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Nocturnal Animals (2016)

nocturnal_animalsFashion designer Tom Ford made a big splash with his debut film, 2009’s A Single Man. It was a gentle and introspective character study of a middle-aged gay professor determined to end his own life. It was lush, full of feeling, and anchored by a deeply humane performance from Colin Firth. In short, it is everything that his follow-up Nocturnal Animals is not. This is a movie overflowing with vacant artifice that is mistaken for profundity.

Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner and living a posh life with her second husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). She gets an unexpected present in the mail from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s sent her his newest manuscript, a departure from his usual works. It’s dedicated to Susan. With Hutton away on business, and philandering with a mistress, she dives into the story. It tells the story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Isla Fisher) and teen daughter (Ellie Bamber) traveling through west Texas. They run afoul of some contemptuous locals lead by the sadistic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter. Left for dead, Tony teams up with a terminally ill police officer, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), to hunt down Ray and make him suffer for his crimes. As Susan continues reading, she goes through a mixture of emotions trying to determine what her ex-husband is trying to communicate to her within the subtext and metaphor of his sordid story.

maxresdefaultI grew increasingly restless with Nocturnal Animals because it failed to justify its excessive dawdling and vapid artistic pretensions. This is a movie that doesn’t really know what it wants to be so it dabbles in many different genres, none of them fully convincing or worth the effort. It’s a high-gloss erotic thriller, it’s a gritty exploitation film, it’s a morally compromised revenge thriller, and it’s a subtle relationship drama amidst the upper crust of the L.A. art scene. It’s none of these. It’s two primary stories, neither of which justifies the amount of time spent on what amounts to so little. The worst offender is the frame story with Susan, which amounts to watching Amy Adams read for two hours. She takes a lot of baths and showers in response (symbolism!) but most of the cutaways and time spent with Adams is to merely watch her react. It’s like she’s a nascent studio audience handcuffed to tell us how to feel with her reactions. Would you have known that you should feel bad during onscreen death if we didn’t cut back to Susan also feeling bad and concerned? It amounts to emotional handholding and it’s grating, also because Susan is an terrible character. She’s conceited and thinks she is owed better, which is why her mother successfully pressured her to dump Edward, a man well below her self-styled station in life. Her second marriage is crumbling apart and part of her sees Edward’s out-of-the-blue note as a potential romantic rekindling. That’s right, this is a person who reads a revenge opus that may be all about seeking cosmic vengeance against her, and she thinks to herself, “Ooo, I think he like likes me after all.” Her self-involvement is rewarded in the end but the ambiguous ending is more just missing in action. Ford’s film just peters out and leaves you hanging, just like its heroine.

Edward’s manuscript is easily the best story and even that is only by default. It’s an easier story to get involved with because of the simple story elements that naturally draw an audience in, namely a revenge fable. The initial altercation with the family and Ray’s crew lasts almost a half hour. Specifically the roadside confrontation itself is a solid ten minutes and it just goes round and round, repeating its overdone sense of menace. I wasn’t dreading the horror to come but more so getting impatient for it to be over. Without depth to the characters or escalating stakes and complications, it all just amounts to a Texas hillbilly repeatedly threatening a cowering family for ten solid minutes. The vengeance in the second half of the movie is just as predictable and too drawn out. Edward schemes with Bobby Andes to take justice into his own hands, but the movie takes far too long to reach its predictable conclusion, which still manages to be so drawn out that I was screaming at the screen for the inevitable to finally happen. When the movie ended I felt a rush of relief to go along with my general sense of perplexity.

Nocturnal Animals has the illusion of highbrow art mixing with lowbrow thrillers but it lacks the substance of the former and the courage of its convictions for the latter. Ford’s mercurial taste in costuming and set design shows in every moment with Susan, as the sets feel exquisitely designed and the cinematography designed to encapsulate this. It’s a good-looking movie but there’s not enough under the surface. It’s all empty window dressing to disguise the vapid whole at its center. Let’s tackle the opening credits, which will most certainly capture your undivided attention. It’s a foursome of overweight women dancing naked and in slow motion, their large bodies bouncing and jiggling to the self-serious musical score. Eventually it’s revealed that these women are part of an installation exhibit in Susan’s art gallery, and that’s when you get a tip-off just how hollow and attention seeking the movie will be. The gallery consists of overweight women lying face down on raised platforms. That’s it. No wonder her gallery isn’t doing that well (note: not a fat-shaming comment but more a comment on the lazy application of its sense of “art”). You get a sense that Ford comes most alive in the scenes where he can arrange figures and images, not so much the demands of storytelling.

nocturnal-animals-1I can already hear supporters saying I just don’t get it; no, I got it because there’s very little to understand with Nocturnal Animals. It’s a story-within-a-story so we’re already training our brains to look for parallels but they aren’t obvious so they’ll be more metaphorical. I kept waiting for it all to tie together in a substantial way by film’s end, and sorry but it just doesn’t (spoilers ahead). Edward has a whammy of a day when he discovers 1) his wife is pregnant, 2) she’s aborted his child, and 3) she’s in the arms of her new boyfriend, and he discovers all of this standing in the rain for further symbolism. He has a grievance against Susan, though we’ve been suspecting it for some time. His manuscript is a revenge thriller about a family murdered and how a weak man finds the strength to seek justice and retribution. The parallels are fairly obvious there, and the fact that there are only so many characters in the story-within-a-story means there are few options to play the analogue guessing game. I’ll just claim that Ray is meant to represent Susan since he/she is the murderer of Tony/Edward’s family. There’s a reason that Tony’s family all share Susan’s red hair. He dedicated the book to her, after all, and said she was who made it all possible. From there you could argue whether Tony represents Edward’s real past, weak and remorseful, whereas Bobby Andes is meant to represent how he wishes he could be, decisive and strong (end spoilers). That’s about all the parallels you’re going to find because the story-within-a-story only involves a very tiny number of characters. There just isn’t much to go on here and yet Ford’s movie stretches and drags and just keeps going until it reaches its predictable destination. There isn’t any more depth here than straightforward avatars and even those are lean.

I was debating a question with my friend Ben Bailey while we watched this movie, and that’s whether the stakes are removed somewhat when you know that a storyline within a movie is fictitious. Knowing that Tony is a pretend person, does that eliminate some of the tension and investment in his storyline? I recognize this is a distinctly meta question considering that a majority of film characters are fictitious by nature, but I do think there’s a different set of standards for the people of the story-within-a-story. I don’t remember feeling less for the characters in A Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, or Adaptation. My only conclusion is that I just did not care a lick for any of the characters in Nocturnal Animals, whether they were fictional or twice fictional. They didn’t deserve my attention just because pretty people were playing them. They didn’t deserve my attention because Big Bad Things caused them to experience Big Emotions. Combined with the ponderous plot and the emaciated substance, the dull characters and the overwrought acting they inspire are a recipe for audience detachment. I can’t help but shake my head as other critics trip over themselves to shower this film with overly enthusiastic plaudits. Nocturnal Animals is a tiresome exercise in lazy symbolism, patience-demolishing pretension, and emptiness masquerading as contemplation.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

10869325_591589580977275_2778898650041679518_oThe Avengers wasn’t just a blockbuster it was a mega-blockbuster and rewrote the Hollywood playbook in the summer of 2012. It wasn’t just about powerful franchises anymore. Now it was about franchises that would link into a super franchise. Sony got anxious to expand their Spider-Man universe in a similar fashion as Marvel had done in buildup to The Avengers. After one poor movie, that plan was scuttled and now Spider-Man is being rebooted for the second time in five years, this time with active help from Marvel itself (look for Spidey to appear in Captain America 3). Writer/director Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was the mastermind behind the jaunty smash-em-up fun of The Avengers and was quickly signed on for a sequel after the billion-dollar mark was crossed. With great success comes great risk of upsetting that continued success. It feels like Whedon’s hands were tied to the greater forces at work. As a result, I shouldn’t be surprised but I’m still disappointed with how muddled and overstuffed as Age of Ultron comes across.

The Avengers are cleaning up the last remnants of HYDRA, taking them to a castle in a fictional Eastern European country. The HYDRA doctor has been genetically experimenting on volunteers, birthing Wanda “Scarlet Witch” (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She can tap into people’s minds and he can run super fast. They’ve got a grudge against the Avengers, particularly industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark takes a piece of alien technology and plugs it into his home system to build a super fleet of automated robots to patrol the world. In no time, the A.I. has taken form in the shape of an insane robot named Ultron (James Spader) whose mission is to save the planet by eliminating mankind. He builds an army of robotic soldiers with the assistance of the Maximoff twins. Tony, along with Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), must stop Ultron while not destroying much of the world themselves with their collateral damage.

avengers-age-of-ultron-trailer-hulkbusterEleven movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a movie of the size of an Avengers sequel cannot simply be a movie. It’s too important to the overall vision of the MCU, and so it has to set up and establish other characters, franchises, and the many monetary tributaries that keep the world of superheroes going. It’s already got a slew of superheroes and it adds even more new faces into the mix (I guess we needed an Avengers B-Team). The development of Ultron is also far too rushed; it’s literally minutes from being plugged in that he’s already settled into kill-all-Avengers mode. The movie barely has any time to even contemplate the perils of artificial intelligence before Ultron is already proving their fears correct. While Ultron is a fun villain (more on that later) his plan feels quite haphazard. His biggest strategic advantage is his duplication, the fact that he can exist without a physical body and can inhabit many bodies at once. Except for a hasty escape via the Internet and a climax stuffed with CGI robot mayhem, this advantage isn’t really explored. Why does a self-replicating creature beyond the bounds of physicality need or even desire a physical body? If you’re made from a nigh indestructible metal and can control numerous beings at once with a hive-mind intelligence link, why would you want to be turned into flesh thanks to what amounts to a 3D printer? The introduction of The Vision (Paul Bettany, this time in the flesh) is quite muddled and confusing. The incorporation of the Maximoff twins is awkward and they feel more like accessories than needed additions. This Quicksilver doesn’t come anywhere close to the memorable prankish Quicksilver from Days of Future Past. The pacing of the film is so ramped that it feels like the movie is falling over itself to get to the next large-scale action set piece. At 140 minutes, they could have removed one or two action pieces and devoted more time to streamlining and cleaning up the narrative.

And the action sequences start off with a bang but they invariably fizzle out. The opening sequence begins with a Birdman-styled tracking shot to connect all our fighters, and it’s a fun way to kick things off while visually tying together the team. The Hulk vs. Iron Man brawl is fun for a while, partly because it harkens back to the pleasures of the first film, namely watching our heroes battle each other as much as the villains. After a while, the CGI onslaught becomes overwhelming and just dulls the senses. You’re watching CGI smash into other CGI and then keep smashing, with little variation. The disappointment with the action is that it too often feels weightless and hollow. It has glimmers of fun but it can’t hold onto these glimmers because the action doesn’t change. It gets bigger and more chaotic, yes, but it doesn’t develop with organic complications and real attention to setting. These big battles could happen anywhere because they almost all descend into simply fighting amidst rubble. Even Iron Man 3 found ways to spice up its action set pieces through complications, limitations, and clear differentiation. Perhaps this is a larger outcry of fatigue with the overall state of CGI overkill in effects-driven films. The concluding fight versus Ultron and his many copies just feels like the same scene on repeat but in slightly different locations. Whedon has shown an affinity to coordinate exciting and satisfying action sequences, but you just feel like the pressure and demands get the better of him.

However, every moment with Ultron onscreen is a highpoint because of the malicious cattiness of Spader (TV’s The Blacklist). He’s a perfect fit for a character who is at turns childish and petty, bonkers, and condescending. In some ways he’s like a giant robotic teenager who thinks he’s just above the rest of these so-called adults. It’s such an enjoyable villain, an area of real need in most MCU films (Loki can’t be everywhere for every movie), that I wanted more and more of him. My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey describes Ultron as the villainous alternative Tony Stark, and Whedon does a fine job of laying out the parallels, especially with regards to ego. It’s a weird reunion for the stars of 1987’s Less Than Zero.

The most boring characters, i.e. the humans, are the ones that get the biggest expansion for character development, with mixed results. Let’s face it, Hawkeye is never going to be anyone’s favorite Avenger. I think even he acknowledges this in a moment that almost breaks down the fourth wall (“None of this makes sense. I’m fighting with a bow and arrow.”). Hawkeye’s personal life is given a spotlight and it sets up an obvious worry that he’s going to bite it by film’s end. If there was an expendable member of this team, it would have to be Hawkeye. The added attention and personal attachments seem like a dead giveaway that he’s going to be dead. I don’t think I was any more invested in his character knowing about his hidden life outside the Avengers, but I certainly played a game of, “Is this gonna be it?” as the film continued. Black Widow started as an interesting character, a spy trying to make amends for her bloody past, or the “red in [her] ledger,” as they referred in the previous film. Her budding romance with Banner makes some sense but it still feels like the character is being forced into Romantic mode not because of her character but mostly because she has a vagina. Any romance with a guy who turns green and monstrous seems like it might be best as unrequited. She’s also defined by a past trauma that, while upsetting and cruel, is also a bit too tied into her identity as Woman/Mother. It’s an unfortunate positioning for what is an inherently interesting character (the slut shaming of the character in promotional interviews by certain Avengers cast members is also highly unfortunate). Can’t we get a Black Widow movie yet, Marvel?

The-Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-645x370An aspect of Age of Ultron I did enjoy was how conscious the heroes are about mitigating collateral damage and especially human casualties. At every turn, the Avengers are thinking about saving those caught in the cross-hairs first. They go out of their way to save those left behind. I think, and I’m not alone in this conclusion, that Whedon is directly responding to the disaster porn that was Zack Snyder’s miserly Man of Steel. The latest Superman movie bothered me with how callous it was with human life, treating devastating city-wide 9/11-style destruction as mere entertainment. As Superman and Zod were colliding through every damn building in Metropolis, you knew thousands if not millions of unseen people were perishing in this rather pointless melee. Whedon’s band of heroes places a priority on human life regardless of region.

It would be disingenuous of me to say Age of Ultron is not entertaining. Whedon is still a terrific storyteller and that still shines through the troubled areas and spotty plotting. The action makes good use of the various heroes and their abilities, providing fun combos like Cap hurling his super shield so Thor can redirect it further with his hammer. The use of humor was one of the bigger enjoyments of the first Avengers, and while it’s still abundant and enjoyable here as well I’d say it’s overdone. When every character is cracking quips every fourth line of dialogue, it pulls you out of the movie and the stakes feel lesser. The running joke where the Avengers make fun of Captain America for his prudish sensibilities on profanity is a joke that works at first but then loses all sense of fun as it’s pounded into the ground on repetition. The larger set pieces each have their moments to delight, especially the opening and the Hulk vs. Iron Man battle. Age of Ultron isn’t a bad movie and it has some truly great moments and great character moments and payoffs, but it’s only moments. The plot meant to connect the dots is too labored with the burden of setting up several Marvel franchises. In the MCU pecking order, I’d place Age of Ultron right around Iron Man 2 quality (another movie compromised by the extra burden of setting up other movies, namely The Avengers).

It’s sure to set box-office records and I imagine fans of the original will happily lap up another super team-up, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is something of a disappointment for me. The more I think about it the fun parts become a little duller and I find more areas of criticism. It’s just not as fun a movie experience, and that’s due to the rushed and muddled story and too many characters. After the critical and commercial success of the first film, I doubt that Whedon could have produced a film that would live up to the sky-high expectations, but that doesn’t excuse the finished product. It feels like Whedon had to struggle to pull this one off, especially with the added demands, and I can’t blame him for wanting a break from the MCU. The Russo brothers who so dazzled audiences with their direction of Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be stepping in to direct the next Avengers sequel(s). I hope they’re up to the task because the burden of carrying a billion-dollar franchise with its tendrils connected to other franchises appears to have been overwhelming for one of the greatest storytellers of a generation. Enjoy Age of Ultron but be wary of what the future holds for the larger MCU.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Godzilla (2014)

another-godzilla-posterWhen 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.

godzilla-attacks-golden-gateBut 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?)

godzilla1The 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

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

kickass_two_xlgIt’s hard for me to discuss Kick-Ass 2 without sounding like a hypocrite. I enjoyed the first film’s visceral thrills, style, and satire of superhero tropes. The sequel gives me more of the same except not nearly as well polished, and in typical sequel mentality, it goes bigger, expanding the world and the height of the sick puppy violence. Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace-Moritz) are trying to live ordinary lives but keep feeling the need to don their suits and fight crime. Kick-Ass joins a ragtag team of other costumed vigilantes to battle a super villain team, lead by the former Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). For long stretches, the movie seems like an unwanted Heathers knockoff as Hit Girl attempts to fit in at high school. She has some particularly nasty vengeance against a popular bully, and if there is a line, it may have been crossed here. I don’t know what it says about me, but I guess I’m fine with a pint-sized kid slicing up bad guys and cursing like a sailor, but making a woman simultaneously vomit and defecate herself, watching both projectile streams spray out her ends, is too much for me. This is a darker, cruel, and mean-spirited feel with the material, and writer/director Jeff Wadlow fails to compensate for the lack of creativity this go-round (I miss you Matthew Vaughn). The humor is still lively, but the plot is predictable at every step, the characters behave in ways that don’t make sense, and the action sequences are poorly filmed, leading to an anticlimactic ending that simply peters out. Kick-Ass 2 won’t be knocking anyone out.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Savages (2012)

Savages has been described as a “return to form” from prolific director Oliver Stone, who has spent the last decade making straight biopics (W., Alexander) and safe feel-good movies (World Trade Center). The less said about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the better. You never thought one of the world’s edgiest filmmakers would follow such a square path. I can’t fault people for getting excited by Savages, hoping this drug-addled crime thriller can revive the gonzo sensibilities of the man. Well, Savages isn’t going to satisfy most people, especially those looking for a cohesive story, characters that grab your interest, and an ending that manages to stay true thematically with the rest of the movie. In short, Savages is a savage mess of a movie but not even an entertaining mess. It’s just a boring mess, and that is the film’s biggest sin.

Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are living the American dream. They began farming their own marijuana plants, using the best seeds form Afghanistan while Chon was on tour with the military. Together, the guys have produced a product high in THC that blows away the competition. They have flourished in California. Now a Mexican cartel, lead by Elena (Salma Hayek), wants in on their business, and they won’t take no for an answer. The cartel kidnaps the boys’ shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and promises to hold her ransom for one year unless the boys agree to their terms. Chon and Ben decide to use their considerable resources to put the squeeze on Elena and her team of scumbags, all the while looking for a way to rescue their shared love of their life.

It’s a lurid movie all right. Plenty of sex, drugs, and violence, but man oh man is it all just empty diversions because the movie cannot survive its trio of unlikable, uninteresting, and painfully dull characters. O, Chon, and Ben have a dearth of charisma; light cannot escape their black hole of charisma. What sinks Savages is the realization that it’s just a shoddy movie filled with a lot of skuzzy characters but hardly anyone that merits genuine interest. We’ve got skuzzy good guys, skuzzy bad guys, but where are the personalities? Where are the quirks or the hooks to drive our interest? Just having Benicio del Toro (The Wolfman) act weird and mumbly is not enough to cover the shortcomings of his character. I’ve read reviews where critics cite del Toro as “hypnotic.” I have no idea what they’re talking about. He’s just your average skuzzy bad guy you’d find in any mediocre crime picture; he just so happens to be played by Benicio del Toro. The DEA Agent John Travolta (From Paris with Love) plays is your typical skuzzy desk weasel; he just so happens to be played by John Travolta. And that’s where the movie falters. We have all these characters on all sides of the law but we couldn’t give a damn for any of them. O comes across like an annoying, privileged, faux intellectual. Chon is a meathead. Ben is an amorphous do-gooder. I don’t care about their problems and I especially don’t care about them retrieving O so they can return to their vague polyamorous lifestyle. She wasn’t worth all the effort, nor where these men worth dying over. At any point in the film, I wanted these characters to hastily die so that I might, just out of chance, come across a more interesting figure. I received no salvation.

Our trio of bland characters is made flesh by a trio of bad performances. First off, people have got to be realizing that the kind of lived-in, edgy, and compelling performance Lively pulled off in 2010’s The Town is more the exception than the rule. Stop casting her in gritty parts unless they are directed by Ben Affleck. As O, our zombie narrator, she does little to make us sympathize with her dumb plight. Then there’s Kitsch (Battleship) who is just having a record year of high-profile flops. He’s done fine acting work before, but as Chon he’s just another ramped-up hothead with little else on his mind. Johnson (Kick-Ass) has the most “flavor” of the trio, acting granola-y and with philanthropic ambitions, but he’s still just another meathead just in different clothes. All three of these characters are idiots and the young actors don’t find any way to redeem them.

Actually, I found Salma Hayerk’s character the most interesting and would have enjoyed a movie based around her dilemma. Elena’s husband was the head of a drug cartel. He was assassinated, so the duties would have fallen to her son, but in order to protect him she assumed power. She has an estranged relationship with her youngest daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who is ashamed of her mother. This, Elena tells us, makes her produ; she is proud that her daughter is ashamed. Now just look at all those contradictions and complexities inherent with this character. She’s assumed a duty she did not want, something she knows is morally wrong, but she does so in the interest of protecting her children, even if it means pushing them away and having them despise her. And because she’s a woman, any wrong move and her competitors would be ready to pounce. Plus you add the day-to-day anxieties of a life of crime, the threat of betrayal or some upstart wanting to make a name for himself, and you have the makings of a great character drama. But do we get even a little of this? No. Instead, Elena’s just portrayed as another colorful villain. The supporting cast is peopled with what should be seen as “colorful” characters, but really these people are just as skuzzy and boring and personality-free as our loser ménage a trois.

I suppose there is a certain pleasure seeing Stone return to his blood-soaked, violent, gonzo self. The man has a certain enviable madness when it comes to composing a movie, a mad fever of images and sensations. From that standpoint, Savages is at least watchable even though you would rather see most of the characters get hit by a car. I just wish if Stone was going to go nuts that he committed and went all the way, bathing this movie in his lurid predilections as we tumbled down the rabbit hole of the underground world of organized crime. If you’re going to assault my senses with excess then at least have the gall to be excessive. How can you make a lurid movie but EVERY woman onscreen engaging in sex is clothed? That seems unrealistic even for a movie this stupid. Stone seems to have no problem dragging out uncomfortable rape scenes, so who knows what the further implications of that are. There are several grisly torture scenes and some random brutality, so you’ll at least be kept awake in spurts by people screaming.

Too much of this supposed crime picture is caught up in the oppressively irritating soap opera between O, Chon, and Ben (a little part of my soul dies every time I have to type “Chon” as a main character name). The script, based upon Dan Winslow’s novel, adapted by Shane Salerno, Stone and Winslow as well, is a mess but not even an enjoyable mess. Some of this dialogue is just laugh-out-loud bad. O opens the movie saying she has orgasms but Chon, you see, has… “wargasms.” Oh ye God, that one hurt. Every time we’re subjected to O’s protracted, monotone narration the movie loses whatever momentum it may have had.

She keeps saying, “Just because I’m telling this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end.” Can you promise me that? Then there’s the very stupid ending, where the movie tries to have it both ways. It gets its bloody, operatic, tragic lovers ending…. and then in the next breath a happy ending as well, a ridiculously inappropriate happy ending. At least bloody and dead would have been satisfying. It’s a cop-out, a cheat, and a mystifying way to end a movie.

I wanted Savages to be a wild thrill ride. I never expected to be bored. Even when things go off the rails, the movie struggles to keep your interest. Blame the inane screenplay that eventually resorts to a cheap, cop-out of an ending, one that barely rises above the “it was all a dream” blunder. Blame the pathetic character and their lack of personality. Blame the strange feeling that Stone is holding back. Blame the bad performances. Blame the lack of fun. Blame the overwrought nature of the title the movie twists into knots trying to give some philosophical meaning. And finally, you might want to blame yourself for thinking that this movie would be any good in the first place. When movies are this mediocre, this lacking in intrigue, you almost wish they had tipped over completely into irredeemable garbage just so you’d at least have something worth watching. Savages is a strange crime thriller that manages to assemble all sorts of exploitation elements and then fumbles them all. If this is Stone in a “return to form,” I weep for what that entails.

Nate’s Grade: C

Kick-Ass (2010)

Based on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s popular eight-issue comic, Kick-Ass takes the world of superheroes and makes it one step closer to reality. Granted, it’s still a heightened reality with flexible rules erratically administered, but it’s almost recognizable. Nobody in Hollywood wanted to touch this movie, so it was produced entirely outside the studio system. That hesitation may be because Kick-Ass begins as a goofy teen comedy and morphs into a bloody action caper with off-the-wall violence. But it’s also preposterously entertaining.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is just a typical kid who reads comics and wonders what else could be out there for him. He’s pretty much a nobody at school who routinely gets beat up. His life’s biggest tragedy is the loss of his mother, but she was not taken by some dastardly villain but by an aneurysm. Dave questions why nobody ever tried to be a real super hero. Tired of being a nonentity, Dave orders a wet suit and fashions a costume for a superhero alter ego, Kick-Ass. His first few encounters don’t go so well, landing Dave in the hospital, but in short time his exploits become a YouTube sensation. His MySpace page becomes full of admirers all seeking super hero help. He inspires others to don cape and cowl, like Damon “Big Daddy” Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter, Mindy “Hit Girl” Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz). But they have their own reasons for cleaning up the streets. Big Daddy worked as a cop but was wrongly imprisoned when he went against mob kingpin Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Damon has been plotting his vengeance and training Mindy to be an efficient killing machine. Unfortunately, their mob hits are being blamed on the hapless Kick-Ass. Frank D’Amico enlists his wannabe gangster son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), to pose as a superhero and lure Kick-Ass out into the open. It’s like The Departed but with more eyeliner.

Kick-Ass is a fairly subversive work, notably in the relationship between Hit Girl and Big Daddy. He has been training her (or brainwashing) to become a tool of vengeance, but he’s also making sure that his little girl will be tough enough to handle the evil the world may throw at her. A father/daughter outing includes dad firing live ammunition into his daughter’s bulletproof wearing chest. He’s doing this so that she won’t be afraid when, not if, she gets shot. She will know what it feels like. He then promises that they’ll go out for ice cream later. This demented sense of parenting, as presented, actually becomes strangely endearing. They become the heart of the movie, and I was surprised that during some major scenes how emotionally involved I was. We have a beguiling sense of protection for Hit Girl, much like her father who even in moments of great agony screams helpful tactical suggestions to his little girl (to answer any concerns, Moretz and the character are not sexualized even with a Catholic schoolgirl outfit). Unlike Kick-Ass, they have something very concrete to fight for, which is why we feel for them and hope for their success.

The tone of this movie, as you might be able to tell, is wildly uneven. Kick-Ass exists in a reality closer to our own, and Hit Girl and Big Daddy exist in a different fantastic reality where they can perform Matrix style maneuvers at a moment’s notice. But I actually believe that these two different tones and approaches compliment one another. Kick-Ass is a realistic portrayal of what would happen if somebody with no training and nothing but complete naivety would don a costume to fight crime for the greater good. In Kick-Ass’s first confrontation with the criminal element ends with him getting stabbed. His superhero wish fulfillment is brought back to a stinging reality thanks to that blade in his side reminding him that violence is real and painful. His first successful encounter with criminals is not because suddenly he has developed super martial arts skills or any sort of power, it’s simply because he has a stronger will power to continue fighting, even as he staggers back and forth likely to pass out from exhaustion. He wins through sheer will power and little else. He’s got heart but not the ability, thus we watch him receive many pummelings throughout the film. And throughout the movie, Kick-Ass keeps to this edict. He doesn’t succeed through any sort of cunning; his only “special ability” is his above-average tolerance for pain. On the flip side, Hit Girl is the ultra stylized fantasy version of a superhero that we’re more familiar with. She has an amazing talent for death and deception, and even her back story feels ripped from the comic pages — raised to avenge the death of her mother by the hands of gangsters. She is much more in line with our anticipated pop culture sensibility of what makes a super hero. So she and Big Daddy exist as the contrast, an exaggeration that heightens the vast difference between the fantasy super hero and the harsh reality of the ordinary (Dave). It’s a satire that indulges in its targets. While the movie toggles back and forth between the two tones, I never felt chaffed by the alternating styles.

And while we’re on the subject, while the film may be called Kick-Ass but he’s the least interesting aspect of it, perhaps because he is a mirror to the audience. He’s weak, wimpy, and is delusional as far as where his lack of abilities can take him. Which sets the stage for the film to be completely stolen by Hit Girl, played to foul-mouthed, steely perfection by breakout star Moretz. She is a one-woman wrecking crew and dispatches bad guys with stylish, wall-flipping ease. The incongruity of watching an 11-year-old child turn into a killing machine both serves as commentary on the preposterous nature of the comic book world, and it also makes for some seriously wicked fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy a pint-sized little crime fighter with a profane vocabulary? Parental activist groups, I suppose, who have complained about the movie’s portrayal of young Moretz, going so far as to argue that any child should not be made to say the off-color language that she does in Kick-Ass (have they listened to school yards this century?). But here’s the point: it’s supposed to be shocking exactly because she’s a child and that battery of behavior is not expected. She lures opponents into a false sense of security because, after all, she’s “just a little kid.” But Hit Girl is anything but. She’s one tough chick and Moretz gives a performance full of swagger. Film fans, get ready for her lead role in the Let the Right One In remake this fall. It should prove to be another launching pad for Moretz.

Director Matthew Vaughn started as a producer for Guy Ritchie’s films, but with every new film under his belt it looks like Ritchie might become an asterisk for the mighty career of Vaughn. After the tense gangster thriller Layer Cake, the whimsical fantasy Stardust, it seems like Vaughn is getting to be a better director whereas Ritchie appears to be getting worse from film to film. But I am here to praise Vaughn and not bury Ritchie. The movie has splashy visuals and some grand action, especially during an all-out assault on D’Amico’s lair as finale. Pretty much like Hot Fuzz, in the last act the movie degenerates into what it was parodying earlier. But by this time I’m already hooked. Let the fireworks commence and I’ll keep munching my popcorn. It’s a rousing, action-packed finish that manages to acknowledge the irreverent ludicrousness of the whole film while still being, well, kick-ass. Vaughn makes excellent use of music, nicely pairing muscular pieces of epic instrumental rock like “In the House — In A Heartbeat” by John Murphy from 28 Days Later. There are some smart additions like having Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” play at a fiery moment of anger, and a kitschy kid song playing during our first introduction to Hit Girl, magnifying the absurdity.

Vaughn also coaxes a good performance from Cage, meaning the actor has strung two good performances in a row (please see Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). Cage has an eerie sense of determination but he plays his character in an “aw, shucks” Mr. Rogers style, even borrowing the speech patterns of Adam West when he dons his costume.

The movie does have some issues. It’s stuffed with too many subplots that go into more detail than they have to. The gangster goons have way too much screen time and are, at best, bad caricatures. The subplot with Dave’s love interest, cute girl Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), thinking Dave is gay goes on for too long just to offer some third-rate Three’s Company misunderstanding gags. The plot is also completely self-referential without stooping to explanation. As stated earlier, the tonality shifts will not play out the same for everyone, and the plot pretty much switches protagonists halfway through, becoming the Hit Girl show. Then again some might argue that the film would be better off without Kick-Ass.

Kick-Ass plays like a juvenile romp, nothing to be taken seriously. This is not The Dark Knight by any account. I was not feeling the same sense of moral unease that I felt during the depraved, consequences-free killing-as-personal-self-actualization film Wanted, also based on a Millar comic book series. Kick-Ass is never really mean-spirited or cruel or casual with human life, despite the central themes of vigilantism and vengeance. In fact, the movie posits that more people need to make a difference and stand up to injustice, granted he movie ignores the justice system in lieu of fisticuffs. The movie doesn’t deconstruct the world of superheroes like Watchmen, but at the same time it holds it all up for ridicule, saying, “Isn’t this all ridiculous?” and offering escapist thrills. Kick-Ass is a visceral, absurd satire of the realm of superheroes that also manages to mine that same realm for polished genre thrills. Vaughn keeps the movie from feeling disjointed, even as it swaps tones from comic to dramatic, from (moderately) realistic to geek fantasy wish fulfillment. It won’t be for everybody, but consider me apart of the throng that cheered when an 11-year-old managed to make a guy shoot himself in the head with his own gun. There’s probably something wrong with me.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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