Avengers: Endgame (2019)
This may prove to be the most difficult review I’ve ever written in my twenty years (!) of reviewing movies. How do I ever begin to describe the events of Marvel’s culminating blockbuster Avengers: Endgame without stepping too far into the dark and dangerous territory of the accursed spoilers? I thought it would be difficult talking about last year’s Infinity War considering the shocking plot events and general secrecy, but this concluding chapter to a 22-movie journey is even more secretive (the trailer accounts for only footage roughly from the first twenty minutes). I’ll do my best, dear reader, to give you the clearest impression I can of this unique experience while respecting your need to be un-spoiled. In short, Avengers: Endgame is unparalleled in our history of modern popular blockbusters because it needs to work as a clincher to a decade-plus of hugely popular blockbusters for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and boy do they ever stick the landing.
The film picks up with our surviving Avengers picking up the pieces following the events of Infinity War, namely Thanos (Josh Brolin) eliminating half of life throughout the universe. The original six Avengers are all suffering through guilt, depression, and degrees of PTSD following their failure to defeat Thanos. Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) arrives after having spent time in the quantum realm and has a potential solution that will involve traveling through time to correct the mistakes of the past and bring everyone who vanished back to life. The remaining teammates assemble at the behest of Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), including Bruce Banner a.k.a. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and War Machine (Don Cheadle). However Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) needs the most convincing, as he is most afraid of making things even worse and losing more people he feels are too precious to be casualties to their failures once again.
The thing to know ahead of time is that Endgame is not for the casual fan. This is a long love letter to the fans that have pored over all 22 preceding films, not just a scant one or two. Infinity War was accessible to relative newcomers because of the structure and focus on Thanos as the main character, providing a self-contained arc that lead up to his finger-snapping triumph. It also benefited from the fun factor of simply watching a bunch of popular characters interact and team up for the first time in MCU history. Now that a majority of those characters have turned to dust, the emphasis falls back on the original core of the Avengers, bringing things full circle. In several ways, Endgame is about bringing to a close this mammoth project that began with Iron Man, this decade of storytelling ambition that has stretched out into multiple inter-connected franchises. If you love these characters, then Endgame is a movie made specifically for you. There is a long stretch in Act Two that relies upon a decent amount of fan service and sentimentality, but I don’t think either is an automatically negative attribute. Before we reach the finish line it’s important to take stock of how far we’ve come and this goes for the essential characters and their long arcs. There are several fun cameos strewn throughout and the filmmakers even take an interesting tack of trying to reclaim and re-contextualize the MCU movies that fewer people enjoyed. It makes for a filmgoing experience that is heavy in references, in-jokes, Easter eggs, and cozy nostalgia, which will confuse and frustrate those not well versed in this big world.
The other thing to know, especially if you’re a long-standing fan, is that there will be tears. Oh will there be tears. I lost count of the amount of times I was crying, which was pretty much on and off nonstop for the final twenty minutes. I was even tearing up for supporting characters that I didn’t know I had that kind of emotional attachment for. The film is done so well that the first third actually could play as the MCU equivalent of HBO’s The Leftovers, an undervalued and elegant series about the long-term recovery of those that remain in a post-rapture world. The opening scene involves a character having to go through the loss of loved ones via Thanos’ snap, and it’s brutal as we wait for what we know is coming, dread welling up in the pit of your stomach. The Russo brothers, the returning directing team from Infinity War, know what scenes to play for laughs (the line “That’s America’s ass” had me in stitches), what scenes to play for thrills, what scenes to play for fist-pumping cheers, and what scenes to play for gut-wrenching drama. They allow the movie to be an existential mood piece when it needs to be, actually dwelling on the repercussions of a life post-universe culling. There’s a character who frantically searches to see if a loved one was among the missing, and that eventual reunion had me in tears. With the three-hour running time, the Russos have the luxury of allowing scenes to naturally breathe. This might be the most human many of these characters have ever seemed, and it’s after recovery and grief. Needless to say, the conclusion feels very much fitting but also unabashedly emotional, unafraid of diving deep into its feelings. I sobbed.
I was worried once the film introduced the time travel plot device that everything was simply going to be erased and invalidate the struggles that came before. The worst use of time travel is when it eliminates any urgency or danger, allowing an endless series of do-overs to correct the past. Fortunately, returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Civil War, Winter Soldier) realize that in order for there to be a reversal, a glint of a happy ending, there must be a cost or else it all meant little to nothing. There are finite events in the movie that cannot change (as of now) and losses that will be permanent (as of now, if they don’t want to cheapen the journey). People died with Infinity War but we all knew, at least when it came to its dreary conclusion, that it wasn’t going to be too long lasting, which allowed the communal grief to be short-lived. After all, there’s a new Spider-Man film coming down the pike two months from now, so it’s highly unlikely the teenage web-head will remain dead. However, with Endgame, the deaths serve as the cost for resurrecting the MCU, and they will be felt for years. The screenplay provides limitations to the time travel mechanics, though I don’t think the collective hand-wave to the nagging paradoxes was as successful as the movie thinks it was. The film barrels ahead, essentially telling you to forget about the paradoxes and enjoy the ride, focusing on the characters and remembering what is really important.
Suffice to say Downey Jr. is once again his charming, self-effacing, and enormously entertaining self. The MCU began with this man and his contributions cannot be overstated. He is the soul of this universe. Evans is compelling as the straight-laced inspirational figure who takes stock of what he’s sacrificed over the years, Hemsworth showcases a potent mixture of comedic and dramatic chops, Johannson is definitely the Avenger going through the “bargaining” phase to try and make things right and she has some subtle emotional moments that belie her desperation and guilt, and Renner makes a welcomed return in a way that made me appreciate Hawkeye like I never had before. Brie Larson does reappear as Captain Marvel but the movie smartly puts her back on the sidelines protecting the many other worlds in the universe needing assistance because of how overwhelmingly powerful she can become. Larson filmed her scenes for Endgame before her own solo movie, released a month prior, so forgive the different hair and makeup, Twitter nit-pickers. I will say there is one scene that is a bit convoluted how it gets there but is destined to make women in the audience cheer with excitement as the MCU says, “Hey, that whole ‘strong female character’ thing? Yeah, we’ve had all that for years, and here you go.”
How does one properly assess a movie like Avengers: Endgame, a conclusion not just to an Infinity War cliffhanger but to a twenty-two movie prelude over the course of eleven years? The emotional investment in these characters, their journeys, has to come to something to be ultimately meaningful when it’s time to close the chapter on one massively ambitious story before starting the next. And there will be a next chapter; the MCU’s unparalleled financial success assures the fanbase they’ll have plenty more high-flying and wild adventures to come in the years, and more than likely, decades to come. Marvel had the unenviable task of wrapping up a major narrative in a way that would prove satisfying without devaluing the individual films and overall time investment. Hollywood is filled with trilogies that messed up their conclusions. Nailing the ending is just as important as getting things going right, because without a satisfying conclusion it can feel like that level of emotional investment was all for naught. Endgame reminds you how much you’ve grown to love these characters, what fun you’ve had, and genuinely how much you’ll miss these characters when they depart for good. It’s hard not to reflect upon your own passage of time with the ensuing eleven years, how you’ve changed and grown from the MCU’s humble beginnings in the summer of 2008. These heroes and anti-heroes can begin to feel like an extended family for many, and so fans desperately need the ending to do them justice. Avengers: Endgame is the ultimate fan experience.
Nate’s Grade: A
Captain Marvel (2019)
Wonder Woman may have beaten her to the punch but Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, deserves her own share of headlines as the first woman to have her own starring vehicle in the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Her presence was first teased in the post-credit scene of Infinity War. After twenty-one films, Captain Marvel gets squeezed into the penultimate chapter before closing the book on the MCU as we know it for a decade, and it feels like a throwback in both good and bad ways.
Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), or “Vers” as she’s known on the Kree home planet, is part of an elite alien squad of “noble warrior heroes” fighting in a long-running war against another alien race, the shape-shifting Skrulls. Carol Danvers goes back to her home planet of Earth (a.k.a. Planet C-53) in the 1990s to look for a hidden weapon linked to a mentor she can’t quite remember, a woman (Annette Bening) from her past life on Earth as an Air Force pilot. Carol Danvers must try and recall who she is with the help of Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and stay one step ahead from the invading Skrulls.
This definitely feels like a lower-to-mid tier Marvel entry, something more akin to the Phase One years (2008-2012) where the initial franchises were just starting to get a sense of direction and personality. They were also lacking the larger depth of character development, social and political messaging, as well as judicious independence from the overall studio formula that has come to define dozens of superhero blockbusters. It’s not a bad movie, and is fairly entertaining throughout its 124-minute run time, but it’s hard not to notice the shortcomings that, frankly, haven’t been this transparent in an MCU movie for some years now. I had to think back on a comparable MCU experience and I had to go back to 2015 with Avengers: Age of Ultron or maybe even 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. In short, Captain Marvel just feels a little less super in many important areas.
This is the first female-lead superhero film in the MCU (sorry Black Widow) and Carol Danvers has been a character in Marvel comics since 1968, and yet the film doesn’t put together a compelling case why she is the one getting her big screen moment. The character suffers that wonderfully tired movie trope of the foggy memory, so we have a protagonist trying to discover who she is alongside the audience. This would be a fine starting point for her to essentially reclaim her humanity and her agency as she travels back to good ole C-53 and learns more about her past. There’s a core of a beginning theme already present there, the nature of what it means to be human, and how it can be viewed as a weakness by n alien species and how it comes to be a strength for her. Maybe that’s too pat but it’s a start. The problem is that Carol Danvers isn’t seen to be that interesting. She’s somewhat boring and the presentation feels a tad inauthentic; when she’s quippy it feels forced, and when she’s badass it feels lethargic. There’s a personal journey that challenges her to assess her preconceived notions of good and evil in an ongoing intergalactic conflict, but it’s so impersonal. Even when she’s revisiting with friends and reminiscing (what she can) it doesn’t feel like we’re getting that much more insight than we had before. She’s a warrior. She’s upstanding. She definitely doesn’t like men telling her what she can and cannot do. But what else do we know besides her increasingly invincible super powers? What is most important to her that drives her? What are her flaws other than a faulty memory? When she goes full super saiyan it should be celebratory and joyous and instead it feels more weirdly perfunctory.
I love Larson as an actress and have been singing her praises for dramas (Room, Short Term 12) and comedies (21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim) for years, and I kept waiting and waiting to be wowed by her in this role. I was left unfulfilled. Larson is a terrific actress and can be so expressive, resolute, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and I grew frustrated as the movie kept her talents buttoned up for too long. She seems too removed from the action even as it’s happening in the moment. It’s not that she’s too serious (“smile more” chime the denizens of cretinous “men’s rights activists”) because her character should be serious. It’s that she hasn’t been given enough depth and interest a hero deserves.
Jackson (Glass) and Mendelsohn (Ready Player One) were my favorite parts of the movie. Watching a 40-something Jackson front and center looking like he was ripped out from 90s cinema is remarkable. The movie is at its best when Jackson and Larson are working their 90s buddy cop chemistry together. There’s a fun running joke about how Fury loses his eye with some near-misses played for comedy (reminiscent of Crispin Glover’s eventual armless bellhop in Hot Tub Time Machine) and while the film does a disservice to Carol Danvers’ character it opens up Fury even more as a person. Mendelsohn has become a go-to villain for Hollywood and the filmmakers use this to their advantage. He slinks around having a good time being bad, but there’s also a surprising turn that provides unexpected pathos and depth to what could have been a one-note scary-looking bad guy. In a movie that deserves headlines for being the first female-lead MCU entry, the supporting dudes end up having the most depth and success, which is rather odd.
Captain Marvel is missing a larger sense of vision and purpose, which is why it feels more like a throwback to those early days. Directing/co-witting husband-and-wife team Anna Bodin and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) don’t manage to have a feel for the material and for action as a whole. There are some pretty-looking sequences and some moments that strike their intended effect well, but the structure of their movie could use a bit of an overhaul. The first act, the pre-Earth return, is a bit convoluted and could be condensed. This even goes for the Kree Special Forces team (Kree Team Six?), which comprise many differentiated soldiers when really three non-Jude Law members would suffice. The Kree characters are stranded for the middle act and when they come back it’s hard not to feel disinterest. The concluding act brings the various plotlines together better with some good twists I did not see coming and appreciated. However, the climax is missing out on its triumphant jubilation because of the spotty characterization and the haphazard action direction. From the start, the action is unimpressive and poorly choreographed and edited. The chases are humdrum and the special effects are surprisingly substandard at too many turns. It’s hard to tell what’s happening in many fight scenes, and once Carol Danvers gets her full super laser-blasting powers, the screen becomes even more obstructed and even harder to decipher. Bodin and Fleck have showcased a natural feel for visual storytelling but action appears beyond their grasp for now.
Captain Marvel suffers from being asked to do too much, slap together an origin tale for the last essential character for the conclusion to a larger multi-movie storyline, also forging the beginning of the MCU timeline as a prequel for Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D, as well as some connective back-story with the Guardians universe. It has to do a lot of heavy lifting in two hours that the screenplay and characterization do not seem best equipped to handle. The humor is a bit dull and unsure of itself, relying upon certain beats one too may times, notably a cute orange cat tagging along. Even the 90s setting feels like something tacked on for easy jokes about dial-up Internet and references to Radio Shack. It feels like simple nostalgia and that goes to the soundtrack selections as well. This must have been the easiest job the music supervisor ever had for a film, having to do a mere cursory scan of 90s alternative rock for the hits. An action sequence set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” should have more attitude than it does. A dream/trance sequence set to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” should be creepier and more unsettling. By the end, as the credits flash onscreen set to the guitar chords of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” I felt certifiable 90s fatigue.
I feel like I’m piling on Captain Marvel with complaints and quibbles and presenting the impression that it’s a bad or dimly entertaining film. It’s not a bad experience but it definitely has its share of flaws that hinder the enjoyment factor. As a white guy in his thirties, Hollywood has been making movies tailor-made for me as their default setting. I cannot underestimate the cultural and personal impact this will have for millions of women and young girls who have been eagerly waiting for a big-budget movie with a strong female protagonist front and center. Wonder Woman was a cultural and commercial touchstone that might diminish the luster of Captain Marvel for some, but the MCU is its own unparalleled zeitgeist. Having a woman carry a movie in this special high-profile film universe will mean considerably much to many. I wish it was a better movie, but even lower-tier Marvel is still better than plenty, and that may be enough. I’ll look forward to see how other screenwriters and filmmakers make use of the character in the ensuing Avengers sequel coming out next month. I’ll reserve my final judgment on the character after I see how she fits into the larger picture and with storytelling talents that have shown more aptitude toward the super stuff.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Free Fire (2017)
I don’t understand the praise and hype heaped upon filmmaker Ben Wheatley. He’s got a nice eye for visuals but whenever I see his name attached as a screenwriter, my expectations sink. His 2016 film High Rise was on my list of the worst films of last year. To my mind, Wheatley is Nicolas Refn (Neon Demon) lite, and I don’t even care for Refn. With that being said, the premise and star power for Free Fire looked enough to even out my immediate hesitation about watching another Wheatley film. It looked like fun. How could it not be? Well I’m now debating whether I disliked Free Fire more than High Rise, a scenario with no real winner.
In 1978, two gangs meet in a Boston warehouse to make an exchange of guns and drugs for money. Things go wrong, tempers flare, and bullets are exchanged. Both parties are pinned down, fighting for cover, and looking to come out alive and on top. There’s Cillian Murphy, Oscar-winning Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, and Sharlto Copley among this dingy dozen.
Exiting my theater screening, I got into a discussion with my pal, Ben Bailey. He was adamant that the story premise of Free Fire could not be done as a feature film and was, at best, the sort of material for a 20-minute shoot-em-up short. I argued that with the proper development there could be a scraggly feature film here but the key phrase is “proper development,” something that is sorely lacking from Free Fire. Ultimately it feels more like Ben’s assessment: 20 minutes of thin material and thought stretched out to an interminable 85 minutes.
Once the shootout commences, it feels like Wheatley just succumbs to the cacophonous confusion of the action and more or less gives up. For a solid twenty minutes or so, the movie is nothing more than a series of disjointed shots of people firing and people taking cover from wooden boxes and planks, rarely if ever coalescing to produce a sense of direction, momentum, and geography. I didn’t know where anybody was and especially in relationship to anyone else. That is a crucial factor in action sequences especially in a limited location action sequence. You need to know who is where and establish different mini-goals and new challenges. Wheatley only introduces new elements late into the proceedings, and when he does they are anticlimactically resolved. When complications do arrive they are brushed aside and we go back to shooting. Why not involve the guns in those crates as something to be fought over to gain extra leverage? That seems like an obvious goal but not to the characters on screen. I lost track of which characters were with which side, and the movie even tries to make the same joke, as if knowingly acknowledging this aspect forgives Free Fire for its plotting misfires.
As minute after minute of blind shooting went on, I started making connections to a question I have had with Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Song to Song) movies, namely how does one edit these things? If you’ve never seen a modern Malick movie, first consider yourself fortunate, but the man is known for his whispery, stream-of-consciousness spiritual connections with nature. My question with Malick movies: how does someone know that this shot of light through the leaves needs to be here, and definitely before this shot of a caterpillar moving along a tree branch? How do you edit what is bereft of a traditional coherency? I wondered the same question during Free Fire. Without those mini-goals, how does one edit just gunshot after gunshot after gunshot without any credible change in the story’s impetus as guidance?
Compounding my boredom and general confusion is the reality that these criminal lowlifes are dull characters and not worth the investment. Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump fail to provide interesting personalities or quirks or anything memorable to enliven these tough-talking bad-shooting bad guys. Some of them have accents, one of them is a woman, one of them likes to smoke pot, but really they’re all slight variations on the same excitable, profane, and shallow archetype, the kind of character that gets their own poster in marketing with a nickname like “The Kid” or something cool-sounding like that, but it’s all posturing. I thought that Free Fire might be reminiscent of the rise of Tarantino knockoff films in the 90s (The Big Hit, 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings) but this movie actually made me yearn for a Tarantino knockoff.
These people are so lifeless. I didn’t care who lived and who died. They were all boring. Some faces are recognizable like Hammer and Smiley and Murphy but a majority of the characters are not, at least initially visually distinctive. It’s a failing of creativity to separate them, make them distinct. Much of the acting is just reacting to squibs going off and squirming on the ground. If you have a fetish for Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island) wriggling, this is your film. By default the best actor is Copley (Hardcore Henry) as he seems to be on an uncontrollable improv stint, rapidly saying whatever things comes to mind. Something has to fill the audio between gunfire.
Free Fire wants to be a scuzzy, crazy, fun movie that knows it’s trashy and revels in its bad taste and loony characters with nose-thumbing glee. Instead, Free Fire is a nihilistic and tedious enterprise lacking entertaining characters, coherent action, and most importantly any general sense of fun. Watching characters that are unmemorable, who you don’t care about, fire guns indiscriminately for a long time is not a movie, and it’s most certainly not a good movie. It’s a glorified training manual for firearms. Free Fire takes too long to get started with poorly developed characters and when it does kick into action the movie doesn’t really improve too much. Free Fire is a Tarantino knockoff that doesn’t have the courage of its own B-movie convictions. It thinks just dressing the part is enough, substituting style and a blithe attitude for not even substance but the appearance of substance. It only has one truly memorable, queasy death, so even when it comes to bizarre violence it falters. This is one movie that wants to look cool and irreverent but ends up merely firing blanks.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Some of Hollywood’s most famous characters are its monsters, and no I’m not referring to studio executives. Kong was one of cinema’s first international stars, a stop-motion marvel in 1933 that had a hankering for blonde women. His legend has endured many different incarnations and once again the gigantic gorilla is given his close-up, in Kong: Skull Island, the second phase in a would-be MonsterVerse after 2014’s Godzilla. This time the monster comes through. Skull Island is a pleasing two hours spent with just enough style, thrills, and comedy to enjoyably pass the time best accompanied by a big bag of popcorn.
In 1973, a geological surveying team has discovered a heretofore-unknown island ominously shaped like a skull. Everyone is heading there for different reasons. Bill Randa (John Goodman) wants to prove the existence of monsters, and that he’s right. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) wants one last mission before returning home from the Vietnam War and its anticlimactic ending. James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the world’s best big game trackers and wants a new challenge. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is an award-winning war photographer who wants a new scoop. Their plans are put on hold when a 100-foot tall ape, Kong, violently knocks their helicopters out of the sky. The survivors scramble to regroup and escape the hostile locals on Skull Island along with the aid of Hank Marow (John C. Reilly), a WWII fighter pilot who crashed on the island thirty years ago and might have a few screws loose from the experiences.
Kong: Skull Island is a monster mash-up that knows how to entertain in grand smash-em-up style. It is not a remake of the original King Kong story, and being free of that “twas beauty killed the beast” narrative opens the movie to be its own thing, a high-concept action vehicle and clear Vietnam War parallel. It’s like someone watched Peter Jackson’s agreeable if bloated 2005 King Kong and said, “Hey, what if we shaved off the first hour and spent the whole time on Skull Island, the undisputed best part of the movie?” It’s the equivalent of an-all marshmallow box of Lucky Charms (Simpsons reference!). The unique environment boasts a retinue of fun surprises and a variety of action set pieces that keeps the movie from falling into a valley of repetition. It’s not just giant apes and dinosaurs, there’s also giant bulls, insects, and in one creepily terrifying moment a giant spider that uses its stalks of long legs to try and impale its prey down below. It’s a long lost world that allows for a constant sense of discovery that doesn’t get old. When the characters stumble upon a graveyard I wanted to soak up every detail of the spectacular collection of bones. I was grateful that Vogt-Roberts made fine use of his locations, real and computer enhanced, to build a sense of space and atmosphere.
One of the best aspects is that the producers have apparently learned from 2014’s Godzilla and elected not to play an elaborate game of hide and seek. My biggest complaint is that I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie. I was not content to settle for a shadowy impression or a glimpse of a tail here and a foot there. It was an artistic decision that toyed with audience anticipation but it also felt like we were being lead on. Too much teasing and not enough of the good stuff. This is not a problem with Kong: Skull Island; the title beast makes his presence known in spectacular fashion around the half-hour mark, and there’s no tiresome visual obfuscation to blunt the impact. You see Kong smash and it’s glorious carnage. He’s established as ornery protector, a sheriff of Skull Island keeping order with the fragile ecosystem. It makes the world of monsters seem much larger and more balanced. I wish there was more for Kong to do as a character but without his familiar arc he’s less character and more a testy god. There is a moment or two that hint at the soul inside the giant ape, but he’s mostly the physical embodiment of implacable force and the good and bad that goes with such power.
The Vietnam parallels are plentiful and provide a dollop of subtext to the conflicts, but this is a movie that doesn’t forget to have fun. The imagery can often fall into Apocalypse Now flashbacks and other war movie iconography, from the burnt orange sunsets casting dusky silhouette to the slow motion explosions trailing after teams of helicopters. The ever-present 70s rock soundtrack almost reaches Suicide Squad levels of needle-drop proportions in the first half, constantly reminding you of its time period. Skull Island isn’t a very deep movie but it does subvert some genre expectations at turns. A character given significant attention is taken out rather unceremoniously. An appeal to a greater sense of humanity is curtly brushed off. A lone heroic sacrifice that proves to be fruitless. Our more photographic heroes are evidently the worst, most useless characters (more on that below). For a movie that doesn’t strive for more than two hours of entertainment, it finds interesting sub routes.
I’m shocked at what director Vogt-Roberts has proven capable of considering his only other film was the low-budget, rather unremarkable coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer. This is a Russo brothers-esque statement, a Colin Trevorrow-style jump from minor indie to full-blown big screen spectacle. Is Hollywood going to sign up Joe Swanberg or Shane Caruth to direct the next four-quadrant blockbuster based on a toy? He does an adept job of capturing the action with style, and his shot compositions are routinely visually pleasing, confidently guiding an audience’s eyeballs to key info within the frame. I loved Kong’s immediate introduction as the camera circled him in a 360-degree pan, stopping at points to slow down before ramping up once more. There are amusing angles that highlight the comedy or tension of a scene, and Vogt-Roberts’ sense of geography and scale enhances the destruction. The prologue even had me hooked, as we watch a pair of enemy WWII soldiers parachute on the beach and continue their fight on the new territory. It was such a slam-bang opener and Vogt-Roberts’ use of camera placement reminded me of Spielberg. The special effects are reliably terrific even if they don’t seem like leaps and bounds from Jackson’s Kong. The skull-faced lizard monsters are scary enough to be threatening while still cool. The monster mayhem is lovingly reproduced and in environments where an audience can see the spectacle.
Another improvement is that the human cast has just enough characterization to make me care. With the newest Godzilla, I didn’t care if the giant lizard stepped on any of them, short of maybe Bryan Cranston. However, in this film I wasn’t impatient for the monsters to return that much. The best characters are, ostensibly, the antagonists. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) who goes full on heart of darkness, obsessed with killing the mighty Kong, asserting man’s dominance, and winning a war that others tell him cannot be won. He’s still sore and frustrated from the Vietnam War’s conclusion. He’s convinced that brute force and intractable persistence will win out, and he’s trying to prove something to himself, to the brass in D.C., and perhaps to all the lives lost under his watch. It’s not subtle characterization by any means but neither is a movie with a giant ape fighting monsters. Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) uses any opportunity to prove his life’s research about the existence of ancient monsters who he claims are the ones who rightfully have dominion. He’s using the looming possibility of a threat, and the paranoia of the U.S. government in the Cold War, to his sneaky advantage. Watching Goodman and Jackson glare at each other, neither side refusing to back down in their stolid beliefs and personal, self-destructive obsessions, is the non-monkey highlight of the film.
The closest thing approaching human drama, and even tragedy, is Reilly’s distaff character, and I don’t know the last time that John C. Reilly was asked to be a movie’s human compass (Magnolia?). His out-of-time character has a definite degree of cabin fever wonkiness. Reilly excels at being the offbeat oddball and has some welcomed comic relief moments, but it’s the drama related to the character that stuck with me. With the appearance of new human faces, he can take stock just how much of his life he’s missed out on and the family he’s been absent for. His genuine melancholy provides a depth to a character that would ordinarily just be made fun of for being kooky. Still, he’s got some great gallows humor that keeps the movie alive comically while also reminding of the dangers at stake.
The rest of the characters are rather interchangeable or curiously have little impact on the plot, and that unfortunately includes the headlining stars. Hiddleston (Thor) is a big game tracker and he’s the most useless character. Think about that. He’s supposed to be a wildlife expert and a tracker and he provides no real purpose other than he fills out a tight shirt nicely. Hiddleston is eye candy and little else, which is strange considering his skill set should have factored into the plot somehow. He points them in the direction of water and that’s about it. Larson (Room) is a recent Oscar-winner and has tremendous skill burrowing into her characters and finding a raw vulnerability. With Kong, her anti-war photographer gets off a few ideological shots with Jackson, but there’s little to separate her from the other diverse supporting castmates who are just bodies meant to be sacrificed. They’re all waiting to be eliminated in fantastic, gruesome, or unexpected ways. You won’t exactly be shedding a tear for these people when they become monster chow. Fun fact: ⅔ of the core cast of Straight Outta Compton are here (Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell), which apparently shows that Ice Cube isn’t a fan of long travel.
Enjoyably dumb at points and smart enough to know it, Kong: Skull Island is an admirably efficient monster movie that delivers its share of fun. Vogt-Roberts makes a major statement as a visual stylist and director of big-time smash-em-ups. The action is varied, intense, and vividly realized from carefully positioned camera angles and a team of high-class special effects wizards. Kong: Skull Island knows what an audience wants and happily delivers. The actors, for the most part, are enjoyable or enjoyably expendable. If this is the next step in the growing MonsterVerse, then I saw bring on the cataclysms and world-destruction. Friendly tip, stay for a post-credits scene that sets up future installments and try not to pump your fist in excitement. Kong: Skull Island is a boisterous B-movie that can make you feel like a kid again watching the amazing film feats of classic monsters.
Nate’s Grade: B+
It’s hard to think of a more emotionally grueling and uplifting movie this year than Room. It drops you right into a scary world and, thanks to its carefully balanced tone, the film eschews sensationalism and gets at the beating heart of its survival story, namely the love and protection of a mother for her son. It is an emotionally powerful story that hits the big moments, the small moments, and everything in between. It left me analyzing it and rethinking it for hours, the repercussions still reverberating through me.
Ma (Brie Larson) has been held in a single soundproof room for seven years, the captive of an older man who is termed “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers). Complicating matters is that Ma has a five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) born into this captivity. It is the only world he’s known. To spare him the full horror of their circumstances, Ma has created an elaborate world for him that only exists in Room. After his fifth birthday, Ma tries speaking honestly to her son, lifting the veil of kind fabrications. Together they will scheme to escape their one-room world, but it comes with tremendous cost.
It would be easy to fall onto the more unseemly elements of this harrowing story and linger on just how bad things are and the horrifying lengths that Ma has to go through to survive. Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) doesn’t have to wallow in depravity to get its point across. There’s a sensitivity that manages to temper some of the abuse in a manner that won’t make you run out of the room screaming. When Old Nick enters the room for his special time with Ma, we don’t need explicit detail to understand what is happening and what Ma is shielding Jack from by demanding he stay in the closet. The reality of their captivity is enough without underlining the worst of the worst for the lowest common denominator. The emotional weight of everything is clear without having to be bludgeoned. The implications are always just peaking around the corners from the safer version of reality Ma has proposed to protect her child. As the audience, we can see the cracks, we can see her front, and we can see the effort and the toll it’s taking on Ma. The stakes are clear as well, and so when Ma is instructing Jack and preparing him on their joint escape plan, you’ll start to feel waves of anxiety travel through your body. I was shaking with suspense that something could go wrong but also because Ma and Jack are such vulnerable characters that rely upon one another completely. I knew what was going to happen in broad strokes but I was still on the edge of my seat and that’s because the movie made me deeply care about the characters and their plight. The escape scene was on par with some of the better suspense sequences in the equally brilliant Sicario.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Ma and Jack do get out of their one-room prison because the second half of the film deals with the ongoing consequences and challenges of adjustment. We’d like to think that we can be plugged into our old lives after spending time away, but that’s just not how things work, let alone for people who have experienced substantial psychological and physical trauma. Ma is struggling to readjust to her old life under the care of her mother, Nancy (Joan Allen). She looks through old high school pictures and you can tell she laments “what could have been” and even bears some resentment for her old friends who got to live the lives she should have had. Just because she’s free doesn’t mean she’s better. Her father Robert (William H. Macy), since divorced from Ma’s mother, can’t even look at Jack because of the pain it causes; Jack is a child of rape, but Ma demands he be acknowledged as her flesh-and-blood, and even that can be too much too soon for Robert. He’s more about seeking justice through the courts and as a result stays on the peripheral of the story for most of the movie. There is no exact time table for PTSD and Ma goes through highs and lows, none lower than when pressed with the question of why she held onto Jack after he was born. Would he not have had a better life in someone else’s care, assuming Old Nick would have abandoned him rather than kill his own blood? It’s a hard question and it stings.
For an obviously punishing story about the worst of humanity, I am not kidding when I say Room is an uplifting film. The darkness is easy to identify and Old Nick is a fearsome and all too real antagonist, one who could roam our very streets in anonymity. However, what stays with me several days after watching Room is not the suffering but the resiliency of spirit, the knack human beings have to persevere amid the worst. Ma’s recovery is rockier but more understandable for us to trace and relate with. Hers is an experience where she can finally begin to focus on something other than her child’s safety and deliverance, namely her own well-being. For Jack, there is no playbook. He’s spent his entire life inside a small room and never seen the outside world. His sense of understanding has been extremely limited and yet his sense of exploration is alive. Jack slowly and surely builds trusting relationships with Ma’s relatives, engaging in other activities, and acclimating to his new surroundings, reforming his sense of the world. It’s ultimately Jack who is able to make the greatest breakthrough to his mother, and it’s this moment of sacrifice and love that unleashed the last torrent of my tears. Previously I had cried two times over the horrors and Ma’s love as her strength, and it was this final moment, this sharing of his “Strong,” that let loose the happy tears.
It should go without saying but Larson gives an exceptionally powerful performance. After 2013’s stupendous Short Term 12, I knew this actress was destined for great things, especially the way she can zero in on a character and inhabit them fully. With Ma (she’s never given any other name) Larson is able to convey a multitude of emotions, many of which she has to hide from her son out of loving deference. He can’t know just how scared and exhausted she is, though these emotions do take over at time. Larson is tremendous as she exhumes maternal might as she does everything in her power to save the two of them. Early on, she’s the character we empathize with the most because she’s had her world taken from her and hoping to return. She’s so resourceful, from the way she’s able to answer her son’s questions about the world, to the way she’s able to practice and drill their escape plan to a child with no concept of “outside,” this is a powerful woman driven by the instinct to endure. When Larson’s façade breaks down with Jack, that’s when the movie started stabbing me like daggers. In the second half, her character has a long road to go to recovery, if that’s even an appropriate word, and Larson gives sensitive and empathetic consideration to every exhausted development. She is easily going to be the one to beat this year for the Best Actress Oscar.
Paired with Larson is the remarkably natural child actor Jacob Tremblay, and his performance is worthy of awards consideration itself. At first his worldview is precocious because of how unique it is, which makes him more a figure of fascination than tragedy. He’s bright and active with the world around him, turning household items into useful toys and emotional attachments. The film uses parts of his narration to give better insight into just how he’s processing the world he knows versus the world as it exists. These bouts of narration never come across as cloying. As the movie continues, he learns more about how his preconceptions of the world are wrong, but he’s more intrigued than frightened. During the escape plan, when Jack gets to see the outside world for the first time, it’s a transcendent emotional moment. His guarded behavior around others is necessary as Jack builds positive associations with men who are not Old Nick. Tremblay is utterly magnificent; there is no hint of artifice to his performance, which is especially rewarding considering his is a role that could have been suffocated with eccentricities and tics. You feel like you’re watching a child grow before you through supportive nurturing.
Within the first twenty minutes of watching Room I already knew this was one of the best films of 2015. It just connects so vividly and succinctly, effortlessly powerful and yet skillfully avoiding sensationalism and exploitation while telling an entertaining survival story that still resonates with emotional truth. The performances from mother and son are outstanding and Larson and Tremblay form a heroic duo that take hold of your heart. It doesn’t mitigate the darkness or the cruel realities of its premise but Room also doesn’t dwell in the darkness, castigating its characters as hapless victims forever broken from their incalculable suffering. They are resourceful and resilient and while their trauma will not be forgotten it is not the one defining moment of their burgeoning lives. It may sound maudlin but it is the power of love that resonates the longest with Room. That love at first is about protecting the innocent, and then it transforms into healing and acceptance. I hope everybody gets a chance to see Room, a remarkable film with two remarkable performances and plenty to say about the humanizing benefit of love.
Nate’s Grade: A
Amy Schumer is having what some might refer to as a moment. Her comedic rise has accelerated as her sketch comedy show has gained greater notoriety for its social commentary from a post-feminist feminist perspective. For many, Schumer has become a relevant and empowering creative voice, and the fact that she breaks free from the Hollywood “thin is the only beautiful” mold is refreshing. Her star is only going to rise higher as soon as audiences get a load of Trainwreck, a raunchy romantic comedy penned by Schumer herself and starring Schumer as the lead. Paired with director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), Schumer excels and surprises in Trainwreck, a modest but appealing rom-com that’s not afraid to get real when it counts and sweet when needed.
Amy (Schumer) is a magazine writer in New York City and follows her dad’s (Colin Quinn) words of wisdom he dispensed when she was ten years old: “monogamy is unrealistic.” Amy dates and sleeps with an assortment of men. Her current boyfriend Steven (the wrestler John Cena) likes to spend time at the gym but he doesn’t quite satisfy her, at least enough not to still see other men. Amy’s younger sister Kim (Brie Larson) rejected dad and settled down with a single dad and his son. The idea of marital bliss and raising children makes Amy uncomfortable. Amy’s editor (Tilda Swinton) assigns her a profile on a sports surgeon, Aaron (Bill Hader), specifically because Amy hates and is ignorant of sports. Amy and Aaron hit it off and she confidently takes their relationship in a non-professional direction. It’s then that Aaron surprises Amy. He calls her the next day and is interested in seeing her again. Amy has to come to terms with how to navigate a relationship with a good guy who understands her and would like more.
The tone and spirit of Trainwreck is very clearly Schumer’s voice, following her brand of sexually brash humor from an unapologetic and independent perspective. Amy is a love-em-and-leave-em character who would shrug at being called a “loose woman.” Then again if we applied these same standards to men we don’t have the gender-swapped “loose man” nomenclature. Instead of the standard male playboy character who beds a plethora of sexual partners and then moves on about their day, this time it’s a woman, and while perhaps this isn’t the strongest foothold in the realm of being progressive, every bit counts (women can do it too!). Amy is unrepentant about her sexual appetites and she is not punished for them. Imagine that, a sexually liberated woman who enjoys sex and doesn’t have to suffer some physical or psychological trauma related to her desires. We’ve come a long way from Mr. Goodbar. The character of Amy is much more than just her dating habits. She’s ribald and unapologetic while finding ways to be relatable and more in depth than just the commitment-phobic lead character in a mainstream romantic comedy. Her views on relationships go back to idolizing her cad of a father and a strong sense of fatalism. Relationships can’t work out so why bother? This accentuates Amy’s already self-destructive habits, which make her in many ways our protagonist and antagonist. She’s an enjoyable character who can also be mean-spirited, petty, and push the important people in her life away from her. Her biggest challenge isn’t getting the story, holding a long-held secret, or even landing the guy, because he already wants to be with her. It’s about whether she can accept a different view of herself. That’s way more interesting and complicated than your standard rom-com fussbucket or workaholic.
The content of Trainwreck is far easier to engage with than Apatow’s previous film, 2012’s This is 40. Even though she has a cushy job and a nice apartment in the big city, Amy’s struggles with her relationship with her boyfriend, her sister, her father, and her boss, trying to please others without giving away too much of herself. Her father is the source of much of her discomfort as she and her sister debate how to take care of him in his ailing health. Where Amy views her father as an admirable straight-shooting guy who rebels against the social standards and expectations of decorum. Her sister views him as a bigoted and sexist jerk that was never much of a father. The slow acceptance Amy comes to about the degree of pain she’s dealing with and guilt related to her father is a key development. Her rejection of the “old ways” is a repudiation of her father. The arguments that she has with Aaron are realistic, and he admits that he’s uncomfortable with certain aspects of her lifestyle but he’s not forcing her to change. There are some dramatic turns in the film that require Schumer to do some heavy dramatic lifting, and she carries it gracefully, keeping in character but also losing her carefree façade. It opens up your sense of the character just as much as the actress. Trainwreck is still very much a romantic comedy and it spends its third act coalescing to its happy ending, but Schumer’s self-deprecation won’t let it get too saccharine.
The movie is also funny quite often though it ultimately gives in to more rom-com conventions than subverting them. There’s a funny sequence where Amy is trying to coax her boyfriend into being more vocally risqué during sex, and John Cena does a great job awkwardly trying to be dirty. There’s a funny moment tied to character as Amy mingles with far more straight-laced married women at a baby shower. They play a game of revealing secrets and it’s everything you would want it to be. The satirical broadsides at the tabloid and celeb navel-gazing industry are broad but quite amusing, including article topics like “Ugliest Celebrity Kids Under 6” and, “I’m Not Gay, You’re Just Boring.” Amy’s self-destructive attitude and her outer layer of confidence lead to many humorous observations and exchanges, especially with Hader. The two actors have good chemistry and bounce off one another well, capturing a fun energy of a couple that really enjoys one another’s company and exploring that. Swinton (Snowpiercer) is almost unrecognizable and quite hilarious as the unfeeling boss. The biggest scene-stealer and breakout star is the world’s greatest basketball player, Lebron. He plays the standard rom-com “concerned best friend,” even warning Amy not to break his man’s heart and having a dating debrief while playing very one-sided basketball with Aaron (all elements lampooned in last year’s rom-com spoof, They Came Together). The basketball scene is particularly amusing as Lebron dominates his friend so casually and without ego. It’s a fictionalized version of Lebron but the man just has natural comic timing and a star presence. I could totally see more acting work coming Lebron’s way if he wanted it.
However, there are jokes, storylines, and moments that don’t feel as well constructed and simply don’t work, enough that it hampers the overall impact of Schumer’s story. There’s a recurring theme of gay equals funny, notably when all of Cena’s threats to a movie patron bear a striking homoerotic quality. That scene works well enough, but the theme reappears in a late storyline where a lisping intern at the magazine played by Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) unleashes his inner sexual freak, which involves a lot of homoerotic foreplay and positioning. It’s a comedy angle that gets old fast. I also never believed the sentimentality attached to Amy’s father after his health worsens. Schumer tries to turn a bigoted jerk into a well-liked character and it just doesn’t connect. He has real physical struggles dealing with MS but at no point does he come across sympathetic. I sided with Kim on this one, though I think I wasn’t supposed to by the film’s end. There’s also far too many supporting characters that just kind of float along the peripheral; this is common in Apatow comedies but these characters, from a homeless bum to Amy’s work colleagues, don’t feel well integrated. There’s a misfire late in the film when Lebron holds an intervention for Aaron. The core idea would work but Lebron’s intervention participants include Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick, and Marv Albert, with the bulk of the jokes being Albert’s in-game announcing. They don’t address that the figures are playing themselves until much later in the scene, so I was wondering if somehow Broderick was Aaron’s father. It’s a miss. The movie-within-the-movie is also never that funny or satirical of Sundance indies, but thanks for the effort.
As a side note, it seems like quite a missed opportunity that the Knicks game at the end of the film did not feature the Cavs. With Lebron as a supporting character, it would seem like a natural fit to include him in the climax. My theory on this is such: the Knicks play the Brooklyn Nets and we see Paul Pierce in a Nets uniform. As NBA fans know, Pierce left the Nets and signed with the Washington Wizards for the 2014-2015 season (he has since signed with the L.A. Clippers). That means that Trainwreck must have been filming the spring of 2014, which means Lebron was still with the Miami Heat. No wonder the movie didn’t feature the Cavs in its finale. Also, in what NBA universe is Amar’e Stoudemire the star of the Knicks? Does Carmelo Anthony and his $120 million dollar contract not exist in this universe? It’s a little comical that Stoudemire’s knee surgery is given such dramatic stakes for a player that the Knicks were looking to dump.
Trainwreck is by no means the disaster implied by its title. Even Amy isn’t really a trainwreck of a person. She can be mean and self-destructive, but her shocking behavior isn’t all that shocking. She drinks and has sex with multiple partners and does not feel shame in this. Look out, world. Yet it’s Schumer’s sprightly comedic voice that shines throughout the film even when certain jokes or storylines misfire. Make no mistake, Trainwreck is also a star vehicle for Schumer and she earns it. She even sheds some tears in very effectively dramatic moments. She can do it all (refraining from obvious bad joke…) and still be funny whether she’s cutting someone to size or the butt of a joke. Trainwreck is an enjoyable romantic comedy, another in Apatow’s sweet lineup of raunchy and somewhat old-fashioned romances with their happy endings. There should be more than enough to tide Schumer’s fans and for her to make new ones.
Nate’s Grade: B
Don Jon (2013)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most talented and, yeah I’ll say it, dreamy young actors working today is proving to be more than a pretty face. Don Jon is his assured writing and directing debut, and it shows that every man has one more reason to feel insecure compared to Gordon-Levitt. The titular Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a New Jersey lothario who sleeps with lots of women but the real thing just can’t measure up to his porn. The schism between reality and sexual fantasy is too much. Jon tries to reform his porn-addiction ways when he meets a hot lady (Scarlett Johansson) but old habits are hard to break, especially when he has to wait before sleeping with a woman. The narrative isn’t terribly deep or that developed but remains entertaining throughout, buoyed by feisty performances and stylish direction. The editing, sound design choices, and smooth camerawork made me feel like I was watching a promising Scorsese student. I found Don Jon to be a far more successful look at sex addiction than the recent sex addict drama, Thanks for Sharing. The parallel between porn and Hollywood rom-coms, both an inflated fantasy of relationships, doesn’t really stick, and Jon’s family is a bunch of loud Italian stereotypes, but the lead guy is a self-possessed lunkhead anyway, so it makes sense for his family to follow suit. Don Jon is funny, sexy, and an enjoyable diversion at the movies. What it really does, though, is provide the first notch in what may prove to be an exciting directorial career for its star.
Nate’s Grade: B
Short Term 12 (2013)
It’s rare for a movie to be emotionally devastating while also being overwhelmingly inspirational and hopeful, but Short Term 12 achieves the nigh impossible.
Short Term 12 follows the inhabitants of a small foster care center in Middle America. Many of the kids have been taken from their biological parents because of abuse, neglect, imprisonment, or death. Many have never known a stable home life. And many will age out of the system at 18 and be trusted to make something on the outside by their lonesome. Grace (Brie Larson) is the lead counselor for the center. She’s dating a co-worker, Mason (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.) and pregnant, unsure of where to go from here. As the center prepares for Marcus’ (Keith Stanfield) age-out departure, they welcome Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) to their abode. Jayden’s well-connected father is getting his life in order for full custody, but it also becomes clear that her home life is a danger to her well-being. Grace fights to get Jayden to open up, then she fights to keep her safe, all the while forcing Grace to deal with her own long hidden pain.
It’s so easy to get engaged in this movie. The very setting calls for plenty of drama and pain to be explored, and it will be, but that doesn’t mean that the film goes overboard with histrionics. The characters are written with such naturalistic ease, allowing an audience to understand them without judgment. These people, be they the foster kids or the counselors, feel refreshingly, exceedingly, magnificently like flesh-and-blood people. The characters feel lived in, their struggles feel real, and their responses are sincere. The foster care system in this country is grueling. A counselor needs a big heart, thick skin, and an immeasurable supply of patience. There are a lot of abused kids in the system, just hoping to find an adult who wishes to love them, to nurture them, to care. The kids don’t want pity; they are perturbed when they’re referred to as “underprivileged youth.” What they really want is respect and sincerity. Highly charged emotions are a given considering the circumstances of the characters, but what makes Short Term 12 exceptional is that they are fully earned. We don’t just feel for these kids because they’ve suffered, we feel for them because they are presented as characters instead of martyrs. I was emotionally moved throughout, tearing up several times, feeling heartbroken at turns and then brimming with buoyant hope at others. It’s a balancing act the movie masters.
Writer/director Destin Cretin (actually remaking his 2008 short film of the same name) explores these characters in gentle waves, allowing the characters to open up in ways that don’t feel forced. You learn about these characters and their history bit by bit, sometimes through creative expression where one must read between the lines. Marcus might seem to be one character, then his rap song he writes reveals an aching degree of personal pain, and then the revelation for why he wants to shave his head, which at first just seems like an average teenage compulsion, will break your heart all over again. You yearn for these kids beyond measure, wanting them to taste delayed happiness in this world, but you also understand why they’re so guarded, why the system grinds together as it does. This is no polemic overburdened with speechifying and soapboxes. It doesn’t really make any larger points about foster reform or the people who run the system. Instead Cretin gives every participant in the film complexity, empathy, and humanity. Even Grace’s supervisor, easily set up for quick blame about decision-making, is allowed empathy. You feel the man’s plight as he tries to make the best out of a bad situation, which is exactly what the counselors are trying to do themselves with their charges. Cretin’s emphasis is on his characters and not necessarily on making overt political attacks. I knew within minutes that I was in for something special. You can feel it with the dialogue, how easily Cretin is shaping character without splurging on exposition. These people come alive under Cretin’s watch, and you’ll be pulled in within mere moments.
This is also fundamentally a star-making performance for Larson. The young actress has had visible roles in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street, and TV’s The United States of Tara, but nothing prepared me for the power of her performance. Larson’s character has plenty of personal pain and secrets and a gnawing sense of futility, but she pushes forward, trying to make a difference somehow in this world. You feel her intensity and determination but you also feel her setbacks and uncertainty. Larson never strays outside the emotional bounds of her character, staying true to her aims. Grace is no saintly and selfless figure. She’s paying a real price keeping her own pain bottled up, focusing completely on others so that she doesn’t have to assess her own damage, but Jayden forces her to examine her own history. Larson serves as the dependable emotional anchor of some very choppy waters. In a just world, Larson’s name would be bandied about come awards season, but the overall small, understated nature of Short Term 12 and its limited release leaves me in doubt. However, there is no doubt that Larson gives a deeply humane, gripping, heartfelt and marvelous performance.
The character relationships are just as compelling and provide a rich texture to this world. The dynamics within the foster center are interesting, nothing as simplistic as slotting kids into staid high school types. There are divisions within the home, chiefly between Marcus and an antagonistic Luis, but it’s also invigorating when you witness the various kids come together in solidarity and community, when they look out for one another. Jayden is surly at first but won’t let on how truly hurt she is that her father missed her birthday. Marcus leads the other kids and they all make a slew of birthday cards to cheer her up, make her feel that someone out there cares. It’s a small gesture, and yet when it plays out it hits with a wallop. The relationship between Grace and Mason is sweet and frustrating, representing a romantic coupling of two people with an obvious connection but also enough baggage to derail potential long-term success. Gallagher Jr. is a nice fit for the part. I really enjoyed how Mason is developed as the film progresses. Initially he seems like a pseudo-cool authority figure, then a scruffy screw-up, then a sincere and grateful individual worried about Grace and aggravated by his inability to help her.
There are movies that feel true in a broad sense but clumsy with the fine details, and vice versa, but Short Term 12 is that rare movie that feels so authentic that it could have been a documentary. Sure there is convenient plot developments and a tidiness that life just doesn’t want to provide, but the overall impression is remarkably genuine. The characters feel like actual people, their world feels recognizable, and their struggles feel familiar and relatable and raw. Short Term 12 doesn’t glorify the counselors, nor does it demonize or sanctify the kids under their care. Here is an unblinking look at the sheer weight of the work of trying to provide for those in need. The movie is a potent drama with several heartbreaking incidents, but I don’t want to scare people off with the impression that Short Term 12 is all artsy doom and gloom. On the contrary, the film is resolutely hopeful in the face of such dire adversity. The perseverance of the counselors, as well as the kids striving for independent lives, is what I walk away with. Not the abuse, not the systematic neglect, but the indomitable perseverance of the human spirit to transcend damage and to succeed anew. This is the long-lasting impact of this superb movie. It’s not about the pain inflicted, rather the human connections forged and the optimism of recovery. Not everything will get its happy ending, but it is inspiring to watch people put it all on the line, thanklessly. Short Term 12 is the kind of movie you bug your friends until they finally watch it. Ladies and gents, commence bugging.
Nate’s Grade: A
The Spectacular Now (2013)
I say this as a fan but John Hughes was probably the best and worst thing that happened to the modern teen movie. He certainly brought an extra level of pathos and relatability to the genre, but then again he also dealt in stereotypes, often languishing his characters to stock archetype ghettos (the Jock, the Prep, the Nerd, etc.). In the ensuing decades, it’s been hard to break as many teen films, of those aimed at teenagers, have casually dealt in these easy labels. That’s why something like The Spectacular Now is such a welcomed respite. Here is a teen movie that aims to tell a story about people and their problems, not simply a regurgitation of high school cliques and clichés. This isn’t a film where all the pieces magically come together; this is a high school movie that more closely approximates real life. This is more Cameron Crowe than John Hughes material.
Sutter (Miles Teller) is the most popular guy in school, or so he’d tell you. He’s the life of every party, the kind of guy who everyone enjoyed, and the guy who could charm the pants off any girl. He’s recently broken up with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), though still harboring serious feelings for her. Of course the best way to get over the old girl is with a new one, and Sutter sets his sights on Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She’s a smart, somewhat quiet gal that immediately takes a shine to the spotlight that is Sutter’s affections and attention. He’s not entirely over his old girlfriend, still angling to get back together, but also Sutter’s whole perspective could be summed up as an extreme case of carpe diem. The kid is partying like there’s no tomorrow because he’s convinced he has no real future, so he’s going to live it up while he can.
You’ve easily seen this movie before but it’s rare to see it given so much depth, maturity, and care. At heart, this is the story of Sutter learning he’s a screw-up and getting his life back in order, learning some self-control and responsibility, and winning over the good girl. But The Spectacular Now is so much more than that, and it’s especially sadder than you may have expected with its wise-talking, charming protagonist. This is the story of a teen coming to grips with parental abandonment, gaining insight into his own delusional detours to avoid pain, and the horrible realization that he is, in his present reckless condition, a bad influence dragging down the future of the girl he genuinely cares for. That’s a lot of heavy emotional drama and none of it revolves around the clichéd staples of teen movies, like those checkpoints such as prom and the Big Test. This is the story about one damaged man coming to terms with the state of his damage and gaining the courage to change his direction. He’s an alcoholic but the movie doesn’t ever put the narrative on hold for soapbox preaching. If anything, Sutter’s alcoholism is handled so subtlety, with most character silently acknowledging but unsure or indifferent to act, that it may strike a few chords with audience members. Then there’s the fact that none of this is heavy-handed; the filmmakers have done a fabulous job of giving each character credibility. They behave like real human beings. Even the easily slotted antagonists, namely Cassidy and Sutter’s deadbeat dad, are given shades of recognizable humanity and depth. Even though Cassidy waffles in her feelings for her ex, I cannot dislike her because her character portrayal is so honest. She’s struggling with her feelings for a screw-up with redeeming qualities. That’s fairly relatable, even if she’s not our winsome romantic lead. The filmmakers drag a typical teen movie story into our real world setting, adding depth and telling observance. You will recognize many of these characters.
There are few superlatives to describe the cuteness of the blossoming relationship between Sutter and Aimee. It’s so smooth and relaxed yet completely believable, and the two actors have such a warm and natural chemistry with one another, enough that I seriously contemplated if they dated outside the film (rumored but nothing conclusive). You feel their budding affections, the sweet swoon of young love, and the hiccups along the way. Woodley (The Descendants) does an outstanding job with her mannerisms and affectations; her awkwardness around her feelings is adorable, but not in that prefabricated cutesy way often ascribed to the oft-mentioned Manic Pixie Dream Girl roles. She’s a fairly normal teenager on the fringes of high school, keeping her nose down and looking ahead. In movie terms, you couldn’t readily classify a gal like Aimee, and that’s because she’s a real character fully fleshed out by the screenwriters and the actress. Woodley’s performance is near invisible of acting tropes and constraints. She just dissolves into the character as all exceptional actors do.
But this is Sutter’s movie and, in accordance, Teller’s (Rabbit Hole) film. The young man puts on an acting camp in this film, shedding the various layers of armor from his sad clown of a character. As I said, we’ve seen this character before, but Teller and the screenplay are able to give Sutter such extraordinary depth. The carefree life-of-the-party character is turned into an introspective character study, essentially examining the darker side of Ferris Bueller. He’s using alcohol and his blithe attitude to blunt the pain that he fears he’ll end up like his old man, that his life has already peaked and he’s not even out of high school. Teller is such a successful charmer that he already wins you over to his side despite some boorish behavior because we see that the guy has a good heart. In the film’s opening, he’s propping up his friend to finally get the guy a girl, and the ensuing mess ends Sutter’s own relationship. The last act involves Sutter coming to grips with the negative impact of his actions, notably on Aimee. Teller is so effective at giving you glimpses of the sadness eating him whole. His concluding scenes when he finally breaks down feel like a hard-fought victory for the character as he confronts his doomed fate. At every turn, Teller impresses, and compounded with Woodley, they form an unbeatable team of sterling young acting talent.
Special mention to Kyle Chandler (Super 8) for his pivotal walk-on roll as Sutter’s bad dad. He’s so pathetic and so desperate and so wonderfully realized by Chandler. He doesn’t get a Big Scene, he doesn’t get a Big Speech, he doesn’t even do anything out of the ordinary for a shifty, unreliable, selfish drunk, but those few minutes he’s onscreen, it all becomes so deeply sad and clear where Sutter’s life is headed without intervention.
The only depiction that I had trouble believing was Sutter’s almost consistent drinking and driving. Throughout the film, he has his trusty Styrofoam Big Gulp cup with him, spiked with booze. The man hasn’t graduated high school yet and is already a high-functioning alcoholic. Because of this I can believe that people would not be alarmed seeing him drive after imbibing a few drinks. However, the man is constantly drinking while behind the wheel of an auto and several times he appears completely trashed. I find it alarming as well as a bit far-fetched that not one character, not even Aimee, would raise objection to Sutter’s continued dangerous behavior. We also witness several scenes of Sutter drinking in bars. It’s conceivable he has a fake ID at his disposal, and it’s even more conceivable that he could talk his way into any establishment, but it’s more food for thought. Then again maybe this is just one of those towns where nobody cares about innocent lives being snuffed out by drunk drivers.
The Spectacular Now is an earnest film that doesn’t overdo it, providing challenging life lessons to fully formed, complex, believable characters. It doesn’t sugarcoat the heartache and harsh reality out there for vulnerable teens. It’s a charming romance tied up with an insightful character study of one young man hiding his sadness and anxiety of life’s disappointments with humor and booze. Thanks to the tremendous acting of its onscreen pair, you root for Sutter to turn his life around because you see value in him as a person, even if he doubts it himself. You’re on his side from the start, and you know how nicely he matches up with Aimee. You want this movie to pull off the spectacular, and for long stretches it feels just as if that will happen. The ending aims for ambiguity but is far more hopeful than its source material. I was charmed thoroughly by this film and its lead characters but even more I was thoroughly engaged in their dilemmas, moved by their struggles, and encouraged by their perseverance and growth. The Spectacular Now (extra points for never even having a character spout the title) is a funny, warmhearted, measurable restrained, knowing film that could open eyes. It may not be spectacular to some, but it’s surely a great film.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A corrupt L.A. cop (Woody Harrelson) makes bad choices, alienated and frightens his family, and looks to be on the way out as a career of taking the law into his own hands is at long last catching up with him. Yeah, you probably stopped me after the third word in that sentence. This dour character-study showcases Harrelson nicely as a cocksure cop who’s so self-destructive and paranoid that he pushes everyone away. Co-written and directed by Oren Moverman, who made the terrific and searing drama The Messenger, this movie just about turns into high-gloss navel-gazing. The plot is quite loose and there’s very little traction. We get to see scene after scene of Harrelson behaving badly or violent, but what does it all add up to? We already know he’s a bad cop tortured by his own sins and the demands of the job. In a way, there’s an intriguing connection between law enforcement and soldiers who are often called to bear incredible burdens and just deal with it, forgotten by a public complacent with being safe. But really this movie is just one long trip with an angry man who keeps everyone, including the audience, pushed away. He’s complex but I can’t say we ever got to know him better. The film is well acted with plenty of recognizable stars, but why should I care? The central message about the prevailing influence of corruption is a bit heavy-handed as well; at one point Harreslon’s wife says, “You made us dirty.” Rampart is a disappointing venture for Moverman despite Harrelson’s best efforts. In the end, when you’re stuck with a dirty cop he better be worth the time.
Nate’s Grade: C
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