Gangs of New York (2002) [Review Re-View]
Originally released December 20, 2002:
Watching Martin Scorsese’s long-in-the-making Gangs of New York is like watching a 12-round bout between two weary and staggering prize fighters. You witness the onslaught of blows, see the momentum change several times, and in the end can’t really tell which fighter is victorious. This is the experience of watching Gangs of New York, and the two fighters are called “Ambitions” and “Flaws.”
The film begins in the Five Points district of 1840s New York among a vivid gang war over turf. Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) witnesses the slaying of his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), at the blade of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his “Native” Americans gang. So what does this son of a dead preacher-man do? Well he grows up, plots revenge by making a name under the wing of the Butcher becoming like a surrogate son. But will vengeance consume him?
Watch Leo DiCaprio assemble toughs, rake heels, and ne’er do wells to his Irish gang of rapscallions with facial hair that looks to be tweezed! Witness a one-dimensional Leo suck the life out of the film like a black hole! See Leo become the least frightening gangster since Fredo. Watch the horribly miscast Cameron Diaz play pin-the-tail-on-an-accent! Witness as she tries to play a pickpocket with a heart of gold that falls hopelessly and illogically in love with Leo! Marvel how someone looking like Diaz would exist in a mangy slum! See the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis upstage our stupid hero and steal every scene he inhabits! Witness one of the greatest villains in the last decade of movies! Watch Day-Lewis almost single-handedly compensate for the film’s flaws with his virtuoso performance! Admire his stove-top hat and handlebar mustache!
Witness a wonderful supporting cast including John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson! Wish that they had more screen time to work with! Wonder to yourself why in all good graces this film took nearly two years of delays to get out! Speculate away!
Gangs has the sharp aroma of a film heavily interfered with by its producers. The whole exercise feels like Scorsese being compromised. Gangs is a meticulous recreation of 1860s New York that often evokes an epic sense of awe. The story has more resonance when it flashes to small yet tasty historical asides, like the dueling fire houses and the Draft Riots. But all of these interesting tidbits get pushed aside for our pedantic revenge storyline with Leo front and center. You know the producers wanted a more commercial storyline, which probably explains why Diaz has anything to do with this.
The script is credited to longtime Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks, Steven Zallian (Academy Award winner for Schindler’’s List) and Kenneth Lonergan (Academy award nominee for You Can Count on Me). So with all these writing credentials, don’t you think one of them would realize all of the dumb things going on with the story? The ending is also very anticlimactic and ham-fisted. Just watch as we segue from a graveyard to present day New York, all thanks to the Irish rockers of U2!
I know this much, Day-Lewis needs to stop cobbling shoes and act more often. Gangs is his first visit to the big screen since 1997’’s The Boxer. He spent part of this hiatus in Italy actually making shoes. I don’’t know about everyone else but this man has too much talent to only be acting once every five years. Somebody buy his shoes and get him a script, post haste!
Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is at times sprawling with entertainment in its historic vision and at other times is infuriating, always dragging behind it a ball and chain called “stupid revenge story/love story.” I’’m sure the film will get plenty of awards and Oscar nods in prominent categories, and this seems like the Academy’’s familiar plan: ignore a brilliant artist for the majority of their career and then finally reward them late for one of their lesser films. So here’’s hoping Scorsese wins the Oscar he deserved for Raging Bull and Goodfellas.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS
It is rare to find a movie that is almost exact in its percentage of good aspects and poor aspects. This 50/50 balance is best exemplified by 2002’s Gangs of New York. The ten-time Oscar nominated movie (and zero-time winner) was intended to be director Martin Scorsese’s epic, and twenty years later it’s still his biggest movie in size. Scorsese waited twenty years to tell this sprawling story of New York City’s early criminal underworld, so at 160 unwieldy minutes it’s no surprise how overstuffed and unfocused the finished product ended up. It’s a movie with so many engrossing historical anecdotes, amazing texture and supporting actors, and a stunning return to upper-tier acting by Daniel Day-Lewis, and yet it is hampered by Leonardo DiCaprio’s lackluster storylines, both for vengeance and for love (maybe a love of vengeance?). It’s so bizarre to watch this movie because there can be sequences where the movie just excels, and then there are sequences where I just want to sigh deeply. It’s like the movie is in conflict with itself, and you, the viewer, are ultimately the frustrated victim.
Let’s focus on the good first. Day-Lewis had essentially retired from acting and went to work in Italy as a cobbler until Scorsese appealed to him to reconsider acting. Every second this man is onscreen deserves your utmost attention. DiCaprio was the advertised star of the movie but Day-Lewis was the real star. The movie is almost a Trojan horse of sorts, luring you in with a standard revenge plot line only for you to lose all interest and root for the charismatic villain. Day-Lewis is so enthralling, so commanding as Bill the Butcher that every moment he is absent feels like an eternity. He remained in character for the duration of the shoot, spooking waitresses, and learned how to throw knives from circus performers and how to cut meat from an actual butcher. Considering the man’s famous Method-acting approach, I wonder just how many skills Day-Lewis has acquired over decades. This man could be the living embodiment of Michelle Yeoh’s character in Everything Everywhere All at Once, able to, at a moment’s notice, tap into a uniquely honed skill-set upon need. I wish that itself was a movie; Day-Lewis filming a role when terrorists invade the set, and now he has to utilize every lesson and skill of his past acting roles to defeat the baddies and save the day. He may be the most interesting man in the world. Since Gangs, Day-Lewis has only appeared in five other movies, and amazingly he has been nominated for Best Actor three times, winning twice (that averages an Oscar every 2.5 movie roles). This man has become like an acting Halley’s Comet, waiting for him to swing around again and burn brightly and then, just as suddenly, pass back into the lengthy waiting period.
I loved the historical asides in this movie. I loved the scene showing, in one unbroken take, Irish immigrants stepping off the boat into New York harbor and getting immediately signed into service, given a rifle and uniform, and lined up to board another boat to fight the Confederacy. I loved the entire character of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and how transparently corrupt he is, reminding me of Claude Rains in Casablanca. I loved him competing with the dozens of other firefighting units squabbling over turf while a house burned down to cinders. I loved him scrambling for some entertainment for the masses, and he asks Bill to gather up four nobodies that they can publicly hang, and then we cut right to these relatively innocent men saying their last words before being hanged, including one man’s young son watching. It’s an incredible sequence. The culmination of the 1863 Draft Riots is terrific and maximizes the messy nature of the movie best, communicating the many breaking points that lead to this notorious riot. The opening of this movie is wonderful and a terrific mood setter as we watch the members of the Dead Rabbits assemble for battle, with the rattling percussive score by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings), finally breaking outdoors and watching gangs advance like armies. I loved the narrated history of the different gangs settled in New York and their peculiarities and fixations. I loved the before and after stories of Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), who settled as a corrupt police officer, and Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a mercenary who tries to go straight through, of all things, politics. I loved that the movie reminds us that just because these people reside in the North doesn’t stop them from being racist (an archbishop is especially aghast at a black man being allowed in his church). I loved the occasional P.T. Barnum appearance. I loved the proliferation of so many tall hats amidst all the handlebar mustache-twirling villainy. I loved when the movie felt like a living documentary, soaking up the richness of the recreated history.
Where the movie sputters is with just about all that involves DiCaprio’s character, Amsterdam. The revenge storyline is just so boring compared to everything else going on, enough so that I think even the movie forgets about it. Amsterdam becomes Bill’s budding protege and literally saves his life at several points (if your goal is for him to die, why save the man?). He’s such a boring character because all he thinks about is vengeance, so every relationship he builds is only about how much closer to achieving his goal he can be. Amsterdam is a thoroughly dull character, and DiCaprio doesn’t come across as a credible tough guy yet, especially diminished in the large shadow from Day-Lewis’s Butcher. It wasn’t until 2006’s The Departed where I felt like he shed his boyishness fully to play a credible adult man. DiCaprio has been great with Scorsese, and this movie was the start of a decade of collaborations (four movies, two Oscar nominations), but he feels miscast here as a brooding hero given inordinate attention.
Worse is the romance with a pick-pocket prostitute played by Cameron Diaz. I pity Diaz. She’s been given the spunky love interest role in the Oscar-bait movie, which is generally underwritten and only viewed as aiding the hero’s journey of our male lead or being the offramp not taken (“Don’ get y’er refenge, Amsti’dam, ‘stead come wit me to San Fran in Calyfer’nia”). This is not a good character and she’s meant to give voice to the female underclass perspective, so it’s even more irksome when her headstrong, defiant nature gets sublimated as a rote romantic option. Diaz is also woefully miscast and my 2002 quip of her playing “pin-the-tail-on-the-accent” is accurate. I might argue that maybe dramas aren’t her strong suit, but she was great in Being John Malkovich and In Her Shoes and The Holiday, though all of those had notable comedy elements. She has the ability but this might just have been too unfamiliar for her, and so she struggles throughout with a character defined by her sexual connections to the villain and the hero.
While these characters and the performances are the biggest misses in Gangs of New York, there are other misguided or poor elements adding to that 50/50 margin. The opening sequence is great until the actual gang warfare begins and you realize that Scorsese, arguably the greatest living American director, cannot direct action to save his life. The action is choppy and lacking any of the kinetic qualities we associate with most Scorsese movies. Not even the talents of editor Thelma Schoonmaker can help save this deficit. The movie’s overall scattershot nature also makes it rather uneven and difficult to build momentum. The ending plays out like a footnote to the Draft Riots and robs the viewer of whatever catharsis could be granted from the long vengeance plot. If the whole movie has been leading up to Amsterdam’s vengeance, well robbing him of it could be meaningful, if the self-destructive nature of vengeance had been a theme. It’s not like Amsterdam has suffered at all, beyond the occasional stab wound or black eye, so him learning a lesson about the futility of vengeance would seem inappropriate and trite. I also want it known for posterity that there is an un-credited actor listed online as playing “Hot Corn Girl.”
Twenty years later, Gangs of New York is still a frustrating and sometimes exhilarating viewing. It began a road for Scorsese that led to him finally winning his first, and still only, Oscar for directing The Departed. The sprawling nature of the movie is both a blessing and a hindrance. It allows for a wider scope and cast of characters but it also means that if you’re liking a subplot or a supporting character, you’ll have to wait your turn before they re-emerge. My old review back in 2002 perfectly sums up the majority of my feelings in 2022. There’s much to see and much to like with Gangs of New York but also too much to restrain its potential greatness.
Re-View Grade: C+
The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)
The Banshees of Inisherin is a melancholy movie that aspires for tragi-comedy but comes up short. I’m a big fan of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s past films, especially 2017’s Three Billboards and 2008’s In Bruges, and his command of character writing and finely hewn tonal shifts. With Banshees, it’s the tale of a falling out between two friends, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and Padraic (Colin Farrell), and the repercussions of this disunion. Colm (pronounced Call-em) looks at his long-time daily drinking partner as unrepentantly dull and as a drain on his emotional energy. As he’s getting older, he’s more mindful of his time and wants to try and create a violin piece to outlive him. Padraic (pronounced Patrick) cannot accept that his friend can just abruptly end things, so he persists, wanting to know why, wanting to know what he can do to mend this friendship, and not listening to Colm’s threats if he doesn’t leave well enough alone. The film is set in 1923 on the island of Inisherin during the short-term Irish civil war, and the backdrop gives way to gorgeous landscapes and an overwhelming sense of isolation. Every character in this movie is feeling some gnawing sense of loneliness and discontent, from Colm and Padraic looking at their friend and wondering why, to Padraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) who pines to leave and start a life on the mainland on her own, to Dominic (Barry Koeghan) who is looking for any human connection beyond his alcoholic and abusive father. McDonagh is terrific at writing his characters and interspersing droll humor and establishing the staid rhythms of this small world. The actors are all uniformly fantastic with special attention to the sad-eyed Farrell and super-charged Koeghan. I was enjoying my time but then I started to worry what this would all amount to, and the answer remains a big question mark. The movie’s story feels like an over-extended parable, and in doing so that holds many of the characters to be less developed and nuanced, serving their role as perspectives or victims of the folly of fate. By the end, I don’t really know what the larger theme or message of McDonagh’s movie. Maybe it’s about the facile nature of so many friendships, maybe it’s about what we choose to signify the fullness of a life lived, or maybe it’s just that a man’s donkey is nothing to trifle with. The Banshees of Inisherin is more funny than profound, but even kept too strictly in parable terms, it’s still an entertaining and occasionally heartbreaking watch.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
At this point, William Shakespeare’s tragedy of witchy regicide has been adapted into over 30 movies, most recently in 2015 with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotilard, so with any new Macbeth the question arises: what will this one offer? The pedigree behind this 2021 film is mesmerizing: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and director Joel Coen. That’s enough reason to see another rendition of the Bard, although the best acting comes from a surprise, theater vet Kathryn Hunter who portrays all the witches as one person (plus more). She’s captivating and haunting and the highlight of the movie. This is the most, for lack of a better term, ordinary film in Coen’s quirky career and his first without brother/collaborator Ethan. It finds a dreamy middle ground between film and theater, utilizing imposing and stark sound stages and striking chiaroscuro black and white photography to feel otherworldly. The eerie, shifting imagery and alien presentation makes the movie feel like a transporting dream oiled by the lugubriousness of Shakespeare’s brilliant words. This version also demonstrates some of the more violent actions typically reserved for offstage implications (poor Macduff son). This Macbeth is also shockingly fast-paced, barely clocking in at 105 minutes, about half of the running time for the unabridged stage play. The acting is uniformly good but I was slightly let down by the leads. I guess I was expecting more indulgence in the sheer thespian feast and was surprised they made more of a tiny meal of things. If you’re familiar with the source material, there should be enough here to appeal to you, though I still hold the Patrick Stewart BBC production as the best film adaptation yet. Go into The Tragedy of Macbeth expecting good, not transcendentally great, and lean back and enjoy the aural pleasures of theater.
Nate’s Grade: B
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) [Review Re-View]
Originally released June 29, 2001:
A.I. is the merger of two powerhouses of cinema – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The very mysterious film was given to Spielberg by Kubrick himself who thought ole’ Steven would be a better fit to direct it. The two did keep communication open for like a decade on their ideas for the project until Kubrick’s death in March of 1999. What follows is an imaginative futuristic fairy tale that almost grabs the brass ring but falls short due to an inferior ending. More on that later.
In the future technological advances allow for intelligent robotic creatures (called “mechas”) to be constructed and implemented in society. William Hurt has the vision to create a robot more real than any his company has ever embarked on before. He wants to make a robot that can know real love. Flash ahead several months to Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) who are dealing with their own son in an indefinite coma. Henry is given the opportunity to try out a prototype from his company of a new mecha boy. His wife naturally believes that her son could not be replaced and her emotions smoothed over. Soon enough they both decide to give the boy a try and on delivery comes David (Haley Joel Osment) ready to begin new life in a family. David struggles to fit in with his human counterparts and even goes to lengths to belong like mimicking the motions of eating despite his lack of need to consume. Gradually David becomes a true part of the family and Monica has warmed up to him and ready to bestow real love onto their mecha son.
It’s at this point when things are going well for David that the Swinton’s son Martin comes out of his coma and returns back to his parents. Sibling rivalry between the two develops for the attention and adoration of their parents. Through mounting unfortunate circumstances the Swintons believe that David is a threat and decide to take him away. The corporation that manufactured David had implicit instructions that the loving David if desired to be returned had to be destroyed. Monica takes too much pity on David that she ditches him in the woods and speeds off instead of allowing him to be destroyed.
David wanders around searching for the Blue Fairy he remembers from the child’s book Pinocchio read to him at the Swinton home. He is looking for this magical creature with the desire she will turn him into a real boy and his human mother will love him again. Along David’s path he buddies up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure ‘bot that tells the ladies they’re never the same once he’s through. The two traverse such sights as a mecha-destroying circus called ‘Flesh Fairs’ complete with what must be the WWF fans of the future, as well as the bright lights of flashy sin cities and the submerged remains of a flooded New York. David’s journey is almost like Alice’s, minus of course the gigolo robot of pleasure.
There are many startling scenes of visual wonder in A.I. and some truly magical moments onscreen. Spielberg goes darker than he’s even been and the territory does him good. Osment is magnificent as the robotic boy yearning to become real, but Jude Law steals the show. His physical movement, gestures, and vocal mannerisms are highly entertaining to watch as he fully inhibits the body and programmed mind of Gigolo Joe. Every time Law is allowed to be onscreen the movie sparkles.
It’s not too difficult to figure out which plot elements belong to Spielberg and which belong to Kubrick, since both are almost polar opposites when it comes to the feelings of their films. Spielberg is an idealistic imaginative child while Kubrick was a colder yet more methodical storyteller with his tales of woe and thought. The collaboration of two master artists of cinema is the biggest draw going here. A.I.‘s feel ends up being Spielberg interpreting Kubrick, since the late great Stanley was dead and gone before he could get his pet project for over a decade ready. The war of giants has more Spielberg but you can definitely tell the Kubrick elements running around, and they are a gift from beyond the grave.
I thought at one point with the first half of A.I. I was seeing possibly the best film of the year, and the second half didn’t have the pull of the first half but still moves along nicely and entertained. But then came the ending, which ruined everything. There is a moment in the film where it feels like the movie is set to end and it would’ve ended with an appropriate ending that could have produced lingering talk afterwards. I’m positive this is the ending Kubrick had in mind. But this perfect ending point is NOT the ending, no sir! Instead another twenty minutes follows that destroys the realm of belief for this film. The tacked on cloying happy ending feels so contrived and so inane. It doesn’t just stop but keeps going and only gets dumber and more preposterous form there. I won’t go to the liberty of spoiling the ending but I’ll give this warning to ensure better enjoyment of the film: when you think the movie has ended RUN OUT OF THE THEATER! Don’t look back or pay attention to what you hear. You’ll be glad you did later on when you discover what really happens.
The whole Blue Fairy search is far too whimsical for its own good. It could have just been given to the audience in a form of a symbolic idea instead of building the last half of the film for the search for this fictional creature’s whereabouts. The idea is being pounded into the heads of the audience by Spielberg with a damn sledge hammer. He just can’t leave well enough alone and lets it take off even more in those last atrocious twenty minutes.
A.I. is a generally involving film with some wonderfully fantastic sequences and some excellent performances. But sadly the ending really ruins the movie like none other I can remember recently. What could have been a stupendous film with Kubrick’s imprint all over turns out to be a good film with Spielberg’s hands all over the end.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
There are two aspects that people remember vividly about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and that’s the fascinating collaboration of two of the most influential filmmakers of all time and its much-debated and much-derided extended ending. Before we get into either, though, a fun fact about its very helpful title for Luddites. Originally the title was only going to be A.I. but the studio found that test audiences were confused by the two-word abbreviation and several clueless souls thought it was the number one and not the capital letter “I.” The studio didn’t want their high-concept meeting of cinematic masters to be confused with a popular steak sauce.
In the realm of cinematic titans, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick rise to the top for their artistic ambitions, innovations, versatility, and great influence on future generations, but you’d be hard-pressed to see a uniquely shared sensibility. Kubrick’s films are known for his detached, mercurial perspective, flawless technical execution, leisurely pacing, and a pessimistic or cynical view of humanity. Spielberg’s films are known for their blockbuster populism, grand imagination and whimsy, as well as the director’s softer, squishier, and more sentimental view of humanity. It almost feels like a mixture of oil and water with their contradictory sensibilities. And yet Kubrick and Spielberg developed A.I. for decades, starting in the late 1970s when Kubrick optioned the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. Kubrick felt that Spielberg was a better fit for director in the mid-1980s, but Spielberg kept trying to convince Kubrick to direct. Both took on other projects and kept kicking A.I. down the road, also because Kubrick was dissatisfied with the state of special effects to conceive his “lifelike” robot boy. Kubrick died in early 1999 and Spielberg elected to finally helm A.I. and finish their creative partnership. He went back to the original 90-page treatment Kubrick developed with sci-fi novelist Ian Watson and wrote the final screenplay, Spielberg’s first screenwriting credit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and his only one since 2001). I view the final movie as a labor of love as Spielberg’s ode to Kubrick and his parting gift to his fallen friend.
Watching A.I. again, it is a recognizable Kubrick movie but through the lens of Spielberg’s camera and budget. In some ways, it feels like Spielberg’s two-hour-plus homage to his departed mentor. The movie moves gradually and gracefully and, with a few delicate turns, could just as easily be viewed as a horror movie than anything overtly cloying or maudlin. The opening 45 minutes introduces a family whose child is comatose with some mystery illness and the likelihood he may never return to them. The husband (Sam Robards) is gifted with a shiny new robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), as a trial from his big tech boss (William Hurt) who wants to see if he can make a robot child who will love unconditionally. The early scenes with David integrating into the family play like a horror movie, with the intruder inside the family unit, and David’s offhand mimicry of trying to fit in can make you shudder. All it would take is an ominous score under the scenes and they play completely differently. One scene, which is played as an ice breaker, is when David, studying his parents at the dinner table, breaks out into loud cackling laughter. It triggers his parents to laugh alongside him, but it’s so weird and sudden and creepy. David’s non-blinking, ever-eager presence is off-putting and creepy and Monica (Frances O’Connor), the mother, is rightfully horrified and insulted by having a “replacement child.” However, her emotional neediness steadily whittles away her resistance and she elects to have David imprint. This is a no-turning-back serious decision, having David imprint eternal love and adoration onto her, and if she or her husband were to change their minds, David cannot be reprogrammed. He would need to be disassembled. With this family, David is more or less a house pet kept around for adoration and then discarded when he no longer serves the same comforting alternative. Once the couple’s biological child reawakens, it’s not long before jealousy and misunderstanding lead David to being ditched on the side of the road as an act of “mercy.”
From there, the movie becomes much more episodic with David and less interesting. The Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) addition furthers the story in a thematic sense and less so in plot. Gigolo Joe is a robotic lover on command, and framed for murder, and just as disposable and mistreated as David. From a plot standpoint, David’s odyssey is to seek out the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, a book his mother read to him, and to wish to become a real boy and be finally accepted as his mother’s legitimate son. Thematically, David’s real odyssey is to understand that human beings are cruel masters. In short, people suck in this universe and they don’t get any better.
People, or “orga” as they refer to organic life, are mean and indifferent to artificial life, viewing the realistic mechanical beings, or “mecha” as they are referred to, as little more than disposable toys. Despite its cheery happy ending (and I will definitely be getting to that), the movie is awash in Kubrick’s trademark pessimism. Early on, David is stabbed by another boy just to test his pain defense system. David is only spared destruction from the Flesh Fair, a traveling circus where ticket-buyers enjoy the spectacle of robot torture, because the blood-thirsty audience thinks he’s too uncomfortably realistic. I don’t know if they’re supposed to be confused whether he is actually a robot considering that the adult models look just as realistic. He’s not like a super advanced model, he’s just the first robot kid, but applying the same torture spectacle to a crying robot child is too much for the fairgoers. However, this emergent reprieve might be short-lived once these same people become morally inured to the presence of robot kids after they flood the consumer market. Once the “newness” wears off, he’ll be viewed just as cruelly as the other older models also pleading for their pitiful mecha lives.
The tragedy of David is that he can never truly be real but he’ll never realize it. His personal journey takes him all over the nation and into the depth of the rising oceans, and it’s all to fulfill a wish from a benevolent make-believe surrogate mother. His programming traps David into seeing the world as a child, so no matter how old his circuits might be, he’ll always maintain a childish view of the world and its inhabitants. He’ll never age physically but he’ll also never mature or grow emotionally. Because of those limitations, he’s stuck seeing his mother in a halo of goodness that the actual woman doesn’t deserve. Monica felt like she was being helpful by ditching David before returning him to his makers, but this boy is not equipped to survive in the adult world let alone the human world. He cannot understand people and relationships outside the limited confines of a child. So to David, he doesn’t see the cowardice and emotional withdrawal of his mother. She knew the consequences of imprinting but she wanted to feel the unconditional love of a child again and when that got too inconvenient she abandoned him. Their relationship is completely one-sided with David always giving and his mother only taking. David’s goal is to be accepted by a woman who will never accept him and care for him like her organic child. She will never view David as hers no matter how hard David loves her. He cannot recognize this toxic usury relationship because he’ll never have any conception of that. David is trying to be loved by people undeserving of his earnest efforts and unflinching affections.
Let’s finally tackle that controversial ending, shall we? The natural ending comes at about two hours in, with David in a submersible at the bottom of the ocean and pleading with a statue of the Blue Fairy in Coney Island to make him a real boy. He keeps whispering again and again to her, and the camera pulls out, his pleading getting fainter and fainter. The vessel is trapped under the water, so he’ll likely live out the rest of his battery life hopefully, and hopelessly, asking for his wish. It feels deeply Kubrickian and a fitting end for a tragic and unsparing movie about human cruelty and our lack of empathy. It’s also, in its own way, slightly optimistic. Because David is so fixated, he’ll spend the rest of his existence in anticipation of his dream possibly being granted with the next request. He has no real concept of time so hundreds of years can feel like seconds. Everything about this moment screams the natural ending, and then, oh and then, it keeps going, and the ensuring twenty additional minutes try and force a sentimental ending that does not work or fit with the two hours of movie prior. Two thousand years into the future, David is rescued by advanced robots (I thought they were aliens, and likely you will too) who finally grant his wish thanks to some convenient DNA of his two-thousand-year dead mother. These advanced robots can bring the dead back to life except they will only last one day, so David will have one last day to share with his mother before she passes back into the dark. However, David’s conception of his mother isn’t the actual woman, so his rose-colored glasses distortion means he gets a final goodbye from not just a clone but one attuned to his vision. It’s false, and the fact that the movie tries to convince you it’s a happy ending feels wrong. Also, the world of 4124 still has the World Trade Center because A.I. was released three months before the attacks on September 11th. It’s just another reminder of how wrong the epilogue feels.
This extended epilogue desperately tries to attach the treacly sentimentality that was absent from the rest of A.I., which is why many critics felt it was Spielberg asserting himself. Apparently, we were all wrong. According to an interview with Variety in 2002, the opening 45 minutes is taken word-for-word from Kubrick’s outline and the extended ending, including the misplaced happy every after, is also strictly from Kubrick’s original treatment. It was Kubrick who went all-in on the Pinocchio references and parallels. Even the walking teddy bear was his idea. Watson said, “Those scenes were exactly what I wrote for Stanley and exactly what he wanted, filmed faithfully by Spielberg.” The middle portion was Spielberg’s greatest writing contribution, otherwise known as the darkest moments in the movie like the Flesh Fair and robot hunts. The movie is much more sexual than I associate with Spielberg. There has been sex in Spielberg’s past films, but it’s usually played as frothy fun desire with cheeky womanizers (Catch Me If You Can) or as a transaction with unspoken demands (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple). Then again, when Spielberg really leaned into a sex scene, we got the awkward and thematically clunky “climax” of Munich. With A.I., the perverse nature of humanity is another layer that reflects how awful these people are to the wide array or robots being mistreated, abused, and assaulted on an hourly basis in perpetuity.
Twenty years later, the movie still relatively holds up well and is good, not great. It’s more a fascinating collaboration between two cinematic giants, and the fun is recognizing the different elements and themes and attributing them (wrongly) to their respective creator. The special effects are still impressive and lifelike even by 2021 standards. Even though the movie is set in 2124, so over 100 years into the far-flung future, everyone still dresses and looks like they’re from the familiar twentieth century (maybe it’s retro fashion?). It’s a slightly distracting technical element for a movie otherwise supremely polished. There is a heavy emphasis on visual reflections and refractions of David in his family home, exploring the wavering identity and conceptions of this robo kid. Spielberg’s direction feels in keeping with Kubrick’s personal style and sensibility. A.I. is a labor of love for Spielberg to honor Kubrick, and he went another step further with the 2018 adaptation of Ready Player One where one of the missions was exploring a virtual reality recreation of the famous Overlook Hotel from The Shining. In my original 2001 review, I took the same level of umbrage with the miscalculated ending as I do in 2021. In the many years since its release, A.I. has been my go-to example of a movie that didn’t know where to properly end. As a result, it’s still a fascinating if frustrating experience on the verge of greatness.
Re-View Grade: B
Live by Night (2016)
With only three films, Ben Affleck has successfully reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented directors when it comes to adult crime thrillers. It’s not just his superb directing chops; the man also serves as producer, lead actor on most films as well as a screenwriter, and Affleck’s ability to write flawed yet deeply human characters within genre parameters has accomplished actors flocking to work for him. Beyond his 2012 film Argo winning Best Picture, Affleck has gotten three different actors supporting Oscar nominations (Amy Ryan, Jeremy Renner, Alan Arkin). He’s an actor’s director and a man who knows how to satisfy an audience hungry for authentic genre thrills and interesting characters. His latest film is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel and is Affleck’s most ambitious film yet and it’s gorgeously brought to life. There’s still plenty to like and entertainment to be had with his Prohibition era gangster flick Live by Night, but it’s also unquestionably Affleck’s weakest film yet as a major director.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a hardened WWI veteran who says he came back to Boston as an “outlaw” (he seems to turn up his nose at being called a “gangster”). Joe settles into an easy life of crime with the local Irish gang lead by Albert White (Robert Glenister). Unfortunately, Joe’s lover, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), happens to be White’s main squeeze. Joe and Emma sneak around and carry on their relationship without proper discretion. Their secret is found out, Emma is dealt with, and Joe escapes with his life, serving a prison sentence and then enlisting in the Italian mob under local boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe is sent to Tampa to manage the rum-running business, starting his life over. The area is ripe for expansion and it isn’t long before Joe is making friends and enemies over his exploits. He falls in love with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), a fellow criminal with a working operation of Hispanic bootleggers. Joe warms to a local police chief (Chris Cooper) and his daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning) a girl who experiences the darker side of vice and becomes a troublesome born-again leader. All the while Albert White has relocated to Miami, and the specter of vengeance looms just within reach.
It’s a Prohibition gangster flick and Affleck makes sure to check as many boxes as he can when it comes to audience expectations for a pulpy hardboiled action drama. The production design is aces and the cinematography by Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) is beautifully composed with its use of light, shadow, and framing. There are shots of violence that are exquisitely rendered so as to be their own art, like a man falling down a stairwell with a Tommy gun blasting above bathed in light. The production details are a sumptuous aspect that Affleck and his team put supreme effort into to better make their movie transporting. The action sequences have a genuine delight as they pop. A shootout throughout the grounds of a mob-owned hotel is an exciting climax that finds fun ways to provide genre thrills. The rise-and-fall structure of the story, mingled with a simple revenge motivation, is a suitable story vehicle for the audience to plug into. There are fun characters, fun moments, and sizzling action, all decorated in handsome period appropriate details. While Live by Night has its share of flaws, a dearth of entertainment is not one of them.
Tone and coherency end up being Affleck’s biggest obstacles he cannot overcome. It’s somewhat of a surprise considering his other directorial efforts brilliantly melded several genres while telling invigorating stories. I think the main fault is a screenplay trying to do too much when more streamlining was optimal. The specific goal that sets Joe in motion is a bit hazy and fails to provide a larger sense of direction for the arc of the tale. Affleck’s previous films were rock-solid in crafting overarching yet specific goals that propel the scenes onto a natural narrative trajectory. With Gone Baby Gone, it’s finding the missing girl. With The Town, it’s getting closer to a bank employee without having that relationship discovered by his cohorts. With Argo, it was rescuing the hostages. With Live by Night, it’s mostly getting vengeance against Albert White, though we don’t know how. In the meantime, we have episodic incidents failing to register connective tissue or at least a cause/effect relationship where it feels like a natural order of organic conflicts. The opening act in Boston that sets up Joe’s tragic love, jail time, and enmity with White could be removed entirely. I’d miss the thrilling 1920s car chase, which is also unique in that it’s the first period car chase I can think of that utilizes the mechanical limitations of the vehicles for extra tension, but it’s at best a moment of flash. Having the story pick up with Joe putting his life back together in sunny Florida would have been a cleaner entrance into this world for an audience. Once Joe ingratiates himself into this new world, the audience has to play another game of character introductions and assessing relationships and the balance of power. It feels a bit redundant after having our previous act pushed aside to reboot Joe’s world.
It feels like Affleck is trying to corral so many historical elements that he loses sight of the bigger picture. Joe’s criminal path seems comically easy at times as he builds a fledgling empire along the Floridian west coast. First it’s the law and then it’s the KKK and then it’s religious revivals that need to be dealt with. Each incident feels like a small vignette that observes the historical setting with an angle that will be perfunctorily dropped in short order. The conflicts and antagonists don’t feel sufficiently challenging and that lessens the intended suspense. When Joe is dealing with the KKK, it feels like he’s restraining himself out of politeness rather than a series of organic restrictions. The elements and tones don’t really seem to inform one another except in the most general sense, which leads to the film lacking suitable cohesion. It’s easy then for Affleck to overly rely on stock genre elements to provide much of the story arrangements.
The characters have difficulty escaping from the pulp trappings to emerge as three-dimensional figures. Graciela gets the worst of it, proving to be a capable bootlegging criminal in her own right who loses all sense of personality, agency, and import once she becomes romantically entwined with our hero. It’s as if she erased herself to better heal his broken heart. How kind of her. The religious revival element is ripe for further examination but it’s kept at a basic level. We’re never questioning the validity of Loretta’s conversion and sudden celebrity. Chris Cooper’s pragmatic lawman has the most potential as a man trying to keep his morals amidst the immoral. The character isn’t utilized in enough interesting ways that can also flesh out his dimensions, and his conclusion suffers from that absent development. The characters serve their purpose in a larger mechanical sense but they don’t feel like more recognizable human beings.
Affleck’s innate talent with actors reappears in a few choice moments, just enough to tantalize you with the promise of what Live by Night could have been. The standout moment for me is a sit-down between Joe and Loretta where she unburdens her self-doubts. This is a woman who has been preyed upon by others, had her hopes dashed, and is trying to reinvent herself as a religious leader, but even she doesn’t know if she believes that there’s a God. The scene is emotional, honest without being trite, and delivered pitch-perfect by Fanning (The Neon Demon). It’s the kind of scene that reminded me of The Town and Gone Baby Gone, how Affleck was deftly able to provide shading for his characters that opened them up. Miller (American Sniper) has immediate electricity to her performance and reminds you how good Affleck is at drawing out the best from his actors. British TV vet Glenister is so good as a villain that seems to relish being one that you wish he were in the movie more. He has a menace to him that draws you in closer. Maher (The Finest Hours) is a memorable cretin who you’ll be happy to be dealt with extreme prejudice. There isn’t a poor casting choice in the film (hey Clark Gregg, hey Anthony Michael Hall, hey Max Casella) except possibly one, and that’s Affleck himself. I know part of the reason he selects his directing efforts is the possibility of also tackling juicy acting roles, but this time he may not have been the best fit. He’s a little too calm, a little too smooth, a little too out of place for the period, and his director doesn’t push him far enough.
A strange thing happened midway through, namely how politically relevant and vicariously enjoyable Live by Night feels specifically for the year 2017. It’s a movie largely sent in the 1920s with characters on the fringes of society, and yet I was able to make pertinent connections to our troubled times of today. After a contentious presidential election where many feel that insidious and hateful extremist elements are being normalized and emboldened, there is something remarkably enjoyable about watching a murder montage of Klansmen. The Tampa chapter of the KKK takes aim with Joe’s business that profit from fornicators, Catholics, and especially black and brown people. They’re trying to shake Joe down for majority ownership but they’re too stupid, blinded by their racist and xenophobic ignorance, to accept Joe’s generous offers, and so they can’t help but bring righteous fury upon their lot. There is something innumerably enjoyable about watching abusive bigots brought down to size with bloody justice. I could have seen an entire movie of Joe and crew tearing through the Florida chapters of the KKK and just cleaning out the rabble. This sequence whets the appetite for what comes later. Without going into specific spoilers, the climax of the movie involves the put-upon minorities rising up against their bosses who, like the Klan, felt they were too powerful, too indispensable, and too clever to be seriously threatened. In its own way, it’s like a dark crime actualization of the American Dream. Unpack that if you will.
Live By Night is Affleck losing the depth of his world to its surface-level genre pleasures and they are indeed a pleasure. This isn’t a bad movie by any measure, only one of slight disappointment because it had the markings and abilities to be much more than the finished product. The tonal inconsistency and storylines provide episodic interludes and enticing moments, whether in action or acting, but they don’t blend together to form a more compelling and impressive whole. It’s a gangster movie that provides the gangster genre trappings but loses sight of what makes the characters in these movies so compelling, the moral complications, shifting loyalties, the impossible positions, and enclosing danger. I don’t think you’ll sweat too much over whether the main character will come out on top, which somewhat hinders the intensity of the action. When your movie is more predicated on those genre thrills than character or story, that’s an even bigger hindrance. It’s a fun world worth visiting but it doesn’t have the staying power of Affleck’s better efforts.
Nate’s Grade: B
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
I’ve always been one able to separate the art from the artist, so while Tom Cruise may annoy people in real life because he jumped on a couch one summer, that doesn’t halt my enjoyment of the man’s movies. It seems with every new Cruise vehicle that under-performs at the box-office that I must be in the minority. Cruise hasn’t had a hit to his name since 2011’s suitably awesome Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Both Oblivion and Jack Reacher, perfectly solid action movies, failed to make over $100 million domestically, further calling into question the drawing power of Tom Terrific. It seems that his latest, Edge of Tomorrow, is going to suffer a similar fate. This is a shame. As my critical colleague Ben Bailey said in his own review for the film: “Edge of Tomorrow might just be the most critically acclaimed box-office bomb of 2014.”
William Cage (Cruise) is chiefly an Armed Forces PR flak. He goes on TV to push the talking points of the United States military, which is in a heap of trouble. Aliens have landed in central Europe and spread quickly, proving to be nearly unstoppable. There was one soldier who was able to lead a successful counter attack. The “Angel of Verdun” is Rita (Emily Blunt), a soldier Cage proudly chirps only spent a day in her mechanical fighting suit beforehand yet proved to be so deadly. After vaguely threatening a high-ranking official rather than report for a doomed counter assault, Cage is shipped to the frontlines as a deserter. In hours he and a motley crew of ground forces are flown to the beaches of France, where the aliens will slaughter them. In the firefight, Cage is covered with alien blood and gains their special power. The reason the aliens have won every battle, save one, is because they have the power to reset time. They learn from their errors, which is why they always anticipate humanity’s attacks. Now Cage has this power. Every time he dies, the day resets and he starts over, trying once again to survive. The only person who understands him is Rita, who once had the same power. Together, with some extensive training, they may be able to thwart the alien invaders for good.
Edge of Tomorrow is the ultimate video game movie, and while I would normally mean this in a pejorative sense, it is actually a compliment. With every death, Cage gets to start over, looking for a way to complete the next stage of the next level, learning from his costly mistakes and hoping to get to the boss battle that usually closes the level. From a structure standpoint, it’s a pure video game, albeit an older sidescroller (remember those, kids?). The visuals and mechanical battle suits also further support the video game comparisons. But really, Edge of Tomorrow is Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers but brilliantly executed. There is something deeply satisfying about the Groundhog Day formula, namely getting seemingly endless chances to fix one’s mistakes, to try out new paths. It’s also inherently satisfying as an audience member because you watch your hero fail time and after time but they’re still active, they’re still trying to achieve a goal, or a new goal, and thus when they do succeed it’s even more triumphant and gratifying. We get to learn alongside our protagonist. Also, it allows the narrative to explore new material without going stale. In most stories we have one set path, but in films like this one with a time loop, it’s like we get to see all the wheels-within-wheels, the stories just offscreen happening simultaneously. It opens up the world in more interesting and playful ways, providing more payoffs than just one set narrative destination. We get assorted answers to our “what if”’s. Plus we get more screen time with Bill Paxton (2 Guns) as a comically hardass master sergeant. Edge of Tomorrow mines all these areas expertly. This is a movie that embraces the possibility of its sci-fi premise. It’s constantly clever, fast-paced, lively, and expects its audience to keep up with the pace.
It’s great to see director Doug Liman flex his action-thriller abilities again, ineffective or dormant since 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The man has an innate ability to orchestrate action without losing sight of character. The beach invasion sequences have plenty going on, enough so that you won’t be bored after multiple trips, and unlike last summer’s disappointing Elysium, this is one movie that knows how to make proper use of a mech suit. These suits don’t look that impressive but they pack some mighty firepower. It’s rather cool when Cage, after a litany of failed trips, has the beats of combat to memory, knowing to shoot in this direction at the right second. It’s like watching a man harness the omniscient power of God (“I said I was a god. Not THE God.”). Under Liman’s guidance, the action is big and exciting and fun, more so than any other Hollywood action movie I’ve seen this year (The Raid 2 is still in a class its own).
The action sequences and special effects are all relatively good, but it’s just the sheer fun of the movie that makes it special for a summer would-be blockbuster. It’s like you get multiple movies smattered together but the eye is always forward to the goal, taking out the alien brain/host. The structure is almost foolproof: by the end of Act 1 he gets the time-tripping powers, and by the end of Act 2, he loses them and the heroics to close the movie have to count for real. I wish the final boss battle didn’t happen to take place in the bowels of a famous landmark/destination, but I suppose Liman and company needed a change of pace from all the beach activity. While the movie covers plenty of ground repeatedly it never feels old or directionless; while it has its share of sticky exposition and silly plot mechanics, it never overwhelms the story or the entertainment factor. The basics of who the aliens are, how they attack, what their magic blood does, what the rules are for utilizing said alien time-repeating power, you would imagine that they would be too silly or bog things down, but they don’t. Except for the very end (the concluding two minutes), the movie plays within its own system of rules. That also means no unrealistic romantic entanglement. Sure we expect movie stars to fall for one another, especially in peril, but for Rita, every day is the first day she’s ever met Cage. He develops feelings for her but she credibly keeps thoughts of romance at bay.
It’s also a mordantly mirthful movie. Cage can only reset when he dies; if he is just wounded and passes out, he’ll lose his special reset power. So every insurmountable roadblock, wrong choice, or crippling injury must be met with one conclusion, namely Cage being snuffed out. Rita carries out most of the executions in the second half, with a blasé sense of routine duty, like a plumber fixing a clog. It doesn’t really get old and Liman utilizes montage well to give the comedy an extra punch. It lightens a movie more or less centered on human annihilation and mortality. And for the legions of Tom Cruise haters, there’s got to be some degree of entertainment value in watching the man die again and again and again and, well you get the point.
Cruise ably shows again that he is more than capable of carrying an action film (he’s over 50 now too). The man still has enough energy and physical stamina of an action hero in his 30s, and his charisma is still there in spades. It’s also interesting to watch Cruise play a cowardly character. I should have expected it considering that Cage’s arc has to start somewhere before he becomes the super soldier. However, the movie would never have been as good if Cruise didn’t have a strong leading lady, and the surprisingly buff Blunt (Looper) is an excellent match for her costar. She’s tough and can beat the snot out of you. Just her very walk exudes confidence and determination (is it too late for her to be Wonder Woman in the next Superman film?). Having walked in Cage’s shoes before with the time-replay power, she has an extra weariness to her, a certain devil-may-care attitude, especially in battle. The two actors make a winning team and Cage’s recruitment of Rita is another mission with another worthy payoff.
The original title was All You Need is Kill, based on a Japanese graphic novel, and I can’t help but think how much of a better, striking title that is to describe this movie. It’s a wonderfully entertaining movie, with its action spectacle tempered with an intelligence rare for a summer blockbuster that doesn’t have Christopher Nolan’s name attached as director. Here is a playful sci-fi movie that doesn’t downplay its sci-fi, doesn’t dumb down its plot, and explores the richness of its world one dead Cruise at a time. It’s clever and satisfying and brings all the visual fireworks you’d demand. It’s a rotten shame that Edge of Tomorrow appears destined for the cinematic scrapheap. We need more movies like this one. Reverse the tide people and see this movie on the big screen while you can. It’s everything we want in a summer blockbuster fully realized.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The Guard (2011)
For fans of Brendan Gleeson, one of the best character actors around, a starring role in the profane dark Irish comedy, The Guard, is a starring role long overdue. The man plays an eccentric, self-destructive lawman that follows his own sets of rules and decorum: “Racist? I’m Irish. Racism is part of our culture.” Gleeson’s character gets teamed up with Don Cheadle’s Yankee FBI agent, and for a while it looks like the film might drown in fish-out-of-water gags. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh has a gifted wordsmith’s flourish with words. It may take some concentration to decipher through the thick Irish brogues, but there is a love of language and the witty, looping dialogue is almost musical in its sublime composition. His characters are pretty interesting too. The villains, a band of drug-runners, are introduced arguing philosophy, proving to be the most cultured big screen tough guys since Pulp Fiction. The hyper-literate stock roles trade plenty of insults, which had me regularly laughing. The characters do have a habit of feeling like they know they exist in a movie, so everything, even a man’s final moments, never seems to be that pressing. I just wish these richly drawn characters had a better movie plot to work with. There are too many subplots that don’t seem to reconnect to the main storyline. The Guard seems to lose its way in the middle of too many comic vignettes before going all serious action in climax, much like the similarly flavored In Bruges (written and directed by McDonagh’s brother). The movie feels like a first draft instead of a finished product, though for Gleeson fans, this will be worthy enough.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)
When author J. K. Rowling dropped off her last 700-page tome in the Harry Potter series, the world went into a state of mourning, right after ravishing every page of The Deathly Hallows. There would be no more literary adventures. You can expect that same sense of longing for the studio suits over at Warner Brothers considering the Harry Potter franchise has grossed over five billion worldwide. The bounty was about to be over, especially with one last book to adapt into an eventual overly long movie. Then the suits came across a genius strategy: split the last book into two separate movies. Filmed simultaneously over a year, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be released in two parts eight months apart. I understand that it’s hard to say goodbye to the boy wizard that charmed millions, and tow movies almost guarantee that nothing will be left out in the adaptation process. It also ensures that Warner Brothers will have two movies that make giant piles of money instead of one. Deathly Hallows: Part One plays its part setting up the finale, but judging from what we’re given, this series conclusion could have effortlessly been condensed to one overly long film instead of two.
Picking up shortly after the events of Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best pals, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are on the run. Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) is determined to be the one to slay the boy wizard. Voldermort and his influence have taken over many facets of the magic world’s infrastructure, and they are all after Harry. Harry learned that his snake-faced nemesis has broken his soul into pieces and hidden them inside magical items known as horcruxes. Unless these horucruxes are destroyed, Voldermort will never be able to truly die. Harry and company has to hunt down those accursed horcruxes while being hounded by evil forces determined to kill them all.
For a solid hour I felt like I was watching the second best Harry Potter film; Alfonso Cuaran’s Prisoner of Azkaban still stands as the artistic highpoint. Watching the characters on the run and constantly in peril spurs your protective feelings. We’ve seen them grow up, vanquish evil and hormones, and now they seem to be in serious danger and you feel real tension. I stopped to realize how much I actually cared for these characters and how concerned I was. There is a somber sense of finality, and I enjoyed characters and events colliding back together for one big finish. It truly feels like everything is coming to a titanic close, and the film manages to be the most emotionally satisfying of the series. That’s likely because it’s building off six films of character growth and goodwill. But it’s also due to the fact that Deathly Hallows spends the most time examining the characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The series has followed a very lockstep plot formula and now it’s been stripped away. The kids are removed from the school setting so we get to spend plenty of time alone with the trio. In fact, it’s a bit too much time. We spend an interminable amount of time with these kids lost in the woods, waiting for something important to happen. While we wait we have the trio address fears, anxieties, and emotional hang-ups, which turns Part One into the most insular, reflective movie in the entire series. While this makes the movie rich with feeling before we come to the finish line, it also makes the film somewhat boring because these kids aren’t that deep.
Luckily, Deathly Hallows Part One presents some of the more exciting action sequences and tense mood yet for a franchise mostly built upon investigation and Hardy Boys stuff (with extra magic!). The Harry Potter world has always been more interesting to me the darker it got, and now the series has now firmly converted to the dark side (as far as PG-13 fantasies go). The opening shows each of the three kids being left alone, including Hermione protecting her Muggle parents by wiping away their memory of their daughter. Tough stuff. Then we transition to a floating Hogwarts teacher held prisoner by Voldermort and his legion of Death Eater followers. She’s struck dead and we see a tear roll down her bloodied face right before Voldy’s pet snake eats her. Parents be warned, this is no longer kid’s stuff. Death comes to several supporting characters and there’s plenty of spooky stuff that adds up to a gloomy atmosphere. The infiltration of the Ministry of Magic is a thrilling sequence. Harry and pals disguise themselves as Ministry workers to locate a horcrux from Dolores Umbridge (I cheered at the sight of Imelda Staunton back in pink). The scene is tense and lays out the stakes and important characters to fear. It also produces some potent drama as Ron is disguised as a Ministry member whose innocent wife is being interrogated. The moment culminates in a genuinely exciting chase sequence that got me excited for what was ahead. What I failed to realize is that there was not much more ahead.
With all that extra attention spent on character, I can also say that Part One has some definite issues with its stagnating narrative. Having never read the books (get over it, Potter nation), I go in blind every time short for the mega-spoilers that I can’t help but learn thanks to all the Potter readers inhabiting my circle of friends and family. I can tell you if something doesn’t make sense because I don’t have the background knowledge of the books to fill me in. There was plenty in Deathly Hallows that made little sense. The adaptation introduces the titular deathly hallows, which ends up being another three super special magic items. There’s a nicely Gothic animated sequence to try and explain the three hallowed items, but it all adds up to a fairy tale that makes little traction. The narrative has already shaped up into a portentous scavenger hunt. Harry and friends are after the remaining horcruxes containing the soul of Mr. Snarly Face. The entire 145 minutes of Part One is spent destroying a single horcrux, leaving 3 or 4 remaining. Now they add three more magic items to find and it all compounds my feelings of fatigue. Did I mention they also have to find a magic sword? How many magical items are these kids going to be responsible to find and how many am I expected to care about?
I left the theater with many questions about what the hell the deathly hallows were, why they mattered, and all sorts of other storylines too. I could not follow all the new characters they threw so late into the game, especially some old wand maker and his connection to wand thievery. And when the hell did everyone gain the ability to teleport at will? Why don’t they teleport all the time then, especially out of danger or when they’re chased through the woods? My friend (an avid Potter reader) had to deal with a litany of stupid questions, likely treating me as a parent would a child asking about where the sun goes when it becomes night.
Also, the film is intended to be a prelude for an epic finale but it mishandles its own sense of climax at several turns. I’ll refrain from heavy spoilers, but one of the most interesting characters, played by an actor I adore, is killed off screen. Off freaking screen! Some other character comes back and says, “Oh yeah, he’s gone,” and then everyone looks glum and goes about their business. It happened so matter-of-factly and anticlimactically that I never made the connection. So later in the film when it’s confirmed that this character is in fact dead, I felt pretty thick. The last chapter of Harry Potter is destined to be a combined 5 hours, and you’re telling me they couldn’t fit in a fight scene that lets this character go out with style? I suppose somebody thought it was more dramatic to just mention a character death offhand. Following this logic, I can’t wait for the grandiose finale where Harry Potter just walks back into a room and says, “Oh, by the way, I just killed Voldermort. So who wants to get a bite to eat?” The emotional climax of the film involves the death of a supporting character I have yet to see onscreen for 8 years. How am I supposed to feel for a character that hasn’t been seen for so long? The ending is sad, sure, but it would have been more effective if: a) I knew what significance the character had in the narrative, and b) it didn’t look like Harry was clutching a rubber doll to his chest. We spend too much time with new characters that end up having minor worth or come across as one-offs. The movie would have benefited from some of the deathly exposition that clogged the first two film’s storylines. As the movie comes to a close it should be clearing things up instead of polluting the narrative with more names and faces.
Director David Yates has been captain of the Potter helm since 2007’s Order of the Phoenix, and he seems to have found a unifying visual balance for the series. The film’s tone has gotten heavier and having a singular director take the series to an end looks to be a godsend. Despite a lengthy slog in the middle, Yates keeps the pacing fairly tight and tense. The visuals and special effects are just as luminous as ever. The true treat for me is watching all these splendid British actors assembled: Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Jason Isaacs on Team Evil, and Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Rhys Ifans, Julie Waters, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon on Team Good. Then there are new additions like glass-jawed David O’Hara (Wanted) and the great Peter Mullan (Young Adam) making strong yet short appearances. I don’t really care why all these talented thespians are together but I’ll enjoy them all the same.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One is the beginning of the end, literally a prelude for the finale coming to theaters in summer 2011. The film manages to be exciting and dramatic and equally boring and confusing, especially for someone who has willfully refused to read the books. Spending more time with the teen actors has its pluses and minuses, chief minus being that while they wait for stuff to happen so do we. The manufactured end point for the movie feels far from satisfying, but the film manages to effectively whet the appetite for the follow-up. As the Harry Potter series comes to a close it’s hard not to get nostalgic and apologetic, but I resist this urge. Looking back, many of the Potter films have been fine pieces of entertainment but also too long, misshapen, and too slavish to making a book on tape. Part One of Deathly Hallows still falls victim to some of these faults, but the accumulated goodwill of the series and actors makes a 145-minute prologue easily bearable.
Nate’s Grade: B
Green Zone (2010)
I have noticed that I’ve really been dragging my feet when it comes to writing a Green Zone review. I’ve prioritized it only to have something more necessary (catching up on VH1 reality shows) come to the forefront of my attention span. It’s not like the movie is bad. It may have been misleadingly advertised as Jason Bourne’s tour of Iraq, bringing back together Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), but it’s not bad. It’s a perfectly fine movie, except in this instance, given the politically explosive and monumentally relevant subject matter, “perfectly fine” sounds like a missed opportunity. This movie should be incendiary, shocking, aggravating, enlightening, and if it happens to be entertaining then that ain’t bad either. The subject matter –the false rationale for war, WMDs– deserves a sober examination. Green Zone is not that movie. Green Zone is about uncovering and righting the mistakes of the Iraq War, and I believe I figured out what keeps Green Zone from being a better, more powerful, more engaging movie — it fictionalizes a story that is already wroth telling. This is a true story that could have stood well on its own merits.
Shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is on the hunt for those weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the chief argument for invading Iraq. His team investigates suspected weapons sites but they keep coming up empty. The intelligence appears to be in sharp contrast with the reality on the ground. Miller butts heads with shady government officials (Greg Kinnear) and finds aid in a state department realist (Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter (Amy Ryan) who put her reputation at stake parroting the government intelligence as fact. The Iraqi army is disbanded and now the former generals under Saddam Hussein are conferring what the next steps should be. General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, who played Saddam in a TV mini-series) is waiting for the Americans to extend a hand, and if not then they will become an insurrection. Miller is racing to track down Al Rawi because he knows the truth in the lead up to the war, which is why those shady government officials are also trying to kill him.
Based upon reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Life Inside the Green Zone, the filmmakers have resorted to a fictional narrative informed by the real events. My biggest gripe is this: the true story is far more interesting, complicated, and relevant than concocting a story about one military man’s search for answers. The film is laid out like a conspiracy thriller, where our hero gains a small sliver of information that leads to another piece, and another and another, until finally a picture emerges. I get it. With Damon as a soldier, the audience has an obvious rooting point, a protagonist who we can easily be labeled as good. And then when he uncovers the truth, and alerts the media, it provides a tidy, satisfying end for the movie. Except that’s not what happened. In the real world, the hunt for those phantom WMDs carried on for months, and the news trickled drip by drip. There were no smoking guns, no white knights to shine the light of truth (Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame might be the closest in consideration), and there wasn’t anything as conclusive as a military officer writing a report and sending it the mainstream media.
Green Zone attempts to craft a satisfying close to the WMD hunt and likewise the war itself. This is nothing more than revisionist wish fulfillment, wanting to insert a hero of conscience and ability during a time where we had a malaise of responsibility from those in the realms of higher command. And just to make sure they don’t make too many waves, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) wrap their crusading character in the uniform of America’s finest, making it difficult to criticize his noble hunt, striping away politics. The trouble is that the Bush Administration rarely made apolitical decisions; everything was steeped in politics, even the truth about weapons of mass destruction. So Green Zone does the audience a disservice by trying to play nice, setting up a villainous fictional straw man, and forgoing naming the names of those that led this country astray. Because of placing the film’s point of view squarely with Miller, we never get to examine the bigger picture, the manipulations and machinations that led to war. We are stuck in a very limited focus of finding the WMDs.
Now, I must ask whether or not I’m unfairly judging the movie. Hollywood has often taken fascinating and momentous true-life stories and redirected them toward fiction. Green Zone is certainly a technically proficient film. Greengrass’ trademark shaky camera is ever vigilant, always roving and looking for the action; although in a realistic war setting, the kinetic handheld camerawork can come across as potentially hyperactive. Conversations between two people can come across like intense linguistic battles. Walks down hallways can appear to be speedy jaunts brimming with purpose and anxiety. The tension just doesn’t materialize. Without a nervy story, the Greengrass visual staple can seem over the top, antsy, nervous, and also annoying. This is one narrative for Greengrass that could have improved by the dedicated use of a tripod.
Green Zone is not Bourne at all. The Universal marketing team was trying to hoodwink the public into seeing an Iraq War movie. Damon isn’t as polished and in command as Bourne. Those who argue that Green Zone is anti-American or anti-troops are grossly missing the point. Reactionary, bellicose rhetoric, without a wit of substance, is part of the reason the U.S. is currently in Iraq. You can argue against policy, including war policy, and still be considered a patriot. Patriotism is not synonymous with warmongering. It’s too bad that the filmmakers felt that the true story wasn’t good enough to be told, instead settling for a decent if unmemorable political thriller. This adaptation takes the most significant foreign policy event in modern American history, one where the ramifications will be felt for over a generation, and clears all the hard-boiled details to attach a conventional one-man-fights-for-truth tale. It’s hard to get self-righteous when the movie keeps trying to cover its own ass.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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 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 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 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-
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