Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) [Review Re-View]
Originally released July 11, 2001:
Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.
The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.
Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.
Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.
The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.
Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.
The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.
The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.
I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.
Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.
It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.
It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.
The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.
Re-View Grade: C
Pearl Harbor (2001) [Review Re-View]
Originally released May 25, 2001:
It turns out we went to war in 1941 not because of Japanese aggression, Hitler’s dominance in Europe, or the protection of freedom and democracy. Sorry kids. The real reason we went to war was to complicate and then clear up Kate Beckinsale’s love life. At least that’s what director Michael Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace would tell you with their indulgent epic Pearl Harbor.
We open in Tennessee in the 20s with two boys who dream of being pilots. Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) grow into strapping young lads who flash their hot dog flyin’ skills at basic training, which brings them chagrin from superiors but admiration from peers. Rafe falls in love with a young nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), who goes against ARMY rule and passes Rafe in his eye exam portion when he has a slight case of dyslexia. But he’s just so cuuuute. The romance builds but Rafe feels like he’s grounded when all he wants to do is fly, and volunteers to fight in the RAF over in Europe. He promises he’ll be back to see his lovely Evelyn. Of course he gets into an accident and everyone assumes that poor dyslexic Rafe is fertilizing a lawn somewhere with his remains. Hence Danny slowly but surely develops something for Evelyn in their periods of mourning, and the two consummate their puppy love with a tango in parachute sheets.
All seems well until Rafe returns back from the dead throwing a wrench into Evelyn’s second date parachute plans. Thus the Hollywood favorite of the love triangle endures until the end when the two fly boys enlist in the Doolittle attack against Japan, months after the ferocious attack on Pearl Harbor. The real purpose of the Doolittle attack was not militarily but merely for morale. The real purpose it serves in the movie is to shave off an end on our love triangle.
Pearl Harbor allows us to follow a group of youthful and innocent starry-eyed kids from training to combat. Each seems pretty much exactly the same to each other. It’s near impossible to distinguish which character is which. It’s like the screenwriter didn’t even have the gall to resort to cliche supporting character roles, and he just made one character and duplicated it. The only one who was noticeable for me was the character of Red (Ewen Bremner, julien donkey boy himself), but that was simply because the man had a speech impediment. We also have our handful of young nurses alongside Beckinsale, and I had an easier time distinguishing between them; everyone had different hair colors.
If you look in the pic, or the credits, you’ll see that two of the nurses would turn out to be Jennifer Garner (Alias) and Sara Rue (Less than Perfect), both stars of ABC shows, and ABC is owned by, yep, Disney. Coincidence? Probably. When they ran this on TV they actually advertised Jennifer Garner above Kate Beckinsale. That reminded me of when Seven ran on TV shortly after Kevin Spacey had won his well-deserved 1999 Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty, and they gave him second-billing in the advertisement over Morgan Freeman, the movie’s true main character.
Affleck has a hayseed Southern twang, but seems to mysteriously disappear for long stretches. Hartnett seems to talk with a deep creak, like a door desperately trying to be pushed open. Beckinsale manages to do okay with her material, but more magnificently manages to never smear a drop of that lipstick of hers during the entire war. We could learn a lot from her smear-defying efforts. Gooding Jr. is pretty much given nothing to work with. I’m just eternally grateful he didn’t go into a usual Cuba frenzy when he shot down a Zero.
Michael Bay has brought us the ADD screenings that are the past, loud hits of The Rock and Armageddon. Teamed up with his overactive man-child producer Jerry Bruckheimer once more, Pearl Harbor is less Bay restrained to work on narrative film as it is Bay free-wheeling. His camera is loose and zig-zagging once more to a thousand edits and explosions. Bay is a child at heart that just loves to see things explode. When he should show patience and restraint he decides to just go for the gusto and make everything as pretty or explosive as possible. This is not a mature filmmaker.
Despite the sledge hammer of bad reviews, Pearl Harbor is not as bad as it has been made out to be. The love story is inept and the acting is sleep-inducing, unless when it’s just funny. It doesn’t start off too badly, but twenty minutes in the movie begins sinking. The centerpiece of the film is the actual Pearl Harbor bombing that clocks in after ninety minutes of the movie. The forty-minute attack sequence is something to behold. The pacing is good and the action is exciting with some fantastic special effects. The movie is bloated with a running time a small bit over three hours total. Maybe, if they left the first twenty minutes in, then gave us the forty minute attack sequence, followed by a subsequent five minute ending to clear up our love triangle’s loose ends… why we’d have an 80 minute blockbuster!
Pearl Harbor doesn’t demonize the Japanese, but it feels rather false with their open-minded attempts to show both sides as fair minded. It gets to the point where they keep pushing the Japanese further into less of a bad light that it feels incredibly manipulative and just insulting. It seems like the producers really didn’t want to offend any potential Pacific ticket buyers so the picture bends backwards to not be insulting. The only people who could be offended by Pearl Harbor are those who enjoy good stories. Oh yeah, and war veterans too.
The cast of Pearl Harbor almost reads like another Hollywood 40s war movie where all the big stars had small roles throughout, kind of like The Longest Day for the Pepsi generation. Alec Baldwin plays General Doolittle and is given the worst lines in the film to say. Tom Sizemore shows up as a sergeant ready to train the men entering Pearl Harbor. He has five minutes of screen time but does manage to kill people in that short window. Dan Akroyd is in this for some reason or other, likely because Blues Brothers 3000 has yet to be green lighted. John Voight is easily the most entertaining actor to watch in the entire film. He gives a very authentic portrayal of President Roosevelt. I still find trouble believing it was Voight under the makeup.
The blueprint for Pearl Harbor is so transparent. They took the Titanic formula of setting a fictional romance against a disaster, with the first half establishing characters and our love story, and then relegating the second half to dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. It worked in Titanic (yes, I liked the film for the most part), but it doesn’t work here. Pearl Harbor is a passable film, but the mediocre acting, inept romance, square writing, and slack pacing stop it from being anything more. Fans of war epics might find more to enjoy, especially if they don’t regularly have quibbles over things like “characters” and “plot.” To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: “Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Believe it or not, there was a point in time where people actually considered the possibility of Michael Bay making an Oscar contender. It seems mostly absurd now but at the time there was a benign sense of hope with the production of Pearl Harbor, the most expensive movie greenlit at the time ($140 million) and whose ultimate costs would exceed $200 million. The blueprint for the movie is easy to spot, borrowed heavily from the success of another risky and very expensive movie about sinking ships, James Cameron’s Oscar-winning blockbuster Titanic. If you’re looking for a movie to follow, you could certainly do worse than the highest grossing movie ever (at the time). There was great speculation and buzz about the movie, for its immense production scope, for the reported ambitions, for the prospect of Bay trying to make a serious movie, albeit a serious movie that still included a healthy helping of his usual explosions. There were similar rumors of disaster courting Titanic, then the first production to go over $200 million, and that turned out fine. Well, as should be obvious especially twenty years after its initial release, Michael Bay is no James Cameron in the realm of filmmaking and action storytelling.
Upon its release Memorial Day weekend in 2001, Pearl Harbor opened to a critical drubbing and general audience indifference. It failed to live up to whatever hype or hope had been attached, though it did snag a Guinness World record for most explosions if you value that honor. Bay has never since attempted a “prestige picture” again, resorting to the comfort of doing what he knows he can do well, showcasing large robots punching each other in between pretty explosions. I don’t know what the real legacy of the Pearl Harbor movie should be but I think, twenty years later, it’s a mediocre attempt to recapture something of a past, whether that was the movies of the 1940s or a very very specific movie from 1997 that rhymes with Smitanic. It’s too bad Pearl Harbor is still a three-hour shrug of a movie.
A full 90 minutes is devoted to setting up the nascent characters and history before that fateful attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and that’s the first major misstep for the film. Much of the emotional involvement is built upon a romance that simply does not work in any capacity. Ben Affleck plays Rafe, a dyslexic pilot who charms Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse who decides to help him cheat his medical exams. The first 45 minutes demonstrates their abbreviated courtship and romance through a series of cute moments that fail to coalesce into something more meaningful. And if you think that was rushed and abbreviated, after Rafe is believed to be dead, it’s about ten minutes before his best friend and fellow fighter pilot Danny (Josh Hartnett) is starting to fall in love with her and impregnating Evelyn in no time at all. Then Rafe returns, shocker, and everyone is upset with each other and confused, which is exactly what the Japanese military was waiting for, now knowing this is the ultimate time to strike its big assault.
I read that Bay rebuffed some of the more persistent criticism about the fetid romance, saying he and screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiers) were aiming to replicate the romances of 1940s movies. To me this sounds like an inartful dodge. The romance in Pearl Harbor is not a throwback to a decade of movies that brought us Casablanca and The Shop Around the Corner and The Lady Eve, classic romances that knew how to pull your heartstrings and still register emotions to this day regardless of being over 70 years old. I think when Bay says he intended the romance to be older, nostalgic, he means simpler, and that’s just an insult to modern audiences as well as film audiences from the 1940s. This romance is just poorly written, not simple. Part of it relates to the chemistry between the three actors, which seems waterlogged, but most of the failure falls upon the shoddy character interactions. This is a movie devoted to having characters exclaim and explain things on screen rather than show you. Instead of watching characters fall in love over time, loosening and relaxing, flirting and deliberating, we just have characters declare feelings over the course of a few months of time. We’re supposed to feel conflicted when Evelyn finds comfort with Danny, but why should anyone care? Was anyone deeply invested in the relationship she had with Rafe? The other problem is that Danny is never even given a chance. His courtship is ridiculously short on time, and in fact his character drops out of the movie for what feels like twenty minutes before coming back to mourn Rafe’s loss. One of the guys says about Evelyn, “She’s got to be with someone, so it might as well be you.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement there, and also that’s pretty misogynistic thinking, my man.
So much hinges on the romance and yet so little of it seems to carry as soon as the explosions kick in. Once the Japanese aerial assault begins, it’s all chaos until it’s over, and then it becomes about getting some measure of retaliation with the Doolittle raid for Act Three. The romance is, for all intents and purposes, put on hold for over half of the movie. It’s like the movie cannot make up its mind so it leaves it to the Japanese to clarify who Evelyn should end up with. When the entire emotional investment of the movie is predicated on a romantic triangle, and you don’t feel any semblance of human emotions for any combination, you might as well scorch the whole thing and have every participant make the ultimate sacrifice for God and country. This is why Pearl Harbor staggers because its love story does not put in the necessary work. I felt no more tension for Rafe or Evelyn in the bombing than any other nameless extra running for their lives.
As far as spectacle, Pearl Harbor can keep you entertained. Bay still knows intimately well how to stage scenes of multitudinous violence and chaos (his real lifelong romantic partner). The Pearl Harbor bombing is the absolute highlight of the movie and impressive in its scale. The shot of the bombing of the six American warships took six months of coordination to merely rig the 700 sticks of dynamite and cord for a shot that lasts all of 12 seconds. The production built the world’s largest gimble to simulate the top of the U.S.S. Oklahoma capsizing. The scale and scope of the attack is impressively massive and gives a real sense of how overwhelming this surprise attack was on the isolationist American military. The chaos that normally follows a Michael Bay action scene, where geography and mini-goals are lost, can actually be a virtue when communicating the surprise attack. You can get lost in all the noise and smoke. There are some moments that are just strictly movie silly, like a squadron of Zeroes chasing after individual people to shoot, or Tom Sizemore firing a shotgun while fighter planes zoom overhead. It’s little reminders that you’re watching a big screen entertainment of war rather than a realistic and jarring portrayal of the horror of combat. Bay only has one viewpoint when it comes to the military, to sacrifice, and to masculinity, so the tragedy of lives lost is only ever served upon the altar of a jingoistic reverence for military power. I would have preferred an entire half of the movie following the plight of the nurses trying to triage all the wounded and save who they could with dwindling supplies and even less time. That movie doesn’t get made by Bay. There aren’t enough explosions in that kind of movie and too much emphasis on realistic human suffering.
I’m also confused about the movie’s political apprehension. It bends over backwards to portray the Japanese generals as honorable and morally conflicted, which is better than mustache-twirling stereotypes, but this is still the aggressor country that had already invaded and occupied China. All of the good intentions of being more even-handed with the Japanese, perhaps to fight against anti-Asian demagoguery or even solely from money reasons, get supremely muddled when Bay decides to make the Pearl Harbor bombing even worse than it was in reality. The Japanese took great offense that in the movie their planes are seen attacking hospitals and civilian targets, something that never happened according to history and witnesses on both sides. Bay reportedly included the extra attacks because he wanted the attack to seem more “barbaric.” What is the point of better trying to represent a group of people and make up extra barbarism?
Looking back at my original review from 2001, I believe this was a watershed review for me. I wrote over 1200 words and it’s more in keeping with my current reviews than my early reviews. I find the analysis to be more critical than my early reviews where I was more likely to settle for puns and scant broadsides. This review has a few of those, but I also found myself nodding along with much of it even twenty years later. There are some marvelous turns of phrases, like “A Longest Day for the Pepsi generation” and Harnett’s voice sounding like a stubborn door refusing to stay open. There’s a punchiness to the writing that I recognize and admire, and it’s like I can see myself developing and finding my critical voice at this early juncture, which was almost two years into my beginnings as a fledgling film critic in Ohio. This one feels like a step above. I couldn’t end this analysis better than I did back in 2001, so I’ll quote my then 19-year-old self to close out both reviews: “To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: ‘Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’”
Re-View Grade: C
Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
I remember reading this novel back in college, so it’s been a long road for Jonathan Lethem’s crime story to find its way to the big screen. Motherless Brooklyn is a decade-plus passion project for star/adapter/director Edward Norton, and it’s easy to see why an actor would want to latch onto the lead role. Lionel Essrog (Norton) suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and is given to verbal and physical tics he needs to indulge or else his brain feels like it will explode. He’s our eyes and ears into a criminal world that views him as a freak. It’s an intriguing vulnerability given sympathy, forethought, and it’s an intriguing way to make something old new again through a disadvantaged lens. Norton is great in the lead and Lionel feels like a companion portrait to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, another struggling man given to unconformable physical outbursts that make him feel isolated from society. The book was fascinating from being inside this unique headspace and understanding how Lionel’s brain operated with obsessions and various pressure valves. The movie, which Norton rewrote completely and set in the 1950s, is an acceptable film noir, but without that specific perspective it would get lost. It’s handsomely made and has plenty of enjoyable actors in supporting roles. There’s an intelligence to the storytelling and power dynamics, but the movie is also a bit too smart for its own good, losing its way in a convoluted mystery where the pieces don’t so much add up as they’re just given to you after a long enough wait. And the wait is long. This is 144 minutes and takes its sweet time, applying more and more layers of intrigue and period settings like Norton is checking a list of Noir Elements to include in his first directing work in 19 years (Keeping the Faith, anyone?). The world itself is surface-level interesting but the main character is the real hook, so getting more of the world without going deeper on the character, or expressly placing him in different predicaments where he can utilize his unheralded abilities, feels like wheel spinning. Motherless Brooklyn is strictly for genre fans or those who don’t need much more from their movies than a high-concept quirk.
Nate’s Grade: B
BlackkKlansman (2018)/ Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.
This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.
This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.
Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.
BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.
It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.
Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.
Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.
There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.
There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.
All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.
Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.
Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.
BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.
Sorry to Bother You: A-
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
Coming down from the surging adrenaline rush, I was trying to determine when was the last time an action movie made me feel the immersive, delirious highs that Mission: Impossible – Fallout offers in spades, and what I came up with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Simply put, this is the best straightforward action movie in three years. It’s the best Mission: Impossible movie in the series, which, if it hadn’t already, has assumed the peak position of the most consistent, most entertaining, and best action franchise in Hollywood. Allow me to explain how returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) makes an action movie that demolishes the competition.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has been pulled back into spy action thanks to the lingering fallout (eh, eh?) of the capture of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whose followers, nicknamed The Apostles, have stolen three plutonium cores. It’s Ethan Hunt’s fault the nuclear cores got loose, and so he and his team, Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), must clean up after their mess. The CIA sends its own asset, the burly August Walker (Henry Cavill), to help oversee the mission and specifically Ethan Hunt, who must pose as a shadowy terrorist broker to maintain appearances with important figures in the criminal underworld. In order to get the nuclear parts, Ethan Hunt has to retrieve Solomon Lane and release him back into the open. Complicating matters further is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who needs Solomon dead to clear her own spy debts.
Every action movie lives or dies depending upon its unique set pieces, often the first thing constructed by a studio and then the plot mechanics are ladled on merely as the barest of connecting tissue. They need to have stakes, they need to have purpose, they need to be memorable, and they need to be understood and develop organically. Mission: Impossible – Fallout could be taught in filmmaking schools about how to properly build action set pieces. They are brilliant. McQuarrie finds interesting ways to set them up, complicate them, and just keep the escalation going in a manner that still maintains the believability of the moment. Take for instance a foot chase where Ethan Hunt is trying to nab a bad guy through downtown London. Where McQuarrie pushes into the extraordinary is by having that foot chase on a multi-level terrain. Ethan Hunt has to chase after his target but multiple stories above the ground, and so he’s leaping out windows, jumping over rooftops simply to keep up. It’s a simple twist that takes what we’re familiar with and, literally, elevates it to new heights. Or take for instance the mission in Paris to capture Solomon Lane. At first it’s capture, then it’s flee police, then it’s flee another assassin. There are multiple stages to this sequence, each with a new goal, each with new complications, and each with new eye-popping stunts and escapes. The action finds natural points to progress, making smart use of the geography, and keeping different elements at play to come in and out to add more problems. This is how you do action right. As soon as the half-hour mark settles in with the arrival of Walker, the movie is practically nonstop in its set pieces until the very end. At a steep 147 minutes, this is the longest Mission: Impossible movie yet but it’s breathless in its execution.
Amazing set pieces that are cleverly designed is one aspect of a great action movie, but if you can’t tell what’s going on, what’s the point of all that cleverness? Fortunately, McQuarrie understands this and adheres to a visceral depiction of the action that creates gloriously immersive and pulse-pounding sequences. The set pieces are terrific, so it stands to reason the stuntwork should be terrific, and to make sure you appreciate the stuntwork, McQuarrie makes sure the photography highlights the verisimilitude. It’s a symbiotic (or as the Venom trailer tells me, “sym-BI-oat-ic”) relationship but when done correctly, as evidenced in this film, it’s the key to truly kinetic action sequences. Take for instance a parachute jump that marks the start of the second act. McQuarrie films it as a sustained long take, and as the camera plummets to the ground chasing after the two men, our brains can tell us that there is some special effects trickery to mitigate the dangers, but our senses are overwhelmed with the sustained illusion of tension. The fight choreography is equally up to the challenge. A bathroom brawl with Ethan Hunt and Walker and another man becomes a lesson in how many things can be smashed and what can be used as a weapon. A high-speed motorcycle chase through Parisian streets gets even more frantic when Ethan Hunt drives against traffic, and the scene becomes even more exciting when McQuarrie’s lens allows us to see the danger in all its glory.
The Mission: Impossible franchise has been notable for its insane stuntwork but also, chiefly after the second installment, its edict to practical effects and maintaining the believability of its reality. It’s still movie spy shenanigans and globetrotting adventures, yes, but the moment-to-moment thrills feel like they’re really happening. The Fast and Furious franchise has gained great acclaim for the bombast of its physics-defying spectacle, and the Mission: Impossible franchise seems to have gone purposely in the opposite direction. It’s real Tom Cruise jumping off that building, it’s real Tom Cruise riding through traffic on a motorcycle, and it’s real Tom Cruise falling and climbing up a speeding helicopter during the thrilling finale. Cruise has had a death wish when it comes to throwing himself into the high-wire stunts of his franchise, but even at 56 years old he’s still at it, essentially trying to commit suicide on film for all of our amusement. Cruise is one of the few remaining movie stars and his commitment is without question.
This is also the first Mission: Impossible film that feels like the characters matter. It’s a direct continuation from the previous film, 2015’s Rogue Nation, bringing back the (somewhat lackluster) villain, the newest spy counterpart/potential love interest, the CIA and IMF brass, and the essential supporting team members from prior engagements. Because of this it feels more like what happened previously was establishment for a new story building upon that foundation. Rather than starting all over, the characters find ways to deepen their relationships, and the film opens up Ethan Hunt as a character and the toll his duty takes on those closest to him. There are some nice quiet moments that examine these characters as actual people. Several complications are as a direct result of personal character decisions, some good and some bad. I was joking with my pal Ben Bailey beforehand about wondering whether they’d find a way for Ving Rhames to matter, since he hasn’t been much more than “a guy in the van” for four movies, and by God they make him matter. They make each team member matter, finding moments to give them, mini-goals they’re entrusted with. During the dizzying helicopter chase in the finale, supporting players are left with their own task. Luther has to defuse a bomb but doesn’t have enough hands. Benji has to find something valuable in a very needle-haystack situation designed to torment and waste precious time. Ilsa is at cross-purposes for most of the film, not wanting to harm her fellow allies but also being given her own orders to prove her loyalty and protect her future. All of this comes to a head and it makes the parts feel as important as the whole. That’s great storytelling.
Let’s talk about that million-dollar mustache of Cavill’s. It was a year ago that Justice League re-shoots required Cavill and the Mission: Impossible team refused to allow their actor to shave his mustache, thus leading to that unsettling fake baby lip Superman was sporting in a majority of his scenes in the haphazard Justice League film. I just read an AV Club interview with McQuarrie where he for the first time discusses the whole mustache brouhaha and apparently Paramount estimated that it would have cost them three million for the effects to uphold Cavill’s upper lip continuity. Warner Brothers refused to pay up and so went down that ill-fated CGI mustache-removing route. It was shortly afterwards that Cruise shattered his ankle in a roof-leaping stunt (that is in the finished film and advertisements) and the production had to shut down for a month. If only Warner Brothers had waited, perhaps we all could have avoided this mustache mess.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a new highpoint for the best action franchise going in movies today (I’m still waiting for a third Raid film, Gareth Evans). The set pieces are memorable and unique, leading from one into the next with exquisite precision and thought. The action sequences are stunning and shot with stunning photography, highlighting the stunning stuntwork by the best death-defying professionals. It’s the first Mission: Impossible movie that doesn’t climax at its middle; in fact there’s a pretty obvious reveal that feels like it was going to be a late Act Three twist, but McQuarrie recognizes the audience thinking ahead, and there’s like a whole other exciting 45 minutes after. The stakes are better felt because the characters matter and are integrated in meaningful ways. This is the most I’ve enjoyed Henry Cavill in a movie (with possible exception of another spy movie, Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and you know what, his mustache works too. While the vertigo-inducing Burj Khalifa sequence is the best set piece in the franchise, Fallout has everything else beat at every level. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a reminder that there are few things in the world of cinema better than a properly orchestrated, properly filmed, and properly developed action movie operating at full throttle. This is one of the reasons why we go to the movies, folks. See it in IMAX if possible. Soak it up.
Nate’s Grade: A
Concussion wants to be a hard-hitting drama exposing the dangers of repetitive head trauma in football and the lengths of the cover-ups and collusion within the NFL, except that movie already exists and is the Frontline documentary League of Denial that was too controversial to air on ESPN. Concussion, in comparison, is an adequate but hopelessly underwhelming film on the Nigerian-born Dr. Omalu (Will Smith) who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of deceased NFL players. The resistance and denials are soft-pedaled, though the movie treats them with heightened dramatic stakes that are unearned. There’s one threatening anonymous phone call but for the most part it feels like Dr. Omalu is just being ignored, and “being ignored” is a hard thing to turn into outstanding dramatic stakes at the movies. The movie doesn’t let the NFL completely off the hook but its critiques have been softened by studio interference (as revealed through the Sony email hack). As a straightforward drama, Concussion is easy to watch and Smith gives an authentic performance that doesn’t have to go to histrionic lengths to communicate his internal struggle. There’s a nice subplot with Omalu courting his eventual wife played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin are strong supporting players. David Morse gets a show-stopping part to show off his acting skills. By the end, it all feels just a little too nice, a little too polished, and a little too easy, both in how it presents a complicated medical discovery and its implications but also the NFL’s response. For an awards-season drama that’s meant to shock and inform, being “easy” is the wrong call.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Note: “League of Denial” is currently available on Netflix streaming and I encourage people to check it out.
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015)
Not as outlandishly crazy as the Fast and the Furious series, not as beholden to tradition as the Bond series, the Mission: Impossible series doesn’t get the same notoriety but I’d declare it the most consistent and best action franchise going today. Each new film is a distillation of their director’s strengths, keeping things fresh, and the mainstay is Tom Cruise in prime action hero mode and risking his life like a madman. While not as dizzyingly entertaining as 2011’s Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation is another fun and action-packed spy thriller with terrific and memorable set pieces. The plot involves Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team on the run, again, as their agency is shut down for its reckless methods. A rival agency known as The Syndicate is plotting political assassinations, so Hunt and his team (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames) must work along the fringes to save the day. The newest addition is Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as a mysterious ally and antagonist for Hunt. She’s smart, formidable, and not treated as a romantic interest or overly sexualized (progress). After Alicia Vikander’s superb performance in Ex Machina, and now Ferguson’s steely turn, it’s quite a booming year for Swedish imports. The series’ star is still Cruise and his cavalier treatment of his 50-year-old body in the pursuit of the daredevil stunts. The opening with Cruise attached to the outside of an ascending cargo plane is a stunning image jolted by the charge of realism. An underwater vault break-in is wonderfully developed. The snazzy car chases, motorcycle chases, and foot chases all benefit from Cruise being front and center. Say what you will about the man but he’s a movie star. The biggest problem with Rogue Nation is much like Ghost Protocol in that it peaks in the middle. The last act takes place entirely in London and it just can’t compare with what came earlier, which leaves the movie lumbering to a close with its rather substandard villain. Even with a less than stellar conclusion, Rogue Nation is another entertaining, fun, and thrilling action movie that would be the best the summer has to offer if it weren’t for the highs of Mad Max.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Les Miserables (2012)/ Rock of Ages (2012)
I have no qualms with my heterosexual nature to make the following statement: I love a good musical. Why shouldn’t I? None other than Martin Scorsese said any true film lover is a fan of horror movies and musicals, two genres uniquely suited to the visual flourishes of cinema. My tastes tend to run toward the more offbeat, like Avenue Q and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Sweeney Todd and Dancer in the Dark. My favorite movie musical of all time is 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, but that’s probably because I’m a movie lover first and foremost. A well-done movie musical can sweep you off your feet. The polarizing Moulin Rouge! is still my favorite film of 2001; I love every messy, ambitious, transporting second of it. And that’s what the best musicals and, in general, best films achieve: they transport us to another realm. Since the success of 2002’s Chicago, there’s been a run of hit-or-miss movie musicals proliferating the big screen. It’s hard to think of any longstanding Broadway hits that have yet to make the leap (you’ll get your turn, Book of Mormon). Of course it also works the other way, with plenty of movies being adapted into Broadway musicals, like Shrek, Elf, Ghost, Catch Me if You Can, Newsies, A Christmas Story, Sister Act, Legally Blonde, Bring it On, and Tony-winner for Best Musical, Once. Then you get movies turned into musicals and back into movie musicals, like The Producers and Hairspray. It seems like Broadway and Hollywood are stuck in a loop, feeding off one another’s spoils.
In 2012, two high-profile musicals got the big screen treatment: Rock of Ages and Les Miserables. The former is from 2009 whereas the latter is one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time, beginning in 1980 and spanning continents. Rock of Ages was savaged by critics and bombed at the box-office, whereas Les Miz is soaring this holiday season and is seen as a major Oscar contender. Of course one of these films is about the outrage of the lower classes being exploited by an unfair system that benefits the rich, and the other has Tom Cruise and a monkey named “Hey Man.” Having seen both films recently, and Les Miserables more than once, I think they present an interesting discussion on the pitfalls of adapting a popular theatrical show to film. You won’t have to wait long to figure out which movie succeeds and which falters badly.
Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, is set in early 19th century France. Prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is nearing the end of his twenty-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is convinced Valjean will never reform and go back to a life of crime. After help from a kindly bishop, Valjean flees his parole and sets up a new life as a businessman. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean’s workers, gets thrown out and tumbles down a chain of regrettable circumstances. She becomes a prostitute to support her young daughter, Cosette. Valjean recognizes poor Fantine on the street and, horrified at his own neglect leading her to this path, takes it upon himself to care for her and her daughter. Years later, the teenaged Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has fallen for the young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius enlists his good friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) to help find out who Cosette is, all the while ignorant that Eponine is clearly in love with him. The young people of France are riled up about class abuses and exploitation, and the spirit of revolution is in the air. Javert is also becoming suspicious of Valjean’s true identity, so Valjean feels the need to flee once again. However, Cosette’s love and the bravery of the young revolutionaries makes Valjean decide to stop running from his past.
Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) made the ballsy but ultimately brilliant decision to have his performers sing live. Every line, every note, every performance is captured in the moment; there is nary a second of lip-synching. I cannot overstate how blessed this decision was. It places the emphasis on the performances, and that’s exactly what something as big and deeply felt as Les Miserables required for the big screen. Look, Hollywood actors are never going to be able to outdo trained and professional theatrical singers. What I expect from movie stars is movie-star level performances, and Hooper understands this. These actors aren’t playing to the cheap seats, belting the tunes with power and over exaggerated dramatics (note: there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style given the theatrical setting). In many ways, this is a more intimate Les Miserables, and it still maintains its charms and magic. There is no choreography, short of perhaps the more jovial “Master of the House” number, and Hooper puts us right in the muck of life in a 19th century impoverished slum. This is one dirty movie with lots of grimy period details, creating a reality that can only be implied on stage. The more visceral version of Les Miserables demands performances that are more naturalistic and less bombastic, to a degree. I am a cinephile first but I genuinely prefer my musicals with trained actors to trained singers. A great actor can add so much inflection and personality through the prism of song, whereas a great singer is concentrating on the notes first and foremost. I value performance over nailing the mechanics, and more movie musicals should follow Hooper’s path. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how to do the movie musical experience right.
I don’t know if Hooper was exactly the right man for the job but he certainly does the beloved stage show justice. Hooper’s visual tics are still present. The man loves to film in close-ups and at all sorts of tilted Dutch angles; he also loves filming a conversation between two people where neither one will be in the same shot. It’s a peculiarity that I never really warmed up to. However, Hooper generally has the best interests of his movie at stake, capitalizing on the large outpouring of feeling. This is a Big Musical with big emotions, and it’s easy to be swept up in its exuberant earnestness and humanism. It even has a famous concluding line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It’s the kind of stuff you roll your eyes at under lesser circumstances. Now, thinking back, you’ll realize that many of these people were simply painfully naïve and that there was a slew of death for no good reason. Purists may chafe at some altered lyrics and truncated songs, but really this is pretty much the closest version of the famous stage show you’ll ever see adapted. Not one of the songs has been cut (in fact a new one was written for the film by the original composers), and at a lengthy 157 minutes, it’s practically as long as the stage show, and just about sung through every moment. There are probably ten total lines that are merely spoken. I predict hardcore Les Miz fans will lap up every second.
Les Miserables also boasts some fortuitous casting (Taylor Swift at one point was rumored to be up for a role… shudder), none more than Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises). She is nothing less than perfect as Fantine. There isn’t a false note during any of her acting. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is so powerful, so breathtaking, so intensely felt, that it ranks up there with some of the best moments in all of 2012 movies. And oh can this woman sing her ass off too. You feel every flicker of anger and devastation, the grain in her voice, on the verge of tears and fury. This woman deserves every accolade they can come up with this year. This woman is a total lock for Best Supporting Actress. She’s wonderful during every moment of her screen time and the lengths and emotional ferocity of her performance, and subsequent pitfalls the character endures, left me reaching for the tissues at several points.
The other standout amidst a pretty stellar cast is Barks. This is her first film work though she has plenty of experience with her character, portraying Eponine in the 25th anniversary run of Les Miserables. Her singing is terrific, as you’d imagine, but her acting is just as strong. Her rendition of “On My Own” is a showstopper of a number. Barks naturally transitions to the demands of film. I was completely on Team Eponine and found her to be an infinitely better catch than Cosette. After people get a glimpse of this woman, she is going to get plenty more acting offers, and a few concerned inquiries into the size of her waist, which at times looks like it might be the size of The Rock’s neck. Hooper also has the good sense to film both “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” in unbroken takes; focus tightly pinned on our outstanding actresses, letting the skill of their performances sell the big emotions.
Of course the crux of the tale rests on two men, Valjean and Javert, and the rest of the cast does kind of get saddled in underdeveloped roles made more apparent as a movie. It seems blasphemous to say I was a little disappointed with both lead actors. Crowe (Robin Hood) is easily the weakest singer of the cast but that doesn’t mean he’s bad. He has a lower register and sings his parts like a rock musician rather than a Broadway player. Fans of the stage show will have to adjust their expectations for a more subdued Javert. Still, having an actor of Crowe’s talents is definitely a plus even if his singing is adequate. Jackman (Real Steel) is a Tony-winning thespian, so I held him to a higher standard. He’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do as Jean Valjean, and Jackman does an admittedly fine job with the bigger emotional parts. I just expected more from his vocal abilities but it’s not a major detraction. As my mother noted, it’s not too difficult to spot the classically trained singers in the cast. Also, for eagle-eyed Les Miz fans, look for the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, as the Bishop in this movie.
There is the tricky nature of translating a Broadway production into some variance of period reality. There’s plenty of relevance with the class struggle illustrated in the second half of the movie (Bane would approve). It’s an obvious statement but film is a different medium than the theater and affords different opportunities. The depressing reality of lower class life and the vultures that preyed on others is striking, yes, but sort of conflicts with the comic relief characters represented by the scheming Thenadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). When the seriousness of the period is inflated, they feel like they sort of belong in a different movie. Then there’s just the conflict between stage reality and film reality. On the stage we’ll accept Marius falling madly in love with Cosette at first sight. When it’s on film, the guy comes across as a callous chump, oblivious to Eponine’s pining. He ignores the friend he’s had for years for some blonde in a bonnet. And the final number, reuniting all the dead cast members, works better as a curtain call than a finale to a film. These are just the quirks of theater one must just accept. I wouldn’t say the songs and music is in the same category as Sondheim or Webber, but there are definitely some hummable tunes here made all the more swooning. You’ll have a fine pick of songs to get stuck in your head for days (mine: “Look Down”).
Earlier this year, Rock of Ages came and quickly left the box-office, failing to make a splash with the American public despite a healthy enough run on Broadway and touring the country. The stage show is a jukebox musical set to the head-banging tunes of 1980s hair metal. Adam Shankman, the director behind the bouncy and thoroughly entertaining 2007 Hairspray movie musical, was tasked with bringing Rock of Ages to the screen with the same finesse. Cherie (Julianne Hough) a hopeful singer just off the bus from Oklahoma, meets up with Drew (Diego Boneta), a nice kid who gets her a job at The Bourbon Room, a rock club running afoul with the mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his moral crusading wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The club owners (Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand) are relying on fickle, burned-out, taciturn, and overall mysterious rock legend Stacy Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to save their club from financial ruin. Along the way, Cherie and Drew look for their big breaks, fall in love, get pulled apart, and reunite in time for one final sendoff to leave the audience tapping their toes.
Allow me to elucidate on my main problem with the rise in jukebox musicals: I find them to be, with rare exception, exceedingly lazy. The musical number is meant to advance the narrative and give insights into character and situation, just like any other aspect of plot. You’ll find great original tunes that do this. When you’re dealing with pop songs that the public is well familiar with, then your job becomes even harder, and I find many are just not up to the task. Too often jukebox musicals are designed to merely string together a pre-packaged and time-tested number of hit songs, utilizing the faintest of narrative threads to get from one song to the next. The appeal of jukebox musicals lies not with the story or characters but waiting for the next recognizable song and wondering how it will, poorly, fit into this new context. You’ll notice that these jukebox musicals seem to have twice as many song numbers. They know their selling point, and more singing means less time spent developing characters and story. And so my impression of the jukebox musical is one of a cynical cash grab following the bare minimum of narratives to achieve the status of musical so it can be resold with low risk. I’m simplifying things in my ire, yes, but there’s a definite reason that jukebox musicals have sprouted like mad in the past few years. They don’t require as much work and the audience seems to hold them to a lesser standard. Much like the worst of Friedberg and Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans), it seems just recognizing the familiar has become the core draw of entertainment.
And this is one of the main problems with Rock of Ages. I’ve never seen the stage show, but my God for something that purports to live the rock and roll lifestyle, it’s certainly so tame and scrubbed clean of anything dangerous. This feels like your grandparents’ idea of what “modern” rock music is. After a cursory search online, I’ve found that the movie makes some significant changes to convert a story about rock and roll hedonism into sanitized family friendly fare (spoilers to follow, theatergoers): apparently in the stage version, Cherie and Jaxx had sex, Jaxx remains a creep and flees the country on statutory rape charges, though before that he and Cherie share a lap dance/duet to “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” the family values crusader characters were new inventions, the Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman, the best singer in the film) is considerably beefed up to provide Jaxx his happy ending, and they don’t even use the song “Oh Cherie.” I’m not a stickler for adaptation changes, but clearly it feels like Rock of Ages had every edge carefully sanded down to reach out to the widest array of mainstream filmgoers (Shankman says he cut Cherie’s lap dance number because it tested poorly with mothers). The funny part is that the movie lambastes a slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) for playing to demo numbers, shooting for pandering mass appeal rather than the art, man. Feel the hypocrisy.
The first hour of Rock of Ages is mildly passable mostly because of the goofy supporting cast, but then the movie just keeps going, getting more and more tedious with every protracted minute. The second half involves Cherie and Drew apart and finding new lows; for him it’s selling his soul to join in a boy band, and for her it’s selling herself, working as a stripper. Let’s look back at that sentence. One of those life choices is not nearly as upsetting as the other. Nothing against the hard-working strippers in this country, but Cherie taking to the pole is definitely more of a moral compromise for the character than whatever the hell Drew endures. It’s this leaden second hour that made me lose faith that Rock of Ages would even provide a morsel of cheesy entertainment. It has the misfortune of two of the blandest leads I’ve ever seen in a musical. Hogue (Footloose) and Boneta (Mean Girls 2) are both physically blessed specimens of human genetics, but oh are these kids boring boring boring. Their love story is completely malnourished and you couldn’t scrape together one interesting thing about them combined. The fact that Rock of Ages further strips away any interesting personality from Cherie (see above) makes them even more disastrously boring. To be stuck with these two for another hour of vapid griping, only to magically get back together, is interminable. Thank God they pumped up the side characters because that is the only time when Rock of Ages even challenges for your attention. Cruise isn’t the best singer but he’s pretty good belting out 80s rock hits, and the man has his natural charisma and stage presence to spare.
So I guess where Rock of Ages goes wrong, and where Les Miserables succeeds, is thinking of how best to translate the experience of the stage to the medium of film. Shankman does a pitiful job staging his musical numbers, with lackluster choreography that rarely takes advantage of the sets and characters. Worse, Shankman feels like he strays from the tone and angle of the stage show, sanitizing the rock and roll lifestyle and looking for ways to squeeze in bland happy endings. In other words, he doesn’t capture enough of the essence of the original stage show to please neophytes and fans of the Broadway show. With Les Miserables, I think most fans of the stage show, and they are legion, will walk away feeling satisfied with the results, content that real artists treated the long-running musical with justice. Hooper opens up the world of the stage show, utilizing the parameters of film, and the emphasis on performance over singing mechanics maximizes the unique power of film. Les Miserables is a grand movie musical smartly adapted to the opportunities of film. Rock of Ages is a sloppy, neutered, criminally boring mess poorly developed and poorly translated to the silver screen. Let this be an educational resource for future generations. Take note, producers, and learn from the mistakes of Rock of Ages and the accomplishments of Les Miserables. Oh, and guys, if you see Les Miserables, it will get you super laid with your girlfriend (I have anecdotal evidence).
Les Miserables: B+
Rock of Ages: C-
Cats & Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (2010)
Obviously this movie is bad. A sequel to a lukewarm family film from nine years ago, the chances were slim that Cats and Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore would have ever worked. They don’t even have the temerity to have the subtitle read “Pussy Galore” for fear that repeating the most famous Bond girl name might cause parents discomfort. It’s a live-action talking-animal movie that posits that cats and dogs have been fighting an ages-old feud and they all have secret lairs and technology at their service despite lacking opposable thumbs. Really, premise alone you’re already lowering the standards, and with standards firmly and securely lowered, you may even laugh once or twice (that’s probably about it). It depends on how susceptible to puns you are because that is the primary joke vehicle. The film makes an attempt to throw animals into a Bond-styled action thriller with, pardon me, shaggy results. The character animation is poor, the dialogue feels like it was stitched from one groan-worthy pun after another, and yet Cats and Dogs 2 doesn’t offend with its sheer badness. Premise alone, you sort of watch the thing in a vegetative state.
Nate’s Grade: D+
My Sister’s Keeper (2009)
How could a movie about dying children be so schlocky? The best-selling Jodi Picoult novel, My Sister’s Keeper, is awash in drama but it never tipped the scales into absurd and tone-deaf melodrama. How does one botch a tear-jerker? You need only watch the big screen version of My Sister’s Keeper for a primer on how to turn a complicated, challenging book into maudlin mush (hint: make sure to have a sizeable budget for obtaining music rights for endless montages).
Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) is dying from cancer. Her little sister, Anna (Abigail Breslin), was conceived by her parents, Sara and Brian (Cameron Diaz, Jason Patric), to be a genetic match. Anna was born so that she might be “spare parts” for her ailing big sister. Jesse (Brennan Bailey), is the oldest child, and his needs have been overlooked because of Kate’s illness. Anna’s life has been one of prodding and pricking and testing and operations. Then one day, Anna consults with high-powered lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin). She wants to sue her parents for the rights to her own body. She’s tired of undergoing numerous medical treatments. She wants a life of her own, something more than being “spare parts.” Needless to say, Sara and Brian are horrified. Anna clearly loves her sister but by refusing to donate a kidney she is signing her sister’s death notice.
The movie strikes one false, heavy-handed note after another. There is rarely a moment that feels authentic or genuine; everything comes across as powerfully manipulative and cloying and contrived and like a tuneless melodrama. Things are cranked to such a high degree of overkill. I swear to you that, no joke, at least seventy percent of the scenes in this movie involve somebody crying. People don’t argue, they flail and shout until they go hoarse. There is nothing subtle to be found here. I didn’t feel emotionally invested in these characters and one of them is a freaking teenage girl suffering with cancer! The first half of the movie feels far too rushed, and the majority of scenes last under two minutes, meaning that the plot lurches forward but the film fails to round out and establish its central characters. The movie’s idea of covering up its screenwriting shortcomings and lackluster character development is to produce an extended music montage. There are over five music montages (I lost count) and it possibly takes up a fifth of the movie’s total running time. I don’t know about you, but watching characters smile and laugh set to music that is so painfully on-the-nose literal does not make due. After so many matching lyrics, I was waiting for a song to literally describe everything I was watching on screen, like, “Heaven/We’re all gonna go/You’re gonna go sooner/Because you’re a little girl with cancer/Don’t you think your mother’s crazy?/So what’s on TV?” Is it better drama to hear a somber cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”? It’s just one of several flimsy filming decisions that rip you out of the story and make it perfectly obvious that you are watching a movie, and a poor one at that.
There is just way too much material here for it to succeed as a streamlined, two-hour weepie. There are complicated moral issues here about exploiting one child in efforts to save another. Grief can transform the nucleus of a family in small ways. This requires a delicate adaptation and this movie is certainly not it. This is an adaptation that alternates between syrupy music montages and falling anvils. My Sister’s Keeper is beset with convoluted flashbacks, and I often was confused as to where in the timeline several of the scenes were taking place. Is this before or after Sara shaved her head in solidarity? Is this before or after she Katie starts chemo? There are multiple characters that share voice over duties, often just offering up a line or two. What’s the point of having Jesse announce in voice over, “I wondered how much trouble I was gonna be in,” when he sneaks into his house late at night? Could we not communicate this effectively without the added voice over? And only for a single line? This is just shockingly lazy writing and proof that the filmmakers have no trust in their audience. In fact, Jesse as a character is entirely pointless. He adds nothing to the story except to make things more confusing. Why does he sneak out at night to drink milkshakes in downtown L.A.? Why are judges unclear why a lawyer of such fame and stature as Campbell Alexander has a helper dog? There are intriguing dramatic setups that just get overlooked. What kind of life goes on in a family home when one child is suing their parents? Show me this stuff.
By far, the only believable part of this mawkish mess is a lengthy flashback to Kate’s boyfriend, Taylor (Thomas Dekker, sporting a good-looking dome if you ask me). This is the only segment that’s allowed to breathe and feel naturally developed. It is during this tender sequence where Kate feels like a character instead of a broadly drawn sketch of Cancer Girl. The interaction between Kate and Taylor is sweet and relaxed, until an obvious conclusion that has to spoil Kate’s small hold on happiness. The supposed twist ending is predictable and nullifies the court battle, which makes the ethical struggle of bio-engineered babies just a plot gimmick. In the end, I got the overwhelming impression that the screenwriters, Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) and director Nick Cassavetes, are projecting. We conclude on one character’s voice over, remarking, “I don’t know why she died. I don’t know why what happened happened. I don’t know why we did the things we did.” It’s like a thinly layered confession by the screenwriters that they were clueless. Any tears that manage to squeeze out are unearned and are only the byproduct of such gloomy material.
The acting is typical of such hyperactive melodrama. Diaz fares the worst as the overprotective mom who fights tooth and nail to save her daughter at the expense of everybody else. She’s abrasive and grating even when the movie tries to make her sympathetic. Diaz can do drama and can even manage understatement, as she showcased in the criminally underappreciated 2005 film, In Her Shoes. Cassavetes only knows how to direct actors when they’re being histrionic and unrestrained, as Alpha Dog and John Q. prove. The rest of the cast slogs through the overwrought material with plenty of tears to bailout the Kleenex industry. The lone bright spot amongst the cast is Vassilieva (TV’s Medium) who makes you feel her pain and manages to, at times, cloud your mind that you’re being shamelessly manipulated.
My Sister’s Keeper is supposed to be one of those moving, heart-tugging episodes that allows us all to re-evaluate life. The movie, in actuality, is a maudlin and overstuffed melodrama (cancer kids, dysfunctional families, court disputes, secret schemes, last wishes, etc.) that is so poorly executed that it manages to make Lifetime movies look like grand art. Cassavetes grounds down all the tricky ethical questions and tortured feelings down into simplistic soap opera gunk. Nothing feels genuine or honest, everything comes across as incredibly forced and contrived, and enough with the music montages. Hitting the soundtrack button does not erase screenwriting deficiencies. My Sister’s Keeper is a malformed, overwrought, clunkily insensitive excuse to empty audience tear ducts. I suppose indiscriminate fans of the weepie genre will find the material forgivable, though fans of Picoult’s novel will find the changes to be unforgivable. I like my emotions to be earned and not strangled to death.
Nate’s Grade: C-
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