Monthly Archives: May 2014
Chef must have been something of a needed break for its star, writer, and director, Jon Favreau. He’s directed three large-scale Hollywood sci-fi mega movies in a row, a long way from Favrieau’s first big break, Swingers, which he wrote for himself. It was time for something a little smaller, quieter, and more personal, and Chef is just the ticket, a familiar but still greatly satisfying slice-of-life movie about a frustrated chef finding his mojo. Favreau plays a famous chef who cracks under the pressure of delivering the same safe food day in and day out. He loses his job after an increasingly hostile Twitter war with a food critic who calls him out for his safety in blandness. This pushes Favreau out of his comfort zone; he starts an independent food truck, bonds with his son, and generally begins to embrace his new invigorating freedom. Don’t see this movie on an empty stomach because it will be torture. The food preparation shots are tantalizing as are the general discussions over the adoration of food, the heavenly feel of a good meal (an aspect that’s even utilized as foreplay in the film). The entire film is stoked by a laid back charm, an amiable camaraderie between Favreau and his cast, so much so that we don’t care when the film sort of stalls. It’s a far lengthier period between Favreau losing job and getting the food truck than necessary, and the ending is abrupt with an almost absurd amount of resolution tie-ups crammed together without additional progression. The characters are likeable enough, funny, and their passions have a way of enveloping the audience, so much so that a fairly predictable plot is excusable. Chef is a lovely little palate cleanser at the start of the summer movie season and an enjoyable excursion. Just fill up before seeing it or else.
Nate’s Grade: B+
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Ever since Marvel’s Avengers destroyed the box-office in 2012, every studio with super hero franchises has been looking to follow suit. It’s not just about comic book franchises; it’s about building a comic book universe. It’s been a long dark period for the X-Men ever since the regrettable 2006 debacle The Last Stand, which callously killed characters, butchered others, and botched the most famous storyline in the history of the comic. In 2011, Matthew Vaughn proved there was still life to be found in the franchise with his terrific 60s-era prequel, X-Men: First Class. Now, post-Avengers, Fox is salivating at combining the past X-Men and the present X-Men into one colossal movie with a colossal budget. Back on board is director Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men films and the man who helped kickstart the modern superhero era. If that wasn’t enough riding on the film, X-Men: Days of Future Past also follows the second most famous storyline in the history of the comic.
In the horrible future, killer robots known as Sentinels hunt down mutants. These are the invention of Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), a military scientist who was killed back in 1973 by the vengeful shape-shifting mutant, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The murder convinced humans to subsidize Trask’s killer robot plan of defense. Thanks to experiments replicating Mystique’s mutant ability, the Sentinels have the ability to adapt to any power, turning them practically indestructible. In the future, the Sentinels are eradicating all mutants, mutant sympathizers, and eventually human beings. Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) have teamed up with a small band of surviving mutants, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Thanks to the phasing powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they can send Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973 so that he can prevent the Trask assassination. The only ones who can help Wolverine is the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), former mentors to Mystique. Except Xavier is a recluse and strung-out on drugs to dull his powers and Magneto is locked away underneath the Pentagon.
The X-Men films have always had a topical advantage to them that provided a weightier sense of drama than your typical story about a reluctant soul blessed with amazing powers. The mutant allegory automatically applies to any sub-group facing oppression mostly through fear and ignorance. What other superhero franchise has two opening scenes in a German concentration camp? The stakes are even larger with this movie because of the Horrible Nightmare Future that must be prevented. Now we all assume said Nightmare Future will be avoided by film’s end, so the movie provides a proverbial reset button that the filmmakers can have fun with, and they do (look out future mutants). Excluding the Nightmare Future framing device that becomes an unnecessary parallel storyline, the majority of the film takes place in 1973. If X-Men: First Class tapped into the groovy optimism and “take me for what I am” sense of social justice of the time, then this film certainly taps into the disillusionment of the 1970s, where the promise of reform and hope morphed into anger and cynicism (hey, that’s like us today!). This loss of innocence is typified in Mystique, who becomes the central figure of the movie in many ways. Her seething desire for vengeance is what animates her, as well as the pain of betrayal from the men closest in her life, as well as the world who once held such promise. Also, Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) has become one of the biggest female stars on the planet, so it makes sense to bolster her role. The central conflict is stopping an assassination, one domino that leads to many others, but it’s emotionally about Mystique having to confront her feelings of hate. It’s another platform for the ongoing conflict of perspectives between Xavier (restraint, tolerance) and Magneto (strong defense, eye for an eye). But as I found in First Class, it’s hard not to agree with Magneto as human overreaction leads to rash and thoughtless actions, like Horrible Nightmare Future.
That’s not to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past fails to deliver when it comes to the popcorn thrills and action highs we crave in our finest summer blockbusters. The action set pieces are large without dwarfing the characters, playful and imaginative without losing a sense of edge and danger. I loved how the character Blink (Bingbing Fan) would utilize her mutant power of opening portals as a fighting strategy. It makes action sequences so much more inventive and visually exciting to throw a series of portals. The pacing is swift short of the second half of Act Two, gearing up for the climactic showdown in D.C. that dominates Act Three. The time travel story starts with a lot of exposition but it gets smoothed out as it goes, the rules of the story fall into place. Every action sequence hits, some admittedly better than others, but it’s the small touches that Singer injects that made me smile most. I enjoyed Magneto pointing a gun, being toppled, but still using his power to have the gun fire in midair. I enjoyed the animalistic nature of the Beast/Wolverine brawl. Jackman is looking even veinier than usual in his bulked out form. Thankfully the fish-out of-water timeline jokes are kept to a minimum. Wolverine is the perfect glue to hold both timelines together. And then there’s that standout Pentagon prison break sequence (more on that later). Singer might not have the most natural instincts developing and staging action, but the man is a surefire talent when it comes to staging eye-catching visuals (I would say the same about Christopher Nolan). Even his unfairly maligned Superman Returns is proof of the man’s cinematic gifts. As far as entertainment value, this is right up there with X-Men 2. I still view Vaughn’s savvy First Class as the best X-film of the bunch, which has only gotten better the more I’ve watched it.
And if that wasn’t enough, Singer’s new film does what every fan has been hoping for: (spoilers) it erases all the crummy X-Men movies, namely 2006’s Last Stand and the first Wolverine solo effort, from the official timeline. It’s time to start anew, toss out the old stuff nobody liked, and forge ahead with a new unified timeline. There can be two parallel X-Men franchises, one present/future and one with the prequel casts, and they can go on forever as desired, or until the prequel cast prices itself out. In one fell swoop, Singer and company have reset the mother franchise and given fans new hope about the possibilities. Make sure to stick around to the very end of the credits for a scene that indicates directly who the next major villain will be in the 2016 sequel.
Let me take time to single out just how expertly Evan Peters (TV’s American Horror Story) steals the entire mutant-heavy movie. First, he’s the most comically attuned character, which is a nice break from how serious, and rightly so, every character is so often. Quicksilver provides a whole new jolt of entertainment, and when he checks out after the prison break sequence you’ll dearly miss him. The character is a rapscallion (as my late grandmother might have termed) that enjoys using his super speed powers to mess with people, to test his limits, to see what he can get away with, and a Pentagon jailbreak is right up his alley. Ignore the silly yet period appropriate outfit and ignore what initially seems like Peters’ smirking self-involvement from trailers and ads. When this character is onscreen the movie has a joyful sense of irreverence. He is instrumental to freeing Magneto and the onscreen depiction of his super speed is the best illustration of the power ever conceived in film and TV. There is a segment sent to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and some wonderful special effects, which is just so playful, so giddy, and so cool that it very well might be my favorite moment in any superhero movie… ever. It is definitely an applause-worthy moment and my audience responded in kind. Quicksilver is a perfectly utilized supporting player in a movie stuffed to the gills with characters.
The time travel geek in me has a few quibbles with the parallel lines of action from past and present. Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back in time but he film plays out like it’s happening simultaneously to the events of the future. So if Wolverine is pulled out in the middle of the movie, he’ll have failed his mission to change the future, even though by going back in time he’s already, blah blah blah butterfly effect. Anyway, I understand how they want to make the future story have a sense of urgency but it’s not like waking Wolverine from a dream; the times are not happening concurrently. He’s in the past, meaning that the moment he goes back there, the future will already be altered due to the consequences of his actions, for better or worse. There is no race against time to keep his consciousness back in time until he complete his mission. I can see why they went this route for a summer blockbuster, but that doesn’t quell the quibbles.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a time-hopping, unabashedly fun time at the movies; well as fun as preventing nightmarish futures built from the consequences of oppression and prejudice can be. With Singer back in the saddle and the bridging of the two X-Men universes, the series is back on track and once again the promising font of stories and characters. The newest X-film is one of the most entertaining, funny while still being dramatic, and while burdened with the largest cast of any super franchise, finds notable moments for its characters big and small to remind us that these people matter. While less philosophical and funky than First Class, this is one of the best films in the franchise, on par with X2. The action sequences and visual eye-candy are great fun with some inventive and memorable touches. It’s also nerdy fun getting to watch the past and present interact, and for many this is their first return since 2006’s crappy Last Stand. It’s not a perfect movie; I wish there was more early Sentinel action, I wish Dinklage had much more to do, and I wish that the plot didn’t so transparently hinge on Xavier not having his powers. The slate is clean and all X-Men fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The future is once again rosy. The X-Men, and not just Wolverine, are relevant once again.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Labor Day (2013)
Labor Day, based upon the novel by Joyce Maynard, is the kind of sappy material that you never would have expected director Jason Reitman to attach his name to. Reitman has been accumulating an enviable career of top-shelf dark comedies (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Young Adult), yet his touch with characters and actors, as well as his delicacy with tone, reminded several of a young Billy Wilder. The stuff of Labor Day felt more like a Lifetime channel original movie. This is just one artistic miscalculation from the start and it doesn’t get better as it goes.
Back over Labor Day weekend in 1987, young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is living with his grieving mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and performing many of the duties of a husband (don’t get gross). It’s been some time since Henry’s parents divorced but Adele has become a shell-shocked recluse who can barely talk or look others in the eye. While visiting a grocery store, Henry runs into a dangerous man named Frank (Josh Brolin). He’s bleeding from the abdomen and intimidates Adele to give him a ride. Frank is an escaped prisoner and he takes to hiding at Adele’s home. After the initial hostage period, Frank allows Henry and Adele to walk around freely, as long as they don’t tell anyone where he is. As the days pass, Frank helps out around the house, helps Adele get out of her funk, and becomes a surrogate father figure for Henry. The unconventional family must evade the police and skeptical townsfolk to make a run for it.
The very premise and its tone are just not a good fit for Reitman. First off, the movie plays out far more like a hostage thriller than any sort of romance. If you were to look deep inside, the romance can be explained as one very emotionally needy woman and her child going through Stockholm syndrome. The entire movie takes place over the titular Labor Day holiday, which means that all these changing feelings have to morph over the time period of three days. I don’t know if I’d call that love, even in Movie Land. Hey, Frank didn’t kill everyone and he helps around the house, isn’t he great? These people should be far more afraid for far longer. It is almost comical how saintly Frank becomes and how many surrogate father activities he squeezes into the abbreviated window of time. He performs handyman jobs all around the house, teaches young Henry how to change a tire, tosses a baseball with the kid, teaches everyone the finer points on pie making, and other such helpful activities. I understand that these two lonely people finally see a replacement man; for Henry a father, for Adele a lover. Again, the three-day time window makes everything appear like the manifestation of Stockholm syndrome. How many of those abducted have uttered, “He’s not that bad. You just don’t know him like I do”? Frank’s back-story is tragic but he is a wanted felon and he has no problem threatening both of these people’s lives in the beginning. Yeah he doesn’t resort to violence or yell in their faces, but why would he against an adolescent boy and his easily cajoled mother? No matter how long Reitman spends showing us the softer side of Frank, especially while preparing delectable dishes of food, he’s no more developed than the common Misunderstood Bad Boy.
Then there are the dawdling coming-of-age moments clinging to young Henry, a boy growing up quickly in a tumultuous holiday weekend. It strikes me as tonally odd to already take a tricky balancing act with the film’s plot and then tossing on a coming-of-age addition. The story is told from Henry’s perspective, and that’s a major problem as well. He’s the least interesting person in this dramatic setup. Being confined to his viewpoint often keeps us distant from the deeper drama going on. I’d rather spend time with Adele and Frank bonding so that the romance can find some traction, but no. Al we hear are the thumps from the other side of the wall and the gentle whisperings between them in stolen glances. It’s a frustrating perspective because quite frankly nobody really cares about this kid’s sexual awakening and his daydreams about the cute girl’s bra. His dad (Clark Gregg) wants to talk to him about the birds and the bees. His mom talks about the same. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable position for the audience with both parents wanting to cover the sex talk. There’s a wanted man hiding in his home! Henry’s personal growing up drama has no equivalency to this. Of the three main characters, doesn’t Henry seem like the worst participant to tell the story? It doesn’t help that Tobey Maguire narrates as older Henry. Have we not learned from The Great Gatsby: Maguire’s voice does not suit narration.
It’s the film’s more tense moments where you get glimpses of the real movie here, the thriller that’s been gussied up and disguised as some strange romance. Whenever someone gets close to discovering what’s really going on in that house, the movie picks up and grabs your interest once more, albeit fleeting. The fear of getting caught is potent but it should have been more omnipresent. The film, through Henry’s perspective, is treated like this nostalgic chestnut of that one summer a convicted killer held us hostage. The police are canvassing for an escaped prisoner but the neighborhood doesn’t seem to be that alarmed, still going about their business bringing desserts and fresh produce to one another’s doorstep. Too much of the film implies the threat, like with a short glimpse of a police checkpoint, but places it on the back-burner so that the romance can take shape. Again, this is a byproduct of being stuck in Henry’s perspective whereas the kid might not have the best understanding of how serious everything is (he’s worried his mom will abandon him and run off with Frank). But in those brief moments of dread and tension, this is where Labor Day works, and Reitman does a great job of turning the screws and building that suspense. It makes you wish the whole thing were a thriller.
No one is going to question that Winslet (Divergent) and Brolin (Gangster Squad) are great actors, but boy do these characters underachieve. There is one very effective and moving monologue Winslet has about her pregnancy problems that have turned her away from the world, but it’s not enough. For much of the movie, she plays such an anxious and internalized character, so it’s hard to really follow her emotional development. That monologue does the most heavy lifting but it’s pretty wan before and after. Winslet is too good an actress to play essentially a catatonic woman that’s fairly mute. Brolin can play a soulful brute in his sleep. There’s so little to challenge him and so he seems on autopilot. It also hurts that both Frank and Adele have very limited conversations. It’s a romance told in gestures and handclasps (and the rhythmic thumping of walls at night). It’s not their fault that their characters are underwritten and unsatisfying. Griffith (Green Lantern) is a nice young actor but he too is forced to communicate much with little and comes up short. James Van Der Beek (TV’s Dawson’s Creek) is a local cop who appears for one scene, and afterwards you wish he would stick around longer. Look for Reitman good luck charm J.K. Simmons (Dark Skies) as a helpful neighbor.
Reitman is such a talented director that he can almost pull off sequences in Labor Day despite all of its inherent structural, tonal, and perspective flaws. From a technical standpoint, the movie is a gauzy, amber-accented tale with plenty of strong alluring visuals to set you at ease. There are these trembling moments where you almost see what attracted Reitman to the film, but the finished product is just a mushy misfire. It’s earnest without having earned our emotions, and the thriller elements and the romance elements are in constant conflict. We all remember our grandparents telling us that magical moment they knew they had met the one when he tied her up and held her hostage. Much of the drama that comes from the premise is handicapped from the mistake of having Henry as the chief storyteller and point of view. His limited involvement means we’re kept at the peripheral for too many important moments. I have no doubt Reitman will rebound and quickly (he’s already filming his next movie and has optioned a book for his next next movie). Get ready to have Labor Day play every subsequent Labor Day weekend on the Lifetime channel, its true home.
Nate’s Grade: C
When it comes to the monsters of cinema, it’s hard to beat out Godzilla, and not just because, you know, he’s hundreds of feet high and can breath fire. The famous monster began as a cautionary tale about nuclear weapons, destroying man’s hubris and often the good people of Tokyo. The legendary beast has been hibernating as such since 1998’s not-so-spectacular big-budget return, a film that the Japanese loathed. But like all ancient being, Godzilla has been resurrected again and given a splashy new coating of CGI devastation. If only the filmmakers had decided to leave out the humans and make Godzilla the rightful star.
A scientist (Bryan Cranston) warns the Japanese government of a massive impending danger. The offspring of a giant creature, a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO), has hatched and heading straight for the United States coastline. Attracted by nuclear power, the U.S. military tries to lure it away from populated centers. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is witness to the monstrous destruction and just wants to get back home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child in San Francisco, exactly where the creature is headed. There’s also the emergence of an older creature, one that has taken to combating the MUTOs to the death. This is the legendary Godzilla.
The big guy is back in a very different approach from 1998’s Godzilla (i.e. “better” approach). Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters), an avowed Godzilla fan, has made a reverent big-budget ode to the king of all monsters; however, the resulting film is more of a disaster epic than a monster brawl. The perspective is often framed at the human-level, which grounds the film from going too overboard into disaster porn territory like, say, Man of Steel. The effect is thrilling and adds a greater sense of verisimilitude to the mass chaos and destruction. It reminded me in some ways to 2008’s Cloverfield, where a group of characters is just trying to survive the periphery of all the collateral damage of a giant monster. There are sequences that directly relate to Fukushima as well as the tsunami from 2004. It’s almost like somebody watched the stirring movie The Impossible and said, “Yeah, give us some of that in our giant monster movie.” I don’t know if these sequences are entirely necessary. Watching Ford carry around a little Japanese tyke, wondering where his parents might be amidst the confusion post-monster attack, it relates to our modern response to tragedy and worldwide disaster, but do you really want to watch Ford have to find this kid’s parents? If there is a commentary to be found in the movie, it’s the uncontrollable and destructive power of nature pushed to the brink by mankind’s own energy crises. After all, the MUTOs are attracted to and strengthened by consuming nuclear energy. Godzilla is argued to be an “alpha predator” but also a figure to bring balance back to nature. I think it means that there can be only one giant monster and Godzilla is going to eliminate the competition.
But the real question of any giant monster movie is the degree of satisfying, smash-em-up fun it provides, and the new Godzilla is a mostly agreeable venture. The action sequences, mostly saved for the climax, are cool and well thought out, but Edwards proves to be a brilliant visual stylist than a composer of action. This is a movie where the moments stand out better than the action. Edwards’ command of cinematic visual arrangements is at Spielberg levels of being a natural showman. I can easily think back on small moments, images that pop, visual reveals that are executed with aplomb, far more so than a central example of an action piece. I loved the horror-esque reveal of the elevated train being on track to head right for the MUTO. I loved the hide-and-seek nature of Ford waiting for the MUTO to pass. I loved when Ken Watanabe’s advice was literally just, “Let them fight” (I started chanting it in my seat). My favorite part of the movie is actually what was previously shown as a teaser trailer, namely Ford and several other paratroopers diving into the destructive city scene. The eerie hum of the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith plays over, each man has a red flare streaking from their leg, and we watch them quickly descend through the sky, nervously awaiting what is on the other side of those heavy clouds, only to discover a city on fire, glowing like a hearth, and through the goggles, a monster fight taking place. The entire sequence is a visual standout, a thrilling set piece, and a reminder that Edwards has more on his mind.
Edwards does a lot of intentional teasing of Godzilla, so much so that it can get frustrating for an audience. I understand he’s building to a payoff reminiscent of Jaws; we’ve been teased for so long that we will go nuts when we finally see Godzilla in full glory, and it works. However, it also works as a detriment. There are several points in the film where it looks like we’re about to get some exciting Godzilla/MUTO action, or even just a MUTO wrecking havoc, and then the film cuts away, often to news footage. It’s a choice that begins as artistically clever but can become maddening in time. There is a lot of visual obfuscation throughout the film, far more so than the same compliant I had with last year’s Pacific Rim. Edwards will show Godzilla’s tail just swinging behind a building, or his colossal foot coming down with authority, or the wispy shadow of giants in billowing clouds of smoke. All those near misses can add up to cinematic blue balls. And so much of the action and destruction happens at nighttime, leading to a dour color palette heavy in grey and dark blacks, making the good stuff all the harder to see. I cannot even fathom why someone would want to see this film in 3D with those darkened glasses. It’s 90 minutes of foreplay that you may start to grow restless that we’re getting a Godzilla movie that will never show the goods (shouldn’t Godzilla be in a Godzilla film?)
The problem with a disaster movie on a human-scale is when you don’t give a damn about any of the human characters. Now, Godzilla should be the star of any Godzilla movie but I understand execs fearing that their monster movie needs some relatable human drama. The problem is that the writing doesn’t do anything with these characters, forcing them into tidy and token roles that we’ve come to expect from large-scale disaster movies. Did anyone really feel anything about whether Ford would get back to his wife and child? Did anyone feel anything for anyone in this movie, beyond a slight reservation whether they would be squished, if even that? I’m not expecting three-dimensional characters here but even Roland Emmerich films do a decent job of establishing a milieu of people at various points of the globe we know will somehow coalesce together. There is so little effort to mask the character’s grand design: exposition mouthpieces, symbols of military threats, the noble family man, the beleaguered and crying wife. Seriously, there is a great cast of actors in this movie and they are given nothing to work with. Olsen (Oldboy) gets to look realistically scared and cry but she deserves so much better. Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad) gets all the best yell-worthy lines. But it’s really Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass 2) who suffers the most since he’s placed as our impassive stand-in for a human protagonist. He’s so blank throughout the film and there’s little charisma to pull you in. His character, and the performance, feels no better than an elevated extra, Grunt #13. When we have to spend 90 minutes with these lackluster characters rather than some awesome monster fights, that’s when the film flounders.
I’m conflicted about the end results of Godzilla, an entertaining, surprisingly artistic film that can nail small moments of cinematic grandeur but has trouble matching its vision. The human-scale approach grounds the action, but do we want a giant monster movie grounded from a limited vantage point? The constant teasing builds a payoff for finally seeing Godzilla, but don’t we want more actual Godzilla in a film bearing his name? The human-scale, as well as the slow dodging of showing Godzilla, mean the storytelling emphasis is on an array of human characters, but what happens when they are poorly written, poorly developed, and lacking in charisma? The movie does more right than wrong but I’m left with the unmistakable feeling that, while a step in the right direction, there is too much self-sabotage holding back the movie. It actually made me re-evaluate and appreciate Pacific Rim even more. I can’t say this movie is nearly half the fun as Rim was. The monster design of the MUTOs is rather lacking, resembling a cross between the monster from Cloverfield and more patently the arachnid aliens of Starship Troopers, down to the heads that look like staple removers. Edwards has proven himself a big screen talent with a terrific feel for grandiose visual spectacle. I just hope if there is a sequel that we can skip all the slow buildup and just get to the main event – Godzilla beating the crap out of some other lesser yet still giant monster.
Nate’s Grade: B
The first side-splitter of the summer, Neighbors is a bawdy comedy that has enough big laughs that you may miss how well it draws its characters, punctuating preconceptions. The premise is boiled down to family versus frat, as a pair of new parents (Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne) has a college fraternity, lead by Zac Efron, move next door. You expect the raucous humor, and there are plenty of well-conceived visual gags and payoffs. I did not expect to like the characters as much or see different shades of them. Rogen and Byrne are not yet ready to be official grown-ups, and their attempts to hang with the frat parties are hilarious as well as cringe-inducing. I especially appreciated that Byrne is given the chance to be just as careless and selfish as the men; there’s even a fight between husband and wife who is the Kevin James in their relationship. Byrne is terrific and deserves even more work that lets her cut loose and be in on the joke. Then there are the frat brothers who could easily come across as brainless hedonists, and many do, but Efron and his co-bro Dave Franco have an engaging relationship where they fear what happens next after school. The movie’s theme isn’t subtle (fear of growing up) but provides enough extra substance to make the film more than the sum of its jokes. And it’s quite funny. Rogen and Byrne have great chemistry, their angry riffs are often amusing, and the escalating tit-for-tat prank war is memorable and entertaining. Neighbors works on a cross-generational level; as a man in my 30s, I related to Rogen and Byrne’s plight but also their shifting concepts of what they consider fun that they once may have mocked in their younger years (“I love brunch”). Neighbors builds to a nice climax, the cast is uniformly funny, and with enough surprising shades with the characters, it satisfies the R-rated funny bone.
Nate’s Grade: B
Devil’s Knot (2014)
In 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys went out late one night to ride their bikes. They were never seen alive again. The ensuing media circus that erupted lead to the conviction of three teenagers (The West Memphis Three) who many believed were innocent of these heinous crimes. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. It was the basis of three stirring, powerful, galvanizing documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, two men credited with saving the West Memphis Three. Now after their release from prison, here comes Devil’s Knot, the first fictional film about the notorious case, Hollywood’s first crack at well-tread material. Is there anything new to be found?
Director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe) and his screenwriters do a credible job of distilling the complicated case against the West Memphis Three to its basics, relying on a modulated tone that shies away from the sensationalism that dominated the case back in 1993. With the benefit of time and hindsight, it’s easy for the movie to point out the erroneous thinking of the prosecution, the jump to conclusions, and the Satanic panic engulfing the community of Arkansas. We’re told by a police officer that they knew this “Satanic cult stuff” would hit town; they’ve just been waiting for the day. To its credit, the movie does a fine job of calmly and objectively pointing out the deficiencies in the police and prosecution’s case against the West Memphis Three. We’re told that from the twelve hours of interrogation with Jessie Misskelley, only 40-some minutes was recorded. The obvious mistakes in his confession, as well as the police coaching and coaxing him to their desired response, is made readily apparent. There’s “witness” Vicki Hutchernson (Mireille Enos of the oft-canceled The Killing) who says she say chief suspect Damien in a Satanic ritual, but the film cuts back from the imaginary to Vicki watching a movie on TV, the real source of her descriptive flourishes. Egoyan’s direction has a calm, objective overview that is reverent and respectful of the dead and the bereaved. It’s rarely boring and the facts of this case are such that any retelling would be somewhat compelling.
So that brings me to the ultimate question: why even make a fictional movie about this subject? Four lengthy documentaries have covered the intricacies of the legal story, the breakdown in justice, and the personal toll on all sides of the crime. The only thing a fictional movie provides is: 1) the fun/distracting game of seeing relatively famous actors play the real-life people we’ve previously seen, and, 2) as an option for people who hate documentaries. If you’re one of those people who dislikes documentaries and doesn’t view them as “real movies,” then Devil’s Knot is for you, you dismissive filmgoer. Otherwise, literally everything was handled better in the Paradise Lost films. With the West Memphis Three thankfully out of prison, the omnipresent sense of urgency from the documentaries is now absent, replaced with a Monday morning quarterback sensibility pointing out all the obvious bias, judicial hypocrisy, and flaws of the case. And as anyone who has plowed through the powerful and addicting documentaries knows, there are plenty of flaws to point out for harsh scrutiny and incredulity. Movies have a long history of showing us an example of judicial injustice, and this is a prime example. However, Egoyan has put the emphasis of his movie on two outsiders rather than people in the center of this case. The West Memphis Three themselves are barely supporting actors in their own movie. I suppose the filmmakers may have wanted to present a different angle to the case since the Paradise Lost films showed the accused up close and personal. The construction of this plot just doesn’t work under the perspectives of Pam (Reese Witherspoon) and Ron (Colin Firth).
Ron serves as a pro-bono adviser to the defense, but that doesn’t mean he has the same access inside and outside the court. He can gather evidence on his own but really this guy is meant to be a fly-on-the-wall for the planning and frustration of all the legal roadblocks thrown at the defense. Is an added body in the room necessary? Could not one of the defense attorneys have provided the same purpose? Instead, he gets to grumble in the court and out about all the legal shenanigans going on to railroad innocent boys. He is essentially spelling it out to an audience. Pam has even less narrative purpose in the film. Her perspective makes sense early on as the mother of one of the murdered young children. Her panic, her worst nightmare come to life, it all makes for the stuff of major drama, which is why you’d imagine Witherspoon was drawn to the part. But once the case against the West Memphis Three gets going, Pam transforms into our Chief Reaction Shot Provider. Whenever a curious moment happens in court, we cut back to Pam and Witherspoon cocking her head in dawning curiosity and uncertainty. It’s as if she is meant to symbolically represent the entire community that was so fervent in their beliefs that these boys were guilty… until they heard the shaky case and the questionable experts put on the stand. So Pam and Ron end up becoming signals to the audience on how to feel and what to think. The movie doesn’t have enough faith in its audience to keep up with the minutia of the trail, or even the lawyers’ arguments, reducing a complex legal trial down to two nonessential characters nodding or shaking their heads.
I’ll admit that I had some interest watching the actors inhabit the roles, and there are scads of people involved in this story. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) does a valiant job showcasing the head-scratching decisions of the trail judge, David Burnett, and his slimy dismissive nature. Stephen Moyer (TV’s True Blood) is particularly infuriating as John Fogleman, chief prosecuting attorney. Seth Meriwether (Trouble with the Curve) looks eerily like his character, the young and accused Jason Baldwin, and he nails his moral convictions and gentle nature. Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) gets to do his troubled youth thing he does so well. Kevin Durand is an actor I normally enjoy but even he can’t do justice to John Mark Byers, step-father to one of the slain boys, and easily the most memorable figure in the Paradise Lost films; the man is so theatrical and larger-than-life, and yet Devil’s Knot treats him like a featured extra, with many of his speaking scenes off camera. There isn’t a bad actor in the extremely large cast, though Firth’s Southern accent isn’t the most refined. If the movie lacks much reason for existing, at least the bevy of good actors respectfully bringing new life to these people, good, bad, and many somewhere in between, is the one credible quality to this movie.
What to make of Devil’s Knot, an example of a decent, modulated, and well acted movie that ultimately has no reason to exist in the wake of three excellent documentaries (Paradise Lost) and one other pretty good one (West of Memphis). The ground has been covered. However, that doesn’t mean that a well-told story can’t be told again, with a different angle, with a different approach, but Devil’s Knot hinges on two characters serving as metaphorical barometers to teach the audience what to think and how to feel. Then there’s the matter that the trail covers the entire 114-minute running time. There’s so much more that happens after the initial trial, so much that the last two minutes of this movie are almost a nonstop barrage of text updating the audience on many of the post-trial developments, including the West Memphis Three being released from prison in 2011. The movie feels too limited; there is so much more depth here, to the details of the case, to the personalities and human drama, to the story after the trial. Egoyan and his cast and crew have made a respectful fictional version of these sensational events, but the problem is that they don’t do enough to justify their own film’s existence. Unless you have an irrational hatred for documentaries, just watch those instead.
Nate’s Grade: C+
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