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The New Mutants (2020)

The story behind The New Mutants is decidedly more interesting than the movie itself, the last of the twenty-year span of Fox X-Men movies. There was a three-year gap in between trailers for this movie, an adaptation of a Marvel comics series and fronted by co-writer and director Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars). It was originally supposed to come out in 2017, and then it was delayed with the rumors that Fox wanted to push for a more prevalent horror angle. There were rumors of extensive re-shoots, possibly half the movie, and then the Disney merger effectively froze the post-production process, and then the rumors were that the film was removing all the elements to tie it into the X-Men universe, to stand on its own. Apparently, all of this speculation and the talk of re-shoots was a lot of hot air and the finished film is what was originally back in 2017, before the X-Universe imploded with the great Disney takeover. Because of the many years of delays and gestating rumors, The New Mutants became a strange artifact of another time and fans began anticipating how bad it might be and whether they might ever really see it. Finally released at long last, The New Mutants is only aggressively mediocre and thoroughly boring.

Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) wakes up in a strange asylum. She’s the only survivor from her reservation where something powerful and supernatural attacked. The medical facility is run by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) and secluded in the country. It’s also kept under a force field until the mutant patients make breakthroughs on their paths to processing their trauma and controlling their volatile powers. Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) is from Scotland and was hunted as a demon by religious extremists. Illyana Rasputin (Ana Taylor-Joy) was terrorized by Slenderman-like intruders as a young girl. Roberto de Costa (Henry Zaga) accidentally burned his girlfriend alive. Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton) lost control in his town’s coal mine and is responsible for several deaths, including his hard-working father. Together, they uncover the sinister forces keeping them trapped and confront a powerful menace from the past to gain their freedom.

Even with years of curiosity and anticipation, once it got started, I found myself nodding off during The New Mutants. This is because the script by Boone and Knate Lee (Kidnap) is predicated on predictability. Of course, you know exactly what will be revealed about this so-called helpful medical facility. Of course, you know who will be revealed to be part of that conspiracy. So then we wait for the obvious plot turns and bide our time for close to an hour with each mutant experiencing their own It-style scary encounter with a trauma of their past. Since we have four additional supporting players, each contributes a PG-13 studio spooky set piece until we reach our most obvious reveal about who is responsible for their worst nightmares coming to violent fruition. Seriously, just having read the above, I guarantee that the majority of you can figure out all the spoilers I’m dancing around. This is the kind of movie that quotes the “two wolves” metaphor (“Inside every person are two wolves…”) though the internal animal is changed into bears to align more with Danielle’s native culture. Makes me wonder if every person has two of different animals fighting for dominance within them (“Inside every person are two really irritable ducks…”). This metaphor is hammered home multiple times so you better believe it’s going to relate to our final climax. Normally, I would cite this as smart screenwriting, layering in setups and connecting theme to a personal confrontation. The showdown though is so goofy and the final villain free of personality, because ultimately the final villain is a symbol, an idea, and that is too vague and prone to basic platitudes on fear and responsibility.

The characters are also a major flaw for The New Mutants. It feels like somebody was trying to follow a formula of popular teen movies and sticks with the stereotypical stock roles but gave it a slightly modern twist. Our lead character is indigenous. There’s a chaste lesbian romance. There’s a level of diversity here even if fans of the comics also have expressed insult at possible white-washing of a Brazilian comic character’s ethnicity. At its core, the characters are still the same high school cliche roles: the Mean Girl (Illyana), the Outcast (Rahne), the Tomboy (Danielle), the Jock (Roberto), the Poor White Trash (Sam). It’s not too difficult to imagine The Breakfast Club faces being reapplied into these familiar roles onscreen. They even have a cheesy “cutting loose” montage when their authority figure is away that might remind you of that John Hughes classic. Worse, the characters just aren’t that interesting, each defined by their past that figuratively and then quite literally haunts them. This leads to some intriguing moments of them reliving horror but no sequence makes any character more interesting. The fears don’t provide further insight. Illyana might be the most annoying character of the group. She’s immediately pushy, malicious, racist, and her combination of powers just doesn’t make any sort of sense (teleportation and a disappearing arm sword, huh?). The boys are boring but Danielle is just as boring as our lead. The only character with a spark of possibility is Rahne and her push against religious harassment. If you’re going to be trapped in a contained thriller with a group of super-powered teens, could they not be more interesting than this sullen lot of underdeveloped high school cliches?

For a movie that was supposed to be something different, it’s the flashes of horror that made me wish the extensive Fox re-shoots had been real. As a mystery or an action movie, The New Mutants isn’t going to be able to compare to the highlights of its fabled franchise. The action at the end feels rushed and sloppy. However, it could have found a tidy place for itself as a more adult horror movie within the broader X-Men fold. The spooky set pieces don’t have much to them because they’re meant as passing torment, reminders of negative feelings rather than extended sequences. They can be eerie and made me wish we could dwell further with this. A horror movie in a confined space with teenagers with powers they didn’t fully understand or couldn’t control, I can see the possibilities there aplenty. That’s what makes it all the more disappointing how predictable Boone and the filmmakers go with their one-off genre riff. The creepy Slenderman creature design is actually good, though I don’t really know if they are real in this world or a figment of Illyana’s childhood imagination. I don’t really know much about the rules of The New Mutants, so when it takes its turns, I was mostly shrugging and saying to myself, “Well, okay then.” Why do these super powered and angst-ridden teenagers never attempt to overthrow the one woman who patrols this otherwise empty facility? I watched Roberto repeatedly wash a giant soup vat in the empty kitchen when he could have been plotting escape. Who is consuming that much soup on a regular basis between the six of these people?

In short, The New Mutants was not worth its unceremonious three-year wait. It’s a middling super hero movie with flashes of potential, especially when it could have been something so different and new than any of the previous X-Men flicks. The movie is so easily predictable that I’m shocked more effort wasn’t put into its scary set pieces to better compensate. There are more twisted accents in the movie than genuine twists and genuine scares (your ears may bleed). It’s barely 85 minutes long and you feel like it’s gasping for breath by even that modest run. It never quite feels like the concept of a horror movie set with super heroes was ever really well imagined. If this is the actual preferred version Josh Boone always had in mind, it still manages to feel incomplete and underwhelming in execution. It’s not exactly a good comic book movie, or a good horror movie, or even a good movie. Thus ends The X-Men. Rest in peace.

Nate’s Grade: C

Elysium (2013)

elysium-firstposter-full2With the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, Elysium is a sci-fi action movie with more on its mind than pyrotechnics. It’s writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to 2009’s out-of-nowhere hit, District 9, a film so good that the Academy even nominated it for Best Picture that year, a rarity for a sci-fi flick. The apartheid allegory of District 9 was pretty straightforward, but Blomkamp and company found inspiring and fresh ways to tell a rousing story that worked in tandem with its social commentary. Elysium takes the haves and have nots to an admitted extreme.

IIn 2153, the rich have left Earth for a floating space station known as Elysium. It’s a luxurious paradise where technology can miraculously zap people to complete health. Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is in charge of Homeland Security and protecting Elysium from the less desirables that want to break in. Those “less desirables” would be the inhabitants of Earth. The planet has become an overcrowded, dirty, impoverished slum; Earth as third world. Max (Matt Damon) is an excon working a factory line for a sneering corporate bigwig (William Fichtner) struggling to leave behind a life of crime. His childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), works as a nurse at a hospital, but she’s got her own worries, namely a terminally ill daughter. After an accident at work blasts Max with radiation, he has five days to live. If he can just make it to Elysium, he can be cured. The problem is that Delacourt is shooting down spaceships trying to land on Elysium, including ones filled with women and children. To get off planet, Max needs to help in a heist, but it’s prized codes that could lower the defenses of Elysium and make anyone (ANYONE!) a citizen, thus available for medical treatment. To make sure this doesn’t happen, Delacourt relies on a rogue mercenary, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a crazed madman who leaps at the chance to do dirty work. The hunt is on for Max.

94576_galThe socio-political commentary isn’t terribly veiled here, and maybe that’s because now Blomkamp has bigger targets than South Africa’s governmental policy. I didn’t have a problem with the fact that the inhabitants of luxury are portrayed as all white and that the denizens of the impoverished Earth are mostly non-white minorities (if minorities dominate a future Earth, when do they become majorities?). It’s clear that Blomkamp intends for Elysium to represent the United States. The poor who break through into the Promised Land, many to give their children a better life, or a life at all, only to be deported back to a slum, are clear stand-ins for contemporary immigration, notably Latin America. This is all fine by my book, though I can already hear the persecuted cries of some conservative commentators. It’s not as refined a commentary and that’s fine, not every message needs to be subtle, but I want more with my message than a simple rich vs. poor allusion. We never get to see what the people of Elysium are like, nor what most of that world is like beyond wide idyllic imagery. Fichtner’s character does a good job of symbolizing the callousness of an elite, but then he’s just one guy. The difficulty of maintaining a working wage is given the most care in the film, but much of the higher thinking takes a backseat for the third act movie heroics. The shift is acceptable but it makes a thin development of socio-economic commentary that much thinner.

When it comes to action, Blomkamp certainly knows how to stage a scene to get your pulse racing. The only problem is that there isn’t terribly much action to Elysium, or at least methodically sustained action to satisfy. You always feel like you’re getting a taste of something cooler down the road but it never fully materializes, much like the exoskeleton suit. It looks cool, it provides some progression, but it doesn’t lead to much. What does it accomplish? It allows him a port into downloading the Elyisum codes, but so could anything else. If anything, the metal exoskeleton seems like more of a hindrance, dragging Max down with extra weight and bulk. It pains me to say that the cool exoskeleton, such a prominent marketing feature, could have easily been eliminated as well. The best action in the movie is a heist in the middle that manages to juggle a team of good guys, a team of bad guys, a mark, and a deep sense of urgency for the score. It’s terrific and makes fun use of Blomkamp’s inventive future weapons. The rest of the film is mostly a series of chases, many of which are well orchestrated but only flirt with long-lasting action satisfaction.

The third act on Elysium is an entertaining and noisy conclusion, except Blomkamp sets himself up for limitation. Some spoilers to follow so tread carefully, reader. Elysium gets taken over by Kruger and his team as a defacto coup… except, well there are only three of them. We don’t even get to see them train the robot sentries on enemies or the populace of Elysium. I really don’t know how far-reaching their hastily staged coup is going. We want Kruger to be the big baddie that Max has to fight right before the cusp of the climax, but when there are only two other dudes who aren’t making great use of their fancy resources, it feels too boxed in and restrained. The action is fun while it lasts.

101212_galAnother niggling concern is the glut of side characters and their side stories that don’t feel organically integrated into the hero’s story. The flashbacks to Max as a kid could have been completely wiped out. They don’t add more information to the story and feel a tad too hokey for the movie. Sister Saintly Nun espouses wisdom and promises Max will be destined for one great thing in the future (could I settle for two “kinda good” things?).  The bigger distraction is Frey and her sick kid, a.k.a. the Angelic Sick Child, you know, the type that feels so at peace with things and with no worry. This is a staple of the movies. Her only purpose in the narrative is to goad Max into making a bigger sacrifice, to think of others, not that beforehand the guy was displayed as being particularly selfish. Then there’s Max’s friend Julio (Diego Luna) who serves little purpose other than to carry him out of the occasional scene and to, of course, be sacrificed to drive the hero forward to achieve his goal. There’s a middleman who arranges for people to get identities that will be read on Elysium, if they get on there safely first. The villains are also pretty one-dimensional in their stock villainy: Kruger a sociopathic killing machine and Delacourt a tyrant. None of these characters leave much of an impression to make you want to take time away from the main story arc. Worse, many of them feel vaguely characterized and are clear plot beat generators rather than people. Maybe Max would be better off as a loner.

The acting is also all over the place. The worst offender is Foster (Carnage), who weirdly over enunciates every syllable in an affected future accent. She also seems to bob and swivel her head a lot as she talks, as if the Oscar-winning actress really had to go to the bathroom but was holding it at bay to complete her takes. Damon (Promised Land) is a reliable action hero but realistically, it’s a little curious that the main character would be, by all accounts, white. It makes much more sense for the savior of planet Earth to be like those left behind, but then I don’t really want to wade into deeper racial subtext than necessary. The real treat of the movie is Copley (The A-Team) who is having a ball playing a sword-wielding psycho killer. He provides a notable spark whenever onscreen, bringing a menace that makes you tale notice. Again, I just wish there was more to the character than his vague back-story and bunt motivations.

Despite what has seemed like a fairly negative review from the start, Elysium still a good movie but beware higher expectations forged from District 9’s unique alchemy. There are a lot of familiar plot beats here and everything from the characters, to the action, to the world building feels like it could have been pushed further. It feels like they took the freshness of District 9 and applied it to a more tired-and-true blockbuster formula. Blomkamp drops us into an intriguing world but I wanted more of just about everything. More with the characters, more with the plot, more with the socio-political commentary, more with the ins and outs of this future world and its inhabitants. The ending is also a bit jubilantly naïve given the powers of the Powers That Be. Really, a keystroke sets everything back to scratch. Again, I’m being more critical than I intend to be. Elysium is quite an entertaining movie with great visuals and Blompkamp is certainly a visionary auteur to praise, but it’s hard not to feel a smidge of disappointment with the man when you know what he’s capable of, even with a perfectly fine movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Repo Men (2010)

It’s not unheard of for different writers to independently create similar projects. Remember back in 1998 when there were two animated bug movies and two apocalyptic asteroid flicks? Granted, those were big budget studio movies and the final films had little in common other than concept or premise. Repo Men takes place in a world where people open contracts on new organ transplants, but if the buyer is late on the payment then a repo man will come and take back the merchandise. This gory premise might sound familiar for fans of the Goth opera, Repo: the Genetic Opera, which was released a whole 18 months earlier. The makers of Repo Men and Repo have engaged in a he-said/she-said argument over who originated the idea. Repo Men‘s screenwriters claim they came up with the concept in 2003, though the book the film is based was only released in 2009. The Repo team point out that their funky little musical began as a theatrical show that was first performed in 2002. The songwriters behind Repo say that the idea itself goes back to 1999 and began as a 10-minute opera experiment. I suppose we’ll never know who really had the idea first, though I’m inclined to side with the Repo musical fellas because they can back up their claims with evidence. It seems like a whole lot of squabbling over so little, but hey, that’s Hollywood for you.

In the not-too-distant future, one corporation, The Union, seems to hold sway in the world of organ transplants. Remy (Jude Law) is an expert repossessions officer who will slice open anybody 90 days late on his or her payment. His wife wants him to transfer to sales; it’s less messy. Remy’s partner (Forest Whitaker) is an old childhood friend and doesn’t want to lose his butcher buddy. One night, Remy is sidelined by some malfunctioning equipment that fires his heart. He has no choice but to get his own organ transplant. Following the operation, Remy finds that he no longer has the stomach for his old line of work. Remy’s newfound moral compass comes at a cost. He quickly falls behind in his payments and his old bosses plead for Remy to refinance. Reluctantly, they sic the repo men, including Whitaker, on Remy to retrieve company property.

Repo Men takes some nice commentary on predatory lending, pushing the hard sell knowing that the customer can never stay ahead of the mounting fees and payments. The allegory has some sharp moments. However, the movie would have benefited from being pushed further in pretty much every regard. The side characters are horribly shallow. I’m fairly certain that Carice van Houten (electrifying in Black Book), as Remy’s beleaguered wife, could have been replaced with a cardboard cutout boasting a disapproving look. She gets to glare and complain and talk about family issues and then she’s gone, replaced entirely by Beth, a mysterious organ replacement junkie. Beth could have an intriguing back story, and the concept of surgery addiction could dwell upon the human cost of beauty and “upgrading,” but alas, her real purpose is to become an oddly implacable love interest for Remy. She gets to hold his hand while they run. That’s her main contribution (except for one key scene detailed below).

The entire concept of a future world held hostage by a greedy health care corporation could use more contemplation. What is happening with society? No epidemic is ever mentioned, so why do people start contracts on million dollar organs? Do the heavy debts pass on to the next of kin? What is the legality of organ repossession? What level of competition is there out there in the market? What does the government have to say about all this? Does this mighty company supersede the U.S. government? How come Remy can’t even get an employee discount on the merchandise? Has anybody had enough surgeries to become the six million dollar man? There is a wealth of questions born from this premise, but the movie only scratches the intellectual surface and sets its standard change-of-perspective morality storyline into gear. I actually would have found the life of an organ salesman to be more dramatically appealing. What kind of ethical rationalizations take place in the mind of a man who makes his living signing saps into modern indentured servitude? I find that story direction to be more compelling than following the guys who bring back the company merchandise.

But then something weird happens. The movie gallops to a satisfying close, and then it somehow gets even better in its closing moments. I was certain that I was going to write off Repo Men but then 4 things happened to make me sit up straight in my chair (I’ll refrain from any large spoilers):

1) In a film relentlessly aping the visuals of other, superior dystopian films, there’s not much new to look at. You’ve seen this future society thing before, just with more flying cars or jet packs. I came to terms with this; it’s not every movie that reinvents how we interpret the future short of some calamity. Then when Remy breaks into the Company HQ, which is awfully easy by the way, he stumbles into the genetic organ hatchery, if you will. Rows and rows and rows of scientists tinker with organ replacements. The entire environment is a strikingly sterile white, including the scientists wrapped in bulky white biohazard suits. Then Remy and Beth make a run for it, and they are covered head to toe in black. It’s a fabulous visual image, watching the color contrasts. It’s debut director Miguel Sapochnik’s high point.

2) Once Remy and Beth move beyond this laboratory, they get caught in a hallway, and Remy proceeds to take out a mob of employees. The fight sequence is several minutes long and a clear nod to the memorable extended hallway fight in Oldboy (Remy takes out a hammer as his final weapon). Weirdly, Remy’s opponents are suit types, middlemen, office employees, numbers crunchers, but they all leap into battle to take out the corporate intruder. The fight sequence is bloody and stylish enough to please the senses, like when Remy swings a hacksaw and we get Swinging Hacksaw POV as characters duck out of the way lest their jugulars get sliced.

3) Following this, Remmy and Beth must deposit their corporate-licensed organ replacements. This involves cutting each other open, taking a bar code scanner (think a grocery check-out), and digging inside each other to get those subcutaneous scans. What’s amusing is that the scene is blatantly juxtaposed as a sex scene; Remmy and Beth intimately penetrate each other, the editing cuts to close-ups of moaning, and the other tries to soothe the pain with physical assurances, and it’s all set to a slow jam. It’s something of a bizarre sequence, especially upon further review (how effective can scanning for bar codes be inside the gook-filled human body?), but man is it interesting.

4) Just as I had come to terms with the movie settling for a conventional conclusion, the movie pulls the rug out from under you. It offers up a last-minute ending that upends the conventional framework, and, actually, presents the easy coast to a conventional stop in a new light. This is one of those rare instances where a last-minute ending twist actually improved the film. More often than not, a last-second twist is forced and the nail in the coffin of lasting entertainment.

Repo Men is a competently looking, competently entertaining sci-fi thriller that miraculously stumbles into a final act that not only works, it elevates the rest of the movie. My mild boredom vanished and I started wondering why they made me wait so long for the good stuff. Repo Men is a mixed marriage of overall tone. One second it will be darkly humorous, the next it will be satirical, the next it will pine for serious drama, and occasionally it goes for Guy Richie-styled slapstick. A sequence where Remy describes the three occasions he’s been knocked out, with visual interludes, feels like a deleted scene from an entirely different movie. The movie never really settles, touching upon a lot of areas but mostly poorly. The script desperately needed to be fleshed out to make any lasting impact. Now that I’m living in a two-Repo world, I’ll probably stick with the campy musical fun of Repo: the Genetic Opera. At least that movie left you humming.

Nate’s Grade: C+

I Am Legend (2007)

Ever wanted true and ever-lasting quiet? Be careful what you wish for. Super buff scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last known survivor of a virus that swept throughout the world in 2009. The U.S. government quarantined Manhattan and military jets blew up the bridges leading out from the island. Now in 2012, he and his lone companion, a German Shepard, must seek out supplies by day, because at night is when the “dark seekers” come out. These mutated creatures are what are left of those that fell prey to the virus; they can only come out at night and feed on blood. Smith has been capturing the creatures to run tests to see if he can crack the virus and offer a cure, except that the emerging creature hierarchy doesn’t exactly like having their members captured for scientific experiments.

Deeply unsettling, I Am Legend comes across like a post-apocalyptic Cast Away? but with vampires. I think they’re vampires, they kind of unhook their jaw like from The Mummy and have goopy gelatinous skin like from The X-Files Movie; they’re attracted to blood and burn in sunlight, therefore through my non-scientific analysis of fictional creatures, they’re vampires. Case closed. The movie shrouds the details of the end of the world in mystery that it doles out via flashbacks, and it works very well at keeping an audience intrigued without opening the door for distracting nit-picky questions. Being the last man to walk the planet presents all kinds of interesting scenarios, and simply watching Robert Neville go through his daily routine is entertaining. He picks up DVDs to watch, many of which he has seen so often he can recite line by line. He drives through the empty streets of New York trying to hunt stray deer. He tests his newest serums on infected rats. He sends out a radio message looking for survivors. The man even pumps his own gas. And then night comes and he barricades his home and sleeps in a bathtub listening to the voluminous howls of the creatures he now shares this world with. There’s a pleasing rhythm for an audience with routine, but it also helps answer the biggest question of adaptability. How would someone go about his or her daily life without another human (key word there) soul? The adjustment is part of the enjoyment. Many films and TV shows have walked this path before, hell half of the Twilight Zone episodes cover this scenario, but I Am Legend presents an awe-inspiring sight of desolation. Seeing birds-eye view angles of deserted Manhattan streets, overcome with encroaching grass and plants, is chilling and morbidly effective. The eerie quiet of the day may be even scarier than the dangers that lurk by nightfall.

This is pretty heavy stuff for a Hollywood movie. After a taped TV interview that sets up how the virus began it immediately cuts to three years later and complete desolation. While there aren’t bodies strewn about, the lasting remnants of humanity are visible be it lines of empty automobiles or houses stockpiled with food and decorated for a new baby to arrive that never will. Death permeates every frame, and Neville dismisses the idea of “God’s plan” by declaring 90 percent of the population died immediately, 12 million proved immune and healthy, and 588 million turned into the “dark seekers.” Understandably, I Am Legend may be a bit too intense for younger kids and there are some late plot turns that will make animal lovers cringe.

Besides being an interesting what-if scenario, the movie is also a skillful, tense, and occasionally harrowing thriller filled with scares. The aforementioned moments of quiet are definitely eerie when presented on such a mass scale, and for a place as naturally noisy as New York City, but I Am Legend still has some classic spook moments that can still tingle a spine. When Neville’s dog runs into a dark building he follows, and every step becomes a great addition in terror. It’s your classic afraid-of-what-you-can’t-see scenario that horror milks, but I Am Legend invests the audience in Neville, and yes his furry companion, so that there’s genuine apprehension as we plunge into darkness. The CGI vampires won’t quicken the pulse alone, but add in the idea that every human being on the planet, your friends and family, has turned into a predatory creature and then the situation becomes more disturbing. When the vampires trick Neville and wait for the trickle of daylight to expire, the movie is downright nerve-wracking in the best way. The scene plays out at an agonizingly slow length that pins the viewer to the chair.

Smith gives a fabulous unnerved performance as, seemingly, the last man on Earth. Smith is an actor known for his wide grin and intense charisma, so plopping him down in a post-apocalyptic world doesn’t seem naturally ideal. There are long stretches where he is only acting alongside a German shepherd for companionship. Neville is dramatically lonely and befriending mannequins, including one female mannequin that he is working up the nerve to talk to in the video store. Smith is slowly breaking down from the void of human contact and he showcases how weary extreme loneliness can become. When he sees “Fred” the mannequin in an unexpected place, Smith just loses it. After such isolation, he has forgotten how to act around human beings and he is very much a casualty even as he survives. His strong relationship with his dog is occasionally touching and very reminiscent of Cast Away with Wilson the volleyball; I was more emotionally attached to this dog than I have been for entire slates of movie characters. Smith and the dog carry this movie and they both do outstanding work.

I Am Legend is about 3/4 of an awesome movie, and then it takes a step into a more conventional direction with some new additions. The ending is satisfying and a ray of hope amongst a thoroughly bleak tale. I Am Legend flirts with the profound perspective shift of Richard Matheson’s original work but then opts for something a tad more redemptive and familiar to anyone that watched 2002’s Signs, and yet the ending still relatively works for the material. I didn’t feel cheated and I suppose that’s what counts the most when it comes to a big budget blockbuster action thriller.

I wasn’t expecting a sturdy survivalist parable mixed in with some semi-smart sci-fi and chills, so I Am Legend is a futuristic thrill ride that satisfies on different levels. Sure the last act change-up causes the movie to lose focus, and it’s not nearly as entertaining as watching Smith just go about his post-apocalyptic business. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) steers the movie away from camp and ramps up eerie set pieces and a strong visual command even if the CGI zombie-vampire-people look a little cheesy. The movie becomes a one-man-show and Smith, in all his quiet rage and mounting despair, is the key that holds this entire entertaining enterprise together. I Am Legend is short of legendary but it’s most certainly worth your time.

Nate’s Grade: B+

City of God (2003)

Looking for a film that really packs a genuine wallop? Take the visual panache of a pre-Madonna Guy Ritchie (Snatch) film, the juvenile delinquency and debauchery of a Larry Clark (Kids) film, the propulsive narration and bloody violence of a Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) film and mix it with a cast of about 40 characters. What you get is City of God, a brilliant and vibrant film that pulsates with exhilarating action, thoughtful commentary and devastating power.

In the 1960s, the Brazilian government transported its impoverished citizens outside of Rio de Janeiro, a glamorous tourist magnet. This new place of residency was a distant housing project of shabby slums, ironically titled City of God. In this begotten neighborhood the police rarely emerge (except to occasionally pick dead people’’s pockets) and crime has become rampant. A mixture of poverty and an overabundance of guns and testosterone have bred a culture of criminals where teenagers populate ruthless gangs.

Our story focuses on Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) narrating the rise, and many falls, of all the flashy thugs of the City of God and the ripples they create in the community. He’s a young boy who is too scrawny to be a hoodlum like his older brother Goose. His brother belongs to a gang known as the Tender Trio, who are used to hijacking propane tanks for small gain. They get the idea to knock off a brothel at the urging of Li’l Dice, a younger kid with ambition and a heart like a stone. After the successful robbery Li’l Dice cleans up after the Trio, sifting through the brothel killing everyone inside and laughing insidiously.

The murder spree has long lasting effects, with each member of the Tender Trio finding an untimely end. Li’l Dice grows from calculating child into a big-time burgeoning cruel gangster, who now calls himself Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino De Hora Phellipe). Ze has climbed to the level of kingpin the most pragmatic way possible: systematically eliminating all of the competition. Ze attains reign over the city. He instructs others not to do anything to arouse the outside police (the locals are paid off), and thus has made the City of God a safe place for rich tourists to drive in and purchase their drugs. It seems that Ze ruling by fear has brought newfound safety and prosperity.

Rocket’’s path is quite different. As he matures into a teenager he discovers a love of photography. His attempts at a life of crime are short-lived; he simply likes his victims too much to rob them. Ze has Rocket take pictures of his gang strutting their machismo that eventually gets published onto the front page of a newspaper. Rocket’s reaction is that he thinks his death certificate has been signed. Ze’’s reaction is delight. Li’l Ze’’s great weakness is his self-believed sexual inadequacy. When turned down by a girl he seeks out her good-looking boyfriend, Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), and humiliates him. He terrorizes Ned, raping his girlfriend in front of him and inspiring him to long bloodthirsty battles of vengeance against Ze that will engulf the City of God.

A complaint that could be levied against City of God is the numbing effect of its violence. The gangsters in this film aren’’t the mustache-twirling types of Gangs of New York, but merely kids. This isn’’t any kind of glamorized Hollywood gun battle. When these kids get hit their bodies go limp; they drop to the ground in weeping masses. The film’s message of the hereditary nature of barbarism is clear. One of the amazing parts of the film is that it was mainly filmed in the actual City of God and uses a cast almost entirely of non-actors.

City of God is a loud announcement to the world of the arrival of a fresh, invigorating and monumental talent with director Fernando Meirelles. The visual flair he utilizes to advance his storyline is amazing yet never falters into the land of gimmickry. The narrative folds in on itself time-wise (much like Tarantino films) yet rhythmically connects the numerous lives and history of the City of God in one lustrous and captivating tapestry of urban decay. A fantastic example is a scene that chronicles the entire history of one apartment and the origins of the entrance of drugs in one un-moving shot. Imagine the Natalie Imbruglia “Torn” video but with drugs and guns.

There is one sequence of crushing emotional power that has been burned into my memory. The sequence involves a bawling child, no older than seven, being forced to decide where he would rather be shot, in his foot or his tiny trembling hand as punishment for his mischief. The reality of City of God is a harrowing one. As you can clearly see, City of God is not for the weak. The movie has its definite squirm-worthy moments of discomfort and will not be a good choice if you and your date are looking for that perfect weekend movie. This is a difficult movie to sit through at times, and the reality can be grim and uncompromising, but City of God is rewarding in respect to the amazing narrative and visual accomplishments. This is an unforgettable film.

The film piles on the body count while at the same time advancing a pacifist message between the bursts of adrenaline and bullets. Meirelles’’ film will leave your jaw dropped to the floor by its sprawling complexity. This is what great filmmaking is all about. City of God is one of those movies that once you’’ve left the theater you excitedly claim, “Now that’s why I see movies.” City of God is simply a cinematic masterpiece and not only the best film I’’d seen in 2003 but also one of the best movies I’’ve seen in my life.

Nate’s Grade: A+

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