I remember reading this novel back in college, so it’s been a long road for Jonathan Lethem’s crime story to find its way to the big screen. Motherless Brooklyn is a decade-plus passion project for star/adapter/director Edward Norton, and it’s easy to see why an actor would want to latch onto the lead role. Lionel Essrog (Norton) suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and is given to verbal and physical tics he needs to indulge or else his brain feels like it will explode. He’s our eyes and ears into a criminal world that views him as a freak. It’s an intriguing vulnerability given sympathy, forethought, and it’s an intriguing way to make something old new again through a disadvantaged lens. Norton is great in the lead and Lionel feels like a companion portrait to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, another struggling man given to unconformable physical outbursts that make him feel isolated from society. The book was fascinating from being inside this unique headspace and understanding how Lionel’s brain operated with obsessions and various pressure valves. The movie, which Norton rewrote completely and set in the 1950s, is an acceptable film noir, but without that specific perspective it would get lost. It’s handsomely made and has plenty of enjoyable actors in supporting roles. There’s an intelligence to the storytelling and power dynamics, but the movie is also a bit too smart for its own good, losing its way in a convoluted mystery where the pieces don’t so much add up as they’re just given to you after a long enough wait. And the wait is long. This is 144 minutes and takes its sweet time, applying more and more layers of intrigue and period settings like Norton is checking a list of Noir Elements to include in his first directing work in 19 years (Keeping the Faith, anyone?). The world itself is surface-level interesting but the main character is the real hook, so getting more of the world without going deeper on the character, or expressly placing him in different predicaments where he can utilize his unheralded abilities, feels like wheel spinning. Motherless Brooklyn is strictly for genre fans or those who don’t need much more from their movies than a high-concept quirk.
Nate’s Grade: B
M. Night Shyamalan has had a wildly fluctuating career, but after 2017’s killer hit Split he’s officially back on the upswing and the Shyamalan bandwagon is ready for more transplants. At the very end of Split it was revealed it had secretly existed in the same universe as Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s so-so 2000 movie about real-life superheroes. Fans of the original got excited and Shyamalan stated his next film was a direct sequel. Glass is the long-anticipated follow-up and many critics have met it with a chilly response. Shyamalan’s comeback is still cruising, and while Glass might not be as audacious and creepy clever as Split it’s still entertaining throughout its two-hour-plus run time.
It’s been 18 years since David Dunn (Bruce Willis) discovered his special abilities thanks to the brilliant but criminally insane Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a.k.a. “Mr. Glass.” David has been going on “walks” from his security day job to right wrongs as “The Overseer,” the rain slicker-wearing man who is incapable of being harmed (exception: water). He looks to stop David Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a.k.a. The Horde, a disturbed man inhabited by over dozens of personalities. David Dunn and Kevin are captured and placed in the same mental health facility as Elijah. The three are under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who specializes in a specific form of mental illness with those who believe to be superheroes. She has only so many days to break through to these dangerous men or else more extreme and irrevocable measures might be taken.
Shyamalan has a lot on his mind and spends much of the second half exploring the classical ideas of superheroes via Dr. Staple and her unorthodox therapy treatments. She’s trying to convince each man they are simply wounded individuals and not superior beings blessed with superior powers. Because the audience already knows the fantastic truth, I’m glad Shyamalan doesn’t belabor this angle and make the crux of the movie about her convincing them otherwise. The second act is something of a sleeping predator, much like the wheelchair-bound, brittle-bone Elijah Price. You’re waiting for the larger scheme to take shape and the snap of the surprise, and Shyamalan throws out plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing (I’ve never been more glad that convenient news footage of a new skyscraper opening meant absolutely nothing for the final act setting). Part of the enjoyment is watching the characters interact together and play off one another. The conversations are engaging and the actors are uniformly good, so even these “slow parts” are interesting to watch.
It’s fun to watch both Willis and Jackson to slip right into these old characters and conflicts, but it’s really McAvoy’s movie once more, to our immense benefit. Between a ho-hum character who has accepted his ho-hum city guardian role, and an intellectual elite playing possum, the narrative needs Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde to do its heavy lifting. McAvoy is phenomenal again and seamlessly transitions from one personality to another, aided by Dr. Staple’s magic personality-switching light machine. The command that McAvoy has and range he establishes for each character is impressive. He reserves different postures, different expressions, and different muscles for the different personas. I was genuinely surprised how significant Ana Taylor-Joy (Thoroughbreds) was as the returning character Casey, the heroine that escaped Kevin’s imprisonment in Split. She’s concerned for the well being of Kevin, the original personality who splintered into many as a means of protection from his mother’s horrifying abuse. I was worried the movie was setting her up to be a disciple of Kevin’s, looking to break him out having fallen under an extreme Stockholm syndrome. This is not the case. She actually has a character arc about healing that is important and the thing to save Kevin’s soul. There are in-Kevin personalities here with more character arcs than the other famous leads.
Shyamalan has been improving in his craft as a director with each movie, and stripping down to the basics for a contained thriller gave him a better feel for atmospherics and visual spacing with his frame. With Glass, the cinematography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows, Us) smartly and elegantly uses color to help code the characters and the development of their psychological processes. The direction by Shyamalan feels a bit like he’s looking back for a sense of visual continuity from his long takes and pans from Unbreakable, which places greater importance on the performances and precise framing.
I think the disappointment expressed in many of the mixed-to-negative critical reviews comes down to a departure in tone as well as the capitalization of being an Unbreakable sequel. Both of the previous movies in this trilogy were less action vehicles than psychological thrillers that emphasized darker human emotions and personal struggle. Shyamalan purposely grounded them, as much as one can, in a sense of vulnerable realism, which only made both of their endings stick out a little more. The movies weren’t about existing in a superhero universe but more so about unknown heroes and villains of comic-sized scale living amongst us every day. It was about the real world populated with super beings. Because of that tonal approach, Unbreakable was the epic tale of a security guard taking down one murderous home invader and surviving drowning. It was more the acceptance of the call, and part of that was getting an audience that had not been fed as much superhero mythos as today to also accept that secret reality hiding in plain sight. 18 years later, movie audiences have become highly accustomed to superheroes, their origins, and the tropes of the industry, so I was looking forward to Shyamalan’s stamp. I think our new cultural environment gave Shyamalan the room to expand, and Glass moves into a less realistic depiction of these elements. It’s not the gritty, understated, and more psychologically drawn dramas of his past. It’s more comfortable with larger, possibly sillier elements and shrugging along with them. There are moments where characters will just flat-out name the tropes happening on screen, with straight-laced exposition. It can lead to some chuckles. I think fans of the original might find a disconnect in tone between the three films, especially with this capper. They might ask themselves, “I waited 18 years for these characters to just become like other supers?”
And that refrain might be common as well, namely, “I waited 18 years for this?” While it’s inherently true that a filmmaker doesn’t owe fans anything beyond honest effort, an extended time between sequels does create the buildup of anticipation and the question of whether the final product was worth that excited expectation. Fans of Unbreakable might be somewhat disappointed by the fact that Glass feels like more of a sequel to Split. McAvoy is top-billed for a reason. Perhaps Shyamalan had more of a desire to foster the continuation from a recent hit than an 18-year-old movie. Whatever the rationale, David Dunn gets short shrift. After the opening segment, he’s being institutionalized but he’s not actively trying to escape. As a result, the attention focuses far more onto our two villains, and one of them doesn’t says a word until an hour into the movie. This further exacerbates the disproportionate emphasis on Kevin Wendell Crumb (and The Horde). As stated above, I think that’s where the emphasis should be because he has the most storytelling potential, and McAvoy is amazing. However, if you’ve been waiting 18 years for another face-off between Mr. Glass and the Unbreakable Man, then this might not seem like the special event you dreamt about. Shyamalan still has difficulty staging action sequences. The fights with David and The Beast are pretty lackluster and involve the same non-responsive choke hold moves. There are like half a dozen characters involved with the climactic showdown but half of them are bystanders waiting to be tapped in when the narrative needs them to console their fighter.
I think the ending will also turn some people off for what it does and what it doesn’t do (I’ll avoid spoilers but will be speaking in vague terms this paragraph, so be warned, dear reader). The ending opens up a larger world that leaves you wanting more, even if it was only a passing scene acknowledging the resolution to the final actions. This holds true with an organization that you get only the smallest exposure to that adds to the deluge of questions seeking answers. It sets up a bigger picture with bigger possibilities that will ultimately be left unattended, especially if Shyamalan’s recent interviews are to be taken at face value. What Glass does not do is play with the implications of its ending and explore the newer developments. The ending we do get is indeed ballsy. I gasped. Shyamalan takes some big chances with the direction he chooses to take his story, and I can admire his vision and sense of closure. On the other end, I know that these same decisions will likely inflame the same contingent of disgruntled and disappointed fans.
Shyamalan’s third (and final?) film in his Unbreakable universe places the wider emphasis on the three main characters and their interactions. While McAvoy and Kevin get the light of the spotlight, there are strong moments with Elijah and David Dunn. There are some nifty twists and turns that do not feel cheap or easily telegraphed, which was also a Shyamalan staple of his past. It’s not nearly as good or unnerving as Split, the apex of the Shyamalanaissance, but it entertains by different means. If you were a fan of Unbreakable, you may like Glass, but if you were a fan of Split, I think you’ll be more likely to enjoy Glass. It might not have been worth 18 years but it’s worth two hours.
Nate’s Grade: B
Originally intended to be released in the summer of 2012, G.I. Joe: Retaliation was pulled back because, presumably, they wanted to convert it to 3D, but many suspected it was to add more time for star Channing Tatum after his box-office domination that year. Well, wrong on both accounts, because maybe it was merely kicked back because, get this, it’s not terribly good. I had the lowest possible expectations for the 2009 G.I. Joe movie but came away having a fun time; it was the right kind of enjoyably stupid. Well now it’s just stupid. Cobra has kidnapped the president, inserted a doppelganger, and now wants to rule the world that to an evil satellite that drops giant metal rods into space as weapons. Why are these rods not part of the Earth’s orbit after release? There are all sorts of gadgets here that make no sense but somebody thought might sell some toys. The central storyline is almost a knockoff of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a small group of Joes having to clear their names. Then because that isn’t enough material to work with, there’s a mini-movie about ninja warriors avenging their fallen master in the mountains, and of all people, the RZA is supplying lengthy exposition. The action sequences are absurd without having enough style to excuse the absurdity. Everyone is a superhuman but also incompetent when the plot demands it (ninjas can shoot flying knives but not a big person jumping off a wall?). Adding The Rock is always a bonus in my book; the man is charisma personified. But the storyline of Retaliation is so sloppy, the villains so lame, and the movie lacks the high-spirited imagination to keep the stupid at bay. I was never a G.I. Joe kid so maybe those with nostalgia will be more charitable than I am, but G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a poorly executed next step for a once-budding franchise.
Nate’s Grade: C
Pretty much more of the same, RED 2 feels too safe, too breezy and light-hearted, and while still fun in spots, you garner the impression that what was once sufficiently silly has gone overboard. The jokes feel flat and the characters aren’t properly integrated, especially Helen Mirren and a vengeful hired killer (Byung-hun Lee). The villains are a tad bland, but we’re here for the wacky retired special agents, so it’s forgivable. However, the good guys feel like they’d rather be elsewhere. Too much of the story is taken up by the frustrating Bad Girlfriend Plot wherein our hero Frank (Bruce Willis) is harangued by his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). I’m not even saying that her character is nagging or shrewish or anything like that, but the movie treats her like she’s dragging him down. We’re also treated to many comedic setups of Sarah trying her hand as a spy to mixed results. Parker is actually the best part of the movie, and maybe because she’s the only character that gets to do something different. RED 2 lacks the visual style of the first film and, inevitably, the freshness of its cavalier old fogies. The action is passable but is that really the adjective you want for a movie? I don’t know what more I was expecting since the first RED felt like a well-executed lark, but at least it had enough style and an impish attitude to leave me entertained. Its sequel is likeable but mostly trying to get by on your good feelings for the last movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth entry in the series, is clearly, on all fronts, the worst movie in the franchise. I suppose this shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise. Most fifth movies are not seen as peaks in creative achievement (I will go to my grave singing the praises of Saw 6, one of the few late sequel successes). I’m sad to report but Die Hard 5 is just a lousy action movie trying to get by on the good will of its famous heritage.
John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting Russia to find and help his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney). Dad thinks his boy is in trouble with the law but really Jack is a CIA agent working undercover to prevent a nuclear arms sale. A Russian political figure is promising to go public with his findings of corruption, and the man falls under the protection of John and Jack McClane. Father and son must dodge all sorts of danger and maybe, just maybe, they’ll bond over the experience of shared peril.
All of the story and character problems would have been forgivable, or at least mitigated, if this movie actually delivered the goods when it came to its action sequences. Sadly, Die Hard 5 is just thundering mediocre from start to finish. No, I take that back. In the last five minutes of the movie, it has one action development that is unexpected and interesting and different, and that’s when John McClane drives a truck out of the back of a helicopter to drag down the chopper. I repeat, this lone moment of action interest occurs with about five minutes left until the end credits roll. That’s a whole lot of gristle to get to something good. Until this point, Die Hard 5 is replete with car crashes and explosions and noisy exchanges of gunfire, but what does it all add up to? It’s like it has familiar action elements we’d expect in this sort of adventure, but it never seems to know what to do with them. Great action takes advantage of geography, moves the story forward, and escalates with natural complications. Most of Die Hard 5 is repetitious fights or shootouts in lazy locations (oh look, another warehouse-type building!). There’s a car chase through the streets of Moscow that should be exiting, but instead it just stays the same as it began. It’s two cars smashing into others. The final action takes place at the Chernobyl nuclear site, and yet it could have been just any other unwatched warehouse. I never thought I’d ever go to a movie with “Die Hard” in its title and be bored… by the action.
Here’s the deal: if you’re going to produce action sequences that don’t just stretch believability, they throttle it, then you better produce some memorable material. I long for the simply days of the original Die Hard where John McClane was a mere crafty mortal, confined to one location, using his wits, training, and stealth to turn the tables on the bad guys. He was an ordinary cop and that made him even easier to root for. Now he’s graduated to the Table of Indestructible Action Stars, men who can survive any scrape with barely a scratch no matter how improbably or death defying. I accept this change, but if you’re going to present larger-than-life action, you have an obligation as a filmmaker to make it entertaining. Die Harder had the man ejecting himself out an exploding airplane, and that was cool. Live Free or Die Hard had McClane driving an 18-wheeler along a collapsing highway, finally jumping onto a downed fighter jet. It’s completely over-the-top but it’s memorable and entertaining and, yes, cool.
The more I think back, the better 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard looks. It worked surprisingly well, well enough that I claim it as my favorite Die Hard sequel. First off, that movie had memorable action exchanges; I can still recount four or five sequences off the top of my head years later. Even if it was a standard fight between two characters, it found ways to make it interesting, like a fight between McClane and Maggie Q (TV’s La Femme Nikita) that extended into an elevator shaft and a falling auto. While Timothy Olyphant (TV’s Justified) couldn’t hold a candle to Alan Rickman (Harry Potter franchise) as far as movie villainy, the man was tremendously better than the pitiful bad guys in Die Hard 5. You have to let your villains have opportunities to be villainous, but they also have to be competent at what they do or else the movie is too obviously one-sided. Look we all know the hero will prevail but we like to see an even match for most of the running time. The Russian bad guys in this movie just suck. They suck and characters and they suck as bad guys and throwing twisty double-crosses and triple-crosses, just to keep an audience awake, make their master plan seem even more convoluted and implausible. All of this chaos is over a file whose possession, if I’m not mistaken by the needless confusion of the twists, resides with the villains for a good period of time. Why are they still going through this whole charade? Also, they suck.
The idea of tagging McClane with his son seems like a weak attempt to extend the franchise beyond the ownership of an aging Willis. I don’t care about John McClane’s kid. This isn’t Roots. I don’t come to these movies to check up on the guy’s brood of feisty kids, which by the way, Die Hard 4 did this same storyline much better with his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead). Jack McClane is a thickheaded dolt of a son, and as far as a charismatic action figure capable of taking over a franchise, don’t hold your breath. The father/son dynamic is so poorly developed. They mostly just grunt at one another and we call it characterization. Pairing McClane up with a sidekick has worked before but only when the characters are vastly different from the central man of action, like Samuel L. Jackson and Justin Long’s more comedic characters. They provided contrast and conflict and brought out different sides of the John McClane character. When you pair John McClane up with his son, who happens to be a younger version of his dad, you get nothing. I already got one John McClane onscreen; I didn’t need a watered-down, charisma-free clone. If they’re going to continue the franchise with one of John McClane’s kids, I pray that it’s the more assertive and capable Lucy.
A Good Day to Die Hard is just not a good movie at all, and it’s an even worse sequel. The fact that I endured 97 minutes of a Die Hard movie and had to scramble for anything positive to say about the action should say more than the problems with logic, plot, character, pacing, and overall production. Willis doesn’t even look like he’s enjoying himself any more. The film never grabs you, never bothers to show you something different, and after a while it simply just beats you into submission with its video game-like artificiality and redundancy. I demand more attention and care put toward my action sequences rather than treating them like a tossed salad. Sure the right elements are there but they’ve been given no thought or care. I was literally battling sleep during long portions of this awful movie. For fans of the series and Willis, it’s hard to settle on any other conclusion but one of disappointment. The story is muddled and generic, the villains are muddled and generic, the action is muddled and generic. You get the idea, and Die Hard 5 is routine to the point of autopilot, a soulless cartoon of careening bodies and speeding bullets. The only reasonable excuse I can give for seeing this movie, lowered expectations and all, is just to see how low the Die Hard franchise has fallen.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I became a Rian Johnson disciple the second that 2006’s Brick ended. I was floored by the originality, the artistic vision, the intelligence, and the creative voice. This was a unique filmmaker and I instantly knew this writer/director would be a man worth following. His follow-up, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was three fourths of a great movie, but a bit of an overdose on whimsy. Then I read that Johnson was next going to try his hand at time travel, and I could not contain my excitement. One of my favorite film genres and one of my favorite up-and-coming indie filmmakers together. I was expecting Johnson to do for time travel what he did with film noir (Brick) and the con movie (Brothers Bloom). How could Looper disappoint? Well, sadly, the movie found a way. It feels like Johnson smashed two halves of two different movies together, one good and one not so good.
In 2072, time travel is invented but instantly made illegal. The only people who have access to time travel are the mob. They have a surplus of dead bodies that need to disappear, so the mob sends them back 30 years. In 2042, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed as a looper. He kills the guys the mob sends back in time and then disposes of the bodies. He’s paid well, and he and his fellow loopers live it up as privileged members of the Kansas City social sphere. Abe (Jeff Daniels) runs the show in town; he’s a mob guy from the future. There’s a catch to all the looper riches. The mob also wants to protect them in the future, so they send back the looper’s future self to be executed. It’s called closing the loop. And if you don’t kill your future self, bad things will definitely happen, just ask Seth (Paul Dano), a looper hacked apart to lure his future self back.
The day comes where Joe is tasked with executing his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis). Old Joe escapes and goes on the run. Younger Joe is now under extreme pressure to kill his guy, or else the mob might just find him and start slicing body appendages. Old Joe is looking for the Rainmaker, who in 30 years will become a criminal tyrant responsible for much death. But in 2042, he’s only a child. Old Joe’s mission is to kill the child before he becomes the Rainmaker, and before he murders Old Joe’s eventual wife. While fleeing the mob, Joe takes refuge on a farm outside of the city. Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) warily take in Joe but they’re also hiding a secret, that Cid has powerful telekinetic powers that can be put to great damage.
The film’s premise is compelling and allows for plenty of mind-bending possibilities, and Johnson has a fresh take on the sci-fi genre. Hunting down your future self is a grabber of a concept and I loved the scenes where Joe and Old Joe would sit down and converse. There’s the natural tension of Joe’s mission to eliminate his future self, but there’s also a flurry of ideas, ones that make the film better developed. Old Joe has an edge in foreknowledge but Joe has his own edge. He can change Old Joe’s memories by choosing different actions. He swears if he ever sees a picture of Old Joe’s wife that he’ll do everything in his path to alter fate, to make it so he never finds her. As a result, Old Joe is hobbled by headaches and fuzzy memories because the order of events is no longer concrete. “This time travel stuff fries my brain like an egg,” Old Joe admits. That, my friends, is a fascinating struggle for dominance and a refreshing take on time travel. Then you throw in the mob chasing after both Joes and you got an extra sense of urgency. Looper is playfully heady but easy enough to follow. It’s a thriller that doesn’t get bogged down in time travel logistics but it doesn’t pander to its audience either. If it did, I’m fairly certain Joe (addict, criminal, selfish) and Old Joe (eventual child slayer) would have taken turns to be more likeable. For a solid hour, Looper is alive with narrative jujitsu, a nice balance of action, drama, dark humor, intelligent plotting, stylish direction, the occasional startling visual, and strong acting from Gordon-Levitt and Willis.
And then the Looper becomes a completely different movie. Once the action shifts to Sara’s farm is where this movie completely unravels. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. The first half was so intriguing, intellectually stimulating, and thrilling, and then I got stuck on a farm and the movie turned into a lame version of Children of the Damned. I didn’t come for a telekinetic kid movie; I came for a time travel movie. The second half of this movie is practically wall-to-wall telekinetic kid stuff. The action slows down to a crawl and the flurry of ideas turns to a trickle as we introduce Strong Single Mom and Weird Son. I may have a cold heart but I didn’t care about these characters. I found the romance forced and Sara to be poorly developed. I found the kid annoying, and when he got mad and made his stupid mad face, it irritated me. Mostly I was irritated that the promise of the first half of the film had stalled out, and that this was where the movie was choosing to spend its dwindling time. It’s like the movie has been swallowed inside out by this stupid telekinetic subplot. The climax is fine but why did we have to travel through Dumb Farm Rest Stop to get there? Is it so that Joe can learn to be a better person? I didn’t buy that growth, especially with a kid as annoying and obviously dangerous as Cid. I suppose one night of sex with Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) could do the trick.
Besides the whole farm deal, there are other nagging questions I have that devalue Looper in my eyes.
1) So in the future the mob is the only entity with access to time travel, but all they use it for is to dispose of bodies? That’s it? Biff Tanner used a sports almanac from the future to become king of the world. Are you telling me an organization that has historically profited from gambling would make no use of foreknowledge for personal gain?
2) Why would the mob have the loopers kill their older versions of themselves? This seems like a natural conflict of interest that could readily be avoided. Instead of having that particular looper kill his future self, thus closing the loop, why not assign that future version to a different looper? That way you don’t have to run the risk of the past looper letting his future self go. Or you could just never tell them what happened. For that matter, why does the mob have to send the guys back alive? Could they not simply just kill them and send the dead bodies 30 years back in time? This seems like an easier solution that also minimizes risk.
3) If you’ve just uncovered the power of time travel, why are you even bothering to send back your dead bodies 30 years into the past? Why not send your dead bodies back BILLIONS of years where the Earth is still forming, hot, and uninhabitable? I find this to be a better solution (I also wrote this solution in my own time travel screenplay, so there’s that too). Why can’t the mob feed dead bodies to dinosaurs? I’d love to see that.
4) You have a mob guy from the future, and you do nothing with that? Abe has one wisecrack about being from the future, and it’s a good one, but otherwise this guy could have just been from the present. The movie does nothing with the juicy element of a mob boss from the future. Maybe he doesn’t do as he’s told and arranges for his own rule. Or maybe he utilizes a sports almanac and makes some prescient bets, huh?
5) The movie takes place almost entirely around the confines of Kansas City. I find it hard to believe that a criminal organization would be sending all its bodies to Kansas City. Perhaps the mob also sends people across space and time, otherwise this means that we’re only following the future evil masterwork of the Kansas City mob.
6) I suppose you have to ask at what point do you really start to nitpick the whole butterfly effect of cause and effect paradoxes. With all time travel movies, there’s going to be some degree of suspension of disbelief, because changing one action can have wide-ranging consequences. However, with Looper there are several instances that gave me pause. Firstly, there’s the central idea of killing the Rainmaker as a child, which would negate the killing of the loopers, which would negate Old Joe seeking out the Rainmaker to kill. I’ll look beyond that. So Old Seth, in the film’s most horrifying sequence, starts noticing his fingers are disappearing, then his nose, and then his legs, etc. The mob is torturing young Seth to lure back the missing target. It’s an amazing visual sequence, but are you telling me that cutting off young Seth’s body parts would not have altered his future to a greater degree? I’m fairly certain when you start removing fingers and legs that Old Seth’s timeline would have been dramatically altered and he would cease to exist or follow the exact path to wind up in the past again. For that matter, why even bother luring the older Seth back? Could they not just take care of him by killing young Seth? What are they going to do with young Seth? If they’re just going to kill him then they should have just done that to begin with.
Johnson has plenty of thought-provoking questions he’d like to address within the bounds of a sci-fi action thriller. Would you kill a child if that kid were going to grow up and be a monster? Is redemption possible after doing horrible things? Could you kill your future version of yourself? Would you sacrifice everything to prevent future misery? These are legitimate questions and Looper deserves credit for spending time to ponder them, but I just wish Johnson could have gone back in time and chosen a different path.
Coming off of the stupendous Brick and the perfectly enjoyable Brothers Bloom, my expectations for Johnson’s third film were astronomical, especially given this crafty man’s take on time travel. I love the premise, love the actors involved, and love the ideas toyed around with, but the movie completely falls apart at the halfway mark. The pacing gets slack, the story becomes forced, and Looper transforms into a different, unwelcome movie. I can’t help but feel disappointed, partly from my expectations but also from the knowledge that Johnson could do better. The story just isn’t as well developed as it carries on, and the telekinetic subplot feels like a dull leftover from another movie. After an invigorating first half, Looper crumbles under the weight of a weak subplot that consumes the movie. There’s a good amount of thrills and intellectual stimulation aboard, but it’s all concentrated in the first half of the movie. I can’t recommend one half of a movie. I’ll still eagerly anticipate Johnson’s next project, but Looper is a sci-fi thriller that unravels at an alarming rate, turning a possibly great movie into a mediocre one.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Expendables was a surprise hit two years ago. Sylvester Stallone collected an all-star team of aging AARP action stars and they kicked ass, took names, and didn’t apologize. It was a fitfully amusing throwback to the burly, macho action movies of the 1980s and the early 90s, a time where many of these men were kings. The nostalgia trip worked box-office magic for Stallone. A sequel was commissioned and these men of action were put back to work. There was already preliminary talk about the possible stars that could sign up for a third Expendables (Nicolas Cage and Clint Eastwood are on a wish list). Maybe people should see The Expendables 2 before getting too excited plotting out the future of this franchise. This is not a good movie even by Stallone’s standards.
Barney Ross (Stallone) is back with the best team money can hire. No, not the A-Team, the Expendables. There are also the preposterously named team members Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews). The over-the-hill gang also has some new blood, namely Bill(y) the Kid (The Hunger Games’ Liam Hemsworth). The gang runs afoul with Vilain (Jean Claude Van Damme), a terrorist mining for plutonium to sell to the highest bidder. Barney swears to thwart Vilain and calls in help from other living action legends like Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What made the first Expendables enjoyable, at least for sustainable spurts, was its over-the-top nature comingled with a lack of irony. The movie felt often like a satire of the genre but you knew that Stallone was never winking at the camera. Stallone was never in on the joke. That changes with The Expendables 2, which often resorts to self-aware humor to poke fun at itself. This approach simply does not work. There’s an entire sequence where Chuck Norris even makes a Chuck Norris Internet joke, merging reality with irony. The bad guys are lousy shots and the good guys are the world’s greatest marksmen, but I don’t even know if this is intentionally self-aware or just par for the genre. Having Arnold repeat other people’s famous one-liners and quips (“Who’s next? Rambo?”) are not funny. The self-awareness never rises to the level of commentary or intentional satire, like say the underrated Last Action Hero. It’s just the same mindless violence but with the slightest of nods, the bare minimum to say, “Hey, we get it.” Except the movie feels shackled to this flawed approach and often the action fails to gestate into something larger than old guys shoot guns and make occasional wisecracks. The action sequences are really disappointing here. Little attention is given to geography, short of a climax set amidst an abandoned airport. I kept hoping for more of the gonzo, hyperbolic touches that the first film had in abundance. The best ridiculous moments this go-round are Van Damme roundhouse kicking a knife into a guy’s heart, and the piece de résistance, Norris shooting a guy onto an airport security conveyer belt where we then see the body full of lead on the x-ray machine.
Most of the Expendables teammates simply have nothing to do. Granted with a large cast the ratios of screen time are not going to be equal across the board, but I’d expect that Stallone and crew would at least give these people some reason to exist in the plot. Jet Li vanishes after the twenty minute mark and never returns. There’s truly no reason that Randy Couture and the great Terry Crews couldn’t have been Guy #5 and Guy #6. Lundgren is setup to be a chemistry genius, and then when trapped inside a mine, it looks like he’s about to utilize his chemistry knowledge to save the day. Nope. Then why would you even set this ability up if you weren’t going to do anything? Even Statham is pretty mitigated and he’s the number two guy. If you’re going to have a team-oriented action movie, then make use of the team and their unique skills. Part of the joy of these kinds of movies is watching the crew work together, like in The Avengers. With this film, we just get rapid-fire shots of the good guys shooting the bad guys, sometimes separately, sometimes together. It gets boring plenty quick.
The plot is fairly bare-bones even more an action movie. It’s a rote revenge movie where Stallone and the boys are out to get Van Dame after he killed one of their guys (the only expendable Expendable, it seems). The plot never gets much more complicated than that. The gang encounters a group of terrorized villagers who want to rescue their husbands from Van Damme’s forced labor. Our bad guy even has a name that is a single letter away from spelling “villain” in case you needed the help. You know how he’s one evil man? He wears his sunglasses at all times even underground inside a mine. Of course this may also be a stylistic choice to hide Van Damme’s horribly Botoxed face. The Muscles from Brussels is actually the second best actor in the movie (Crews easily remains the best), good enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing the older Van Damme in more movies. Sadly his big showdown with Stallone is pretty short, with Van Damme resorting to the same roundhouse kicks before being subdued.
Stallone sat out the director’s chair and instead Simon West (The Mechanic ) takes the reins. I suppose this freed up Stallone to… focus more attention on the script? Emoting more? The visuals are fairly muddy and lack the polish of West’s other hyperactive action movies like Con Air. The opening assault sequence, where Barney and the Expendables roll through an enemy compound, literally busting through walls, is the visual highpoint for the movie. I credit the filmmakers for sticking with the R-rating and not toning down their violence. It would seem like hypocrisy to have a movie about a bunch of crusty old-timers lamenting how soft the world has gotten and then wuss out to a bloodless PG-13 rating. At least this wrecking crew doesn’t hold back when it comes to their specialty: mayhem.
The Expendables 2 should have been more than just Stallone and his peers patting themselves on the back. I’m glad Willis and Schwarzenegger graduated from cameos to supporting roles, but I wish the movie just had something for these men of action to do. There’s far too much repetition with its action, which becomes a formless montage of people shooting guns in slightly varying locations. The self-aware humor kills the development of the action and it’s simply not funny enough. It’s the kind of sad humor of old men trying to still look hip, like they’re in on the joke. Hey, they can make fun of themselves too. It’s just not a fun movie. There are only so many tried wisecracks you can endure, only so much redundant action, plotless excess, and crowbarred cameos. The Expendables 2 takes the little merits of the first film and completely loses touch, all to try and make a joke. In the end, the real joke is still on Stallone and the filmmakers. They wanted to make a movie that knew it was stupid. Instead they just made a stupid movie.
Nate’s Grade: C-
It feels good to be a Wes Anderson fan once again. The indie auteur has a very distinctive style that he seems to have little regard in altering. I’ve been critical of Anderson’s idiosyncratic style, comparing it to crafting wonderfully composed, intricate dollhouses minus compelling or relatable characters to inhabit these artfully constructed mini-worlds. Without that necessary element, it’s all just fancy window dressing. Finally, Anderson, with Moonrise Kingdom, has concocted another movie where the characters grab more of your attention than the backgrounds.
Set in 1965 on a small island just off the New England coast, the movie follows the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), both twelve years old. Sam has run away from his summer camp, the Khaki Scouts, led by Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton). Suzy has run away from her parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand). The small island’s one police officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), enlists the help of several Khaki Scouts he deputizes to find the missing duo. It’s revealed through a serried of letters, and flashbacks, that Sam and Suzy have been plotting their escape for over a year. They’re in love, and they’re going to make sure nobody interferes.
What more relatable than young love? Sam and Suzy just want to be together and the rest of the adult world seems intent on keeping them apart. Right away you’re pulling for these kids, rooting for their triumph, and the movie does a fantastic job of replicating the innocence of young love without overly romanticizing a very nervous, awkward time in life. When Sam and Suzy practice kissing, for what is obviously the first time, I defy anyone sitting in the audience not to feel a recognizable pang of insecurity. The experimentation is a tad more realistic than you might expect with the PG-13 rating but still nothing to shatter the youthful innocence of the picture. There is not a tawdry moment in Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a time in life when the knowledge of sex existed without a keen understanding of sensuality, like in Miranda July’s Me, and You, and Everyone We Know. It’s more like fumbling around with what you think is appropriate activity. Still, the fact that the movie features twelve-year-olds in their underwear dancing and mildly experimenting means Moonrise Kingdom might draw a swath of ticket-buyers for the wrong reasons (beware the patron in a raincoat).
The scrupulous attention to detail is the same obsessive quality you come to expect from a Wes Anderson movie. He builds living worlds and his color schemes and shot arrangements add much texture to this idiosyncratic landscape. Unlike Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, these artistic elements work in harmony rather than conflict; Anderson actually seems to care about the people here. Chances are if you’re not a Wes Anderson fan, Moonrise Kingdom will probably not be the movie to win you over. The whimsical, storybook nature of the film actually accentuates the broader themes; bright-eyed exploration, the magic of possibility with love, and an unyielding hope. The movie feels like one of Suzy’s storied adventures come to life but without compromising the relatable character conflicts. The movie does build a nice head of steam thanks to the pursuit of our runaway romantics. There’s also a palpable sense of danger lurking, as the kids risk life and limb and even experience death, albeit a dog (Suzy: “Was he a good dog?” Sam: “Who’s to say?”). It’s a poignant tale of childhood but it doesn’t feel childish, a family film meant for people probably too young for families.
Moonrise Kingdom walks a fine line between whimsical and overly precious. Less skilled filmmakers haven fallen suit to making insufferably twee film productions consumed by their own indulgent sense of preciousness. Moonrise Kingdom is full of the typical Anderson quirk but it doesn’t overpower the narrative or define the characters in such limited personal scopes. There’s plenty of laughs to be had with the film, most in the wry chuckle variety; I was laughing throughout, finding those staple peculiar touches to be the most amusing, from the Scout Master reading a magazine titled “Indian Corn,” to Bob Balaban’s questionably omniscient narrator, to some improvised natural earrings.
The movie is consistently funny but also far sweeter than I would have imagined given the detached, arch nature of Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Again, the kids are precocious and the adults act more like children, but everyone is really hurting and lonely and looking for a means of coping or persevering, with the biggest source of pain being love; the longing, the ache, the uncertainty of when and if it will return. Usually Anderson’s films involve dysfunctional families mending some degree of their brokenness by film’s end and formulating a connection. With Moonrise Kingdom, the plot is on two kids falling in love and their will to endure. I appreciate that Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola (Darjeeling Limited) do not trivialize or look down upon the relationship between Sam and Suzy (“Oh, it’s just puppy love you silly, naïve, waifs.”). To them it feels like everything. The tender approach to young love opens the film up to a broader audience without compromising the director’s unique vision. I’d hardly say the film approaches overt sentimentality. What’s there feels earned and more reserved than what we might expect from burgeoning romance. When the expressions of affection occur, they have greater weight and make a greater impact charming the audience.
The first-time child actors do a credible job with carrying the film. Hayward and Gilman are charming and easy to like, though I wish Anderson had pushed his young actors a tad harder. They seem stiff at times and a little above-it-all in attitude. I applaud the kids for acting somewhat reserved rather than going crazy with their budding hormones. Both characters are also characterized as “emotionally disturbed,” though this seems like another of the film’s damning details about the out-of-touch adults dictating their lives. I just wished we sensed a greater degree of urgency from them about this whole adventure and the possibility of losing one another. They feel a tad blasé, all things considered.
The bigger celebrity names in the cast assume smaller roles, and many of the supporting characters are thinly sketched with personal conflicts mostly kept at a simmer. These are grownups that, at their heart, don’t know what to do with their feelings. Sam and Suzy feel liberated by their feelings. I found Murray’s blustery sense of anger amusing, and Willis does some subtle work to give you a sense how truly lonely his character is to the core, but it’s Jason Schwartzman (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) who steals the show in my book as the fast-talking, mercurial, scheming Cousin Ben who seems to have whatever somebody needs. When he agrees to marry Sam and Suzy and acknowledges that their marriage will not be deemed official under any court whatsoever, you get a sense that Moonrise Kingdom has been missing a propulsive and delightful character like Cousin Ben. I wish he had been inserted earlier, but this is Sam and Suzy’s movie, after all.
It’s not on the same level as Rushmore of The Royal Tenenbaums (my favorite Anderson films), but it’s a film that feels a lot more alive and emotionally resonant. It feels like a return to form for Anderson, remembering that the characters and their drama need to be as engaging as the set design. The turbulent young love of Sam and Suzy is sweet and leads to some tender yet poignant moments that warm the heart without making you overdose on cheap sentiment. The idiosyncratic touches are all there, the ironic humor, and the stellar soundtrack selection (Benjamin Britten’s deconstructive orchestral marches stand out as a thematic core), everything you’d expect from a Wes Anderson movie, except this time you’ll find the characters recognizable, their struggle compelling, and the end rewarding. Moonrise Kingdom isn’t the most substantive film playing in theaters but damned if it isn’t the most alluring, amusing, and affectionate, yet all on its own terms. Who would have guessed that a pair of twelve-year-olds would help us show what real love is in 2012?
Nate’s Grade: A-
As an avid Kevin Smith fan, it pains me to say this but Cop Out might be one of the least funny movies of the year. Sure it made me chuckle here and there, but mostly I sat staring slack-jawed, yawning, and wondering how this movie went so completely wrong. Smith is known without exception as a talent behind the typewriter, not the camera. He’s an ingeniously crass playwright in a filmmaker’s body. To hire Smith solely as director/visual storyteller is like hiring Picasso to mow your lawn — not the best use of his talents. To Smith’s credit, the film has a much stronger visual pulse than anything he’s ever committed to celluloid before, however, it still only looks like a marginal, mediocre Hollywood movie. Is that considered a success? The movie wants to parody the buddy cop action films of the 1980s. One of the more amusing additions is that Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun) fashions a brand new 80s style synth and guitar styled score. It’s the best and funniest part of the movie. Cop Out spends an inordinate amount of time and attention to a tortuous plot that nobody should care about. Another miscalculation is that the tone never really settles and often Smith and company attempt a light touch when it comes to parody, which makes the film just look like an incompetent retread of 80s action movies. Just because we’re familiar with stuff doesn’t mean it can be funny without comment. The movie looks even shabbier in comparison with Will Ferrell’s similarly aimed The Other Guys, a far more winning and funnier venture. I wanted to laugh; I strained to find something to appreciate, which was especially hard as the movie tilts more toward action in the final 20 minutes. The slack pacing, lame dialogue, poor chemistry between lead cops Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan (who just comes off as an unfunny idiot with a loudspeaker for a mouth), disjointed tonality, and ill-conceived comic setups (car chase in a cemetery leads to? nothing? Morgan chases a suspect while he wears a cell phone costume … *crickets*) all take their toll and make me seriously question what drew the interest of so many, otherwise, talented people. Smith got hours of stories after shooting a small role alongside Willis for Die Hard 4. I hope Smith can justify this load with a few more hours of entertaining and juvenile stories for his road shows and podcasts. If that sounds like a faint attempt to find a silver lining for what is otherwise a tremendously botched comedy, then let it be seen as such.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I can watch Helen Mirren fire high-powered weapons all day. RED is a jaunt throwaway that manages to be far more entertaining than it has any right to be. This isn’t excess on the level of The A-Team, nor is it all cynical and emotionless like Wanted. RED is the film that The Expendables could have been with a bit more polish and a little less muscle flexing. The premise almost seems worn out by this point in 2010: retired CIA agents are being hunted down and killed for some mysterious reason. Thus Bruce Willis must travel across the country and recruit his former spooks like Morgan Freeman, a daffy John Malkovich, and dame Mirren. He also gets a rather charming romance with Mary-Louise Parker (TV’s Weeds) as a pension customer service rep that Willis dials up for small talk. She gets whisked along this madcap adventure and enjoys it for the ride that it is. And I think that’s the best summation of the film. What other movie of this sort has actors of this caliber? Four Oscar winners, one nominee, plus solid work from Karl Urban (Star Trek) and beloved character actor Brian Cox to boot. The film definitely has a style, slick enough to please without being heavy-handed to rip you out of the film. The plot may be full of holes, the characters aren’t fully drawn, and certain action sequences are derivative, but thanks to the charms of its golden cast, RED is fun while it lasts.
Nate’s Grade: B