Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here use sly genre subversion to act as commentary on what kinds of movies the audience associates with these kind of haunted men, their arcs, and the nature of violence. Subverting audience expectations is in and of itself not necessarily a better option. You can have unexpected things happen but the narrative that happens after needs to be compelling, and if possible, unavoidable in hindsight (Game of Thrones is good at this). By the same notion, the finale of Breaking Bad was pretty easy to anticipate but that’s because of how well written the storytelling trajectory was pointing to its natural end. I can tell a tense father-son reconciliation story and then if I end it with a meteor wiping out the Earth all of a sudden, well that’s unexpected but that doesn’t make it better storytelling. What helps elevate both movies is that the subversions are thematically related to the relationship between violence and vengeance, absolution and atonement, and the audience and our desires with these films.
In First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, enthralling) is the caretaker of a small upstate New York church where the weekly attendance can be counted on one hand. The church, First Reformed, is nearing the commemoration of its two hundred-fiftieth anniversary that will be celebrated by local dignitaries and the governor. Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, surprisingly adept in drama) is the pastor for the mega church that seems to have everything that First Reformed lacks. Jeffers wants to help out Toller but the humble man of the cloth refuses. Rev. Toller is pushed out of his comfort zone by the husband of a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) who challenges him on man’s stewardship of the environment. The husband worries about bringing a child into this world and contributing the larger problem of climate change. This interaction gets Rev. Toller to think about his own culpability and sets him on a path of righteous justice.
Writer/director Paul Schrader is famous for his stories about violent men confronting the wickedness of the world around them. From Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to Hardcore, Schrader has a penchant for documenting the self-destructive recourse of flawed men who feel removed or constrained by a society they feel is out of step with morality. What better canvas then for Schrader than a middle-aged pastor at a small, reclusive church? Rev. Toller is so humble he doesn’t own more than a few sticks of furniture in his home, the adjoining parsonage to the church. He’s friendly but often choosing to keep to himself, forgoing comforts and perceived handouts from the people around him. A woman his own age keeps trying to connect with him, their romantic coupling in the past a platform for her to continue hoping he’ll come around to her. She’s a perfectly nice woman, a choir headmistress for the mega church down the road, but she reminds Toller of his weakness and maybe even something worse. The aforementioned mega church basically keeps Toller’s small parish afloat as a charity (First Reformed is nicknamed the “gift shop church” for its historical notoriety). Rev. Jeffers is concerned about his fellow man of the cloth and the toll his solitude and seclusion is taking on him. It’s like he’s trying to atone for something, taking on a very Christ-like path of penitence. It’s around here that the character is activated into a higher calling in conflict with the church.
I’ll explain what I was expecting given the premise and presence of Schrader. I was expecting a movie much in keeping with A History of Violence, where a small-town man is thrust back into a past life of violence by outside forces and he has to confront how far this “new him” has come from the sins of “old him.” I was expecting Toller to become more violent and radicalized, pitting others in his cross-hairs for retribution. That’s not really First Reformed at all. First off, it’s the slowest of slow burns. You better be prepared to luxuriate in the day-to-day details of Rev. Toller’s simple life, from unclogging toilets to visiting with parishioners in their homes and having long philosophical conversations with them about faith and man’s role in the ecosystem. That conversation specifically teeters toward ten minutes and serves as the end of Act One, and I think if you’re still invested by then, you’ll be along for the rest of the film. However, it’s not going to be an easily accessible movie. This conversation stirs something deeper inside Toller, dissatisfaction with the church and how it coddles with big business, the chief polluters of God’s kingdom. Toller becomes a late-in-life environmental activist who questions the stewardship of the church body. This sets him on a path that seems destined for bloody violence. He’s going to go out in a fury of righteousness. We’re expecting a big bang by the end, especially given Schrader’s history of these kinds of stories with these kinds of men. But that doesn’t happen.
I’ll try and avoid spoilers but discussion over the thematic relevance of the end of First Reformed will unavoidably suggest to the reader some significant plot developments, so please feel free to read this paragraph or skip to the next one. The second half of the movie is setting you up for a very specific ending, one where Toller strikes back against forces he feels are detrimental to the well being of the church. It’s setting you up for a climactic showdown with powerful forces that feel unaccountable for their actions. I was ready for a final rush of violence to serve as the crescendo to Schrader’s slow burn. This is where the movie swerves away from audience expectations. We’re prepared for a meaningful death but instead Schrader’s ending, in retrospect, makes us question why we should have desired such a violent and vengeful finale. Why should this character be a martyr for our bloodlust against the powerful? Ultimately, Schrader’s movie ends on a romantic, optimistic note of personal salvation after setting you up for a dark story with a predetermined, self-destructive end. The abruptness of the ending may inspire some titters, but when you look back at the film, it makes complete sense and calls into question why we would wish for blood and violence over human connection and forgiveness. Schrader is saying that you wanted the wrong kind of movie.
First Reformed takes the modest aims of its protagonist to heart when it comes to the presentation of its story. Schrader films the entire movie in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, the square box of old pre-high definition televisions. It’s an aspect ratio that keeps everything centered for the audience and on display. I think there was exactly four camera movements in the entire movie; almost the entirely of the 113 minutes is from a stationary, documentary-styled camera. It’s a very specific visual style that limits the visual information and dynamism but manages to personalize the main character even more. It’s his movie and his journey of self, so the visual representation is also restrained. There’s really one flash of upsetting violence in the whole movie, as if to remind the audience how a violent death is not something to be celebrated. For an R-rated Paul Schrader movie, it’s far more reserved, subtle, and thoughtful. It left me thinking about Rev. Toller and his messianic mission and our desire for a big bloody finish. The idea of a selfless death directed toward violent retribution is inherently self-involved. It’s not death that provides meaning but life, it’s not how we end but what we do with the days beforehand.
You Were Never Really Here is built as a hitman thriller based on Jonathan Ames’ novel. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who specializes in rescuing young women. He’s hired to find the missing adolescent daughter of a senatorial candidate. He investigates the underbelly of sex trafficking to save this little girl, but larger forces are at play and will make Joe suffer gravely for interfering with their wanton exploitation.
The average audience for You Were Never Really Here has been steadily fed a diet of these kinds of movies, from the artful (Luc Besson’s The Professional), to the pulpy (The Long Kiss Goodnight), to any number of hollow, nihilistic video game-styled murder fantasies (Hitman, a thousand straight-to-DVD movies). We’re expecting men of action who are ruthlessly efficient and clever when it comes to their killing. We’re expecting stylish merchants of death who leave behind a heavy body count with swagger. That’s not what brilliant Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) has in mind at all. She takes the iconography of the hitman thriller and turns it into an expectation-smashing existential character study, but not just of its disturbed main character but also for the audience and our relationship to these movies. We expect remorseless killing machines that turn death into splashy and cool tableaus. These movies aren’t so much key on mediation and reflection, beyond the standard “reap what you sow” adage.
Much of the violence is kept off screen or purposely denied to the audience. I’m trying to remember if we even see Joe kill anyone on screen. The infiltration of the sex trafficking organization hops between fixed security angles, edited together in a dissonant manner, where the last shot doesn’t fully line up for a smooth edit, leaving a half second. The effect is one that’s knowingly alienating and challenging. When Joe does unleash his violent skills, it’s rarely given a showcase for entertainment. This is a movie that doesn’t celebrate its violence. There’s a moment where Joe lies on the ground beside a mortally wounded bad guy. They exchange a few cordial words, he procures some vital information, but then Joe stays with the man and the two sing a song together. It sounds bizarre when written out but it’s a moment that really stuck with me. After everything, these two men can find a small sliver of humanity between them to share. Even the final confrontation, the big climactic set piece of any other movie, ends with a shoulder shrug, as if Ramsay is saying to the audience, “Why would seeing all that be cathartic?”
For Ramsay, the focus of the movie is on the man committing the acts of violence rather than how stylish and cool and cinematic those acts of violence can be. This is the one area where I feel a longer running time could have better helped her goal. I think Ramsay might be the best filmmaker we have for triptych narratives. 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling and insightful movie that opens up the guilt of a woman whose son grew up very badly, jumping around time periods, using a repetition of images to provide visual stings and associations. You Were Never Really Here does similar labor, establishing our strong silent protagonist through glimpses of a troubled past, from a childhood with an abusive father and a mother he would have to save, to incidents during military service and police investigations that reminded Joe about the depravity of others, in particular the ability to exploit and dehumanize women as disposable property. Ramsay offers discorded images and brief flashes and asks the audience to put together the pieces to better understand Joe as a man propelled and haunted by his bloody past. However, at a slim 89 minutes, the audience could have used more time and opportunity to better develop and analyze this central character. The pieces are tantalizing but I wanted more, and as a result I found Joe to be an interesting start to a character that was in need of more time and attention to transcend the boundaries of his archetype. I needed a little more from him and his world.
There are several moments that quickly come to my memory, sticking with me because of the level of artistic arrangement or implication. Because Ramsay wants to take the Hollywood hitman revenge thriller and deconstruct it and provoke her audience and its desires for violence, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie. I could literally spoil the whole thing with the following sentence: a man of violence is hired to find a missing girl, finds her, loses her, and finds her again at great personal expense. The movie is more of a poignant and intriguing exercise in our relationship to these kinds of stories. There are moments of beauty in the movie that took my breath away, like when Joe lowers a wrapped body into the depths of a lake, and with the shafts of light, the curls of hair, the small visual details, it felt like watching a living baroque painting. There are also several bizarre moments that stand out, like when Joe fantasizes about blowing his brains out at a diner while the patrons, and the blood-soaked waitress, go about their day. It’s these little flourishes that make the movie stand above other hitman movie deconstruction exercises like George Clooney’s overly solemn The American. It’s not all tragedy and inescapable dread. Amidst Joe’s tortured past and troubled future, there’s a necessary sense of hope. You don’t know what will happen next but you’re not resigned to retrograde nihilism.
Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here are slow burn indie character studies that ask their audience to question the movies they’ve been set up for. Schrader and Ramsay are deft storytellers who pair their visual gifts to the psyches of their damaged, haunted, and self-destructive middle-aged men. Hawke is phenomenal as Rev. Toller and Phoenix is suitably unsettled from a life of confronting predatory violence. Both movies have also stayed with me, though First Reformed I find to be the better developed, better executed, better acted of the two films. It’s enough of a comeback for Schrader, whose last film I remember seeing was the laughably bad Lindsay Lohan “erotic thriller” The Canyons. These are two movies that aren’t exactly the most accessible. Both challenge the audience to analyze the personal relationships with genre storytelling. If you have patience and an open mind, both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here provide thoughtful and methodical examinations on genre, violence, and the visceral appeal of empty bloodshed.
First Reformed: A-
You Were Never Really Here: B
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-
Andrew Niccol is a filmmaker that has earned my respect and my hard-earned money. After The Truman Show, Gattaca, and Lord of War, this guy has me hooked. I forgive him 2002’s S1mone, which had some good ideas in need of a better plot. Lo and behold, his latest film, the sci-fi thriller In Time, falls victim to the same issue. Niccol’s premise is more intriguing than the people onscreen.
In the near future, science has solved the age-old question or mortality, for a price. Every human has an internal clock somehow embedded in his or her arm. It kicks in at age 25 and then people have one year remaining. Time is the only currency that matters. People work jobs to add minutes to their time. When it comes to a cup of coffee or a bus fare, you pay in minutes off your time (a hooker says, “I’ll give you ten minutes for an hour”). The rich are well stocked in time but the poor must fight every day just to keep alive. Sam (Justine Timberlake) works in a factory just to make ends meet. His mother (Olivia Wilde, we should al be so lucky) gives her son an extra 30 minutes for his lunch; humans can “pass” time from one to another through touch. This will come back to bite her. One day Sam meets a tall dark stranger who’s lived for over 100 years and is tired of it all. He donates all his time to Sam. This is a no-no in the future. The timekeepers are a police force, lead by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), that polices time allowances. They’re paid to basically make sure that time remains the property of the upper class. Sam hobnobs with the elites, including Philippe Weiss (Vincent Kartheiser), a man who owns thousands of years. When the (Van Damme-less) time cops come looking for Sam, he makes a run for it, taking Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) as his hostage. The two eventually fall for one another as they dash across the country stealing time.
In Time has all sorts of ideas running through its system. What it doesn’t have it much of a plot to go with its heady sci-fi setup. Will is a fugitive but he never really formulates any sort of tangible plan. There’s no higher plot or goal here other than “sticking it to the man” but what exactly does that mean in this context? I understand he’s upset about losing a loved one, but his plan for vengeance or justice or whatever you want to call it lacks needed clarity. It feels like he and his cohort are just making it up as they go along. The film is at its worst when it descends into a populist, sci-fi Bonnie and Clyde, where Sam and Sylvia storm these time banks and redistribute the minutes, becoming heroes to the day-to-day drudgers. The ease that these two people have at knocking over bank after bank, armed only with a handgun, seems hard to swallow. The banks aren’t going to have tougher security especially after word gets out? Niccol adds plenty of chase scenes to fill out his plot but it doesn’t do much more than pad a half-baked story. The end confrontation goes in a direction I shall shamefully describe as “action movie idiocy.” You’re going to tell me that a timekeeping pro doesn’t pay attention when his clock is minutes away from death? Furthermore, I’m stunned that the people onscreen don’t act with more urgency when their time runs out. When death is on the line, I imagine a human being would resort to any kind of irrational desperation just to get a few minutes more, yet In Time shows a demoralized populace that just seems to give up. That makes the heroes-as-revolutionaries storyline even more implausible. Here’s a tip to Niccol: if it’s Sylvia’s last day on Earth, maybe you don’t have her racing for her life in heels. I’d think the gal would have purchased some decent running shoes by this time.
The ideas presented are compelling, though I wish Niccol had continued to push further. The social satire is pretty on-the-nose about the class system. I would have liked Niccol to be more biting in his social critique, perhaps carving up the rich as more venal than pampered. It’s true that they can live forever… unless something violent happens. This may be the future but there’s still no cure for a bullet to the head. The rich may live but they must live in sheltered, insular communities; a life encased in bubble-wrap. There is much potential there that goes unexplored. I also wanted a global sense of what was happening. Is time traded on the stock market? Are there different values placed on human time based upon geography? Is a Japanese life more valuable than a Ukrainian? The glimpses we do get about how the world operates are enticing and clever. The time roadblocks, tolls asking increasing amounts of time to pass into more affluent communities, feel authentic to the world and a cruel way to limit class mobility. When Sam pays for his expensive dinner he tells the waitress, “And take a week for yourself.” The timekeepers are only allotted a day at a time, so they can’t get carried away (I think it’s the futuristic equivalent of having the pizza delivery guy only have twenty bucks on him so he’s less likely to be the victim of theft). For the most part, In Time feels like it has some of the neat sociological quirks down but misses the psychological ramifications of its premise. People stop aging at 25. What does that do to a person’s sense of self? What about the peculiarities of dating? There’s definitely a sexual farce waiting to be written here. But let’s focus on the main dilemma – scrapping every day for just enough to stay ahead of the countdown. It’s an apt allusion to the working poor, but we never really see the tremulous stress that such a situation demands. This is life and death stuff, folks. The panic of inflation should also have been something Niccol paid more attention to. Just upsetting their time budgets could rock people’s world. There’s a lot more human drama inherent in this story that Niccol ignores, or flat out dismisses, for some standard Hollywood frills, namely chases and contrived romances.
Timberlake has shown that he has some chops when it comes to acting in shrewd supporting roles (The Social Network, Black Snake Moan). His skills aren’t really well utilized by In Time. The role of Sam is pretty bland, lacking edge or depth. This part could have been played by anyone not befitting Timberlake’s genetic credentials. Timberlake can make a credible action hero, though his charm covers up for his lack of intimidating presence. There is one regrettable moment where he wails at the death of a loved one, and it hits the wrong notes and feels laughably awkward. Seyfried (Red Riding Hood) also turns on a dime from being a scared hostage to a romantic partner. Her role gets reduced to being dragged by the hand by Timberlake; she’s human luggage. Murphy (Inception) does a fine job of being a dogged, Tommy Lee Jones-style pursuer. Kartheiser works that reptilian sleaze he’s perfected on Mad Men. The guy is like a younger version of Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Daybreakers), possibly the most reptilian of all living actors. The strangest part about casting is that it’s an Alpha Dog reunion (Timberlake, Seyfried, and Kartheiser all had supporting roles).
In Time is a better idea than a movie, and it’s an idea that deserves more examination. Niccol’s film has some interesting ideas and concepts, but it seems too slavish to a typical Hollywood blockbuster boilerplate. The characters are pretty bland and the thrills are too. I wanted to spend more time in this brave new time-obsessed world; I just wanted to spend it with other characters. The populist Bonnie and Clyde plotline doesn’t seem to gel. If the rich can control the arbitration of time, why don’t they just ungodly raise the price of things? In a a generation or two, the rich will weed out all lower classes thanks to near literal social Darwinism. The social commentary is a bit heavy-handed and simplistic. I wish Niccol had ditched his young heroes/lovers and explored the particulars of his world more, especially the portent psychological implications. In Time doesn’t feel like a complete movie, just a finished one. Ultimately, the film’s greatest sin may be that it wastes too much of your own time.
Nate’s Grade: C+
In risk-adverse Hollywood, everything old is new again, so why not remake classic fairy tales for a modern audience? After all, there’s no rights fee. While we’ll have to wait on the competing Snow White films until 2012, Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke unleashes her stylized retelling of the Red Riding Hood tale, titled easily enough, Red Riding Hood. This messy and incompetent movie may cause you to run away screaming into the woods all the way to grandmother’s house.
In a small village on the crest of the big bad words, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is betrothed to Henry (Max Irons), a hunky blacksmith that comes from a family of high standing. She’s rather run away with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the town’s resident moody guy who’s also her childhood friend. Valerie’s family is ostracized due to past indiscretions, so her grandmother (Julie Christie) lives in a cottage off in the woods. Valerie’s mother died when she was young and she’s been raised by her father (Billy Burke) and her step-mother (Virginia Madsen). This happy hamlet is gripped with fear after a series of violent wolf attacks. Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) ushers into town with a proclamation that he will find the wolf and slay it. But he clarifies that they are hunting for a werewolf among the townsfolk. During one attack, Valerie discovers that she has an odd telepathic link with the wolf, which makes her further question her identity. Naturally, this makes the town fear her and offer her as a red riding sacrifice. But who is the wolf and what is his or her plan with Valerie?
This is a disaster of epic fairy tale proportions. Red Riding Hood attempts to reshape the oft told tale into a palatable mix of sex and violence for today’s pre-teens (teenagers will surely be bored by this), somehow forgetting that the original tale is filled with macabre violence. The filmmakers have tried to make Red Riding Hood (RRH) hip to a younger generation; this ain’t your granny’s fairy tale, yo. But they’ve really turned the simple story into a lumbering, idiotic, grating, and nearly impenetrable movie. This youthful infusion of hollow artifice and misplaced attitude, as well as a fumbling attempt at ill-conceived edge, makes the movie a metaphorical bratty teenager. You get tired of its taxing nature and empty posturing. It’s trying to be cool with last year’s catalogue. Hardwicke is using every tool at her disposal to appeal to an easily bored teenage demographic, so the movie takes several sidesteps that are only justifiable because someone might think they are cool. The musical score includes grating, churning anachronistic electric guitars. It feels like your neighbors are throwing a party and the music occasionally drifts over. These visual and narrative flourishes only remind you how desperate and out-of-tune this whole lousy production is.
Screenwriter David Johnson (Orphan) takes the familiar woodland frolic and turns it into the world’s worst Agatha Christie-styled guessing game. The wolf is now a werewolf and then the town undergoes a witch-hunt that would make Arthur Miller wince (“I saw Goody Red with the wolf”). It’s here that the movie preposterously attempts to become some sort of important statement on, I kid you not, the war on terror. Solomon brings a metal elephant that he sticks prisoners in to soften them up. He also lights a fire below the belly of the elephant to expedite the process of getting the truth out of a suspect. Solomon’s status as a cleric has to serve as some sort of biting criticism of church authority, especially after he wants to get an inquisition going. I appreciate the wholly misguided attempt at topicality and commentary, but this was not the movie to make statements. Anyway, the plot is convoluted and every scene seems to just further dilute the clarity of the narrative. The movie just descends into a manic game of “Guess the Wolf.” We literally go through just about every speaking part at some point as a potential werewolf suspect. That means every bit part is given due consideration, including the mentally handicapped child. I actively wanted the wolf to be the mentally handicapped kid just for the awkward discussions of what to do next (“We can’t kill the wolf. He’s… special.”). Red Riding Hood works so hard to make like 8 characters look alternatingly guilty. The town seems to be populated by red herrings and not people.
Red Riding Hood is a neutered horror movie and a rather bloodless romance; there’s a lack of blood pumping with either. For a movie about a killer wolf there is precious little blood or wounds even considering some people are mauled to death. It seems the filmmakers had a choice of going with mild gore or mild sensuality to stick the PG-13 landing and erred on the side of hormones. The romantic elements are kept at a pre-teen simmer. For only they will blush at the more suggestive elements, including the table-dance-in-slow-mo shimmy dancing that the town seems to favor during their festivals. At one point Peter unties one of Valerie’s bodice strands. To be fair, in mythical land/mythical time setting, that’s probably like their equivalent of third base. The romantic triangle is desperate to ape the Twilight model, and the male characters are pinup pinheads. They occupy types, one being the brooding “darker” guy who Valerie really wants to be with, and the other is a nice guy from a proud family (sound familiar, Twi-hards?). The movie goes to shoddy lengths to keep these two at odds, when it appears that, like Bella Swan, our Valerie is one flower not worth the trouble of plucking. It’s hard to get involved in a romance when you’d rather watch every participant getting eaten by a wolf.
“What big eyes you have” is something of an understatement when speaking about the saucer-eyed Seyfried (Letters to Juliet). She gets to make good use of her ocular abilities, though who knows if it’s acting or just expressions of disbelief about what kind of movie she is trapped inside. Seyfried does her whole blasé shtick, which makes the character feel more like an annoying know-it-all even when she admittedly knows nothing. Oldman (The Dark Knight) inhales scenery at a dangerous pace, acting ferociously over-the-top and unrestrained. It’s like he’s trying to channel a wolf in his performance. At least he’s entertaining to watch, which cannot be said for the movie as a whole. Irons (Dorian Gray) is bland but Fernandez (Skateland) is laugh-out-loud awful at a few points. Clearly talking is not this guy’s strong suit. Neither is emoting. The weirdest part of Red Riding Hood is merely seeing Madsen’s face. Clearly this woman has undergone plastic surgery since her Oscar-nominated turn in 2004’s Sideways. She almost resembles a gentler looking Mickey Rourke at certain unkind angles. Another famous face goes to sad lengths to alter her looks to be seen as acceptably good-looking in ageist Hollywood.
Red Riding Hood is a tragic misjudgment on the part of just about everyone involved. The screenwriter thought he must have been making a serious allegory, Hardwicke thought she was making a wild and witchy cousin to Twilight, and the producers thought they were making a film that had genuine appeal. They were all categorically wrong. The reworking of the fairy tale elements is mostly mundane. She gets a red cloak from her granny but otherwise this story might as well just be about a girl and a werewolf. It’s not an imaginative update or a clever reworking, this is just a dumb werewolf story with extra dashes of Twilight for seasoning. The key to unlocking the Red Riding Hood story is not by introducing a sterile love triangle. This hyperactive hodgepodge mistakes setting for atmosphere and a high number of characters for mystery. I was astounded as I sat and watched this movie; turn after turn it veers wildly in tone and execution. I haven’t even talked about the special effects for the wolf, and there’s a reason I am leaving that unsaid. Red Riding Hood is a movie 12-year-old girls might fawn over. If you find yourself outside that marginal demographic, then you’ll likely find this movie to be an irritating, nonsensical, dopey, pitiful bore. You can stuff that in your picnic basket, Red.
Nate’s Grade: D
Director Atom Egoyan, working simply as a director, brings some serious heat to this somewhat lurid and Euro trashy art house potboiler. Egoyan gives the movie a credibility that it might otherwise lack. It starts promisingly enough with a doctor (Julinne Moore) convinced that her husband (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her with his younger students. So to prove her suspicions, she hires a sexy call girl to seduce her husband. Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) agrees to help, but nobody seems to fully understand the magnitude of the consequences as Chloe inserts herself more into the family. For a solid hour, the movie offers some tantalizing drama about infidelity, doubt, and the nature of attraction. Then the movie shifts focus after a few tawdry, but effectively steamy, sex scenes. Sadly, the movie abandons the smaller-scale drama for lame thriller shenanigans. Chloe becomes a spurned lover pushed to the edge, like a third rate Fatal Attraction. At that point, Chloe just completely unravels into an unremarkable late-night Cinemax thriller. Even the gratuitous nudity feels tacky, and as a red-blooded heterosexual male, that’s a statement that makes me depressed.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Best-selling author Nicholas Sparks is probably a perfectly reasonable human being. I’m sure he’s great at parties and that people love him. He may even have a dynamite recipe for sugar cookies. But I don’t know what happened to Sparks to turn him into the romance genre’s angel of death. His novels have followed a familiar practice of big Third Act deaths that usually deny readers their cherished happy endings. Is the motive to push people to make the most of our preciously little time spent on Earth? Is Sparks just sadistic and has found the secret to eternal life — the tears of millions of housewives and teenager girls. Whatever his rationale, another commonality for Sparks is that the film adaptations of his books are pretty corny and dreadful. A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Bottle; all about romance ultimately denied, none coming close to watchable. Dear John can at least be called watchable; however, watching should be limited to the confines of your living room TV when there’s nothing else on.
It’s the spring of 2001, and John Tyree (Channing Tatum) is enjoying his two-week leave from the military. He’s out surfing the fine North Carolina beaches when he rescues the handbag of Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) from being washed away. They two of them casually chat and soon those chats lead to barbecue invitations, parental visits, and kisses in the rain (a romantic movie tradition). Savannah takes an interest in John’s eccentric father (Richard Jenkins) because she recognizes his condition as autism. She’s been helping to watch her neighbor’s autistic child. Savannah would like to start her own horse camp for the autistic (sounds like an insurance nightmare). Life seems so full of promise and John promises to be back as soon as his military commitment expires in six months. Then 9/11 happens. John re-enlists and extends his tour another two years. This places great strain on his relationship with Savannah, but they write each other countless letters that manage to find John no matter what far-flung village he’s stationed at. Can their love exists on a series of hand-written letters? Well, look no further than the classic implications from the film’s title.
Dear John goes through all the traditional Nicholas Sparks waterworks trademarks: young love leads to yearning, which leads to heartbreak, which leads to more yearning, which then inevitably leads toward one of the leads dying and everyone learning some sort of shallow profound meaning about life, blah blah blah. There are plenty of heightened melodramatic elements thrown into a fairly traditional, unspectacular love story, but all potent potential moments of drama feel underwhelming pretty much because the audience doesn’t care. John and Savannah are perfectly nice people and their love has that hopeful bloom, but their relationship is no more involving than watching a pretend couple in a commercial for greeting cards or life insurance. These people are vanilla. It makes it astounding, then, that such highly charged elements like cancer autism, and 9/11 fail to leave any impact. Dear John confuses listing dramatic events as drama itself. The dramatic stakes feel entirely too mellow and the film generally has a detached feeling, like it’s purposely distanced from the material for fear of getting too involved. This is a relationship movie that has its own commitment issues.
The military angle is respectfully explored, though not in much depth. John is torn apart by the pull of returning to his beloved but also of serving his country and, more personally, keeping his band of brothers in arms together. It’s a complicated scenario but the military commitment is another item in a list that should grab your interest but fail to do so. 9/11 isn’t given any deeper consideration other than the fact that it serves as a roadblock between our two lovebirds. If you want to see a more nuanced, complicated, and empathetic view of today’s overburdened military, check out the movie Stop-Loss, which also stars Tatum.
The film drops any facade of being a romantic drama about midway through when Seyfried gets completely sidelined. She’s less a character and more an agreeable plot device; she’s self-aware and kind and knowing and receptive yet also naive. This makes her sudden character shift rather jarring, which seemingly paints Savannah as extremely co-dependant. Dear John then transforms into a serviceable father/son drama. There are some nice and moving moments between John and his father; this should have been the real focal point of the movie. Jenkins acts circles around everybody in this movie. It’s wonderful seeing a grown-up in these kind of movies show the kids ho this acting thing is done. Tatum actually might become a pretty good actor. He convincingly plays the more emotional moments well. He may very well prove to be the Patrick Swayze of his generation. Tatum can dance (Step Up), make the girls cry, and also handle some rock-socking action (G.I. Joe, Fighting, most of Tatum’s other movies). I think there’s an actor buried beneath that daunting physique waiting to blossom. Don’t disappoint me, Channing.
Dear John is a formulaic romance trained to seek pre-programmed audience responses (“Now you will laugh. Now you will cry. Now you will cry again. Now you will once again continue to cry…”). Lasse Halstrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Cassanova) directed this movie but you’d never be able to notice. I don’t want to be too harsh on the film because the acting is pleasant the story isn’t repulsive and does have some good moments, but mostly the movie comes across as bland and remote. The romance seems absent a beating heart to keep things moving. It’s all too lifeless. The character of Savannah best summarizes Dear John as a whole: mild pretense of wisdom, pretty to look at, genial, but fairly bland and difficult to convince is worth your valuable time.
Nate’s Grade: C
Something of an unholy mess, Jennifer’s Body doesn’t have enough comedy to be funny and doesn’t have enough scares to be frightening. And yet the movie might have worked (heavy emphasis on the “might”) had someone completely rewritten the dialogue. Diablo Cody’s hallmark hyper-verbal, hipster dialogue runs at odds with the horror elements, undermining the finished product. Curses like “cheese and crackers” and calling each other names like “Monostat” and “Vagisil” are actually the high-point. This is just a big, swinging whiff for Cody’s wordsmith abilities. There are just some painful, wince-inducing lines that land with a thud. The film follows a strange story structure, placing the reveal of how Jennifer became what she is in the middle of the movie. By this point, we’ve seen her devour too many boys to see her as anything other than a monster. If the scene played out in a linear fashion, we may have actually felt sympathy for her as a scared, relatable girl, and her appetites might come across as some kind of cosmic justice. But it doesn’t work that way thanks to the scene order. Somewhere inside the body of this movie is a quasi-feminist reworking of the horror genre, but really the movie just seems like another genre fantasy byproduct that treats the ladies as walking meat. What does two girls kissing for an extended period of time have to do with female empowerment? The biggest surprise is that Megan Fox is actually kind of good as the demonic object of desire. Who would have thought that Fox would be the best thing in a movie written by an Oscar winner and directed by a Sundance Award winner?
Nate’s Grade: C