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Justice League (2017)

The story behind the Justice League movie is one of turmoil and turnover. Zack Snyder has been the cinematic voice for the DC film universe (DCU) and, if you listen to enough critics and fans, the weight holding down the franchise. Justice League began filming in the spring of 2016, which means they had a considerable lead time before release. Either they went into production with a script they were unhappy with or they learned it. A year later, in the spring of 2017, Snyder bowed out of his directorial duties to spend more time with his family in the aftermath of his daughter’s suicide. Enter Joss Whedon, the wunderkind behind Marvel’s record-breaking Avengers. The studio was unhappy with Snyder’s rough-cut, deeming the footage “useable,” and tapped Whedon to make drastic reshoots. He rewrote the film enough to earn a writing credit from the WGA. Complicating the already pricey reshoots was star Henry Cavill’s mustache, a holdover from the filming of Mission: Impossible 6. He wasn’t permitted to shave his ‘stach, and so Warner Bros. was forced to pay likely millions… to digitally erase Cavill’s facial hair (DCU is 0-2 when it comes to mustaches this year). The final product is being met with great fanfare, hope, and curiosity. If anybody could save this project it’s Whedon, right? Well Justice League could have been renamed Super Hero Fatigue: The Movie.

Months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.

Aggressively bland, lazy, and unmemorable, I was genuinely left questioning whether Justice League was somehow worse because it wasn’t worse. It’s not the aggravating stew that was Batman vs. Superman or Suicide Squad, but those weren’t exactly difficult hurdles to clear. To put it in another colorful analogy: while it may not be a flaming dumpster fire, it’s just a dumpster, something you wouldn’t give any mind to because, hey, it’s just a normal dumpster, and why would you even want to spend time looking at that anyway? That’s Justice League for you, a DCU super hero film that’s better by default and still disappointing to the point that you wish it would be mercy killed to spare us a prolonged death rattle. This movie is ground down to the raw pulp of a super hero movie. It lacks personality. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before from a modern super hero film. An ensemble of poorly developed characters must band together to stop a dumb villain from world annihilation with a giant energy portal in the sky. There have been now five DCU films in this sputtering cinematic universe and three movies fit that formulaic description. Even the 2015 Fantastic Four remake followed this. The draw of this film is its mythical heroes, yet they are so lazily developed that we rarely feel any sense of awe or reverence with them. The cast chemistry is relatively strong and the actors have been well chosen, but let’s go person-by-person in this league to determine just how poorly the story serves them.

Batman has become the Nick Fury of this new post-Superman world, taking charge assembling a team to combat a more dire, powerful alien threat. He’s the least super in many regards and has fleeting moments contemplating his mortality, but just when you think they might give the older Batman some depth, they pull back. His biggest relationship is with Wonder Woman and their central conflict feels contrived. He’s angry at her for not getting more involved (hey, Wonder Woman, you got out there for WWI but sat out the Holocaust?). It feels like a strange managerial tiff. Affleck (Live by Night) seems to have gotten more growly and smug. Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) scowls and scoffs. Considering they’ve each lead a DCU movie, we should be more attached to them in this story. He’s not fun to be around and neither is she. The new members have some degree of promise.

Aquaman is a gruff, shaggy, tattooed loner embodied by Jason Momoa, and his performance works better than the character does. Momoa (Game of Thrones) is charismatic as a wild man but he comes across as a fraternity jock. His cocky, carefree persona and aesthetic are trying too hard to re-imagine Aquaman as a sexy superhero for today. The underwater action scene in Atlantis is so cumbersomely filmed and staged that I think I realized, in that moment, how visually dreary underwater fight scenes are. There goes any last shred of interest in the solo Aquaman film coming in 2018. Cyborg is basically a modern Frankenstein story and should have had affecting characterization about the battle over reclaiming his humanity. Instead he becomes the plot equivalent of a Swiss army knife, able to open any locked device or technological obstacle.

The Flash/Barry Allen is the best part of the film by default (a familiar term in this review). Miller’s (Perks of Being a Wallflower) extra jubilant performance feels like a course correction from the criticism of how unflinchingly gloomy BvS was. He’s the stars-in-his-eyes rookie who is also a fanboy first, geeking out about getting to work with legends. It’s not just that the fanboy-as-hero angle was already tackled better by Marvel in Tom Holland’s newest edition of Spider-Man, it’s also that the film doesn’t know when to stop. Barry Allen has to quip for every occasion. While some belie his insecurity and nervousness about being promoted to the front lines of hero work, several are forced. The coolest thing he can do is run so fast time slows down, yet we’ve already seen this displayed better and with more witty panache in the recent X-Men films with Quicksilver. Flash is the only character with anything resembling an arc, and this amounts to little more than not being as terrible at fighting and getting a job. He makes his dad proud… by getting a job, and this is sadly the best example of a character arc in Justice League.

Another course correction was ditching overly complicated plotting for simplification, which can be a virtue. With Justice League, simplicity gives way to a dispirited lack of ambition and effort. The plot is thusly: Batman has to recruit a team to stop a Big Bad from getting three boxes buried around the world. Perhaps some will characterize this as a facetious oversimplification, but that’s really all that’s going on for two hours. The only other significant plot turn is the resurrection of Superman. The concluding image of BvS was the dirt hovering over Clark Kent’s casket, heavily implying he was coming back, so this really shouldn’t be a spoiler. The heroes suddenly decide the mother boxes can bring Superman back, and they know how to do it, and then just do it, without any setup. If it had been Cyborg who came up with this plan since he shares the alien technology that could have made some degree of sense. No, it’s Bruce Wayne who comes up with this idea, a man with no experience with alien technology. The heroes use one of the magic mother boxes to bring Superman back from the dead and then, inexplicably, leave it behind for our villain to capture. Literally the characters look over their shoulders and, whoops, a giant energy vortex has sucked up the final item needed to destroy the world. Maybe one of you should have had somebody watching that important thing.

There are other moments that speak to the troubles of simplicity leading to laziness. The opening sequence with Wonder Woman involves a group of criminals taking hostages in a bank. Oh, these are sophisticated bank robbers you might guess. No, these are, in their own outlandish words, “reactionary terrorists,” and they’re here to set off a bomb. Why did you have to enter the bank, let alone take hostages, and call attention to yourselves then? Would a bevy of car bombs not get the job done? These guys are on screen just to be dispatched by Wonder Woman, but at least put some effort into them. Here’s another example of the effects of oversimplification. Steppenwolf’s base of operations is an Eastern European/Russian bloc city in the wake of an abandoned nuclear facility. We see one desperate family fret over the flying Steppenwolf hench-demons and barricade themselves in their home. We then keep cutting back to them again and again. Will they have a greater importance? Is the final mother box to be found underneath their home? No, they are merely an on-the-ground a perspective and offer no insights, complications, or interest. We just keep checking in with them as if they are the most irrelevant war correspondent. When the climactic battle ensues, they’re the sole lives we see in danger from the epic fighting.

The villain is also a severe liability, as Steppenwolf feels plucked from a mid 2000s video game. He feels like a mini-boss from a God of War game. Not a boss battle, a mini-boss. His entire character design is ugly and resembls a goat. He may be twelve feet tall or whatever he is but he is completely unremarkable and nonthreatening. He wants to bring about the end of the world by collecting his three world-destroying MacGuffins and making them cross the streams. His back-story happens midway through the film and is shockingly a rip-off of the Cate Blanchett-narrated prologue from The Lord of the Rings. All the races of the world and beyond teamed up against this dumb dude and then they took possession of his source of power, the three boxes to rule them all, and divided them up among the different races for safety. They’re even dressed like Middle Earth fantasy characters. They foolishly split up the boxes in a way that the bad guy would know exactly where they are if he ever came back. This lame villain is also hampered with a lame back-story. I don’t understand what about this character makes him invincible in the first half and what changes to make him beatable in the second half. His powers and potential weaknesses are ill defined and you too will struggle to work up any interest for what may be one of the most boring and useless villains in super hero film history. According to my pal Ben Bailey, Steppenwolf makes Malakeith (Christopher Eccleston) of Thor 2 look like Loki (Tom Hiddelston) in Thor 2.

Justice League feels like two movies indelicately grafted together, and if you have a trained eye for cinematography you’ll easily be able to spot the difference between the Snyder parts and the Whedon parts (final product looks 70 percent Snyder, 30 percent Whedon). Snyder is much more the visual stylist so his camera arrangements are far more dynamic, and his cinematography also makes more use of space within the frame, especially from the foreground and background. His scenes also have a more crisp, filmic look. By contrast, the Whedon scenes feel overly clumsy and with too much strained humor. The Whedon humor holds on a beat longer, as if it’s waiting for a canned laughter response to clear. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) remarks about how Superman smells, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) drops a malapropism about her son calling Lois the “thirstiest reporter,” Barry Allen’s inability to grasp what is brunch, which is the only thing shoehorned into the middle of Snyder footage. Then the brunch joke is brought up again in the first post-credit scene, which had me convinced that Whedon was going to produce some sort of meta moment with the Justice League final post-credit scene mirroring The Avengers, with the team out enjoying a casual meal together. Not only do I think I enjoyed the Snyder parts better but I think I also enjoyed the humor of the Snyder parts better.

The color correction is also completely different. Check out the Justice League trailers and you’ll see two different climaxes, one before Whedon that takes place in Snyder’s typical landscape of diluted grays and blues, and another after Whedon that looks to be set on Mars. An unintended consequence of altering the color correction so decisively is that the costumes suffer. These outfits were clearly designed for the landscape of colors for Snyder’s darker vision. Whedon’s brightening up makes the costumes look like discount cosplay. It’s not that the Snyder parts are that much better, it’s that the Whedon parts aren’t that great.

The action sequences are just as unmemorable as the rest of the movie. Action sequences need variation, they need mini-goals, and they need multiple points of action. There’s a reason many film climaxes involve different pairs or groups fighting different villains. It keeps the action fresh, involves all of the characters in meaningful ways, and provides more payoffs. The action becomes more dynamic and complex and simply entertaining. The action in Justice League is thoroughly underwhelming. With the exception of Cyborg being a hacker plot device, none of the characters use their powers in integral ways. All they do is punch and jump. When that happens the heroes are too interchangeable. They also don’t seem to do anything different in the third act nor does the climax require them to do anything different, so their victory as a team feels perfunctory and arbitrary. The special effects feel unfinished and unpolished for a $300 million movie. A sequence set on Wonder Woman’s home island looks like it was taken from a cheesy Dynasty Warriors video game. A montage during the conclusion has shockingly bad CGI of the Flash running in a goofy, gangly, leg-failing way that made me doubt Whedon’s eyesight. The most hilarious special effect, possibly of all time, is the fake Superman upper lip. It kept me analyzing every Cavill mouth I saw. His upper lip looked too waxy with shine and indented too widely. We are not there yet my friends for realistic mustache removal technology. We’ll just have to go back to old-fashioned razors and rue this primitive existence of ours.

Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad have already conditioned audiences to expect the worst, and the fact that Justice League is better may make some mistakenly believe this is a good super hero adventure. It’s not. While not the spectacular failure of its predecessors, this is extraordinarily forgettable and thoroughly underwhelming from top to bottom. I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance. The villain is just an obstacle to be overcome without any larger thematic relevance. I struggled to care about what was happening. Ultimately, the finished product feels like Zack Snyder’s garage sale (“Here’s all the stuff you’re used to and maybe you’re tired of but I’m not gonna put that much effort into this so maybe we can haggle”). And then Joss Whedon bought it all, repackaged it, and sold it back to you, America. As dreadful as the previous movies were they at least had moments that stood out, many of them for the wrong reasons, admittedly. Justice League isn’t as bad and yet is paradoxically less watchable.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Bad Santa 2 (2016)

bad_santa_two_ver2A comedy with no reason to exist is a lousy thing and it’s even worse when that comedy seems to know it, and thus is the pitiful state of Bad Santa 2, a sequel that feels far too stale. I wonder if the original movie was as enjoyable as I recall or if in the ensuing 13 years we’ve just become more inured to the casual vulgarity of these movies, but I was left bored by the overwhelming listlessness of this comedy. Billy Bob Thornton returns but he’s generally on autopilot. The loose plot involves another score, this time engineered by his mother (Kathy Bates), but really it’s mostly a hangout film with nasty characters insulting each other in painfully provocative ways. I was getting restless and the comic set pieces are to a whole poorly developed and routinely settle on the easiest joke, which is again witless shock value. There’s no range, no unexpected turns, so much of the comedy falls flat, the same smutty joke repeated with little variance. Stay tuned for a tepid end credits sequence that justifies the “graphic nudity” of the rating (hopefully Snapchat does not get any ideas for the tie-in). Without a stronger plot and characters, the shock value begets diminished returns, and even my preview audience was deadly silent for long stretches. I laughed about ten times total, not enough to justify a theatrical viewing but perhaps enough to keep it on TV while folding laundry. The strange thing about a dark comedy is that it feels like all the consequences from the plot were cut in editing as several storylines and their reasons to exist fail to fully manifest. There are payoffs you anticipate that never come and storylines that seem created entirely for reasons that never arise. The most consistent comic presence is Brett Kelly replaying his now grown-up simpleton from the first movie. Kelly is the only actor who plays a different note, providing a dose of unyielding optimism that befuddles. If you’re a big fan of the original and just looking for another fix perhaps Bad Santa 2 will provide enough nasty humor to satisfy. By the end I felt drained from this thoroughly pointless affair.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Alamo (2004)

The Alamo was originally going to be the jewel in Disney’s 2003 Oscar crown. It began with a star-studded pedigree: Ron Howard directing, a screenplay by John Sayles and Stephen Gaghan, and Russell Crowe starring. Things got dicey when budget figures were debated, and Howard insisted on an R-rated cut for authenticity. After some creative wrangling, Howard left to get his gore fix on with another flick (The Missing), Crowe went off to sea (Master and Commander), and Disney tapped Johnny Lee Hancock to direct in the wake. Trouble is, Hancock had only directed one previous film, 2002’s The Rookie. The 90 million dollar movie was supposed to be released during December 2003, just in time for Oscar season. However, the editing needed more time, so Disney’s supposed award-grabber was delayed until April 2004. Now, given the final PG-13 product, were the wait and creative compromises worth all the trouble?

In The Alamo we follow the men of Texas, including surly drunk Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), idealistic Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), girly aristocrat William Travis (Patrick Wilson), and legendary Davey Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). They want to make Texas their home, but Mexican General, Santa Anna, has different plans and wants to reclaim the land for the glory of Mexico and, more importantly, for the glory of himself. As Santa Anna storms into Texas, a meager number of men take refuge in the Alamo, an old Spanish mission, and arm themselves for an eventual battle between the merciless General and his thousands of soldiers.

The pacing of this movie is about as fast as a tumbleweed. An entire act of this movie involves Texans and Santa Anna’s men exchanging a shot here, a volley there, back and forth and back and forth for no reason. It certainly doesn’’t build tension. It just squanders time, and this thing is 2 hours and 20 minutes long! If it weren’’t for my free bag of popcorn I would have fallen asleep countless times during viewing.

The acting of The Alamo may make you want to throw up a white flag yourself. Jason Patric spends the majority of his time on his back with teeth clenched, and when that’s not the case he’s lookin’’ to get his famous blade a cameo. Quaid seems to have a frog permanently lodged in his throat. The only performer who walks away unscathed is Thornton. He gives a humanistic touch to the familiar character of Davey Crockett and shows the wear of living up to legend.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Alamo is how poorly directed it is. I know Johnny Lee Hancock has only one previous movie under his saddle, but my jaw hit the floor when I saw how flat his direction was. Scenes and angles are very awkwardly framed, everything is too flat or too rigid, his cinematography is an underwhelming mixture of silhouette shots and dusty hues, his sets look like a high school production, and his action scenes are staged without any sense of excitement or tension. Excluding one shot that shows the battle on all four sides of the Alamo, seen prominently in the trailers and TV spots, there isn’’t a single shot in this entire film that looks great. This is one of the worst looking $90 million film I have ever seen.

The script is another factor in driving down the entertainment. The makers strive for historical accuracy and to show both sides of the conflict without bias. So we get what all modern historical films feature now, namely the Famous People with Flaws. Bowie drinks a lot. Travis is unsure of himself and leaves his family. Boone doesn’t live up to hyperbolic legend. This information is fine, but The Alamo tries so hard to get the characters accurate that it fails in getting the characters right. I’m not calling for the return of myths, but The Alamo is so focused on the details that that’s all these characters become: historical details instead of living, breathing people.

The script also shirks any kind of detailed look at the role of minorities involved during the siege. Black people hardly mention slavery (and Texas would go on to become the largest slave state), women are designated as caregivers, either tending to the wounded or becoming floaty fantasies. The Alamo feels more like a eulogy than a film. And how many eulogies do people pay 5-10 bucks to go see?

I think what ultimately sinks this movie for me is my roots. I’’m not from Texas, I don’t know anyone from Texas, I don’t know if everything is bigger in Texas, and I don’t know if I’’ve ever messed with Texas, but the lone star state clings to the martyrdom of the Alamo like the crucifixion of Jesus. When I was watching The Alamo I kept having one reoccurring thought: is this accomplishing anything? In my assessment, no it did not. A bunch of Texans banded up in an old mission and fought Santa Anna but there was no reason for it and nothing was really gained. Someone will argue that they held up Santa Anna and allowed Sam Houston to collect his army and eventually take down Santa Anna. I would counter that with, “”You know what else could delay Santa Anna? Anything.””

The Alamo is an overlong, overly serious, flat, uninteresting bore. It feels more like a textbook and less like a story. Sure it’s not the jingoistic flag-waver that John Wayne’’s 1960 version was, and I can appreciate trying to get history right, but The Alamo is so insanely by-the-book serious that it’s as fun as a funeral march. It seems like the director and the producers were so afraid of telling the story of the Alamo wrong that they lost the ability to tell a good story. Only ardent history buffs, and maybe ardent Texans, will find anything appealing about this boring history lesson.

Nate’s Grade: C

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Miles Massey (George Clooney) is the preeminent divorce attorney in Los Angeles. But after years of bankrupting homes after people have broken them (this allusion may be too tricky), he’s grown tired of the same old same old. Enter Marilyn Roxroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a conniving gold digger who has been ruined by Massey defending her dimwitted hubby (Edward Herrmann). Now she’s out for revenge, which could be in the form of romancing Massey while bringing him down.

Intolerable Cruelty is something of a strange breed. It’’s the Coen’s most striving foray into mainstream success, with the weight of the world on Clooney and Zeta-Jones exchanging sparks and verbal repartee. For the most part, things work: the leads do have a winning chemistry; Zeta-Jones is positively glowing in Roger Deakins’ beautifully milky cinematography (she found out she pregnant late in the shoot, which could explain the glow).

The stumbling block for Intolerable Cruelty and its central romance is that neither of the leads, though at times charming, isn’’t exactly likable or able to root for. An integral part of any romantic comedy is empathy for the leads so much that we want them to get together, possibly with swirling crescendos. But in Intolerable Cruelty, both leads make a living off deceiving and taking advantage of others. So while their War of the Roses-esque pursuit to out-scam the other can provide some entertaining twists (and some forced and out of place), the whole duplicitous one-upsmanship doesn’’t blossom credible love between the leads or the audience.

I have a strong feeling that Intolerable Cruelty was a story the Coens hopped on late, did some rewrites and invited old Coen friends to join in the jubilee. This is the first time the Coens have worked with other writers (the people who brought us such duds as (Big Trouble and Life), and certain storylines or subplots that glaringly feel disjointed from the screwball-comedy tone of the film. An asthmatic hit man named Wheezy Joe (who got the biggest laugh with his demise) is funny but in the wrong Coen film. When Clooney and Zeta-Jones both hire the services of Wheezy Joe to off the other, you know the story took a fantastical wrong turn. A creepy decrepit owner of Clooney’’s law firm also feels like a leftover from a different film. This movie also has the most ripping up of legal documents I’’ve ever seen in a movie.

Clooney is quite funny as a chattering legal eagle with a Cary Grant edge. He’s ready and willing to play against his movie star image, which works wonders for comedy, though the running gag where he must look at his teeth in any reflective surface never takes off. It took me until Intolerable Cruelty to realize how much of a beautiful woman Zeta-Jones is. Her warm smile could light up an auditorium. The supporting characters are all underused but very memorable. The opening with Geoffrey Rush’’s TV exec walking in on his canoodling wife is very funny, and he plays the long-haired arrogant type well. Cedric the Entertainer is hilarious as a private eye determined to “”nail yo’ ass”” that I started privately wishing the film would spin to follow his life and not Clooney’’s.

Intolerable Cruelty is a nice diversion for the Coens, with some good laughs here and there (my favorite being the courtroom scene where Clooney and Zeta-Jones go head-to-head for the first time), but one would hope that the Coens will get back to doing hat they do best, which is quirky yet beautiful independent films. In the end, it seems that the Coens have created an oddity for themselves — a normal movie. We expect more Joel and Ethan.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Monster’s Ball (2001)

Monster’s Ball has already garnered two Oscar nominations, including one for the lovely Halle Berry for Best Actress, and received numerous end of the year accolades. Is Monster’s Ball the startling ruminations on race that you’re being told? Well… yes and no.

Set in the South, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are prison guards at the state penitentiary and preparing for an execution. The man to die is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) who will be leaving behind an overweight young son and making a widow out of Leticia (Halle Berry). The tension in the Grotowski home escalates especially as Hank has chosen to care for his own ailing father (Peter Boyle), who still finds the time to spout out racist rhetoric through an oxygen mask. One last confrontation leaves a permanent mark of emptiness on the family.

Leticia is struggling to just make ends meet and fight an impending eviction. Her car keeps breaking down on her, she’s been let go from her job as a waitress and she has to raise a son by herself all the while trying to encourage him to lose weight. Leticia is breaking down and her world around her is crumbling. One night Leticia gets into an accident walking home along the roadside and needs assistance badly. The one who pulls the car aside to help is actually Hank. As time goes by he helps Leticia however he can whether its giving her a ride home from the diner or just staying with her so she won’t be alone.

Hank and Leticia come together out of mutual need and grief. They are two people entirely wrong for each other that kindle a passion that seems to transcend race. Leticia needs someone to take care of her, after having a husband on death row and fighting to stay above the poverty line. Hank needs someone to take care of, out of a mixture of compounded loneliness and grief.

Thornton reprises the repressed protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There with his portrayal of Hank. His lips are pursed, looking a tad like Mr. Limpet, and he expresses more with a furrowed brow and stare than words could manage. Thornton’s performance is good, and the audience does really end up rooting for Hank, but the performance doesn’t resonate, possibly because of the writing for the character. I guess one could say Monster’s Ball is Halle Berry’s legitimization as an actress. Berry gives the performance of her career and has moments where she’s on the verge of ripping your heart out.

Monster’s Ball is not exactly the scorching portrait of race relations that it has been hyped to be. It’s really more of a story about two characters with race being underscored except for a convenient occasion where it can become the catalyst to a fight.

The film also takes some of its metaphors rather simply. The connection between father and son includes Hank and Sonny using the same prostitute. Hank eats every night in the same diner and always orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream (get it?) and black coffee (get it?).

All the ballyhoo over the explicit sex scene (thank you so much news-fluff) is undeserving. The sex scene is no different than a hundred seen before and many on Showtime during the late hours. The scene serves its purpose thematically in the story for its characters but it really isn’t “hot and steamy” as it’s been dubbed to be. Move along, folks.

Besides the acting Monster’s Ball has some other accomplishments up its sleeve. The cinematography is gorgeous and uses lights and darks to an incredibly effective degree. There are many scenes where you might be paying more attention to how the scene looks than the scene itself. The music is also commendable for the simple task of not becoming intrusive and actually enhancing the story. This is what scores are intended to do.

Monster’s Ball may be the biggest suck-in-air-uncomfortably movie to come out in a long time. I found myself enacting this measure every time someone did something horrible, said something racists or surprisingly died. This may be because I had the entire theater to myself for my own amusement. Monster’s Ball is certainly a well-written and well-acted film. It’s just not up to snuff when it comes to Best Picture speculation.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

The Coen brothers dark, twisty entry to the world of film noir looks mind-blowing with its black and white lensing. And the story is great too. Billy Bob Thronton plays a barber who gives new definition to the word passive. One day a customer lets him in on an up-and-coming financial project and if Thronton were to provide some dough then surely he would rake it in. As with most film noir, the normal man is thus pulled into the web of intrigue and crime. The ball gets rolling after Thornton blackmails his wife’s tryst (James Gandolfini), who also happens to be her boss and his friend. Things get far more complicated from there and nothing seems to go right as Thornton makes one bad decision after another. The Man Who Wasn’t There is an engaging and smart drama with game bits of comedy strewn at key moments. The Coen brothers are a pair not very easily topped when it comes to excellence in films, and this latest entry is a wonderful addition to their resume.

Nate’s Grade: A-

A Simple Plan (1998)

Not as simple as one would be led to believe. A Simple Plan offers great ensemble performances, never-ending suspense, and great execution at telling its tragic fable–all the while making a statement as one of the best films of 1998.

The core and real punch of the picture comes from its two main characters linked by blood but not by much else. The trouble all begins when the bothers and a buddy come across a downed air plane in the forest. with $4 million inside. The idea arises that they should all keep the money and hide their secret from all others. Hank resists at first but the promise of the money draws him in to becoming apart of the plan.

You could say the film’s like a Treasure of the Sierra Madre meets Fargo but this gives disservice to director Sam Raimi. The man famous for splatterfest horror outings shows great maturity in pulling something off like this so well.

The acting is some of the finest of the year, well I guess it would be last year. Paxton gives his best performance of his career, and Billy Bob Thornton does for backwater townsfolk what DeNiro did for psychos. My favorite would have to be the Lady MacBeth wife of Hank, played chillingly by Bridget Fonda. Her moral high ground disappears at the sight of the money and she drastically turns into a brooding and malicious character. In bed she whispers plans for her husband to hide his tracks or set up his partners to take the fall. That’s where A Simple Plan turns into a devious game of each other suspicious of the next, and falling victim to their own greed. The money brings out all the true feelings each has for the other that had remained buried inside.

Add a haunting score by master maestro Danny Elfman and you have yourself one fine feature.

Nate’s Grade: A

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