Blog Archives

Nurse Betty (2000) [Review Re-View]

Released September 8, 2000:

Can a fairy tale have a dark undertone below all the bubbly whimsy? Hell, the Grimm tales were barbaric before they became homogenized, sanitized, and finally Disneytized. Nurse Betty presents a modern day fairy tale with the strike of reality always below it — the strike of darkness and disappointment. Fairy tales are an escape from this, but what if one creates her own fairy tale and chooses to believe in it over the drab reality she presides in?

Neil LaBute, the director of the incessantly dark In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, collects together a whimsical modern day fable with a top-notch cast. Yes, to those fans of earlier LaBute offeriengs his name doesn’t seem synonymous with whimsical comedy – but in this flick LaBute cuts his teeth in the mainstream and earns his stripes if ever.

Baby-voiced and rosy-cheeked Renee Zellweger plays our heroine in diner worker and soap opera fanatic Betty. Betty finds solace from her life featuring a sleazy spouse, played with marvelous flair by Aaron Eckhart, in her favorite soap opera. When her louche of a hubby isn’t wiping his hands on the kitchen curtains or banging his secretary he tries proposing drug deals for shady characters. A recent drug peddling snafu sets him up to an ominous encounter with hitmen team Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock. Through a jarring scene of violence Betty’s husband is left brutally murdered and the only witness is Betty herself. The event causes Betty to slip into a fractured psychological state where she believes the world of her soap opera is alive and real with herself a vital character. She hops in one of her dead hubby’s used cars and drives off toward California to meet the doctor/soap star of her dreams in Greg Kinnear.

Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock mistake Betty for a criminal mastermind and believe her to have taken the drugs and run. They embark on their own mad dash to capture her and finish the job they were paid to complete. Along the way Betty encounters many people that are at first confused but ultimately charmed by this delusional dame. Through a series of events she meets up with the eternally smarmy Kinnear and begins to learn what happens when a fantasy is corrupted by the disappointment of reality. Allison Janey has a small part as a network executive that shines strong, and Crispin “McFly” Glovin is just nice to see in a film again. He doesn’t seem to age though. Maybe he has that Dick Clark disease.

The flow of Betty is well paced and a smart mix between drama, whimsy, and dark humor. Overlooking some sudden bursts of violence bookend the film it comes across as a sweet yet intelligent satire and fable. Betty is looking for her Prince Charming but will later learn that she doesn’t need one, that she is the fairy tale happy ending inside her.

The acting of Nurse Betty is never in danger of flat-lining. Zelwegger is a lovable and good-natured heroine. Freeman is a strong and deceptively hilarious actor along side a caustic yet down-to-earth Rock. And I make an outgoing question if there is an actor alive out there that can do smarm better than Kinnear — I think not.

Nurse Betty is a wonderful surprise. Check into your local theater, take one showing, and call me in the morning. You’ll be glad you did.

Nate’s Grade: A-

——————————————————

WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I was high on Nurse Betty in 2000 declaring it a modern-day fable with a darker undercurrent equivalent to that of the Grimms and their mixture of the everyday and extraordinary. In reality, Nurse Betty couldn’t feel more like a holdover of the 1990s indie scene where it might have been an unwritten rule that after Pulp Fiction every indie film had to have a subplot involving quippy hitmen (consider it the equivalent of every 1980s comedy having a mafia subplot for some unexplained reason). It feels engineered from a different era, and because of this, I’m sad to say that Nurse Betty hasn’t aged as well as I hoped. It’s not a bad movie but it feels more dated and peculiar, both in design and also unintentionally with its mishmashing tones that were more enticing twenty years ago.

The premise of Nurse Betty sounds like two movies smashed together. The movie is almost split evenly among its two storylines. We have Betty (Renee Zellweger) as the put-upon wife in Kansas dreaming of a better life, and maybe a better husband, who then has a mental breakdown and travels cross-country believing she’s in a real-life soap opera. Following suit is a pair of hitmen (Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock) who bicker and track her down, having their own cross-country road trip and getting on each other’s nerves. The problem with the screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg is that these two competing stories could have existed on their own and probably would have been the better for it. It’s revealed late in the movie that Rock is the son of Freeman, and by that time of the reveal it doesn’t do much other than serve as a hasty attempt at a twist ending and to better push the fatalism of Freeman’s character, Charlie. However, if we knew from early on that this was a father-son hit team, think of the fun family squabbles and opportunities to present character development through these unique circumstances. It’s a father trying to train his son in his many years honed killing targets and not questioning why. You could tell a really quirky, compelling, and engaging family story through this dark comedy vehicle. Instead, the father-son hitmen are simply playing catch-up with Betty. Charlie becomes substantially less interesting the more obsessed with Betty he becomes because his character change is never really explained. Even he is unable to articulate why this one woman has entranced him. He stops being the scary, proud, and imposing figure who killed Betty’s husband and becomes a doddering, foolishly love-struck old man that loses his edge. Again, that arc could work but the screenplay essentially nullifies him as a threat and as a multi-dimensional character. If both of these dangerous men had driven off into their own movie, they and we would have better benefited.

The Betty half is the more entertaining portion because it’s more unpredictable and because Betty is, at her heart, a sweet human being who is looking for her dream. It doesn’t take much to emotionally identify with her mistreated character who seeks an outlet for her life’s disappointments. Her mental break produces a sizeable degree of nervous laughter whenever she encounters someone new who is taking her at literal face value. Should we be laughing at her? Should we be pitying her? Should we be worrying about her having reality crush her hopes? The movie doesn’t seem to be holding up Betty for cheap mockery, which is a relief considering the quantity of her mental illness and trauma leading her into increasingly comical scenarios. The baffled misunderstandings can supply amusement but it’s more waiting to see how Betty responds to adversity and waiting for reality to hit with crushing force, eventually snapping her back. It’s waiting for the realization, but until then you can enjoy Betty’s blissful delusion like a sitcom character being hit over the head and thinking they’re somebody new. The movie takes on a new level of entertainment when she meets the man of her desires, Dr. David (Greg Kinnear), actually the actor George in real-life, and he doesn’t reject her but becomes fascinated with her. He’s impressed by her level of commitment to Method acting, so he assumes, and is curious how far she can keep things going. Betty also seems to bring back George’s passion for acting, which has waned over years of playing the same over-the-top plot machinations of daytime television. That’s such a better storytelling choice than having her dream man push her away immediately for being outwardly crazy.

The winning feature of Nurse Betty is the relentless positivity and daffy, perky performance of Zellweger as our dream-seeker. She always has a smile and go-get-‘em attitude that makes her compelling to watch and also easy to root for, whether or not she ever comes out of her mental break. Her sunny demeanor in the face of medical horror and confused authority figures is reliably charming. Zellweger never plays like the joke should be on Betty. Often it boomerangs, like when her L.A. roommate wants to dash Betty’s dream by introducing her to the real George, but instead of disaster they walk off to spend the rest of the fancy soiree together. Zellweger is the best reason to step into Nurse Betty and her portrayal of mental illness is not meant for ridicule. After Nurse Betty, Zellweger went on a tear, getting three Oscar nominations in three years, and a win for 2003’s Cold Mountain, before disappearing from Hollywood to re-emerge with a different face.

The jumbled tones proved more amusing to me twenty years ago but now they feel sloppy and poorly integrated, hence why it feels like two separate movies inelegantly melded together. The violence can be jarring and too serious for a movie that also attempts goofball whimsy. It feels like Nurse Betty was assembled with all the loose, leftover bits of irony from the 90s indie scene. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge movie that feels like it was green-lit based upon as many of its discordant elements all appearing under the name of one movie. Soap operas. Housewives. Mental illness! Road trips! Hitmen! Oh my! The soap opera jokes and industry satire feel pretty dated and must have been stale even by the time the film was released twenty years ago. There are points watching Nurse Betty where you feel like it went shopping for its quirk and bought it whole sale.

Director Neil LaBute was a fascinating choice considering his prior work writing and directing very misanthropic small-scale ensemble dramas like 1997’s In the Company of Men where two toxic men set out to ruin an innocent deaf woman to punish the female gender they feel has done them wrong. This seemed like an odd fit but was a preview to LaBute’s attempts at being a journeyman mid-range director, helming the stunningly bad 2006’s Wicker Man remake as well as completely forgettable studio fare like Lakeview Terrace and the Death at a Funeral remake. LaBute has since found a home writing and directing in television, including writing 15 episodes of the SyFy Channel series, Van Helsing, which well and truly confounded me to learn. The man who was responsible for dark, David Mamet-esque plays about the searing depths of human depravity and toxic masculinity was writing low-budget vampire cable television. To be fair I haven’t watched a single episode so perhaps his prior writing experiences really added something to the tale of Vanessa Helsing kicking ass in a vampire-dominated future. Actually, I take it all back because that sounds like a fun show.

Nurse Betty is a dark comedy that surprises as often as it may frustrate, spinning two different stories on a collision course that would have benefited from a trial separation. It’s one of the first re-review films that has lost some of its magic for me. In 2000, this movie felt a lot more daring and hipper and I gave it credit for the inclusion of so many off-kilter elements. Nowadays, I need more from a movie than simply including unexpected elements. It has to make the most of them, incorporate them in meaningful and challenging ways, and justify their tonal integration. Reading over my original review twenty years ago, I cringe about how uncritical it proves to be. I clearly enjoyed the movie but couldn’t say much more than bad puns and obvious allusions (did you know fairy tales could be, get this, dark and unnerving?). This is not one of my finer film reviews and I won’t cut my 18-year-old self any slack because I’ve been impressed by the insights and writing style of my younger me before. I will hold my past self to higher standards, thank me.

Re-Review Grade: B-

Sully (2016)

cpbh8ejwgaaispb-jpg-largeI think I had the same initial thought that most did when they saw the news that there was going to be a movie about the Miracle on the Hudson airline pilot: where exactly is the feature-length story? The flight itself lasted only about 200 seconds before landing on the river, and the sequence is thrillingly recreated and held off until halfway through the movie. The hero in the cockpit, Sully (Tom Hanks), is consumed with ensuring each and every last passenger is accounted for. When he gets the news that all survived, he can finally allow himself to breathe, to take in the full magnitude of the events, and it feels like a cleansing moment of deep emotional catharsis for him and the audience. But what’s the movie here? Apparently the NTSB and the airline insurance companies are disputing whether Sully could have safely landed the plane back at an airport instead. It’s exactly the kind of flimsy, manufactured conflict that sets itself up for moral grandstanding and a courtroom confrontation where our heroes will be vindicated, and we get all that. Sully’s unexpected spotlight wears on him as he feels like an ordinary citizen not worthy of the term “hero.” No other plane has successfully landed in water without a loss of life, so I’m sorry pal, but you’re a hero, even if you think you were just doing your job. Hanks is suitably low-key and humble and strong and emotionally resonant, though he was better on just about every front with Captain Phillips. The direction from Clint Eastwood is respectful without going into hagiography. The overall message is one of uplift, widening the focus from Sully to other heroes in New York City that day that came together to help others. It’s a moving message without having to resort to melodrama. At a mere 96 minutes, Sully gets you in and out and provides a solidly entertaining glimpse at the people who rose to the challenge when needed most. It’s a well-made movie that goes as far as it can without trying your patience.

Nate’s Grade: B+

London Has Fallen (2016)

london-fallen_post_1200_1778_81_sYears after the events from Olympus Has Fallen, Secret Service agent Mike Banner (Gerard Butler) is escorting President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) to London to attend a funeral. It’s there where chaos strikes and Muslim terrorists, disguised as British agents and local police, unleash a series of attacks and explosions throughout the city. Mike is able to rescue the president but the two are essentially in enemy territory looking for an escape, and the terrorists have seized London and plan on executing President Asher live on the Internet for his drone strikes in the Middle East.

The first mission for an action movie is to entertain with its action sequences, and it is here where London Has Fallen falls. The budget has been reported as high as $100 million dollars, and if this is true it may be the biggest waste of $100 million dollars I’ve ever seen on film. The movie just looks cheap. The locations (Bulgaria often doubling for London) look too vague and interchangeable with empty streets. Also, for a city that has over ten million inhabitants, why are these streets so empty? There were people milling about outdoors after 9/11, and the president wasn’t rumored to be somewhere on the streets in that scenario. Another sign of the movie’s cheapness: I’m certain that the shots of the emergency vehicles in London were stock footage. Now this wouldn’t be the first film to pad its establishment scenes with purchasable B-roll footage, but the offense is simply how poorly the movie is at hiding this fact. The footage is clearly from a lower video/film quality and not referenced as a media perspective, so the quality of the movie will suddenly drop for a brief few seconds to watch a cadre of ambulances race off. But back to these lackluster action sequences. There are very few variations on the standard run-and-shoot variety with little regards to geography. The initial escape from the first attack has some sizzle but it devolves into a series of chases and stands being made in small locations. The final assault on the bad guy’s compound unfolds as a tracking shot to kick things off and it’s here that you get a full sense of the movie’s limited ambitions. The action isn’t accelerated or given a visceral kick from the long take; it’s just guys shooting off screen, walking, shooting, with the occasional explosion. There’s no added benefit from the tracking shot, and yet somebody must have thought it would be so cool to do so and patted themself on the back.

London has Fallen(3)Another issue is that Butler’s character is nearly indestructible and without any vulnerability. Olympus Has Fallen didn’t wow me but it hewed closed to the Die Hard plot points and that’s a great formula to model your action movie after. In that scenario, Mike Banning was outnumbered and had to rely upon his stealth to be most effective. In the sequel, Mike has to protect the president but it’s really just the story of two buds running from place to place, having the occasional chat, and then Mike easily murdering any slew of bad guys, then repeat until the climax. It doesn’t make use of locations enough to cast out the sinking feeling of redundancy. Repetitive action sequences rely upon the concept of “more is better” when what we really demand is “more but different.” The best action movies are the ones where each sequence can stand on its own, push the story forward, makes smart use of its geography, and develops organically. There just aren’t enough of these in London Has Fallen. Our lead character is boring because he is never seen in a vulnerable position. He is told how outnumbered he is and his quippy reply is a trailer-ready line: “You should have brought more men.” This guy doesn’t sweat and only growls and stabs (lots of stabbing in this) and the R-rated violence does little to give this man anything resembling a personality. Mike is a dullard, and his personal arc of whether or not he’ll turn in his resignation from the Secret Service is one of the least believable moments of indecision you’ll ever witness. Gee, I wonder if Stabby McLoves to Stab is going to step away from his stab-heavy vocation.

With the action failing, it becomes even more apparent, and shockingly so, just how unpleasantly xenophobic and grotesque the movie’s overall political message becomes, so much so that you’d have to imagine a contingent of Trump supporters watching with baited breath and cheering mindlessly. It’s not uncommon for the bad guys in Hollywood action films to be darker-hued foreigners, so that wasn’t exactly something shocking, and the movie opens with a stab at creating a legitimate and politically pertinent grievance, a drone strike with unexpected collateral damage that obliterates a wedding party. The bad guys here have a cause that at least goes beyond blind ideology, though perhaps vengeance is actually a lesser motivation than something larger akin to ideology. They aren’t really fleshed out beyond this simple concept of vengeance or given anything larger to play with because they’re simply just villainous cardboard cutouts. And yet, most of this is expected with the territory of a typical action thriller. It’s when London Has Fallen decides to go the extra ugly mile when the movie starts becoming something far more unseemly and uncomfortable. I’m not expecting the most culturally nuanced portrayal of geo-politics, but this movie is practically a campaign ad for anti-Muslim nationalism. Our hero brutally stabs a nondescript bad guy and definitely enjoys inflicting pain. He kills another guy while screaming, “Go back to Fuckheadistan” (note to the geographically challenged: not a real standing nation as of this writing). Then it’s not enough that our hero is beating our secondary villain, he also has to deliver a speech about America’s standing and just what these pesky terrorists will never understand: “100 years later, we’ll still be here, and you’ll be dead.” What highlights these moments is that there aren’t any other political aspects in this movie, even a scant dismissive comment on something like gun control, so it feels like London Has Fallen has purposely chosen to highlight this anger and distrust of foreigners with its hero. It comes across like giving voice and credence to your crackpot uncle who, naturally, is voting for Trump to sweep them illegals and dusky-faced folk from the borders of ‘Merica.

London-Has-Fallen-Movie-Review-Image-3There’s an ongoing subplot in London Has Fallen that answers the question of how many Oscar nominees can you cram into a room and waste their talents. The answer, it would appear, is four, folks. Interspersed between Mike and the president on the run is Vice President Morgan Freeman (yes he has a character name but it’s really VP Morgan Freeman) deliberating in the White House with the assembled cabinet. There’s Melissa Leo (The Fighter) returning as the Secretary of Defense, Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) as a general, and Jackie Earl Haley (Little Children) as DC… something. Every time the movie has to cut back to this room full of wasted talent you’re reminded just how sad this movie is becoming. These characters don’t even have any larger bearing on the plot or any agency into the ongoing conflicts. Instead they are presented as exposition devices and reaction shots. These are some terrific thespians, including two Oscar winners, and here they are barking exposition or delivering forlorn reaction shots. We have four Oscar nominees and they’re stuck in a room, looking horrified into the camera lens, and slowly uttering lines like, “My God.” I do not begrudge actors taking paycheck roles (everybody’s got bills to pay) but this entire scenario is just an insulting waste of time.

Nobody is going to argue that Olympus Has Fallen was one of the greater works of cinema but it was a mildly enjoyable action thriller that was diverting enough to remind its rowdy audience of the Cannon genre films of the 80s. It was bloody, brutal, and fitfully entertaining (my preference was the other 2013-DieHard-in-a-White-House flick, White House Down). It was good enough, mostly because it hugged Die Hard closely and repeated the same plot mechanics to success. Now on its own, the sequel has to manufacture its own plotline and it doesn’t fare as well. Director Antoine Fuqua didn’t want to return for the sequel after reading the script, and this is a guy who made King Arthur and Shooter. Shooter, people! His replacement is an Iranian-born filmmaker, which just adds another level of questions for the finished product, and make no mistake, London Has Fallen is just that – product. It’s not really meant to be savored or enjoyed so much as it is processed and consumed and forgotten. The action doesn’t work well and is poorly orchestrated, often repetitive, the characters are boring, the villains are one-note, the capable actors are wasted, the overt political messages that continuously emerge are ugly and pointedly xenophobic, and the end even turns a drone strike, the same tool we saw wipe out an innocent wedding gathering to open the movie, into a crowd-pleasing climactic moment of payback. London Has Fallen is a misguided nationalistic action movie and then some.

Nate’s Grade: C-

I, Frankenstein (2014)

11177837_800Why wouldn’t Frankenstein’s monster (henceforth referred to as Adam) be the focal point in a war between heaven and hell? And why wouldn’t the angels really be gargoyles and live in cathedrals? And why wouldn’t the demons be trying to get their demony hands on Dr. F’s book on reviving the dead? And why wouldn’t we jump ahead 200 years to modern-day, where “Adam” should be a rotted corpse? Transparently an attempt to replicate the surprisingly enduring Underworld franchise, this secret supernatural war is a lame monster movie disguised as a lamer superhero film. It’s also absurdly idiotic in just about every capacity, as if no department had any communication with one another. Aaron Eckhart grumbles and trudges his way through this awful mess but you can feel his disdain for the entire enterprise. It’s not even deliciously campy, choosing to try and re-envision the classic monster in a modern and realistic setting. The action sequences are mundane when they’re not incoherent. I, Frankenstein feels like a movie version based upon the video game of some other source material. It’s loud and inept and campy but mostly outrageously dumb. I can’t wait to watch someone else in Hollywood recycle this cheap plot setup for a desperate supernatural franchise (“Okay, the Creature from the Black Lagoon finds itself in the center of a war between centaurs and…”). When people talk about the dregs of Hollywood, and the echo chamber of stripping away creativity, let I, Frankenstein be a prime example of the worst of us.

Nate’s Grade: D

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

1948Remember in the late 90s when studios seemed to develop similar projects every few months? In 1997, we had two volcano movies (Volcano, Dante’s Peak), and in 1998 we had two animated bug films (Antz, A Bug’s Life) and two asteroid action flicks (Deep Impact, Armageddon). With the wealth of unproduced screenplays, there’s definite merit to different writers coming up with similar concepts independent of one another. Now in 2013 we have two action movies that, boiled down, are essentially Die Hard in the White House. The first out of the gate, Olympus Has Fallen, is an entertaining action vehicle that reminds me of the 90s Jerry Bruckheimer era of big explosions, big body counts, and irony-free pleasures.

Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a top Secret Service agent still reeling from his inability to save the President (Aaron Eckhart)’s wife (Ashley Judd) in a freak accident. He now provides security at the nearby Treasury Department, the President afraid to see Mike’s face and be reminded of his loss. Then one sunny day, a cargo plane fires on D.C. citizens, armed terrorists assault the White House, and North Korean nationalist Yang (Rick Yune) has taken the President and his cabinet members hostage. The Speaker of the House, Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), has ascended to America’s Commander in Chief and he has to navigate tricky issues like how to save the president. Luckily, they have a man on the inside. During the firefight, Mike scrapped his way inside the White House. Now it’s one man versus a bevy of terrorists and nationalists.

100030_galThe overall execution reminds me of the heyday of mid 90s action cinema, with its mixture of the ridiculous played completely sincere. It doesn’t really matter that North Korean terrorists are able to take down the White House so easily. Sure we can nitpick the very prospect of a large foreign aircraft getting so close to D.C. before getting intercepted, and only with two fighters at that. But if you can tuck away that nagging voice reminding you of the implausible nature of everything, then Olympus Has Fallen is a serviceable action thriller. Every fifteen minutes or so our hero has a new mini-goal to accomplish. It keeps things fresh and holds your attention away from analyzing the sillier elements (Gatling guns atop the White House?). The debut script by screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt follows the Hollywood blockbuster blueprint down to the smallest detail. Of course there’s another blueprint it mirrors, namely that of Die Hard. Beyond the premise of one man left to his wits in a hostage standoff, there’s also the moment where the bad guy poses as a good guy to the ignorance of our hero, there’s the failed outside tactical use of force, and the bond forged between the man on the inside and the link outside, whom isn’t given the level of respect deserved. That’s not just an application of the Die Hard premise to a new setting (like Air Force One or Under Siege), but a sampling of the very plot beats from Die Hard. Then again if you’re going to steal then steal from the best.

There’s a certain throwback bravado vibe going on here that makes it all easier to swallow. It’s got big silly action sequences and some in-your-face jingoism (a character, when faced with the notion of execution, literally starts reciting the Pledge of Allegiance), enough that Michael Bay would be misty-eyed, but treating the subject matter with such thoughtless swagger makes the reality easier to accept. Having D.C. attacked, civilians mowed down, national monuments crumbled, and the White House in ashes, well you’d naturally think back to the very real horrors of 9/11, and you may shudder. By embracing the implausible nature of the action and achieving a tone that prioritizes popcorn thrills, Olympus Has Fallen dances around pitfalls of exploitation and simply becomes another big, dumb, but enjoyable action movie. I say this without a hint of derision or irony.

I haven’t been a fan of Antoine Fuqua as a director. He can compose a good looking movie, but Shooter, Tears of the Sun, and King Arthur were enough to convince me the man could not properly stage exciting action. I think perhaps the limitations of the setup brought out the best in him because there are some genuinely gripping action sequences on display here. Also, the man does a fine job of establishing the geography of his action and presenting a surprising variety. Fuqua, aided with the shifting script, makes sure that the audience never gets bored. Sure there are storylines that don’t exactly work, like Mike finding the First Son, a character never heard from again, but the movie keeps changing shape, getting bigger, and finding enough satisfying payoffs. This is an effective, serviceable “turn off your brain” action movie, and it does enough right that you don’t fret about turning that brain back on until the end credits. The R-rating also ups the ante, providing bloodier and brutal escalation to what should be life-and-death stakes.  If you’re going to give me “Die Hard in a…” then you best make sure your movie doesn’t wuss out. You’ll recognize plenty of action movie tropes and clichés, but the action is worthwhile and the plot constantly moving that you simply don’t mind.

100033_galIt’s nice to see Butler (Playing for Keeps) find a role that plays to his, admittedly limited, strengths. His character is your standard tough guy with a tragic past, haunted by the life he couldn’t save, looking to make amends and forgive himself. It’s probably the fact that the role has so little to it that Butler is able to slide effortlessly into gruff action star mode, a preferential place (though I prefer the man to be bearded as well). The rest of the movie benefits from actors who are far better than the material: Freeman, Eckhart, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, and Angela Bassett. They all provide better-than-average performances for this type of movie. Even Dylan McDermott (TV’s American Horror Story) gets room to shine. Rick Yune (Ninja Assassin, The Man with the Iron Fists) makes for a very sinister bad guy. The part is Generic Antagonist #301, but Yune finds fun ways to enjoy the menace, soak it up without hamming it up. He transforms a generic villain into a dude you want to see righteously toppled.

After last fall’s updated Red Dawn (scrubbed free of invading Chinese forces) and now this, I must ask if North Korea has become the go-to military enemy for American action movies. Olympus Has Fallen takes the added step of never having the government of North Korea involved or approve, like the terrorists are acting on their own. We wouldn’t want to upset the government of North Korea; that’s what Red Dawn is for. But does anyone really view North Korea as a credible military threat? They are seen as a rogue nation, yes, and they claim to have nuclear arms, so they should be taken seriously, but does anyone realistically think we’ll wake up tomorrow and be conquered by North Korea? I suppose this criticism lies more with Red Dawn than Olympus Has Fallen, a movie that only needs a handful of dedicated foot soldiers rather than an invading army. I also find it laughable that the only thing holding back North and South Korea from war, in this fictional scenario, is the presence of about 28,000 U.S. troops. Also, if these events played out as they do, who doesn’t think that the U.S. would respond with military action against North Korea?  We started a war with Iraq and they weren’t even responsible for the actions of a handful of terrorists. I guess the North Koreans are the new Hollywood Boogeymen.

With a hook of a premise, some exciting action, and more than a few borrowed plot beats from Die Hard, it’s still a pleasant surprise at how entertaining Olympus Has Fallen works. It’s a movie that simply does enough right to justify watching. Its action is good enough, its plot is familiar enough but offers enough forward momentum, its actors are good enough, and it does enough right to quell potential boredom. I appreciated its throwback feel to the mid-90s action movie, a time of elevated popcorn thrills and powerful bravado, all without a hint of irony no matter how ridiculous things got. It lands on shakier ground when it tries to become a rah-rah kind of patriotic rally, but I’d be lying if I denied the certain pleasures of watching a Secret Service agent take out the bad guys on his turf. Time will tell how the second Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movie will fare, but if you’re looking for big and dumb but enjoyable, Olympus Has Fallen is like a summer popcorn film only in March.

Nate’s Grade: B

Anna Karenina (2012)

1872I’ve never read a Russian novel before, mostly because I don’t need to read 900 pages of bleakness and repressed happiness. With that said, I knew very little going into Anna Karenina (the very title sounds too heavy in syllables, like you’re stuttering). What didn’t help matters was director Joe Wright’s edict to set the story as if it was being performed on a living stage. This bizarre visual concept is interesting for a little while until you realize that it never goes further than the obvious note that the lives of the elites were played out in public for cruel judgment. The staging also gave me many periods of confusion where it felt like a character fantasy was taking place. The peculiar staging seems superfluous and the real draw for the film, not the relatively fine performances or Tom Stoppard’s (Shakespeare in Love) adaptation. I don’t think it works as a movie because, much like Wright’s Atonement, it feels too self-satisfied in its own mannered artifice. It’s an overload on style and the film neglects to give me a reason to care about the story and the characters. Keira Knightley as the titular heroine is hard to embrace, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Savages) seems miscast as her dashing lover, and Jude Law (Hugo) comes across as unreasonably tolerable of his wife’s flights of fancy, so much so it makes it hard to sympathize with her downward spiral. It’s a pretty movie and I applaud its attempt to do something different, but Wright’s Anna Karenina feels too fanciful to come across as tragic.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

It’s just your typical sunny, Southern California day. Blue skies, good vibes, and aliens wiping out the indigenous species (read: us) for our bountiful resources. Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), literally a morning away from retirement, is pulled back into combat to be apart of a Marine platoon that must hold up in the city and fight back against our otherworldly intruders.

Well there is a battle, and it is set in Los Angeles, but that’s about all you’re going to get from this movie. If you were looking for something approximating character, you’re looking in the wrong place. The characters are purely defined by one-note superficial differences, like this guy’s a doctor from Nigeria, this guy has a pregnant wife, this guy has… glasses, etc. The characters were so powerfully indistinct that there were three separate times that a person appeared onscreen and I said aloud, “Hey, I thought that guy died.” Battle: Los Angeles is a military movie, a grunts-eye-view to an alien invasion. And we keep that limiting POV for the entire movie. Battle: Los Angeles has more in common with Black Hawk Down than it does with Independence Day. Replace the depiction of angry, faceless Africans with aliens and there you go. We move from house to house, rubble-filled street after another, shooting wildly, barking commands, and trying to make sense of the urban battles. I’m doing the film too much of a favor because that makes it sound thrilling, which it is not. While there is plenty of action kept at a fairly frenetic pace, that action consistently stays at the same level of intensity. Nothing truly builds or develops to add extra levels of tension. The action is consistent, shooting through one neighborhood after the next, and when the action is plentiful but fails to develop, then the entire movie feels stagnant. Sure it develops from a “We have to go here now” assembly of plot dominoes, but advancing from one location to another with fewer characters each time is not the same as a plot.

These have got to be some of the dumbest aliens in the universe. These are the aliens that the other aliens pick on. Some scientist/exposition device pontificates that the aliens are after our water, which is a better reason than invading a planet to harvest our tasty brains (Skyline, I’m looking in your direction). The talking head says it’s a rarity to find a planet with liquid water and thus Earth is so attractive to outsiders. Okay, so you’re going to tell me that aliens lack the ability to take ice melt it? There’s an awful lot of ice in the universe that could be more easily obtained. That seems like a better solution than an interstellar road trip for a drink. The creature design is decidedly lacking as well. The aliens look like a cross between squids and a hardware store shelf; they have metallic weapons forged to their skin. At one point Nantz and his crew is dissecting an alien POW to look for vulnerable spots (this might violate some sort of treaty somewhere) and find a lone sack underneath about five layers of armor and exoskeleton. Then they relay the news about this “delicate” spot to all the troops and miraculously all of the aliens start to now go down easily by being shot at a great distance and having the bullets penetrate layers to hit one spot a half a foot in diameter on a moving target. Makes perfect sense now that they know. That info didn’t seem any more helpful than just blindly shooting at the area below the head, which was the previous method for killing. These alien spaceships look like someone attached rockets to the shantytowns from District 9. These ships look like something assembled over at a junkyard and I thought to myself, “You traveled through space in this heap?” It’s like an invasion from an impoverished alien race that also happens to be ignorant and uneducated, which might explain the whole coveting water thing. Battle: Los Angeles might secretly be a metaphor for class warfare. Or not. Probably not.

The movie transforms into a two-hour commercial for the Marines. Battle: Los Angeles espouses the selfless bravery and honor of our servicemen, which is commendable, but it should have been done in the ame of recognizable human characters. It does the honor of good men no justice when they are turned into statues. These aren’t people, they’re recruitment figures spouting poster slogans through gritted teeth. The valor turns just this side of jingoism, and that does a disservice to the sacrifice of the men and women of the armed services. It’s hard to watch Battle: Los Angeles and not come away with the impression that the Marines are superhuman badasses and let’s fight some aliens! What compounds this messy association is that the Marines have long featured TV ads where their square-jawed recruits battle fantastical monsters (I recall one of them being made of lava).

Director Jonathan Liebesman (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, most famous for Jordana Brewster’s gravity-defying low-rise pants) is no great lensman. He gives shrift attention to the significance of geography in action composition, but he makes up in quantity what he lacks in quality. There is plenty of loud noises and the like, so you’ll be kept awake, that is until you heard the stilted dialogue and wish you could fall asleep. The film packs enough stuff into an overlong 110 minutes but it’s not terribly interesting stuff, which is saying something for an alien invasion movie.

Disappointingly, the movie makes no usage of its titular location. Los Angeles may be the battlefield in name, but this movie could have been set anywhere. It does not take advantage of any of the geographic features that are unique to Los Angeles, or even California. Why bother establishing a specific location in the title and premise when the execution means you could have set the story anywhere (Battle: Cleveland?). It’s a crumbling city; it could be Libya for all that matters. Some of this is likely due to the fact that the movie was almost entirely filmed in Louisiana, which seems like a rather unnatural double for Los Angeles pre and post-alien invasions.

Battle: Los Angeles is a studio film that gets its job in an efficiently empty-headed manner. The space invaders are dumb, the action is too limited and erratically framed, and the story exists only in a theoretical state. Eckhart grunts in his raspy Two-Face voice from The Dark Knight for the entire film. I suppose if you have low expectations and just want to fill up on special effects, Battle: Los Angeles should sate your desire for straight-forward shoot-em-up entertainment. It’s not brainless but it’s close to it. Near as I can tell, Battle: Los Angeles is devoid of political or topical commentary on contemporary conflict because that would just get in the way of its straight-laced heroics. Sorry District 9, what were you thinking?

Nate’s Grade: C

The Dark Knight (2008)

In 2005, Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman series was a critical and commercial success. Gone were the campy and opulent sequences of old and the nipples on the Batsuit felt simply like a bad dream. Nolan served as director and screenwriter and brought serious psychological depth to his story and characters. As a life-long Batman fan, I loved it and wanted a sequel immediately with the exact same people responsible. The Dark Knight has been overshadowed by the passing of actor Heath Ledger, a gifted young actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. He’s gone from gay cowboy to the criminally insane, and it’s all anyone can talk about. The buzz on Ledger and The Dark Knight is deafening and I am about to join that joyous chorus. This is a movie for grown-ups and makes lesser super hero adventures look downright stupid.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is dealing with the repercussions of his choice to assume the masked identity of Batman. He’s cracked down on Gotham City’s mobsters, and in their desperation they have turned to a crazed anarchist that likes to wear strange makeup. The Joker (Ledger) promises to return Gotham back to its old ways but even he knows this isn’t possible. “You’ve changed things,” he tells Batman. “There’s no going back.” The Joker wants to break the will of Batman and Gotham City and sets up elaborate and disturbing moral dilemmas that push many to the edge. His purpose is chaos, which isn’t exactly what the Mob had in mind when they subcontracted his services. Bruce must rely on his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and company tech guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to help him combat a man that “just wants to watch the world burn.” Gotham also has a new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is willing to put his name on the line to clean up the city. He’s butting heads with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) because of Gordon’s secrecy and his reliance on Batman to do the things the law won’t allow. Dent wants to prosecute mobsters and is willing to put himself in jeopardy. He believes Batman is waiting for men like him to take the baton. Bruce’s old squeeze Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes — upgrade) has fallen for Dent. He’s an emotionally available man who wants to do good. Naturally, Dent and Rachel will becomes targets of the Joker.

First off, believe the hype because everything you’ve read and heard about Ledger’s performance is the gospel truth. The actor vanishes completely underneath the gnarly latex scars, stringy hair, and smeared makeup. He transforms into this menacing figure and he makes Jack Nicholson look like a circus clown in comparison. He’s creepy and funny in a totally demented and spooky way, but he almost comes across like a feral creature that enjoys toying with his prey. Ledger fully inhabits his character and brings a snarling ferocity to the role. The Joker is given no back-story and he takes a macabre delight in crafting differing versions of his sordid past depending upon the audience. Ledger’s Joker is like a mixture of sadist and intellectual, of Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Hannibal Lector; he finds a way to get inside your mind and unleashes torment. There’s a great scene where he’s left alone in a holding cell with a police officer. The Joker taunts the man, getting little reaction from the trained lawman, but then he hits a nerve. The Joker asks how many of his friends, his fellow officers has he murdered. He then rhapsodizes the finer points of using knives instead of guns because guns are too quick. With knives he can see who people truly are in the final moments of existence. “So in a way, I know your friends better than you ever did,” he tells the officer. “Would you like to know which of them are cowards?” This triggers the officer to break his protocol and play into the Joker’s scheme. I’m not ready to say Ledger’s performance overtakes Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men) as the most menacing villain of late, but Ledger certainly will make your skin do more than crawl.

Ledger gives a performance worthy of posthumous Oscar consideration. Toward the end of the film I found myself lingering on sadness that, well, this was it. This is all we are ever going to get of the Joker, such a fabulous character, but even more, this was the last full performance we are ever going to get from Ledger. His unnerving performance will stand the test of time when it comes to haunting screen villains, and I’m sure the actor had many more incredibly performances left in him before he passed away.

The Dark Knight has less in common with other superhero series and should be considered a modern crime drama. It has more in common with Heat than with Spider-Man. Even compared to Nolan’s excellent Batman Begins, this is the first Batman film that feels like it occurs in a real city in our own reality. In Batman Begins, we had the CGI ghetto that happened to be conveniently where all the city’s scum lived, an ancient league of ninjas that wanted to wipe an entire modern city off the map, and then a super microwave that zapped water molecules in the air. Even though it was the most realistic Batman yet, it still had some fantastic elements that kept it from feeling fully believable. This newest Batman adventure feels more like a real city and a city that is being torn apart. You get to see a lot of Gotham City’s moving parts and different social circles and then see the Joker tear them apart. The knotty screenplay by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathon is dense and packed with subtext and ambiguity not seen in the likes of other spandex-clad super hero movies. This isn’t a super hero movie so much as an enthralling crime thriller with better gadgets.

Whereas Batman Begins focused on the psychology of a man that dresses up in a costume and fights crime, now the attention turns into examining the impact of Batman. There has been escalation, just as Gordon hinted at the close of the last film. Batman has stepped up law enforcement and now Gotham’s criminal element has placed their trust in a psychopath that promises results. This is a movie about symbols and ideals and about the tenets of civilization. The movie presents an arsenal of mature questions and rarely gives absolute answers. Batman I supposed to be a hero but does he play by the law? Can he make decisions that no one else can? Batman believes in the goodness of others and serves as a symbol for the city to stand up against corruption, but can Batman be corruptible? Does he have a breaking point? Is implanting hidden surveillance and spying on 30 million people in the name of security overstepping? Is it acceptable to cross a line if your enemy crossed it first? The Joker lives at the other ideological end and believes that human beings are selfish and will eat each other when the chips are down. He devises disturbing social experiments that test the limits of ordinary citizens and how far they are willing to go out of self-interest. The Joker is an anarchic force that seeks to tear down civilization itself, and that is a far more interesting and devastating plot than vaporizing water molecules with ninjas. When the movie covers the tired “we’re one in the same” territory that most super hero flicks hit (the Joker responds to Batman with, “I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? You complete me.”), it even makes sense given the psychological and philosophical complexity at root.

And oh boy, is The Dark Knight dark. This flick racks up a body count that could compete with movies usually involving some cataclysmic act of nature. The Joker’s unpredictable nature, and the dark twists the film plumbs, creates an atmosphere where you dread anything happening at any time, and mostly bad things happen. Batman must come face to face with his limitations and the realization that his actions, no matter how altruistic, will have negative consequences. This is not a movie for young children. If any parent buys their child a Joker doll and takes them to see this movie then expect years of therapy bills down the line. Much of the violence is implied but the overall effect is still chilling. It’s difficult to call The Dark Knight a “fun” movie. Batman Begins was fun as we followed Bruce Wayne tinker and become his crime-fighting avenger. This movie watches much of what he built get taken away. The movie makes gutsy decisions and for a super hero movie, let alone a summer blockbuster, and this is one decidedly dour flick where no character ends in a particularly pleasant place, especially poor Harvey Dent.

Speaking of Mr. Dent, while Ledger is deservedly getting all the buzz and plaudits, Eckhart’s excellent performance is going unnoticed. Dent gets just as much screen time as Batman and is the white knight of Gotham, the man unwilling to break the boundaries of the law to merit out justice. Like Batman, he serves as a symbol for Gotham City and its resurrection from the stranglehold of crime. Batman fights in the shadows and serves as an anonymous vigilante but Dent is the face that can inspire the city. That’s what makes his transformation into Two-Face all the more tragic. You really do care about the characters in this movie, so when Dent turns on his principles and seeks out vengeance you feel a weighted sense of sorrow for the demise of a truly decent man. Eckhart and his lantern jaw easily sell Dent’s idealism and courage. After his horrific transformation, Eckhart burrows deep enough to show the intense hatred and mistrust he has even in fate. He gives a terrific performance that plays a variety of emotions and does justice to them all.

The rest of the cast, just to be mentioned, is excellent yet again.

Nolan has also stepped up his directing skills and delivered some high-intensity action. His first foray with Batman had some dicey action sequences that suffered from choppy editing, but he pulls back his camera lens and lets the audience see the action in The Dark Knight. The explosive high point is a long car chase where the Joker tries to attack an armored police car via an 18-wheeler truck. The police look for safe detours to escape the Joker’s line of fire, and when Batman surfaces with the sleek Batpod motorcycle thing get even cooler. What makes the sequence even better is that all of the peripheral characters behave in semi-logical ways, meaning that your secondary cop characters are respectable decision makers. Nolan also shot several sections of the film in IMAX, which boasts the highest resolution possible for film stock. The panoramic views of Batman atop buildings are breathtaking and may strike vertigo in some moviegoers. The movie looks great and it delivers the action goods but it’s really more of a tense thriller with more tiny moments of unease than an out-and-out action flick with gargantuan explosions and blanket gunfire.

Despite the undeniable brilliance of The Dark Knight, the movie is rather exhausting. After a decent 45 minutes of establishing the characters and setting up the stakes, the movie is essentially two hours of climax after climax, and you will be perched on the edge of your seat and tense until the end credits crash onto the screen. It’s exciting and overwhelming but you will feel wiped out by the end of the movie. There are a lot of characters and a lot of subplots and while I’m thrilled the movie has so much intricacy it also makes it hard for the film to come to a stop. The climax with Two-Face and Gordon’s family also feels misplaced. At a tremendous 2 hours and 30 minute running time, The Dark Knight will test your endurance skills in the best way.

I honestly have no idea where Nolan and crew can take the story now. The Dark Knight seems unlikely to be topped. This is an intense, epic crime thriller with a labyrinthine plot that is packed with emotion, subtext, philosophy, penetrating open-ended questions, and genuine nerve-racking tension. It’s hard for me even to think of this movie as a super hero flick despite that fact that it’s about a billionaire in a rubber suit. This is an engrossing modern crime drama that just so happens to have people in weird costumes. Nolan and his brother have crafted a stirring addition to, not just the Batman canon, but to cinema as a whole. Ledger’s character is the driving force behind the film, the man that makes everyone else react, and his incredibly daring and haunting performance will stand as a last reminder of what talent was lost to the world when he passed away. I for one will be amongst the throng crying out for Oscar recognition but not just for Ledger, for The Dark Knight in general. And I may not be alone. The Dark Knight is currently breaking every box-office record imaginable and seems destined to finish as the number two highest grossing movie of all time, steadily behind James Cameron’s Titanic. If the Academy is looking for a way to shore in better ratings for the Oscars, it might seriously consider nominating The Dark Knight in some key races. It certainly deserves recognition.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Hey, I got an idea. How about we make a Black Dahlia movie and hardly involve anything having to do with the notorious Black Dahlia murder? I’ve got an even better idea; let’s center the action around a love triangle involving cops who are, say it with me, too close to the case. And then we’ll have a wacked out rich family where the mother (Fiona Shaw, God bless her) gives a performance that isn’t three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk, she is staggering, cataclysmically, powerfully, off-the-wall drunk. Watching her sway and sneer and hiccup is like watching Daffy Duck in this Brian DePalma mess. The central actors feel too young for their parts (the best actor is Mia Kirshner, seen briefly in an audition reel as the soon to be eviscerated Elizabeth Short), and the ending is an insipid caper to an ongoing, unsolved murder mystery. The Black Dahlia is appallingly boring and yet also appallingly dimwitted, but it does occasionally look good thanks to the technical proficiency of its director. DePalma has had a very up and down career. Consider this one of his valleys.

Nate’s Grade: D

Thank You for Smoking (2006)

As soon as I saw a trailer for Thank You for Smoking I was in love. I found the book for cheap and read it with months to spare before the film reached my local theater. Admittedly, my expectations were high because the book was wonderful, and Thank You for Smoking as a movie is equally wonderful and a very good film adaptation.

This is a wickedly funny satire that skewers all sides in the political debate about Big Tobacco, and the film doesn’t take a stand, which is refreshing. It has a firm grip on its humor and gleefully gives its finger to political correctness. There?s a lunch group called the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) squad where reps for Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, of course, argue over whose product is harder to spin. It’s likely the snort-because-you-can’t-believe-they-said-that movie of the year. The tar-black humor in Thank You for Smoking rolls off so casually. This is a comedy that respects the intelligence of its audience and doesn’t dumb down its barbs or its satire. Aaron Eckhart was born to play the role of Nick Naylor, tobacco’s master spin artist and public charlatan. Naylor is conniving, slippery, and yet immensely likable not in spite of these traits but because of them. Eckhart is downright charming and you can see how he could dupe a nation, even if he’s only doing it for the challenge. Thank You for Smoking has one of the finest assembled casts in a long time, and every member fires on all cylinders. This is a film brimming with confidence and it’s evident with every frame. You almost might feel guilty for wanting to capture a contact buzz from how polished, assured and witty the flick is.

I never thought I’d say so but it sure looks like adapter/director Jason Reitman has a far more promising future right now than his dad, Ivan. Jason, the son, keeps the movie brisk, packed with characters, subplots, jokes, and a visual whimsy. This is a terrific adaptation of a terrific book, and Reitman really hones in on the mechanics of debate and lobbyist practices with aplomb. A scene where Nick teaches his adoring son the tricks of debate with ice cream is outstanding. Thank You for Smoking crackles with dialogue to die for, like Nick’s boss BR (J.K. Simmons) saying, “We sell cigarettes. They’re cool, and addictive, and available — the job is practically done for us.” My only complaints with the film, besides that it’s too short at just 90 minutes, is the manufactured danger seems a bit too slight and too easily overcome. Nick quite simply vanquishes whatever threat his reporter sex buddy Heather (Katie Holmes) posed. Otherwise, Thank You for Smoking is a superb movie all around and there’s no reason you shouldn’t see it. Take the hit.

Nate’s Grade: A

%d bloggers like this: