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Cars 3 (2017)

The Cars franchise is like the “goofy uncle” that nobody chooses to talk about at family reunions. We acknowledge it at most because we have to and then move onto other chipper subjects. I didn’t think it could get worse for Pixar than Cars 2. Then I watched Cars 3.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is starting to lose his championship luster when a new rival, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), speeds onto the circuit. Humbled and wondering whether his time is up, Lightning trains to be faster than ever and regain his title. He goes through a series of training struggles with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a spunky racing coach. Lightning misses Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, posthumously reappearing) and seeks out Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Together, they plan to win back Lightning’s title and prove he still has what it takes.

I was ready for this movie to be over after its first ten minutes, and that’s chiefly because it repeats just about all the paces of the original Cars. Once again Lightning McQueen is bested by a new rival and has to re-learn the basics of racing, center himself as much as a car can, and open himself up to the help of others. Except the villain isn’t really a villain, as Jackson Storm is just a newer model. He’s self-centered and cocky, sure, but so was Lightning McQueen. He barely registers as a character and more as a symbol of newer, faster, more contemporary racers. If there is an antagonist in the movie it might actually be aging, which raises more questions about this Cars universe that I’ll unpack later. The plot formula will remind you of another franchise’s third entry, Rocky III. The hero is bested by a newer champ, seeks out a new trainer because their old mentor died, and there’s even a beach training montage. Then the movie goes from Rocky III to Creed in its final act, and I’m thinking why not remake Rocky IV instead? There’s already a robot butler in that one (it practically writes itself). Suffice to say, the generic formula of going back to basics and believing in one’s self, this time with fewer side characters, is even less interesting 11 years after the first film revved its limited story engine.

I was flabbergasted at just how lazy the storytelling was (there aren’t even that many car puns). It feels too much like a rehash without any memorable set pieces. There’s a segment at a demolition derby that has potential but it never really hits its stride and just relies on the initial particulars. The relationship between Lightning and the other cars is also rather weak. His new mentor Smokey is simply a surrogate Doc. The bulk of the film after the first act is the relationship between Lightning and Cruz Ramirez. It would have been stronger if there were more to her fledgling character. She’s consumed by self-doubt and gave up on her dream of being a racer, which should tip off every audience member where her arc is destined. She’s assertive, optimistic, and highly energetic, but her defining character obstacle is her self-doubt, which limits her. All she needs to do is gain confidence, which is a pretty straightforward solution in a sports film replete with training montages. I don’t know if she was told she wasn’t good enough because she wasn’t “made” to be a racer, or if it’s because she’s a girl, so her perhaps her ascension can be seen as an improbably empowering moment for lady cars everywhere.

The most fascinating aspect of the Cars universe has never been the characters or the stories but the world itself. In a land of sentient motor vehicles, how are they born? We see them age but where do the little cars come from? How do they make anything considering they have tires instead of opposable thumbs? Why do the cars have teeth? What is the point of designating gender? Did any adult car tell Ramirez that she was a girl car and girl cars aren’t supposed to do boy car things like racing? How old is Doc’s mentor considering Doc died of old age? Where do the dead cars go? Is there a junkyard burial ground? Do they get recycled into new cars? Speaking of mortality, this entire world has to be some post-apocalyptic hellscape, right? There’s got to be like a Forbidden Zone, and just along the other side of a steep ridge is mountain after mountain of human skulls. The self-driving cars became sentient, following the SkyNet model, and rose up against mankind. In the ensuring thousands of years after, the sentient cars have adopted our ways even though they clearly don’t match up to their circumstances. They have forgotten the world of humans but are still trying to remake our world as theirs. Do these cars do anything other than watch races? Is this pastime the hierarchy’s form of bread and circuses? What kind of day-to-day existence do they have? Considering every living being is a motor vehicle that runs on fossil fuels, are the sentient cars aware of climate change and the greenhouse effect? Are they hastening the planet’s demise? What if inside every car were the mummified remains of a human inhabitant? What if during Lightning’s big accident a human skeleton pops out of the windshield? That might lead to an existential crisis in the Cars world that would make them rethink their place in history.

Somebody out there has to like these movies. I don’t know whom Cars 3 is intended for. It doesn’t present enough excitement or humor for children, and it doesn’t present enough substance and characterization for adults. It retreads familiar ground with lesser characters for lesser rewards. I knew every step of where this journey was headed, and without effective humor, characters, and surprises, I was tilting my head against my chair and just waiting for this mess to end. The reason there are three Cars movies is merely the profits Disney reaps from the toy sales and merchandizing (they estimate making a billion dollars in toy sales alone per Cars movie). There’s no other reason to supply the world three entries in the Cars universe before even getting a second Incredibles. The time with these anemic characters is not worth the 100 minutes on screen. I never thought I would reappraise Cars 2 but at least that movie had some exciting and colorful racing sequences and tried telling a different, albeit not successful story. Even a badly executed spy caper starring Larry the Cable Guy had something to it. In contrast, Cars 3 just goes in circles and expects you to be grateful for the same trip.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Free Fire (2017)

I don’t understand the praise and hype heaped upon filmmaker Ben Wheatley. He’s got a nice eye for visuals but whenever I see his name attached as a screenwriter, my expectations sink. His 2016 film High Rise was on my list of the worst films of last year. To my mind, Wheatley is Nicolas Refn (Neon Demon) lite, and I don’t even care for Refn. With that being said, the premise and star power for Free Fire looked enough to even out my immediate hesitation about watching another Wheatley film. It looked like fun. How could it not be? Well I’m now debating whether I disliked Free Fire more than High Rise, a scenario with no real winner.

In 1978, two gangs meet in a Boston warehouse to make an exchange of guns and drugs for money. Things go wrong, tempers flare, and bullets are exchanged. Both parties are pinned down, fighting for cover, and looking to come out alive and on top. There’s Cillian Murphy, Oscar-winning Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, and Sharlto Copley among this dingy dozen.

Exiting my theater screening, I got into a discussion with my pal, Ben Bailey. He was adamant that the story premise of Free Fire could not be done as a feature film and was, at best, the sort of material for a 20-minute shoot-em-up short. I argued that with the proper development there could be a scraggly feature film here but the key phrase is “proper development,” something that is sorely lacking from Free Fire. Ultimately it feels more like Ben’s assessment: 20 minutes of thin material and thought stretched out to an interminable 85 minutes.

Once the shootout commences, it feels like Wheatley just succumbs to the cacophonous confusion of the action and more or less gives up. For a solid twenty minutes or so, the movie is nothing more than a series of disjointed shots of people firing and people taking cover from wooden boxes and planks, rarely if ever coalescing to produce a sense of direction, momentum, and geography. I didn’t know where anybody was and especially in relationship to anyone else. That is a crucial factor in action sequences especially in a limited location action sequence. You need to know who is where and establish different mini-goals and new challenges. Wheatley only introduces new elements late into the proceedings, and when he does they are anticlimactically resolved.  When complications do arrive they are brushed aside and we go back to shooting. Why not involve the guns in those crates as something to be fought over to gain extra leverage? That seems like an obvious goal but not to the characters on screen. I lost track of which characters were with which side, and the movie even tries to make the same joke, as if knowingly acknowledging this aspect forgives Free Fire for its plotting misfires.

As minute after minute of blind shooting went on, I started making connections to a question I have had with Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Song to Song) movies, namely how does one edit these things? If you’ve never seen a modern Malick movie, first consider yourself fortunate, but the man is known for his whispery, stream-of-consciousness spiritual connections with nature. My question with Malick movies: how does someone know that this shot of light through the leaves needs to be here, and definitely before this shot of a caterpillar moving along a tree branch? How do you edit what is bereft of a traditional coherency? I wondered the same question during Free Fire. Without those mini-goals, how does one edit just gunshot after gunshot after gunshot without any credible change in the story’s impetus as guidance?

Compounding my boredom and general confusion is the reality that these criminal lowlifes are dull characters and not worth the investment. Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump fail to provide interesting personalities or quirks or anything memorable to enliven these tough-talking bad-shooting bad guys. Some of them have accents, one of them is a woman, one of them likes to smoke pot, but really they’re all slight variations on the same excitable, profane, and shallow archetype, the kind of character that gets their own poster in marketing with a nickname like “The Kid” or something cool-sounding like that, but it’s all posturing. I thought that Free Fire might be reminiscent of the rise of Tarantino knockoff films in the 90s (The Big Hit, 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings) but this movie actually made me yearn for a Tarantino knockoff.

These people are so lifeless. I didn’t care who lived and who died. They were all boring. Some faces are recognizable like Hammer and Smiley and Murphy but a majority of the characters are not, at least initially visually distinctive. It’s a failing of creativity to separate them, make them distinct. Much of the acting is just reacting to squibs going off and squirming on the ground. If you have a fetish for Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island) wriggling, this is your film. By default the best actor is Copley (Hardcore Henry) as he seems to be on an uncontrollable improv stint, rapidly saying whatever things comes to mind. Something has to fill the audio between gunfire.

Free Fire wants to be a scuzzy, crazy, fun movie that knows it’s trashy and revels in its bad taste and loony characters with nose-thumbing glee. Instead, Free Fire is a nihilistic and tedious enterprise lacking entertaining characters, coherent action, and most importantly any general sense of fun. Watching characters that are unmemorable, who you don’t care about, fire guns indiscriminately for a long time is not a movie, and it’s most certainly not a good movie. It’s a glorified training manual for firearms. Free Fire takes too long to get started with poorly developed characters and when it does kick into action the movie doesn’t really improve too much. Free Fire is a Tarantino knockoff that doesn’t have the courage of its own B-movie convictions. It thinks just dressing the part is enough, substituting style and a blithe attitude for not even substance but the appearance of substance. It only has one truly memorable, queasy death, so even when it comes to bizarre violence it falters. This is one movie that wants to look cool and irreverent but ends up merely firing blanks.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

nocturnal_animalsFashion designer Tom Ford made a big splash with his debut film, 2009’s A Single Man. It was a gentle and introspective character study of a middle-aged gay professor determined to end his own life. It was lush, full of feeling, and anchored by a deeply humane performance from Colin Firth. In short, it is everything that his follow-up Nocturnal Animals is not. This is a movie overflowing with vacant artifice that is mistaken for profundity.

Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner and living a posh life with her second husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). She gets an unexpected present in the mail from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s sent her his newest manuscript, a departure from his usual works. It’s dedicated to Susan. With Hutton away on business, and philandering with a mistress, she dives into the story. It tells the story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Isla Fisher) and teen daughter (Ellie Bamber) traveling through west Texas. They run afoul of some contemptuous locals lead by the sadistic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter. Left for dead, Tony teams up with a terminally ill police officer, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), to hunt down Ray and make him suffer for his crimes. As Susan continues reading, she goes through a mixture of emotions trying to determine what her ex-husband is trying to communicate to her within the subtext and metaphor of his sordid story.

maxresdefaultI grew increasingly restless with Nocturnal Animals because it failed to justify its excessive dawdling and vapid artistic pretensions. This is a movie that doesn’t really know what it wants to be so it dabbles in many different genres, none of them fully convincing or worth the effort. It’s a high-gloss erotic thriller, it’s a gritty exploitation film, it’s a morally compromised revenge thriller, and it’s a subtle relationship drama amidst the upper crust of the L.A. art scene. It’s none of these. It’s two primary stories, neither of which justifies the amount of time spent on what amounts to so little. The worst offender is the frame story with Susan, which amounts to watching Amy Adams read for two hours. She takes a lot of baths and showers in response (symbolism!) but most of the cutaways and time spent with Adams is to merely watch her react. It’s like she’s a nascent studio audience handcuffed to tell us how to feel with her reactions. Would you have known that you should feel bad during onscreen death if we didn’t cut back to Susan also feeling bad and concerned? It amounts to emotional handholding and it’s grating, also because Susan is an terrible character. She’s conceited and thinks she is owed better, which is why her mother successfully pressured her to dump Edward, a man well below her self-styled station in life. Her second marriage is crumbling apart and part of her sees Edward’s out-of-the-blue note as a potential romantic rekindling. That’s right, this is a person who reads a revenge opus that may be all about seeking cosmic vengeance against her, and she thinks to herself, “Ooo, I think he like likes me after all.” Her self-involvement is rewarded in the end but the ambiguous ending is more just missing in action. Ford’s film just peters out and leaves you hanging, just like its heroine.

Edward’s manuscript is easily the best story and even that is only by default. It’s an easier story to get involved with because of the simple story elements that naturally draw an audience in, namely a revenge fable. The initial altercation with the family and Ray’s crew lasts almost a half hour. Specifically the roadside confrontation itself is a solid ten minutes and it just goes round and round, repeating its overdone sense of menace. I wasn’t dreading the horror to come but more so getting impatient for it to be over. Without depth to the characters or escalating stakes and complications, it all just amounts to a Texas hillbilly repeatedly threatening a cowering family for ten solid minutes. The vengeance in the second half of the movie is just as predictable and too drawn out. Edward schemes with Bobby Andes to take justice into his own hands, but the movie takes far too long to reach its predictable conclusion, which still manages to be so drawn out that I was screaming at the screen for the inevitable to finally happen. When the movie ended I felt a rush of relief to go along with my general sense of perplexity.

Nocturnal Animals has the illusion of highbrow art mixing with lowbrow thrillers but it lacks the substance of the former and the courage of its convictions for the latter. Ford’s mercurial taste in costuming and set design shows in every moment with Susan, as the sets feel exquisitely designed and the cinematography designed to encapsulate this. It’s a good-looking movie but there’s not enough under the surface. It’s all empty window dressing to disguise the vapid whole at its center. Let’s tackle the opening credits, which will most certainly capture your undivided attention. It’s a foursome of overweight women dancing naked and in slow motion, their large bodies bouncing and jiggling to the self-serious musical score. Eventually it’s revealed that these women are part of an installation exhibit in Susan’s art gallery, and that’s when you get a tip-off just how hollow and attention seeking the movie will be. The gallery consists of overweight women lying face down on raised platforms. That’s it. No wonder her gallery isn’t doing that well (note: not a fat-shaming comment but more a comment on the lazy application of its sense of “art”). You get a sense that Ford comes most alive in the scenes where he can arrange figures and images, not so much the demands of storytelling.

nocturnal-animals-1I can already hear supporters saying I just don’t get it; no, I got it because there’s very little to understand with Nocturnal Animals. It’s a story-within-a-story so we’re already training our brains to look for parallels but they aren’t obvious so they’ll be more metaphorical. I kept waiting for it all to tie together in a substantial way by film’s end, and sorry but it just doesn’t (spoilers ahead). Edward has a whammy of a day when he discovers 1) his wife is pregnant, 2) she’s aborted his child, and 3) she’s in the arms of her new boyfriend, and he discovers all of this standing in the rain for further symbolism. He has a grievance against Susan, though we’ve been suspecting it for some time. His manuscript is a revenge thriller about a family murdered and how a weak man finds the strength to seek justice and retribution. The parallels are fairly obvious there, and the fact that there are only so many characters in the story-within-a-story means there are few options to play the analogue guessing game. I’ll just claim that Ray is meant to represent Susan since he/she is the murderer of Tony/Edward’s family. There’s a reason that Tony’s family all share Susan’s red hair. He dedicated the book to her, after all, and said she was who made it all possible. From there you could argue whether Tony represents Edward’s real past, weak and remorseful, whereas Bobby Andes is meant to represent how he wishes he could be, decisive and strong (end spoilers). That’s about all the parallels you’re going to find because the story-within-a-story only involves a very tiny number of characters. There just isn’t much to go on here and yet Ford’s movie stretches and drags and just keeps going until it reaches its predictable destination. There isn’t any more depth here than straightforward avatars and even those are lean.

I was debating a question with my friend Ben Bailey while we watched this movie, and that’s whether the stakes are removed somewhat when you know that a storyline within a movie is fictitious. Knowing that Tony is a pretend person, does that eliminate some of the tension and investment in his storyline? I recognize this is a distinctly meta question considering that a majority of film characters are fictitious by nature, but I do think there’s a different set of standards for the people of the story-within-a-story. I don’t remember feeling less for the characters in A Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, or Adaptation. My only conclusion is that I just did not care a lick for any of the characters in Nocturnal Animals, whether they were fictional or twice fictional. They didn’t deserve my attention just because pretty people were playing them. They didn’t deserve my attention because Big Bad Things caused them to experience Big Emotions. Combined with the ponderous plot and the emaciated substance, the dull characters and the overwrought acting they inspire are a recipe for audience detachment. I can’t help but shake my head as other critics trip over themselves to shower this film with overly enthusiastic plaudits. Nocturnal Animals is a tiresome exercise in lazy symbolism, patience-demolishing pretension, and emptiness masquerading as contemplation.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

the_birth_of_a_nation_2016_filmSold for a record $17.5 million at the Sundance Film Festival, there were big expectations for the Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation. Writer/director/actor Nate Parker was the toast of the town and the studio had its sights set clearly for a fall release and a big Oscar push. Then came the revelation from Parker’s past linking him to an accusation of sexual assault (it should be noted he was acquitted of the charge, though it should also be noted the woman declined to continue pressing charges during the second trial). Suddenly the Oscar hopes for Birth of a Nation were put into a tailspin and journalists were wondering if this salient news would provide older Oscar voters just the excuse they needed not to watch the movie. After having finally seen the film for myself, I can attest that this movie wasn’t going to go far into the Oscar race anyway. My friend Ben Bailey said it best as we walked out of The Birth of a Nation, making an apt comparison to the 2013 Best Picture Winner: “12 Years a Slave was a better movie made from a less interesting story; and this is a more interesting story but given a much lesser movie.”

In 1830, Nat Turner (Parker) is earning extra money for his friendly slave owner (Armie Hammer) as a preacher, convincing slaves on other plantations to work harder and obey their cruel masters. He reaches a breaking point and organizes a revolt, violently killing the same plantation owners that kept them in bondage. Nat felt his revolt could be the catalyst for slaves all over, but it was put down by overwhelming forces two days later.

dt-common-streams-streamserverNat Turner is a historical figure extremely deserving of a big Hollywood spotlight. The problem is that Parker’s movie feels like the arthouse version of the Hollywood Martyr Blockbuster, a field popularized by director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond). This thing checks just about all the formula boxes you’d expect by showing the arc of a character called into action, forced to take a stand against an exploited people and series of injustices, and the eventual death for the cause. It’s meant to be inspirational but that sense of inspiration can be capped when you see the machinations. All storytelling at some level is about pulling the strings of an audience, but the storyteller must do their best to make this as nonobservant as possible so as not to disturb the experience. Parker doesn’t have that skill quite yet, either as a director or as a screenwriter.

His movie kept my interest but I felt oddly removed from it, unable to fully absorb the characters, which should never happen in a revolt against slavery. Case in point, we know how the movie is going to end so Parker needs to engineer something of a win for Nat, and that’s where Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley), nasty slave catcher, comes in handy as a conquerable antagonist. He ends up being the man responsible for chasing Nat’s father away, so it’s even more personal. During their final fight, Cobb implausibly wrestles atop a struggling Nat (this guy has to be at least 60 years old and it’s Haley, not Stallone). Parker even includes the knife that’s just… out… of… reach. I rolled my eyes. Parker shouldn’t have to resort to these tactics to rouse his audience, and as stated above, they’re just too nakedly transparent in their formula machinations. I wanted more suspense sequences like during the opening when Nat’s grandmother has to think on her feet to conceal contraband, smart uses of dramatic irony and ratcheting up the tension. The movie is structured too narrowly as Nat’s call to action, but Parker seems preoccupied with hitting all these other checkmarks to fully open him up as a human being.

Structurally, this movie is amiss because we don’t need 90 minutes to justify why slaves would violently revolt against their masters. The best part of Birth of a Nation is its final act when the revolts come and the slave owners get what they have coming. Some will equivocate that not all slave owners abused and terrorized their slaves to the same degree of abject cruelty, but the very nature of owning another human being is an assault on fundamental morality. 12 Years a Slave had an excellent 15-minute section where it disproved the notion of the “good slave owner” with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. Even he too was corrupted because the institution of slavery is a corrupting agency. What that movie was able to communicate in 15 minutes is what The Birth of a Nation takes 90 minutes to do the same. The entire movie should have been the slave revolts with some choice flashbacks interspersed to give the movie even better context for the personal animosities against specific slave owners. That way we can better explore the emotional side of Nat Turner and his company without resorting to extended degradation. Parker deserves some credit for being very tasteful in his depiction of the brutality against slaves and the heavy heart of aiding and abetting an unjust system. It doesn’t whitewash, so to speak, the horror of slavery but also refrains from exploiting tragedy for easy gains. With that being said, and I may be alone in this observation, but I found it a bit peculiar that the sexual violence committed against women seems to be primarily framed as how it impacts the male characters, making them sad or angry at the mistreatment of their women. I may be over-analyzing this but it happens twice and stuck out to me. The structure of the movie does a disservice to the emotional power it demands, and Parker should have shown us the bloody campaign rather than the lead-up to the campaign.

Parker also shows some noticeable shortcomings when it comes to directing his fellow actors. His performance is a highlight and his moments where he’s trying to hold back the tide of mixed emotions working for the slave owners and using Scripture to justify the worst of the worst. This is a great showcase for Parker as an actor of suitable range. It’s not a great showcase for any other actor. The performances are a bit big when needing restraint, and a bit broad when nuance would be required. There’s no character that even comes close to the deeply wounding impressions left by the brilliant Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender from 12 Years a Slave. Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) is given one note to play after the first act and that is aspiring drunk. I don’t know if there’s a scene where he isn’t accompanied by some bottle. It’s meant to communicate his increasing sense of shame he has to excuse, but it’s also a fairly facile acting crutch. The women in the film come across as angelic (there’s even a vision of an actual angel in the film) or maternally strong as steel. The lack of variance becomes frustrating, as it seems that Nat Turner is the only character, and by extension actor, allowed depth. You’ll enjoy the actors on screen but be scratching your head to recall anything memorable.

birththumb-1460743741317_1280wThe Birth of a Nation is very purposely meant to evoke the title of the famous 1915 D.W. Griffith movie, the world’s first film blockbuster and also virulently racist to its core. It’s about the formation of the Klu Klux Klan in a Reconstruction era to save all the honorable white people from the new hordes of wanton free slaves. It’s deeply offensive though an undeniable touchstone in the history of narrative filmmaking. I was looking for some kind of larger thematic connection beyond slavery but it seems that Parker’s movie is meant to be a reclamation of the title. There’s a moment at the very end that made me think that there was another possibility (spoilers). As Nat Turner is executed, one of the last images is a close-up on the face of a young teenage slave who witnesses his death. The camera then pulls out and that boy has aged into a man and is fighting with a battalion of other black soldiers during the Civil War (the movie literally becomes Glory!). I was wondering if we were going to continue skipping forward in time, next to the Civil Rights marches, next to protests against police brutality in the modern era, so that Parker was drawing a direct line from the experiences of old and how they have shaped the America of today, the birth of our current national racial injustices. This doesn’t happen, unfortunately. The Civil War flash forward is the only jump in time.

I’ve been critiquing Nate Parker’s movie for the majority of this review and I don’t want to leave you, dear reader, with the false impression that this is a bad movie; overrated and slightly disappointing, yes, but not bad. If it didn’t sound like faint praise I would say that The Birth of a Nation is a perfectly fine movie. It held my attention though I kept thinking of other ways this movie could have improved, from a restructured plot that begins with the slave revolts, to more attention to the supporting characters, to less fidelity to the patented formula of the Great Martyr Biopic. This was a passion project for Parker and took him over six years to complete. Walking out of my theater, I simply didn’t feel like that same passion was evident on the screen.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

sM6KRdyGuy Ritchie’s big screen reboot of the 1960s TV show is the right kind of fizzy summer escapist entry that goes down smooth and entertains with just enough swanky style to pass the time. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is equal parts spy thriller and straight-laced genre satire, hewing closer, and more successfully, to a marriage between Ritchie early cockney gangster flicks and his big-budget Sherlock Holmes action franchise. It’s often fun and surprising at how well it holds its tone between comedy and action; it almost feels like a screwball romance with guns and bombs. The trio of leads, Henry Cavill as the American agent, Armie Hammer as the KGB agent, and Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as the German asset, make an engaging group with plenty of conflicts to explore. It’s surprisingly more character-based than driven by its action set-pieces. Cavill shows far more life and personality than I’ve ever seen from him on screen. Vikander and Hammer have an amusing chemistry together and the movie allows them to roughhouse without pushing either character in a direction that feels too safe. Their series of will-they-won’t-they near misses will drive certain portions of the audience mad. The movie gets into danger when Ritchie and his co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram get too cute, especially with a narrative technique where the movie doubles back or highlights action that was in the background at least four times. The world of this movie is also another asset, as the period costumes, soundtrack, Italian locations and production design are terrific and further elevate the swanky mood. It’s an ebullient throwback that serves up enough entertainment with its own cock-eyed sense of throwback charm.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Lone Ranger (2013)

lonerangerposterWith the director, star, and writers from Disney’s original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, you’d likely expect The Lone Ranger simply to be Pirates in the West, and it pretty much is, for better and worse. The pieces don’t nearly come together as well, and the characters aren’t anywhere close either, but I was mostly pleased with the finished results after coming to terms with the flaws of the execution. This is a semi-supernatural reinvention of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, prankish and proudly peculiar.

In 1869 Texas, John Reid (Armie Hammer) is the new district attorney for a small outpost along the railway run by tycoon, Mr. Cole (Tom Wilkinson). John’s brother (James Badge Dale) is the sheriff and the more accepted hero. This all goes awry when the nefarious criminal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) kills the sheriff, his posse, and leaves John for dead. He’s brought back thanks to Tonto (Johnny Depp), a Native American with his own quirks. Together, the duo struggle with the idea of justice versus vengeance and taking responsibility.

Thanks to screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliot, and Terry Rossio, it still follows the summer movie blockbuster blueprint while maintaining its own sense of self. I enjoyed the 1933 framing device and the sense of commentary it added to the legend of Wild West tall tales. Many of these story elements will be painfully familiar, from the unrequited love interest that needs saving, her plucky son, to even the villainous railroad baron, but the film finds ways to keep all these formula figures at least integrated and satisfying, doling out payoffs to several storylines. More so, the film just has a wild sense of fun to it, enlivened by Verbinski’s exuberant feel for action. When he gets things going, the man has a touch for inventive action orchestration akin to Steven Spielberg. He is a director who knows how to add scale and scope to action and make it felt. The movie feels constantly alive and full of surprises, stepping outside itself for some non-linear asides, adding bizarre examples of nature undone (In the words of Nicolas Cage: do not touch the bunny), and a heavy dose of magic realism. It’s just too funky and weird not to be interesting even when it threatens to be boring. Disney put crazy money into something this crazy, folks, reportedly $200 million.

87548_galThere are serious problems here much as there were in the Pirates sequels, notably a lingering sense of bloat. At 149 minutes, there could have been a lot of cuts. The saggy middle seems to almost derail all momentum, as Reid and Tonto stumble about the desert, filling in a majority of Tonto’s tragic back-story. Most of the supporting characters are chiefly underwritten. I pity the great Ruth Wilson, so nerve-fryingly awesome on the BBC’s Luther as an enthralling sociopath, and here she’s basically Love Interest/Single Mom for Reid. At least she does a decent job with her Texas twang. There’s plenty of overindulgence all around, and I won’t even entertain the argument that its handling of Native American displacement, while not as clumsily racist as feared, was anything other than schlocky. There are also three villains of different stripes that need to be juggled. There are a lot of storylines and characters to keep active and the movie just cannot keep up. The tone can be somewhat jarring as it dances around dark comedy, earnest sentimentality, tragic drama, and cavalier heroism. It feels like the movie never settles down, which can keep an audience from being fully engaged, fully invested. It hurts even more when the characters are nowhere near as charismatic as Captain Jack Sparrow.

Perhaps I’m being overly generous after coming from Man of Steel, and perhaps, nefariously, Man of Steel is still going on, locking me forever in some sort of parallel mobius strip where I’ll never be able to leave, but I greatly enjoyed the action sequences in Lone Ranger. Verbinski is one of the most talented visual filmmakers working today but, more importantly, he knows how to orchestrate large-scale action sequences in a way that they matter. Yes, like most things in The Lone Ranger, they can go on a bit too long, but here the situations develop naturally with organic complications, the sequences move the plot forward, and they escalate in excitement. The concluding twenty minutes involves a sumptuous dual train chase that keeps shifting and changing, going from atop to parallel trains, to cars being dislodged, people jumping from one to the other, all racing toward a bridge triggered with explosives. It’s a thing of beauty, this final action sequence, and Verbinski’s shot compositions allow things to play out so artfully while the audience still maintains its sense of orientation. It’s a finale that feels exhilarating, and the playful whimsy and sense of danger that the movie had been flirting with before comes together, enough for you to wish the whole movie had tonally coalesced with the skill shown toward the end. As an action fan, I was lapping it up, and the playful non-linear jumps, as well as the satisfying ends to some satisfying villains (Fichtner is terrific), left me grinning and hopping with excitement. A strong finish went a long way toward improving my opinion on the film and minimizing my misgivings.

Who is this dark, weird, somewhat clunky movie really appealing to? The Lone Ranger had its cultural peak back in the 1950s and thus the people actually excited for a Lone Ranger movie must be slim. And those people are probably going to be turned off by something as jokey and unfaithful to the source material as this movie. It does utilize the Ranger’s theme song, the William Tell Overture, but saves it for the end. What about kids? The movie is released under the Disney imprimatur and has the stamp of “from the creators of Pirates of the Caribbean.” Everybody loved the first movie and the sequels were also huge global hits, but this movie is even darker and somewhat grisly. There’s a moment when Cavendish literally cuts open a dude’s chest and eats his heart (mostly off-screen and implied mine you, but still). I can already hear the parental uproar. And while it’s somewhat implied that Cavendish and his men are cannibals, this storyline is never really touched upon again. Did we need the heart-eating scene to fully communicate how nasty our villain is? The true audience for the big-screen Lone Ranger may very well only be the mega fans of 2011’s Rango, Vernibski’s Oscar-winning foray into animation. If you like a somewhat weird, somewhat anarchic, tonally uneven movie with personality and eye candy, then perhaps Lone Ranger is for you. Problem is that this potential audience is going to be meager, but it does include me.

The-Lone-Ranger-900-600I know there are many people out there experiencing stage four Depp fatigue, and I can’t blame them. His penchant for peculiar character construction can get somewhat tiresome if the movie doesn’t have more going on. In something like Alice in Wonderland, a movie I didn’t even like, at least his weirdness fit with the weird world unlike, say, Dark Shadows, a movie best forgotten by everyone involved. Here his Tonto is as head scratching as he is humorous. And is there an inherent awkwardness having a white actor, in this day and age, playing a Native American? According to the Internet, Depp has said he “probably” has some Cherokee ancestors because he’s from Kentucky. The funny (awful?) thing is that Tonto is often in white face with his special face painting (red face in white face?). I just don’t think he can apply the same bug-eyed, swishy, eccentric sensibility to every character and call it a day. Just when you think he’s gotten away from starring in every movie with Helena Bonham Carter, surprise, here she is. And it’s not even a Tim Burton movie, people! Tonto is seen less as side kick and more of a co-lead if not the real star, and part of that is the bankability of Depp as a box-office draw, part of that is Depp as an executive producer on the project, and part of that is just because the kooky Tonto is just far more interesting than the straight-laced Reid. Hammer (Mirror, Mirror) has the jaw line, the look, and an engaging yet square appeal to him, and if anyone saw The Social Network you know the handsome lad can act. Too often he ends up being a minor foil to Tonto; it takes him far too much hemming and hawing before he accepts his masked outlaw status. As a result, he’s something of a bland fuss bucket.

Disney’s big-budget reworking of The Lone Ranger will probably be held up as the prime example, in a non-Michael Bay summer, of everything wrong with studio filmmaking, the punching bag for blockbusters. Some may even invoke a comparison to another costly Disney endeavor, last year’s flop, John Carter. There are plenty of faults the movie exhibits, namely an extended sense of bloat and an uneven tone, but I’d be lying if I said I was obsessed with the faults by its spectacular end. The movie does enough right, and enough semi-right with enough style and verve, that I left my screening feeling giddy and satisfied. It might be too dark, too glib, too weird, or too self-indulgent, but those are all reasons that made me like this movie even more. There’s a character with a wooden leg that doubles as a rifle, and not only that but one of our villains, a cavalryman, has a clear fetish for prosthetic legs. And this is a Disney film! I can’t help but love the spirit at large. Thanks to a fine supporting cast, Verbinski’s high wire visual stylings, and some strange sensibilities, not to mention a grand finish, The Lone Ranger is as entertaining in what it does right as with what it does wrong.

Nate’s Grade: B

J. Edgar (2011)

J. Edgar has all the qualities you’d want in a high profile, awards-friendly movie. It charts the life of legendary FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio in its title role, and it has Oscar-winner attached as screenwriter (Dustin Lance Black) and director (Clint Eastwood). The only way this movie could be bigger awards bait was if Hoover personally challenged Adolf Hitler to a duel. At a running time of 137 minutes, J. Edgar misses out on explaining why this complex man was who he was, a difficult prospect but I would have at least appreciated some effort.

J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was, at his height, said to be the second most powerful man in the United States. The first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations served under eight presidents and for over 50 years. The man rose to power fighting against radicals and Bolshevik terrorists in 1919. Hoover successfully arranged for America to deport foreigners with “suspected radical leanings.” He was appointed to head the, then, Bureau of Investigations, where Hoover remade the agency in the image he desired. His agents were going to be clean-cut, college-educated, physically fit, and God help you if you had facial hair. Hoover also fought to bring modern forensic science into investigations and trials, proposing a centralized catalogue of fingerprints, which at the time was dismissed by many as a “speculative science.” Hoover also amassed an extensive system of confidential files on thousands of American citizens he felt were potential threats or if he just didn’t like them. Hoover wasn’t afraid to bully presidents with this secret catalogue. On a personal level, Hoover was admittedly without any friends or interests outside the agency he felt responsible for. His life was defined by three close personal relationships: his mother (Judi Dench), whom Hoover lived with until the day she died; Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his loyal secretary and confidant of 40 years; and Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), an FBI agent that Hoover shared a decades-long unrequited romance with. Upon Hoover’s death in 1972, Tolson was given Hoover’s burial flag, and Tolson’s own grave is a mere couple plots away from J. Edgar’s.

The movie feels trapped in a closet alongside Hoover. The guy was rather enigmatic and hard to nail down, but I would have appreciated Eastwood and Black at least trying to figure the guy out. They treat the subject with such fragility, such sympathetic stateliness about his more salient personality points. It feels like Eastwood doesn’t want to get his hands too dirty, so the provocative material, like the gay stuff, is kept to very period appropriate acts of discretion. A handholding in the backseat of a car is practically scandalous given the treatment on the gay material. The oft rumored cross-dressing aspect is hinted at but explained, in context of the scene, as Hoover’s way of mourning the loss of his mother. With Hoover, there was only his public persona of a moral crusader, a face that he never removed even in his private moments. The guy could never embrace happiness, only duty. It feels like Eastwood couldn’t decide on what stance to take, and thus the film settles on a bloodless examination that won’t upset any of the, presumably, delicate sensibilities of the older audience members. A towering figure of moral certainty, extreme paranoia, righteous conviction, a vindictive streak against his mounting collection of enemies, and a shaky hold on the truth, all in the name of protection against America’s many real and imagined enemies – I feel like the blueprint has been established for the eventual Dick Cheney biopic. It’ll just be slightly less gay.

Let’s talk more about the gay factor. It feels like this area is where Eastwood definitely could have pushed much further, but the old school director seems to be of the opinion that a biopic need not pry nor speculate. Excuse me, but you’re telling me about a man’s life, the least you could do is dig deeper. A domineering mother, who said she’d rather have a dead son than one of those “daffodils,” and the moral restraints of the time, are easy enough to identify why Hoover was a repressed homosexual. That doesn’t separate him from probably a far majority of homosexual men in the first half of the twenty-first century. What makes Hoover, a repressed homosexual, tick? This is no Brokeback Mountain style whirlwind of untamable emotion. Eastwood keeps things chaste, choosing to view Hoover as a celibate man. Hoover and Clyde becomes inseparable “companions,” eating every dinner together, going away on trips, and enjoying the pleasure of one another’s company – the life of the lifelong “bachelor.” But that’s as far as the movie is willing to go (remember the scandalous handholding?). There are hints about how socially awkward Hoover can be, a guy who seems downright asexual at times. He proposed to Helen on a first date where his attempts to charm included showing off his card catalogue system at the Library of Congress (“I bet you show this to all the girls…”). You get the impression he’s not comfortable with this necessary area of human biology. That’s fine room to start, but J. Edgar doesn’t do anything but start its characterization ideas. It gives you ideas to toy with and then moves along. The relationship with Clyde hits a breaking point when Hoover discusses, during one of their weekend getaways, the prospect of finally choosing a “Mrs. Hoover.” Naturally Clyde does not react well to this development, and the two engage in a brawl that ends in a shared bloody kiss. This is about as passionate as Eastwood’s movie ever dares to get.

I expected more from the Oscar-winning writer of Milk. Black’s lumpy script can often be confusing, lacking a direct narrative through line. Some leaps in time can just be confusing, like when J. Edgar is asking his junior agent typist what figure was most important in the 20th century thus far. The agent answers, “Joe McCarthy,” and then we have a new agent sitting there, and Hoover asks again. Finally we have another agent who responds with Hoover’s desired answer, “Charles Lindbergh.” I suppose we’re left to assume that Hoover fired his typists until he found one who mirrored his own thoughts. There is also far too much time spent over the Lindbergh baby case. I understand it’s the so-called Crime of the Century and, as Black sets up, a situation for Hoover to prove his bureau’s value when it comes to modern criminal science. It just goes on for so long and rarely offers insight into Hoover. Sans Clyde, the majority of the supporting characters offer little insight as well. Hoover’s mother never goes beyond the domineering matrimonial figure. Helen seems like a cipher, rarely giving any explanation for her decades of loyalty despite clear objections to certain choices. She’s too often just a “secretary” there to move the plot along by introducing more characters of minimal impact. With Hoover being such an enigmatic and closeted figure, the supporting characters could have been the areas we found the most insight into the man. Nope.

The entire plot structure feels like a mistake. Hoover is dictating his memoirs so we primarily flash from the 1930s, when Hoover was making a name for himself, to the 1960s, when Hoover is fighting a secret war against, of all things, the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. (he was convinced King was tied to communists). The back-and-forth nature of the story can lead to some confusion over facts and timelines, but the concept of Hoover dictating his memoirs means that the movie becomes a greatest hits compilation, a showcase of Hoover’s finest hours in an attempt to win public support back. He can explain his obsessions and justify his overreaches. That’s why Hoover’s entire catalogue of secret files on thousands of American citizens, including presidents, is given such short shrift. Why would he want to discuss his own subversive tactics hunting subversive elements? The only time the screenplay discusses this secret catalogue is when Hoover and Clyde want to have a good laugh over Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian paramour (irony?). Richard Nixon covets these files, so Helen swears that upon the death of her boss that she will shred every page before Tricky Dick can get his hands on them (J. Edgar is rated R for “brief strong language,” and they are all provided by potty-mouthed Nixon). Black attempts something of an Atonement-styled ending with an unreliable narrator, but the effects are slight and only superficial and too late.

At this point it’s probably going to be rare for DiCaprio (Inception, Revolutionary Road) to give a dud performance. The actor isn’t the first name you’d think of for a Hoover biography. Regardless, the guy does a great job especially with the emotional handicaps given to him by Black’s script and Eastwood’s direction. Given all the emotional reserve, it’s amazing that DiCaprio is able to make his character resonate as much as he can, finding small nuances to work with. Hoover’s clipped speaking style, likely the most readily recognizable feature of the man, is here but DiCaprio does not stoop to impression. He’s coated in what looks like 800 pounds of makeup to portray Hoover in the 1960s. The old age makeup looks good on DiCaprio, though the same cannot be said for his inner circle. Older Clyde looks like he is suffocating behind a gummy Halloween mask; the man looks like he is mummified in his own liver-spotted skin. Older Helen just looks like they powdered her face and added some gray to her hair.

The movie seems to take its emotional cues from its subject; far too much of J. Edgar is reserved, hands-off, and afraid to assert judgment on what was a highly judgmental man of history. What makes Hoover compelling is his array of contradictions. He’s defined by three personal relationships (mother, Clyde, Helen), all of whom he could never have. That’s got to mean something. Instead of exploring these contradictions in any meaningful psychological depth, Eastwood seems to take his hand off the wheel and the film just casually drifts along, steered by the self-aggrandizing of Hoover himself, given so much room to explain detestable behavior in the name of protecting America. J. Edgar is a handsomely mounted biopic with some strong acting, but from Eastwood’s impassive direction (his piano-trinkle score isn’t too good either) and Black’s lumpy script, the finished work feels too closed off and arid for such a controversial subject worthy of closer inspection.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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