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Eternals (2021)

Chloe Zhao is the biggest name Marvel has gotten yet for its cinematic universe (MCU). Sure, they’ve had major directing names before like Kenneth Branagh and Ryan Coogler, and successful populist genre filmmakers like Jon Favreau and Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon and Shane Black, and quirky auteurs like James Gunn and Taika Watiti. However, Zhao is the first Academy Award-winning director to jump into the Marvel sandbox. Zhao seems like an odd fit for something as mainstream and successful as the MCU, but she was excited to tell a big story with the biggest studio operating in Hollywood. Eternals (no “The”) is just as much about the question over what it means to be human as Zhao’s Best Picture-winning Nomadland, and it’s a lot easier to watch with one hundred percent less Frances McDormand pooping in a bucket in her van (granted, she did win an Oscar for that performance). Eternals has received the lowest critical rating of any MCU film in its thirteen-year history and I’m trying to figure out why.

Thousands of years ago, the Eternals were created by the Celestials, powerful beings that are responsible for birthing new galaxies into the universe. The Eternals were sent to protect the inhabitants of Earth from the Deviants, terrifying tendril-heavy monsters that will consume and overrun a world. The Eternals are instructed by their masters not to intervene in human conflicts; only to intervene to save them from Deviants. Now that the last Deviant has been dead for over 500 years, the Eternals have settled into comfortable lives among present-day humans. Then the Deviants return, evolving with added powers and posing a new threat to humanity and the Eternals, but the real threat might be outside the confines of Earth.

Eternals feels like a different kind of Marvel movie in that stretches feel like it’s a Stanley Kubrick movie, or a Terrence Malick movie, or a DC movie. The plot structure and tone even reminded me of Watchmen. Don’t get me wrong, the standard Marvel elements are recognizable, but this is a much slower, more methodical, more cerebral, and more challenging movie that really feels like a distillation of Zhao’s humanist indie naturalism and the crazy cosmos from Jack Kirby’s trippy source material. I can understand why some people would find this movie to be boring and poorly paced. There are extensive flashbacks and setup. It definitely doesn’t need to be a staggering 157 minutes long, second only to the three-plus hours of Endgame. Granted the movie is introducing a dozen characters, their relationships, their powers, their histories, as well as a new history for the universe that doesn’t relate to anything that came before it. There are assorted references to Thanos and the events of Endgame, bringing half the population back, but this is more a standalone movie that can serve as an introduction for those less well-versed in two dozen movies’ previously on’s. I knew going into Eternals it was going to be slow, and I knew several friends that outright hated it, but I think pacing is more to its benefit and detriment. The scenes feel like Denis Villenueve (Dune) is pacing them, where moments are given more time to breathe and where characters are given space to reflect and absorb. Like a Villenueve film, Zhao wants her audience to take in the grandeur of the moment, but she also wants the characters to be able to take in the drama of their circumstances. Some people will find it all too boring, and while there were points that could be trimmed, I was enjoying myself because of the attention to character perspectives that are given precedence over splashy beat-‘em-ups.

I was drawn in by the character reveals, their conflicts, and the time Zhao allows to examine their emotional and philosophical states. Look, it’s still a big, action-packed Marvel movie with plenty of monster fights and a world-saving cataclysm climax, and while those are agreeably executed, I was more taken by letting the characters pontificate on their problems. There’s Sprite (Lia McHugh), an eternally looking child who can never live an adult life she craves. There’s Druid (Barry Keoghan), a man with the power to control the minds of all humans on Earth but is explicitly instructed to remain hands-off with their conflicts. He is severely torn and emotionally wrecked over watching them slaughter one another and knowing he has the power to intervene and resolve genocide, prejudice, and poverty. That’s the eternal question over why a loving God seemingly chooses to be hands-off, all rolled into one character. There’s Thena (Angelina Jolie), a legendary warrior of physical renown but whose mental state is fracturing and who poses a potential lethal threat to her family. There’s her partner, Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who would rather watch over his love as she suffers and potentially declines than have her lose her identity and erase herself. There’s Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a man who only wants to help the humans with his technological skills but regrets his contributions and declares humans as unworthy of their keep after Hiroshima. Then there’s a reveal halfway through the Eternals that loads a needs-of-the-many sacrificial debate that positions different characters on different sides of the divide for the final act. I enjoyed that even the villains are presented with their rationale and are tortured over their choices they deem to be necessary for the greater good.

I’ve written a lengthy paragraph all on the meaty character conflicts, and none of them revolve around the goal to gather a magic item or learn a special power. I didn’t mind Zhao’s movie taking its sweet time to allow these conflicts and struggles to be felt because they were evocative, and Zhao’s storytelling shines when she focuses on the noble and often tragic struggles of people being complicated, contradictory, and confusing. Even the big dumb beasts evolve and have a perspective that has an understandable complaint. The final confrontation doesn’t come down to a giant sky beam and an endless army of disposable CGI brutes. It rests upon character conflicts and a romance that spans thousands of years where empathy is the secret weapon. Early on, you think it’s going to be a love triangle, and the movie just teleports out of that trope. I found myself more invested in the ending, even if I could already predict the conclusion. I was more interested in what the conflict was doing to the Eternals as a family fracturing under the weight of their destinies and the consequences of defiance. The film ends on a cliffhanger with significant fallout, and I don’t know how the rest of the MCU is going to square what we learned and accomplished here. This seems in sharp contrast to everything down the road.

Eternals is also an often beautiful-looking movie with Zhao’s penchant for natural landscapes and magic hour lighting. The editing and photography feel nicely matched and allow the viewer to really soak up the natural splendor and the impact of the battles. The action is kept at a human level with the camera tethered to the characters even when in flight. There is the occasionally eye-opening shot of a landscape, or Zhao’s use of visual framing, or the special effects revelations that reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s certainly not the most breezy, action-packed movie in Marvel’s lengthy canon of blockbusters, but it’s not devoid of spectacle.

So then why has Eternals scored so low with film critics and a significant portion of general audiences? Some wonder if the level of diversity and inclusivity of the movie is a factor; we have many non-white characters including a deaf character and a gay male character in a committed relationship, with a genuine and loving onscreen kiss no less (your turn, Star Wars franchise), and that seems like a trigger point for certain fans that grumble about “woke culture.” I’m sure for some that’s a factor. I think the length will be a factor too. I think the elevated emphasis on emotional stakes and philosophical conflicts might be another factor. This doesn’t feel like any Marvel movie that has come before. It’s much more comfortable with silences, with patience, and with cerebral matters (again, not to say the dozens of other MCU entries were absent these). This one is just different, encompassing the directing style and humanist attentions of Zhao and looking at a far larger scope of drama than toppling one super-powered being. I saw this in theaters with my girlfriend’s ten-year-old daughter and her friend and they both said they enjoyed it, so I won’t say it’s too mature or impenetrable for younger viewers. Eternals might be too boring for some, too long, and too different, but I was happy to endure it all.

Nate’s Grade: B

Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)

If I told you I had a movie where Angelina Jolie is on the run from a team of assassins and under the backdrop of a raging forest fire, you’d likely be intrigued. Then if I said that it was co-written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, one of the best screenwriters working today who excels at taking muscular genres of old and providing uncommon depth and poetry, then you might say, “Why aren’t we watching this right now?” Those Who Wish Me Dead, based on the book by Michael Koryta, is Sheridan’s second directing effort after 2017’s excellent Wind River, and while I would not classify it as a bad movie, it is easily Sheridan’s weakest film to date. There’s so much amazing potential here with these plot elements, this cast, and this rising filmmaker, and to only produce a square, straightforward 90s action throwback feels deeply unsatisfactory. There could have been so much more.

We follow Hannah (Jolie) and her team of Montana forest fire fighters. She is still recovering from a recent tragedy where she was unable to save campers from a fire. She’s been reassigned to a lonely lookout tower to deal with her guilt and PTSD. Along comes Connor (Finn Little) whose father is being hunted down by a team of hired assassins (Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult). His father is killed but Connor escapes, finding refuge with Hannah and wary of trusting anyone new. The two of them make a trek to find help while the killers narrow their search and start a forest fire to provide a very attention-grabbing distraction for the local authorities.

The problem with the plot description I just provided is that there really isn’t much more to anything. You can probably see the progression of Hannah’s character arc immediately, having to confront her past trauma through combating the forest fire and saving this young boy’s life to make amends mentally for those she could not save in her past. The Sheridan of his past work would recognize that familiar arc and provide extra nuance, commentary, and make the character more emotionally resonant. Unfortunately, this version only produces a lead protagonist that is, shockingly, disposable. You could have eliminated the entire character of Hannah from this movie for all the personal significance she provides for this story, and that stunned me. We don’t really get insight into he beyond generic observations. She doesn’t really bond with this kid in any meaningful way. She doesn’t really teach this kid anything generally useful for his own safety. This is the type of relationship dynamic where the adult teaches the kid some means of defense, and then in a pivotal moment in Act Three, the child uses that technique to save themselves or the adult. It’s textbook (think: Face/Off with the butterfly knife as but one example). This movie doesn’t do that. In fact, once this kid hands over to Hannah the “unseen paper carrying dead dad’s important information” then he also comes across as disposable. I guess he’s still a witness to murder but the valuable intel seemed more pertinent to thwart. The fact that these two characters can arguably be removed from the story, either entirely or far earlier, is not a good assessment of their value added.

The competing storyline with Jon Bernthal (The Punisher) is surprisingly the one that feels most attached to the events of the plot and could have been its lead vehicle. He plays Ethan, a small-town sheriff’s deputy who happens to be Connor’s uncle. Ethan also has a pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore), and they both take up a generous amount of screen time. There’s a good reason for this because they’re the best part. The loving yet pointed interactions between the two of them are the best example of characterization evident in the movie. When Allison is confronted by the assassins, she’s sees through their law enforcement disguise easily. When the bad men want to torture her to get key information, she manages to subdue them and escape, all while being seven months pregnant. In two short scenes, this woman proves more capable and fearless and badass than our lead character.

It’s easy to see a version of Those Who Wish Me Dead where the Ethan character and his drama completely cover the same narrative territory that Hannah offers. Ethan’s wife is pregnant, the baby is due soon, and yet Ethan feels scared and unsure about whether he has what it takes to be a father. He comes across a young boy on the run from big trouble and protects him, and over the course of their shared experiences, he bonds and discovers paternal capabilities within himself, he teaches the kid a thing or two about defense, and he becomes more self-assured about his own personal future. Admittedly, you could say that’s a simplistic character arc, but is the one presented any less simple where we watch a person haunted by trauma confront that trauma by the end? My point in this revisionary hypothetical is that this version would be more aligned with the plot elements that seem to get the most care and screen time. I know it’s based on a book, but it clearly feels like Sheridan has shown what parts he cares about more so embrace those parts.

It’s also quite easy to identify the parts of the movie Sheridan did not care as much about. There is a surprising sloppiness to much of the setup here, where key connecting information is excluded from the viewer perhaps out of a sense of trying to be ambiguous but also perhaps out of a sense of general indifference. I was confused why the assassins blew up a house in their opening moment, what information Connor’s father had stumbled upon, and even who these killers were and what their connections were with an unexpected Tyler Perry cameo where he appears to be their boss or handler or buyer or someone. The plotting can also be disappointingly redundant, as Hannah and Connor fall into a frustrating pattern of leaving the lookout tower, going back to the lookout tower, leaving the lookout tower again, repeat. Perhaps most egregiously, the raging inferno doesn’t even seem to matter. How can you make a movie about a forest fire where the forest fire barely matter in the scheme of things. It exists as an immovable obstacle but more so as a means of emotional catharsis for Hannah’s prior trauma. Far too often it feels like the fire is practically standing still, watching the actors from afar and not wanting to interrupt, and then at the very end, it’s comically overcharged, zooming at super speeds to compensate for its earlier lazy pacing. There aren’t any real specific survival scenarios tailored to the circumstances of a forest fire, which means this movie could have easily been a flood or earthquake or any disaster or none at all.

Those Who Wish Me Dead reminds me of the vanishing mid-level thrillers that Hollywood used to crank out on a near weekly basis. That’s probably also part of the reason it feels like a throwback to an earlier time, a time where a big star could be thrown into a disaster and given evil-doers to topple and we’d all gladly gobble it down with a heaping helping of popcorn. Perhaps that unassuming nostalgia will prove enough for some people, especially in the wake of a year of minimal big screen blockbusters. There are still moments here that feel like the Sheridan of old, but too much of this movie cannot escape the gravity of being a dull action movie without anything to say and without characters to invest in. It’s not even that the movie is too simple, because simplicity can be its own virtue, but that it’s underwritten, with characters that could be exorcised completely from the narrative, and a batch of villains lacking entertaining personalities or memorable menace. It’s hard not to feel like everyone’s talents involved were wasted somewhat on something so basic, which is even more baffling when you again recognize those fantastic story elements. Chases. From assassins. Into a forest fire. There’s an obvious movie to be had there. Unfortunately, Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t capitalize.

Nate’s Grade: C

The One and Only Ivan (2020)

Disney’s latest talking animal movie is based on a real story. Not the talking animals part, more a gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) who lived in a strip mall as a circus performer and then became a painter and the notoriety of his art built a movement to free him. The One and Only Ivan is a good-natured family film with affirming lessons and a conservationist advocacy. Kids may laugh at some of the silly animals, or they might cry as the maternal elephant (Angelina Jolie) entrusts onto Ivan the promise to break the newest baby elephant free of bondage. Ivan was raised by Mack (Bryan Cranston) who runs the strip mall circus, though times are tough and he may have lost sight of his priorities with his animals. Enter cute kid, cute baby elephant, cute and scrappy dog, and Ivan’s passion for the arts. The one element that makes this movie different, Ivan’s ability to paint his emotions and reflections, is barely included and that’s a real shame. Ivan becomes like the spider from Charlotte’s Web and uses his position to advocate for another animal, using the subsequent attention to spare this small creature. He paints once and the movie zips to its resolution. The thrust of the story is Ivan addressing his own personal tragedy and letting others in, risking his own safety and ego to protect those vulnerable. The CGI special effects are suitable if unremarkable, landing in that middle zone of meeting expectations of semi-reality but not exceeding them. I would have preferred a documentary going into the actual events of the real Ivan, getting interviews from the people who were there and mattered, their own insights and experiences, and really dwelling more on what the idea of artistic expression means for an ape and what it might mean concerning our connections to these creatures. I think there’s a compelling, enlightening, and heartfelt documentary to be had with the subject matter. The live-action talking-animal movie, however, is just more of the same inoffensive family film treacle and clearly not the one and only.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Unbroken (2014)

unbrokenAngelina Jolie is one of the biggest stars on the planet but as a director she’s still a mystery. Jolie was so enamored with Lauren Hillenbrand’s best-selling novel Unbroken that she felt like she was the only person who could translate this story to the big screen. Somehow that passion got lost in translation.

Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is a man who ran for his country in the Olympics. He fought on a bomber plane over the Pacific. He was shot down and survived in a raft for over 40 days at sea. He was taken to a Japanese P.O.W. camp and endured harsh and cruel treatment, and he still persevered and returned home a hero.

It’s hard not to feel a general calculation about the entire film. I’m not trying to say that Jolie or her crew had any sort of nefarious ulterior motives, but the entire product seems like it was made in an Oscar Bait factory. This is the kind of movie that the Academy typically salivates for, and it’s based on a true story, and it’s set during World War II! There’s a reason that, sight unseen, Unbroken was often at the top of the prediction lists for Oscar pundits. It is those same Oscar-friendly elements, though, that act as a detriment to the story, because the thematic elements stand in for the story and sense of commentary. The movie is so caught up with Louis’ dilemma that it forgets that it needs to make you care about him as a person rather than a martyr. The biggest hindrance for Unbroken is just how little it develops its protagonist. The only emotion he seems to exhibit in the two-plus hours is suffering. The guy ends up being a human punching bag with the movie clobbering the audience with the same message again and again as well, the will to survive. Unlike other war stories or concentration camp survival tales, Louis doesn’t survive through any great networking of allies, skill, scheming, or prescient decision-making. We do not see him adapt and outsmart his adversaries. He merely outlasts them as he wastes away. Like what I wrote in my review of last year’s Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, I need more characterization than suffering. It’s a frustrating experience because you know there has to be more to this character.

unbroken-movie-angelina-jolieThe danger with any film that purports to tell a true story of a hero is making sure the audience doesn’t lose sense of the person beneath the hero. We glorify their positive qualities and what we admire but when placed upon a pedestal, our heroes can start to become otherworldly, separate from the rest of us mortals. A biography that idealizes its subject is called a hagiography, and that is where Unbroken falls. Louis Zamperini is lost in this story, instead replaced with Louis the Survivor or, occasionally, Louis the Runner. Amidst the swelling music, the pretty cinematography, and the supporting characters channeling the audience with their encouraging mutterings of, “Come on,” and the like, Louis is painted more saint than man, which is a shame. Considering all of the peril he survived, it would make sense for him to struggle with his own doubts and fears. The most we get a sense of him and his internal struggle is when he prays aloud to God during a thunderstorm at sea and Louis promises to serve Him somehow if he survives. The movie forgets about this moment until the end credits text. If Louis Zamperini is going to be the focal point for a true story of heroism, then the movie needs to do better to make him human rather than resorting to having him only bleed.

The entire first act flashbacks could likely have been jettisoned. Watching Louis as a young man learn to run and then eventually compete in Berlin’s Olympics (way to take all of his luster away, Jesse Owens), we expect these moments to have relevance again, pointing toward some kind of grit or training regiment or lesson learned that will become useful or comforting solace during his internment. It all boils down to one skill, endurance, and that’s all we keep coming back to. We don’t need to see the Olympics or his younger life to establish as back-story in the P.O.W. camp, just as we didn’t get back-story for the prisoner who was revealed in the moment to be a concert musician. The flashbacks do little to flesh out Louis as a character. He was a troubled son of immigrants and found popularity and purpose with running, which he did to the Olympics, and then… the war. Too bad running doesn’t really come into play during his torment in Japan. I understand that we’re working with a true story but what has been added by including 20-30 minutes of flashbacks, particularly when they fail to illuminate our main character? Skipping right to the war, with perhaps a smattering of brief memories during physically and mentally fraught times, would have been preferable and more useful.

The other aspect that makes Unbroken frustrating is the potential it does flash in sparse moments. For the majority of its running time, the film is a perfectly decent war drama with an extra glossy sheen to it provided by expert cinematographer Roger Deakens (Skyfall). When adrift at sea, there’s an inherently interesting survival story there. Louis and his comrades are still in an active war zone. In one scene, a plane approaches and the guys realize late it’s no rescue but a Japanese fighter plane. They leap into the ocean as the plane fires bullets after them. This scene is made all the worse by the fact that sharks are swimming below. There’s an extra kick of dread worrying what will happen next if anyone gets wounded or killed by that gunfire. It’s a great sequence, but then it’s over and the film goes back to autopilot glorifying the resolute nature of Louis. Likewise the opening with Louis crawling along and having to manually close the bomber plane’s doors during a dogfight is great. Unbroken does get a lift when it introduces its main antagonist, Watanabe (played by rock star Takamasa Ishihara), nicknamed “The Bird.” The film now has a sense of direction and a renewed sense of danger with “The Bird” eager to break down his Olympic prize runner. The story feels more personal and interesting and it feels like this fresh antagonism will allow us to develop Louis more as a character. Sadly, he remains the same film martyr.

Miyavi-unbrokenThis is Jolie’s second film as a director and she’s revealing some pretty old-fashioned tastes and instincts. Actors are judged at a somewhat harsher standard when they turn to directing, but the audience must simply ask if this person elevated the performances of their actors and whether they found an incisive and insightful way of telling a story. The jury’s still out on Jolie as a directing talent. The direction is more than adequate and quite fine, especially aided by having a team of gifted technicians. If you had taken Jolie’s name off the film I wouldn’t be any more or less effusive. Perhaps a more experienced director would have insisted on fixing the screenplay’s development, but then again, perhaps that director wasn’t going to get the gig of a major Oscar bait film for a studio.

I’ve spent the majority of this review criticizing Unbroken and may have given the impression that it’s a bad movie. It isn’t. It is a perfectly fine film by all accounts and a movie that will likely find a welcoming audience this holiday season. It’s got emotions and survival and danger and all set to a rousing score. It looks the part of an Oscar contender and that will be enough for many ticket-buyers. Unbroken is a perfectly good-looking tale of survival that unravels upon reflection. The necessary work of building up strong, complex, interesting characters takes a backseat to setting up a series of punishing obstacles for our protagonist. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to make an inspirational tale but didn’t want to complicate that with ambiguity and nuance and doubts. Louis is canonized in the movie’s flattering glow, and his suffering is shrugged off as “character-building.” Cogent or potent commentary on war, man’s capability for evil and good, or the nature of forgiveness, are absent, which means the film can only go as far as the immediate impact of its plot beats. Supposedly the whole movie was about forgiveness but I got no sense of that until the end credits. Unbroken is a by-the-book rendition on how to make a movie that looks good and about Important Things. It just lacks the deft storytelling, characterization, and subtext to make it important on its own.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Maleficent (2014)

115231_galWe’ve seen several stories try their hand at reclaiming villains, telling the tales from their relegated and forgotten points of view; after all, history is written by the winners. This technique can be illuminating and fascinating when done right, like Grendel or Gregory Maguire’s popular Wicked novels. However, does the public really have that much knowledge of Maleficent? Did most people even know what her name was? For that matter, do most people even know what the real name of Sleeping Beauty is or do they, like myself, just indifferently refer to her as Sleeping Beauty? That relative audience ignorance provides a wide canvas to retell this woman’s story.

In an ancient kingdom, there were two lands, one with men and one with magical creatures. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a cheerful fairy with long angelic-like wings and a pair of horns coming from her head. She befriends Steffen (Sharlto Copley) an orphan with ambition to be the next king of men. He betrays Maleficent, drugging her and cutting off her wings to prove to the dying king that she is dead. Years later, and now king, Steffen has a christening for his new baby daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), and Maleficent shows up. She curses the young child, declaring that on her sixteenth birthday she shall prick her finger on a spinning needle, fall into a deep slumber, and only be awakened by true love’s kiss. Steffen destroys all the spinning wheels he can find and sends out his daughter into the countryside for protection where she’s raised by three fairies taking on the form of humans (Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, Juno Temple). It’s really Maleficent who helps raise her, watching over her and protecting her through the years, regretting the horrible choice she made in anger.

115234_galI’ll start by saying the reason you should see this film, by far, is Angelina Jolie (Wanted). She is terrific. You can readily tell how much fun she’s having with the character, and everything from her command, her physicality, her presence, her vocal delivery, is top-notch. She’s great from start to finish, the perfect embodiment of the character. Would you believe this is her first live-action film role in almost four years? Wow, did movie audiences miss her. If only the remaining movie was as good as Jolie.

It’s a shame then that just about everything falls into a rigid fantasy formula that squeezes any sense of magic dry. Maleficent is the queen of the fantasy half of this world, and after her betrayal by Steffen (more on that below), she seeks vengeance, cursing an innocent child and then remarkably caring for her through a hasty montage. It’s hard to ever accept Maleficent as a malevolent character, and I’m sure that’s by design by the Mouse House. She doesn’t do anything too scary and when the time comes she ends up making the right decisions. There isn’t really much of an exploration of her character here. There’s the pretense that she’s hero and villain but that falls away very quickly, especially with her loving relationship with Aurora. She wants to do right and feels terrible about the curse, but again that’s quickly taken care of. Aurora literally spends five minutes onscreen in her “eternal slumber.” It’s more like a magical nap. If the relationship between Aurora is what makes our heroine whole again, then the climax is saving Aurora, not getting vengeance against Steffen in a dumb CGI battle.

The magical fantasy world also feels oddly underutilized. At least in past Disney efforts like Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, the worlds at least felt like they had been explored, with many of the magical creatures pitching in during an Act Three battlefield. That isn’t the case here. The opening with young Maleficent (Isobele Molloy) introduces some strange creatures and some fairies, but they end up being little more than background dressing, meant to only communicate the change in Maleficent. In the end, it’s just Maleficent and her trusty crow (Sam Riley in human form) and that’s it. Question: if she can transform her pet into any number of creatures, including a dragon, then why didn’t she do this before? When she’s racing to save Aurora from pricking her finger, would a dragon have not been a faster mode of travel than a horse? Maleficent’s powers are also too ill defined, and her big weakness just happening to be iron feels trite, like her version of kryptonite. The fairy world and its powers aren’t given the examination it deserves. As a whole, the world of Maleficent feels less than magical. It feels more like a series of scenes rushing through a plot holding fast to the beats of recent Disney live-action hits.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into what is intended as a fantasy film for families, but Maleficent is one big analogue for rape. Hear me out. The title character falls in love with a man who likewise tells her he loves her but is just using her to his own advantage. He then drugs her drink and while she’s unconscious has his way with her, leaving her physically disfigured and feeling betrayed. She turns inward, rejects the outside world, and dwells in sadness and seclusion. She doesn’t tell others about her attacker until many years later. The public is quick to blame the victim. And then ultimately, once she feels “whole” again thanks to reaching out to others/support, she is able to confront her attacker and rise above his destructive influence, returning to some semblance of her former self. When looked at in its entirety, does that not sound like an intentional analogy for rape/sexual assault? Maleficent’s character arc mirrors the experiences of rape victims, and the fact that this kind of mature storyline is played out in a Disney summer family film is kind of extraordinary. It’s not so explicit that little kids will walk home asking mom and dad about the persistent nature of “rape culture,” but its presence and articulation is a start. As a rape analogue, it’s not offensively handled unless you are one who finds its very inclusion an offense for a PG-movie. Now, this storyline does transform the character in a way others may dislike. Rather than being a powerful agent of evil, she’s a woman who was victimized by a man and that’s why she turns toward the dark side. For some this will be a disappointing turn of events. I can’t say one approach is better than the other from a feminist point of view, but I credit Disney for following through with uncomfortable symbolism for rape to describe Maleficent’s arc.

91116_galThe rest of the cast fill out their roles but lack the flare of Jolie. Copley (District 9) is proving that he may be best under the guidance of Neil Blomkamp. He was one of the better parts of Elysium but without Blomkamp he makes such mystifying choices as an actor. His voice and performance were powerfully wrong for Spike Lee’s unnecessary Old Boy, and his demeanor is all over the place with Maleficent. To his credit, the character is horribly underwritten and given so little mooring to try and understand his ever-changing decisions and temperament. Fanning (Super 8) is an innocuous Aurora though the actress has often showed much more ability. Here she just laughs a lot. Riley (On the Road, Control) is wasted comic relief and as a companion. The three color-coded fairies are consigned to broad comic relief, usually bumbling and getting into slapstick brawls with one another. I can’t imagine children finding them too funny.

Maleficent the character is given great care by Jolie, the actress. Maleficent, the movie, is slapped together and feels devoid of any sort of engaging storytelling or big-screen magic to leave a favorable impression. It’s a rather expected and unexceptional retelling that hits all the notes you’d expect, though without as many magical fantasy creatures, which seems like an oversight for a world of fantasy. The rape analogue is a bold choice for the filmmakers and deserves credit. I wish I could also give them credit for the storytelling and characterization, both of which are rather flat and rote. The special effects are likewise unremarkable. Outside of the rape symbolism, this is a movie you can likely predict every step of the way just looking at the poster. I was able to even predict the left-turn ending concerning “true love’s kiss,” though Frozen already got there first. If you have low expectations and simply want to watch Jolie and her killer cheekbones be fierce, then perhaps Maleficent is worth checking out. Otherwise, this villain’s retelling feels far too familiar and safe and underwhelming to be worth the effort.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Tourist (2010)

It seems to have all the right elements aligned: two mega-watt stars, a gorgeous location, and an Oscar-winning director whose last film, 2006’s The Lives of Others, was a tense, meaty, humane drama. Add a mistaken identity plot and The Tourist should feel like a light-hearted romp. The truth is that the final product is resoundingly dim and dull is deeply disappointing. All that Hollywood glamour and this is the best they could come up with? The movie is too mechanical, joyless, without much in the way of pacing or a pulse, and the direction feels like a languid tourist trip itself, placidly soaking up the scenery and waiting for a plot to shamble into frame. The action sequences are bereft of tension. Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp have too few scenes together, too mild a sexual tension, and sleepwalk through their performances. Depp could easily have been replaced by any actor. You’ll see the twists telegraphed a mile away, but by that time your eyes will have already glazed over thanks to the dead weight of a script credited to THREE Oscar-winning screenwriters. With this much talent behind and in front of the camera, I expected a lot more than a sluggish, bland, hermetic thriller that would more like to get lost in scenery than quicken a pulse. The Tourist feels like it needs a map just to know what it’s doing, and the finished product deserves a one-way ticket to the bargain bin.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Salt (2010)

Congrats to the Columbia marketing team for what is by far the most imaginative advertising campaign ever. Weeks before Salt was going to open nationwide, the most bizarre story broke this summer. A dozen American citizens were revealed to be deep cover Russian agents. Apparently, their purpose, as given in the mid-to-late 1980s, was to infiltrate American society and get cozy with policy makers (and yet not one became a lobbyist). Instead they mostly raised families and lived in the suburbs of New Jersey. It’s unclear exactly what they accomplished. This hearkens back to a simpler age where we had clearly identifiable “enemies” that existed as nation states. Things are just too complicated in the post-9/11 age of the War on Terrorism. The dozen Russian spies were deported to Russian in an exchange for three American spies. I feel somewhat sad for these dozen Russian spies, especially Anna Chapman, the red-haired femme fatale that became the face of the scandal. These people grew up in the United States and for many that’s all that they know, and now they have to live in picturesque Russia. I wonder how long before they themselves defect back to the States.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA agent who?s just about to go home after a long night of CIA stuff. An old Russian agent has defected, and Salt is the best interrogator they have to separate the real from the nutso. As she?s about to leave, the Russian talks about a plot to assassinate the Russian president, and the killer will be a Russian spy posing as an American, Evelyn Salt. Her superior (Liev Schreiber) wants to clear things up with nervous government officials, but Salt bails. She’s concerned that her German national husband (August Diehl from Inglorious Basterds) has been abducted. She races to find her husband, outrun U.S. agencies on her trail, and maybe assassinate the Russian president as foretold.

Believability is a fluid reality. When it comes to action thrillers, if they’re hitting the right numbers hen you give them a bit of a pass. What might normally kill a mortal can merely incur a flesh wound. Salt is packed with thriller absurdities, especially toward the end, but I posit that this movie is no less believable than most of what we see in the Bourne trilogy. The trick with Salt is that the pacing doesn’t ever let up; as soon as she?s slotted as a potential Ruskie spy, she goes on the run and the movie doesn’t slow down. It hops from action sequence to chase sequence to real-life Frogger sequence on a busy highway, all the while Evelyn performs miraculous feats of derring-do, impervious to normal rigors that would severely injure the rest of humanity. But you see, she’s a trained spy, and therefore can handle it all with aplomb. She can create her own missile thanks to an office desk and a fire extinguisher and some ordinary household chemicals (don’t try this at home, kids). In the opening seconds of the movie, Evelyn is being harshly tortured and interrogated in a North Korean prison (in her bra and panties for extra exploitation value). If she can survive that, surely this Superwoman Spy could survive escaping a batch of really lousy guards and National Security agents who seem bewildered by such art of deception like the masterful Putting on a Hat, or the more dangerous Dying One’s Hair a Darker Color (that can stain, you know).

Let?s briefly talk about the entire premise of Salt. Before this summer, naturally, this Cold War holdover plot device would seem ludicrous. Such deep cover Manchurian Candidate-like operations that take decades upon decades of time seem like a crapshoot. As proven by this summer’s most bizarre story, people who go deep under cover for extended periods of time are rarely able to snake their way into the corridors of power. It’s not like these people are planted to marry ambassadors or up-and-coming politicians. It’s essentially like a horse race, except you have to bet on which pony 25 years down the line will be the winner or spawn the winner. The odds of success seem remote at best and a waste of resources. This Cold War program also stipulates that these sleeper agents would still hold allegiance to Mother Russia nearly 20 years after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. It’s this same mistaken idea of delayed national allegiance that surfaces when Chinese politicians try and justify how they will solve the guy/girl population disparity in their country. The Chinese politicians feel that the men of their country will come to America and find all those Chinese orphans that were adopted by American parents. Somehow these former Chinese orphans who have grown up in a different culture, in a different family, and with different gender rights and freedoms, will suddenly say, “Of course I will go back to the country that gave me up as valueless!” It’s this same basis at work for the Russian sleeper agent plan. But yet these super sleeper agents have miraculously found their ways in high positions of power. Maybe that’s the secret to educational reform. Students are more likely to be self-starters when they’re determined to bring down the infrastructure of another country.

What saves Salt is that the action sequences are good. Director Phillip Noyce has extensive experience in Hollywood and working with large stars. Noyce directed the stellar Jack Ryan thrillers Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger; he even has experience with Jolie, having helmed 1999?s boring Bone Collector. Noyce has a great presence of mind and knows how to fill the frame up to please the senses. He knows how to compose a nice action sequence and, here?s the shocker given modern action cinema, allows the audience to fully understand what is going on. The chases have genuine excitement and the escapes come across as organic instead of contrived, which is something of a compliment for a spy film. Evelyn Salt hopping from car to car across a highway is cut together into one smooth sequence to rattle the nerves. There are some spectacular car crash images in the film, particularly when Salt escapes from police custody by driving off an overpass. Noyce finds a way to make the screen both frenetic and oddly pretty, without being self-conscious about its popcorn purposes.

Jolie has proven herself to be more than capable when it comes to handling action. She doesn’t look as spookily thin as she did in 2008’s Wanted, which is good when you want to believe that she can be a world-class brawler. She’s tough as nails and plenty easy on the eyes. The role doesn’t require much of Jolie’s exceptional sex appeal. In fact, she’s rather maternal and her driving motivation is to rescue her husband. There are all sorts of needless flashbacks to her wedding day, little snippets to remind you that she loves her husband, in case you forgot. Jolie’s character is a bit of an enigma by design. Obviously given the star power and the fact that it?s a summer movie, you expect Jolie and her character to be in the right by the time the end credits roll. And yet the movie and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Thomas Crown Affair, Equilibrium) spends about half of its running time letting you fully believe that Evelyn is a turncoat (though if she was originally Russian, would she be a turncoat?). The most interesting aspect for me regarding Salt’s character was when we flashed back to the 11-year-old version (Cassidy Hinkle) of her after a car accident. Her head is bandaged, and because the girl is the younger version of Jolie, her lips look like those wax novelty lips to match Jolie’s signature pillowy pout.

Salt is a rather nuts-and-bolts thriller that balances absurdities with efficient action. With pacing so swift, you don?t have time to start nit-picking the small things, and the big things you just swallow as part of the overall package. Salt needs you to be caught up in the moment, in the chase, and not second-guessing all the plot fallacies. The film pretty much follows Jolie’s lead and is straight-faced nerve. It provides the thrills you’d want in a summer popcorn blockbuster without getting too serious. As a spy thriller it goes down like a shamelessly entertaining beach read. After all, what are the odds that your friends and neighbors of twenty years could actually be decades-in-the-making Russian sleeper agents? Well, do they look like Anna Chapman?

Nate’s Grade: B

Changeling (2008)

This is one crackerjack of a story. The true-life tale of a mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), who loses her son, only to have the LAPD give her a different boy is easily gripping. The pace is a bit elegiac but the movie never gets boring, partly because Christine is beset by a multitude of adversity by the corrupt members of the 1920s LAPD who want the case to go away. Changeling can seem to fall prey to outrage cinema, and the audience is clearly going to demand some justice after watching Christine undergo a torture chamber of abuse. And justice is what we get. The last 45 minutes of this movie is protracted courtroom sequences where the antagonists get stomped upon with righteous fury. It just keeps going on and on, as if to compensate for the massive grievances Christine endures. Writer J. Michael Stracynzski (Babylon 5) makes the drama stick close to the facts of the case, which is admirable but it also makes Changeling anchored to reality when there is nothing, repeat nothing, subtle in this movie. It’s hardcore melodrama all the way through, but I didn’t mind one bit. Jolie’s frantic performance suits the melodramatic material. She leaves it all on the floor, as they say in sports. Clint Eastwood doesn’t seem to be too enraptured by the material, routinely slipping into his understated direction that seems at odds with such a juicy story. Changeling feels like a tremendously fascinating story that isn’t necessarily presented in the best fashion. Still, this is fine stuff.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Wanted (2008)

Wanted isn’t so much a movie as a fetish vehicle for teen males, with sexy cars, sexy guns, and sexy tatted-up Angelina Jolie, daring the predominantly male audience to decide which is sexiest (I am not a car aficionado nor a gun person, so I’ll say that Jolie easily outpaced her competition).

Wesley (James McAvoy) is a pathetic office drone that sweats out his days never raising his voice. His best friend is constantly screwing Wesley’s bitchy girlfriend, his boss constantly harangues him into panic attacks, and, saddest of all, a Google search results in nothing for Wesley Gibson’s name. He tells us he has done nothing with his life. This all changes when a mysterious woman named Fox (Jolie) tells Wesley that the father he never knew has just died. Not only that, Wesley’s father was one of the world’s greatest assassins and he might just be a chip off the old block. Wesley is recruited into The Fraternity, a thousand year-old organization whose membership includes the best-trained killers. Sloan (Morgan Freeman) is the leader who assigns the targets. He gets his orders, literally, from the Loom of Fate, a weaving loom that writes binary letters via stitches. The Loom of Fate decides whom the planet would be better off without. Fox and her cohorts train Wesley to accept his destiny and avenge his father’s murder.

The movie fails to establish any form of internal logic or continuity, so anything preposterous suddenly becomes accessible. That means people can jump from one skyscraper to another, you can outrun a moving train, cars will do the damndest things, and that you can curve a bullet simply by rotating your hand and shutting off that little part of your brain that says, “This is defying all laws of physics.” For some reason, people are able to shoot bullets down in mid-air as a defensive maneuver but they rarely take aim at the person, surely a bigger and slower target. It’s like The Matrix outside of the Matrix with no reason for being Matrix-y. The idea is that these super assassins have super hearts that beat like 400 times faster, which pumps more blood and allows their senses to heighten. This somehow allows them to slow down time, zoom in on subjects, and react extra fast. It doesn’t make any sense but then again this is a movie where the killers are taking orders from the Loom of Fate. While I’m on the topic, really, a loom that stitches targets in binary code? Isn’t there an easier way for fate to decree who should be bumped off than someone scrutinizing the stitch work of a rug? What happens when it lists a name with more than one owner? How many “John Smiths” must be killed to secure that the correct Mr. Smith has been erased? My father thought the Loom of Fate was the most bizarre and interesting aspect of the movie.

Despite the freewheeling action, there is something decidedly depraved about fully embracing Wanted. The premise of awesome killers demands awesome carnage, and Wanted dishes out violence as an act to be savored and glorified. Wesley’s self-actualization is linked with getting better at making others suffer, and in the end the film advances a questionable message to follow suit. The movie exists in a hyper-realistic video game universe devoid of consequences. I can see future news reports of idiot teenagers playing their own deadly game of curving bullets (they may have to establish a Wanted category for the Darwin Awards). But yet the most disconcerting feature of Wanted is its dismissive nature toward human life. I’m not even talking about the assassin premise, though trained killer flicks usually work better when the pros have some sort of personal code. Wanted is a fetishistic worship of human bodies being taken apart in loving, gory detail under the auspices of being “cool.” Innocent life barely merits a half-hearted shrug. When Wesley and Fox bring their fight on board a train the eventually force the vehicle off a cliff, and the movie makes no mention of all those innocent people plummeting to their doom. That would get in the way of the film being “cool.”

With all that said, Wanted can feel like a high-octane rush to the senses. This film is soaked in adrenaline. The stunt work is astounding and the action is ramped-up to ridiculous levels. I say ridiculous because the film never establishes any form of internal logic or continuity, but I also say ridiculous because the action can be tremendously exciting and embellished with stylistic flourishes. Wanted is a slick and imaginative action movie, and the fact that it often dances with satisfaction makes me sick for enjoying it so. Summer is the perfect opportunity for empty calorie movies with style to spare, and Wanted is a five-course meal of glossy, disposable artifice. Director Timur Bekmambetov previously directed the Russian vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch, but Wanted is a giant leap forward in budget and sheer scope. Life inside this man’s head must be crazy. He takes the outlandish and makes it seem common.

The story is rather derivative and smashes the plots of Fight Club and The Matrix together, proving that not only were screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas alive in 1999 but they were also furiously taking notes. The whole notion has been done to death, a loser who secretly harbors superior talent and ability waiting to be realized. It still proves to be a popular and mostly pleasing storyline because it taps into a universal desire to be special. Brandt and Haas aren’t so much constructing a story as they are constructing a series of eye-popping moments. There is very little substance beneath all the fireworks (stand up for yourself and slay your antagonists?). Normally I’d take issue with a film’s trashy vapidity; however, when that film happens to be so good at being so good looking.

McAvoy is rather believable when he plays the dweeb eking out a miserable existence. He knows how to play meek and anxiety-riddled while maintaining a vulnerability that stops his character from coming across as a figure of annoying inaction. He sure gets beaten up a lot and I’m not quite sure why this is supposed to make him more inclined to join The Fraternity, but then again it hasn’t stopped thousands of college males from wanting to join their own fraternities. McAvoy is less believable when he suddenly transforms into a super soldier, like a pint-sized Rambo. Jolie relies on her exceptional sex appeal in lieu of acting, which is fine with me. It’s good to see her in a role where she can fully make use of her physical talents. Freeman is essentially in the Samuel L. Jackson role and even gets a chance to drop an MF-bomb.

Wanted is a crazy cool and mostly crazy action thriller that is more than a little sick in the head. Its video game universe covets beautiful bloodshed and exquisite carnage. It’s rather depraved and morally questionable not in approach but in execution (no pun intended, well maybe). Wanted is a gory, profane, darkly humorous action movie that secretes adrenaline with every frame. The imagination on display is impressive but you may wish that it had been used for better purposes.

Nate’s Grade: B

A Mighty Heart (2007)

Good intentions and some proficient camerawork can only go so far to make a film worthwhile. Angelina Jolie gives the best performance of her career as kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s wife (she’s French and Cuban, making for one really tricky accent). I wanted to like this movie more. The subject matter is serious and timely, the filmmaking has a sturdy docu-drama look, and the acting never comes across as phony, but alas, I think I mentally checked out because much of the film is a detective story that I already know the ending to. Daniel Pearl was infamously beheaded, so watching an hour of his wife, friends, and local police scramble to track down key figures, their allegiances and acquaintances, and the whereabouts of Daniels can come across as fruitless and somewhat cruel. This film doesn’t have the same cathartic feel that United 93 had because that moment was universal, and while I can admire the cinematography and superb acting I can’t ignore the fact that watching people search and fail gives me little emotional reward as a viewer.

Nate’s Grade: B

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