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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, my wife’s favorite TV show of all time) 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

Beowulf (2007)

Taking note of director Robert Zemeckis’ new motion-captured animated version of Beowulf, I began to wonder what other classic works of literature could use a good CGI sprucing up. Dusty old tomes would have greater relevancy to the youth of today if they were coated in animation and presented in a 3-D format. Just think of the works of Jane Austin with a flying, zooming camera and the aristocratic families repeatedly jutting marriage contracts toward an audience. This might be the only way to make The Great Gatsby tolerable.

The 1000-year old story begins in the dining hall for King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins). Their loud and drunken reverie is interrupted by the monstrous creature Grendel (Crispin Glover). The creatures rips men apart, lays waste to the hall, and munches on a few heads for the long journey back to his cave. The King offers a reward for anyone who can slay the monster and bring peace to the Danish lands. Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone), a determined warrior and competitor who seeks eternal glory. He brags that he will kill their monster and then kill Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) next. However, the slinky lass offers a tempting promise that she can make Beowulf the greatest story in all the world.

This is not the same Beowulf you were forced to read in high school English. I confess never having read the 3,183-line ye olde English poem, but I don’t think it had scenes of burping, public urination, a “coming” sexual joke, and some unexpected man-on-monster action (not the kind you’d readily think). This is a bloody and often exhilarating retelling intent on jazzing up a classic work for a younger generation. The action sequences have tremendous scope and can be relentless, and when witnessed in 3-D they are even more immersive and breathtaking. Stepping aside from the thrills and chills, Beowulf also works as a cautionary tale about the dangers of lust and particularly pride. Beowulf is a boastful and arrogant fellow, enough that he chooses to fight Grendel in the buff so that it will be even more challenging and thus ego stroking (as they battle, objects conveniently obscure the audience from seeing Beowulf’s manhood). The main deviation from the poem, connecting the various characters on a much more personal level, works with he context of the story and the overarching theme about the costs of vanity.

I encourage all potential Beowulf ticket-buyers to seek out where their nearest 3-D screening resides and to plan and, if needed, carpool to that theater immediately. This thing is meant to be seen in three dimensions, and in that environment Beowulf is amazing to behold. This is my first encounter with the next generation of 3-D and it is a giant leap beyond the funny glasses with blue and red lenses. Hollywood has hopes that this technology will be the next great invention that drives people to the movies and turn it into a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in the quiet privacy of your own home. I must say I was thoroughly impressed with how immersive the process becomes. Beware, though, because of the deep focus your eyes will dart around the screen resting from object to object, marveling at the different planes of depth; you may feel some strain and a headache after awhile. Objects keep sneaking into your peripheral vision and the movie takes many opportunities to hurl things at the screen, and thus the audience, be they coins, swords, arrows, limbs, heads, pots, and blood splatters. The 3-D technology also has some bountiful benefits, like having a very buxom peasant wench scrub a table and having her womanly assets swing with her. It’s quite something in 3-D and makes me sad that Russ Meyer couldn’t live long enough for this age. The CGI animation coupled with the 3-D technology makes for a compulsively stunning first-rate spectacle.

The visual look is a great step forward from 2004’s The Polar Express, the first time Zemeckis used his newfangled motion-capture toys. I really disliked the look of Polar Express, and the kids and their dead, glassy eyes creeped me the hell out. I’m still not entirely sold on what motion-capture even brings to the world of animation; to me, it seems like animators can dictate movement just as well as copying from an actor. Where the animators do make strides is in their depictions of real people. It’s not photo-realism, in fact sometimes the characters look like plastic dolls, but you can see all the pores in the skin and follicles of hair in bristling detail. The look of the movie reminded me a lot of the video game God of War, especially when Beowulf is slicing and dicing one-eyed sea monsters. I think that’s a pretty fair assessment ultimately, that the film better resembled a slickly produced video game cut scene than reality.

In the end credits, I noticed that someone is specifically singled out and credited for the design of Grendel’s mother. I’m all for credit where it’s due, but Grendel’s mother was simply designed as Angelina Jolie with a tail coming out of her head. The character design looks remarkably like its big name actress and she struts around mostly naked, though her body drips with a melting gold finish that stops the nudity from having any real definition (it’s kind of like she’s in a melty candy shell). This may be enough for frisky moviegoers that must have missed out on the 1001 other movies Jolie bares her flesh for, or perhaps the head-tail fetish folk will finally have their day. It makes a lot of sense for Zemeckis to choose Jolie for the seductress role. It seems that mortal men just can’t help themselves around her and they end up doing the nasty, which produces little nasty creatures. If there were anyone in today’s world that could make men weak with overwhelming lust, it would be the lovely Jolie. Just ask Brad Pitt.

The character work on Grendel, however, is fascinating and startlingly grotesque. He resembles a cross between Frankenstein, Dobby the elf, and a coffee pot, all covered in rotting, patchy skin. The amount of detail is amazing and simultaneously stomach-churning. Glover offers a magnificently eccentric frame to build from. Grendel comes across less like a monster and more like a misunderstood wretch that just wants some peace and quiet by any means necessary. The screenplay gives Grendel some deeper backstory and a motivation for his murderous rampages (the poor guy is hyper sensitive to music, which blares in his head and causes agony).

Beowulf does have some slow moments and a noticeable lag in the middle before it sets up a climactic dragon battle. I was actually starting to nod off somewhere along the middle. The screenplay, adapted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, squanders a load of underwritten characters, like a queen, a young concubine, and a religious advisor that asks if they should also pray to this new Roman God, Jesus something or other. Zemeckis is too enamored with the 3-D technology at his fingertips and clutters his screen too often to play around with the depth of field. I cannot fathom how this movie would play out in a regular 2-D environment, but needless to say, I’m sure the constant barrage of things pointing at the screen would get old quick.

Beowulf is a rousing and thrilling experience when seen in its intended 3-D format, otherwise it might get a tad tiresome and the visuals would come across as less accomplished. Zemeckis is getting better acquainted with the limitless freedom his motion-capture technology afford him and his imagination, however, I mourn the loss of Zemeckis ever directing another live-action film again. He seems to be completely taken with his technology and while it will improve with age I just wish the man who gave me so many wonderful movies like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would just go back to basics.

Nate’s Grade: Movie itself: B
3-D presentation of film: A-
Average: B+

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

The new action comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith sure seems to be in the headlines a lot. Most from tabloids trying to connect Angelina Jolie as the catalyst for why Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston have filed for divorce. You can’t walk past a checkout counter without being screamed at by 15 magazine covers. Too bad the actual movie seems to be forgotten in the process. That’s a shame because Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one terrifically fun summer ride that you don’t want to get off of (kind of like Jolie and/or Pitt, depending upon which way you swing).

Things aren’t so peachy for the Smiths (Jolie and Pitt). They met and married in Columbia amid a flurry of action but now it seems like their lives have become quite mundane as husband and wife. Life at work, though, is quite the opposite. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are hiding a whopper of a secret — that they’re hired assassins. They’ve both been hired to take out the same mark (Adam Brody) and accidentally discover each other’s true identity. Of course both spies are now compromised so they’re assigned to bump off their spouse. And you thought your marriage was murder. Mr. and Mrs. Smith combat their real feelings and put the spark back into their marriage by trying to kill each other, the little taught alternative in marriage counseling courses.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith has a vibrant sex appeal to it. Pitt and Jolie are extraordinarily beautiful people, no question, but they also have sizzling chemistry. The looks they give could ignite the screen. Even when they’re at each other’s throats you like them and hope for the best. The stars’ sex appeal and the film’s off kilter tone collides in fun ways. A knockout, drag-out fight between husband and wife turns into foreplay that literally brings the house down. The most unbelievable aspect of the movie is the idea that these gorgeous people would grow sexually tired with one another.

The leads are terrific and terrific together. Jolie has finally found the right role for her. She’s the perfect balance between tough and sexy. She could very easily kick my ass and look good doing it. Originally Nicole Kidman was going to play Mrs. Smith before scheduling conflicts put the kibosh on that. I can not see Kidman working. I’m not afraid of Kidman, but with Jolie I’d do whatever she says. Jolie has a real kick in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the audience can feel it too. It also helps that she looks absolutely magnificent. Finally, her beauty and wildness are put to excellent use. I’ve always thought Pitt got a bad rap as an actor for being pretty. Sure, he’s built like a Greek God (and played one in Troy) but this man can act. People seem to forget he was nominated for an Oscar for Twelve Monkeys. Pitt exudes a natural calm and always seems a smirk away from getting out of anything. These traits serve him well as a smooth criminal. Even when he’s whacking people with a golf club he seems easygoing.

The tone needs to be very specific for Mr. and Mrs. Smith to work. I mean, one false step and husband and wife revitalizing their marriage by trying to kill each other turns from funny to horrifying. Mrs. and Mrs. Smith walks that delicate line but nails the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek tone needed to make this movie soar. When you boil it down, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is essentially a modern day screwball romance. Instead of sparring with witticisms they spar with heavy-duty weaponry (I can only imagine what Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn could have done with knives and bazookas).

After Mr. and Mrs. Smith find out the true identities of their spouses, they both know it’s kill-or-be-killed. Both tread very carefully and are highly suspicious that any little thing, like a glass of wine, a trip to the bathroom, could be the trigger to their demise. Now, if the tone weren’t exactly perfect, this sequence would seem overly silly or overly cruel. Instead, the sequence comes across as being very funny. Pitt and Jolie nail the casual awkwardness as they test one another. Even the ending of Mr. and Mrs. Smith is laugh-out-loud perfect with the film’s vibe. I will go so far to say it’s the greatest ending line for a film since 1959’s Some Like it Hot.

It seems that if you want your action done right, you call Doug Liman to be director. Liman, as he did with 2002’s stellar The Bourne Identity, can craft highly imaginative, stylish, and playful action sequences that are low on pesky CGI and high on thrills. He makes sure the audience can witness every balletic move of his orchestration. He’s likes his fireballs big, though not Michael Bay the-sun-is-exploding big. If you want an inventive use of ordinary objects, Liman’s your man. There’s a fabulous car chase that utilizes a mini-van in surprising and gleeful ways. While dodging bullets and bad guys, Mr. Smith slides the vehicle’s doors open on both sides. When a bad guy jumps into the car, he grabs the baddie and swings him out the other side in one continuous motion.

This isn’t a movie to take too seriously. Yes, the plot is pretty goofy at turns and the Smiths seem nigh invincible. Yes, the bad guys are all terrible shots. Yes, it would be unlikely for the Smiths to take out 100 or so armed men surrounding them. Yes, it seems like the resolution would be cloudy because they’d still be wanted as husband and wife assassins. Yes, Brody is wearing a Fight Club T-shirt. None of this matters. Of course a world of super spies and gadgets is going to be goofy, but Mr. and Mrs. Smith never winks at the camera. This is one romantic comedy with a macabre edge and a devilish sense of humor. I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the big blast of fun I’ve been waiting Hollywood to deliver all year. The action sequences are inventive, exciting, and quite sexy. Seeing the two hottest people on the planet (Thora Birch excluded, obviously) kiss, fight, shoot each other, and blow stuff up is entertainment in itself, but the chemistry between Jolie and Pitt is in the five-alarm area. This will not be a movie for everyone. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about married assassins who do kill people and get off on trying to kill each other. But for people who like their summer ventures to have a little malevolent glee, Mr. and Mrs. Smith will hit the right note. I can only hope for the eventual sequel – Mr. and Mrs. Smith Go to Washington. Imagine that potential filibuster sequence and try not to smile. You can’t!

Nate’s Grade: A-

Alexander (2004)

I was standing in a theater weeks ago and saw a large banner for Oliver Stone’s epic about Alexander the Great. I listed the names; Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto. This had to be perhaps the greatest assembly of pretty actors ever in a motion picture. There’s a whole lot of sex appeal there, and Anthony Hopkins, as the film’s reflective narrator, isn’t too shabby looking himself for a man his age. After having seen Alexander, it’s safe to say the actors sure are pretty but the movie is far from it.

Alexander (Farrell) is one of the greatest historical figures. He rose to become a Macedonian king, dominated much of the known world before he was 30, and then died mysteriously at a young age. In flashes to his youth, we see Olympias (Jolie) coaching young Alexander on his future glory. Standing in her way is one-eyed King Phillip (Kilmer), Olympias’ husband though not the father to Alexander. She frets that he will sire a direct heir to the throne, and upon Phillip’s assassination, Alexander reaches new heights. He travels to Babylon with the purpose of avenging his father’s death, rumored to be paid for by Persian gold.

Alexander keeps traveling east conquering new lands but returning kings to their rule and assimilating “barbarians” into his armies. His generals begin to question Alexander’s actions, especially his surprise marriage to an Asian peasant woman (Dawson). He is unable to sire a male heir with her. Hephaistion (Leto), Alexander’s childhood friend and lifelong lover, worries that Alexander has become power hungry and distrustful of those around him. Many of his men only want to see home after seven years of battle. After defeat in India, Alexander decides to turn back but he never sees home again.

photo_27For such a lavish biopic, Alexander seems fairly remote. We don’t really get to know much about the psychology of Alexander. He’s a historical figure with equal parts good and bad ready for debate, but whenever Alexander does hit some of its star’s less-than-stellar moments, it seems to gloss right over them. Hopkins will narrate about some town that resisted, then we’ll see a quick image of it burning, and then we move on. Or we’ll see a slew of dead army officials and Hopkins will say, “He slaughtered all he felt were responsible for mutiny, but I’d expect any general to do the same.” There are several moments where we’ll hear Alexander massacred a town, or sold people into slavery, and then we get the next scene. It’s quite comical, almost as if Hopkins is a tour guide at a museum saying things like, “And then Alexander ate all of the first born babies. Moving on now…”

There are just so many awful laugh-out-loud, loopy moments in Alexander. It’s not enough that Jolie speaks in some bizarre accent; to make sure the audience understands that she’s duplicitous she has a snake wrapped around her in every scene. I’m not kidding; every scene that Jolie is in she has snakes coiled around her.

There’s a moment late in the film that is so hilariously dreadful, it’s hard to believe what you’re seeing. Hephaistion has caught ill and is on his death bed. Alexander is wrought with emotion but then strolls over to a window and begins another huge speech that ends up being all about his glory. What makes the scene go from bad to I-cannot-believe-they’re-doing-this bad is that Hephaistion, in the background, is convulsing and dying. You see his body tense up, twitch, leap into the air, and practically do some kind of triple axle, all while Alexander speechifies blithely unaware. I challenge anyone not to laugh.

Stone needlessly complicates his film with flashbacks, giant leaps forward in chronology skipping Alexander’s rise to respected leader, and skittish hallucinations. Stone is accustomed to breaking up the chronology of his films, but Alexander is too long and too campy to play around with for effect.

The acting of Alexander is set to overkill. Farrell seems miscast and doesn’t have the weight to carry such a historically meaty role. He looks pretty, and he can snarl like a pro, but the only thing worse than his overblown performance is his terrible blonde hair. This just wasn’t the right role for this talented actor. Jolie is so naturally seductive that she could have played her role mute and been effective, maybe more so. Kilmer seems to be working some kind of Irish accent but he comes off the best of the three. Leto gets overshadowed by his bangs.

Alexander also seems to speed over its star’s bisexuality. It wasn’t uncommon for men to bed both sexes, but the movie seems terrified of portraying anything beyond longing glances. Alexander and Hephaistion are reduced to some whispers here and there, but the limit of their physical affection stops at hugs. It actually is kind of funny the amount of times they hug, which I think is over five. You can tell the filmmakers wanted more but then were like, “Eh, let them hug again.” In some weird turn, it seems the film shows more depth with Alexander’s relationship with his horse than with his lifelong lover.

For a three hour movie about a military man who conquered much of the known world, there’s a shocking lack of action. Alexander has two action set-pieces and then that’s it. The first set-piece is a battle between Alexander and the vastly numbered forces of the King of Persia. The battle lasts twenty minutes and is disjointed, bloody, and perfectly indicative of the confusion of war. Stone cuts back and forth between majestic aerial shots showing the progress of battle and hand-to-hand combat amid the sand and dust clouds. Stone also labels certain sections of the armies, which gives a greater understanding of the battle. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this battle is the highlight of Alexander.

The only other action set-piece comes very late in the movie. Alexander’s forces have marched all the way into India. Warriors on the backs of monstrous elephants stampede onward to intercept Alexander’s armies. This battle is also chaotic, and Stone utilizes a lot of quick point-of-view shots like people getting squashed by pachyderms. The action is satisfying if a bit over the top (a warrior gets impaled on a slow-moving elephant’s tusks), that is until Stone goes off the deep end. Alexander gets wounded in battle and suddenly the film switches tints, bathing everything in reddish and bright neon hues. Everything has a tin outline. It’s rather ridiculous and unfortunately reminds me of Ralph Bakshi’s misguided animated Lord of the Rings.

photo125gkThat’s all you get for action, so I hope you like speeches rich with superfluous historical name-drops, because that’s what Alexander is all about. I’d bet money that nearly an hour of this three-hour opus involves people delivering speeches. Alexander rallies his men, Phillip talks about the Greek tragedies, Olympias strokes Alexander’s greatness and need for kingship, his generals talk about his decisions, and then we get endless moments of Alexander talking about a new world, bringing people together, and respecting other cultures. Alexander seems to go dead as soon as some character pulls out a soapbox. Worst of all, many speeches involve lots of historical references that an audience cannot be expected to keep up with. The overall effect is like listening to an unwanted party guest drone on. Alexander may be trying to talk to death his enemy.

What makes all of this worse is that the dialogue and the drama are so melodramatic. The center of Alexander’s creaky psychology is a domineering mother and a scornful father who scream at each other a lot. Whenever someone has a disagreement in Alexander they resort to over emotive screaming. You may start tuning the actors out after awhile. Much of the dialogue is terrible, but there is the occasional howler line like, “It is said that the only defeat Alexander suffered was Hephaistion’s thighs.” You may concur with Alexander’s men and want to return to your family as soon as possible after watching this.

I was trying to think how something like this, so misguided and off the rails, could chug along without a peep from someone saying, “Hey, maybe this isn’t working.” Then I got it. You see, Alexander is Oliver Stone. Both men are revered for previous victories, both men are generals that take full control of their armies, and both men are fiercely stubborn. If someone questioned Alexander’s decisions, chances are they could be killed. Now I’m fairly certain Stone wouldn’t go that far (there may be many graves dug over the grumblings over U-Turn), but I can see how difficult voicing dissension might have been.

Stone’s long in the waiting Alexander epic is bloody, ponderous, exaggerated, talky, sumptuous and off-the-charts loony. This is a giant mess only a visionary director could amass. Only historical junkies might be entertained by Alexander, and the rest of us will just be glazed over. We never get to really know Alexander, nor do we even get our money’s worth for action, so unless you click your heels to the thought of hours of speeches, skip Alexander. Trust me, it’s far from great.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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