot in a flight simulator recreating the events crashed and killed all passengers. Instead, Will goes by instinct, thinking outside the box, and saving the day. And what enables him to do this? Booze, sweet life-saving booze! He’s so calm and relaxed in the moment that he’s able to think straight and discover unorthodox solutions in limited time. Flight never makes this fact explicit but I think it would have made a more interesting film if this debate had been given more airtime. Yeah Whip was drunk, but not every drunk is impaired the same. I’m not excusing driving while intoxicated, but the movie presents a strange situation, fictional yes, where drugs and alcohol saved lives. Then in the end, and our lead is in trouble, what does it look like will save the day? Cocaine! Seriously, the white knight in the final act is the white powder.
I think audience might be in for a rude awakening while they sit through Flight, advertised as an airline thriller. It’s still a competent, occasionally compelling movie with strong acting from Washington and others, but are audiences really interested in another alcoholism drama even if it has Big Stars? The most frustrating part of Flight is that it has so much potential, so many intriguing storylines or angles to choose from, and it settles on the most mainstream one, the familiar arc of an alcoholic coming to terms with their addiction. How is that more dramatic than an airline crash or the later investigation and legal witch-hunt to find a culprit to blame? The movie prefers to focus on the minor rather than the major, following the familiar formula to the very end when our lead has to make a grave moral decision. It’s a character study but the character and his path are the familiar. All the stuff that makes Flight different (the airline disaster, the investigation, the politics of blame) is the stuff that gets relegated so we can watch Whip screw up time and again. There’s an interesting study on hero worship buried somewhere in all this. I enjoyed Flight more in the moment but it has been crumbling under further reflection and analysis. I’m dearly glad Zemeckis has stepped back to the land of the living but Flight has too much baggage to go anywhere new and exciting.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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