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The Disaster Artist (2017)

As an avid devotee of The Room, and a connoisseur of crappy cinema, I have been looking forward to this movie for literal years. I’ve been fascinated by Tommy Wiseau’s movie ever since I first saw it in 2009, and I’ve since watched it over 40 times. In my review for the movie, I said if I had to pick only five DVDs to take with me on a desert island, I might just select five copies of The Room. It’s that rare form of bad movie that is a thousand brushstrokes of bad, where you can discover something new with every viewing, and you desperately want to have your friends discover this miracle of filmmaking. It’s become a modern-day cult classic and theaters have been playing rowdy spoon-tossing midnight screenings of Wiseau’s film since its initial 2003 release (humble brag: I’m responsible for it playing on a monthly basis in Columbus, Ohio since 2009, the only regular public screening in all of Ohio). From its successful re-branding as a “quirky new black comedy,” fans had burning questions that needed answering, and that’s where Room actor Greg Sestero co-wrote a behind-the-scenes book, The Disaster Artist. One fan was multi-hyphenate James Franco, who purchased the adaptation rights, attached himself as director and star, transforming into Wiseau and tapping his younger brother to play Sestero. Who would have guessed all those years ago that these beleaguered actors would soon have Hollywood celebrities portraying their astonishment? The Disaster Artist might be one of the best films of the year by chronicling one of the worst films ever made.

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a struggling actor in San Francisco when he meets the Teutonic acting force that is Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Tommy doesn’t behave like anyone else, for good or ill, and it inspires Greg to become friends with him. Tommy says he’s the same age as Greg, though is clearly double, and that he’s from New Orleans, though he definitely sounds more vaguely Eastern European. Tommy also has a lot of money and elects to move to L.A. to make it in the film industry, and he wants his best friend Greg to join him. Greg finds some beginning levels of success but Tommy is rejected at every turn, determined as too weird and off-putting by casting directors. He doesn’t want to play a villain; he sees himself as the hero. Tommy won’t wait for Hollywood and decides to make his own movie. He’ll write it, direct it, and be the star, and Greg can be his onscreen best friend. The Room, Wiseau’s magnum opus, was a stunning document of filmmaking ineptitude that had to be seen to be believed, and many of the people involved were certain it would never be seen at all.

I was worried that the film version would simply be many painstaking recreations of scenes from The Room and watching characters snicker. Thankfully, the recreations are kept to a minimum and The Disaster Artist personalizes the story in the friendship between Tommy and Greg. If anyone has read the book, you’ll know there is a wealth of juicy anecdotes about the bizarre onset antics and about the human enigma himself, Wiseau. The film could have been three hours long and just thoroughly focused on all of the crazier aspects of the behind-the-scenes and I would have been satisfied. However, the ace screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Fault in Our Stars), have elided all of those crazy details into a story about a personal relationship. The most memorable tidbits are still there, like the 60 plus takes needed for Tommy to say one line, but the sharper focus allows the film to resonate as something where you can genuinely feel invested in these people as characters rather than easily mocked send-ups. Greg feels greatly put upon by Tommy but he admires his fearlessness, and deeper down he feels indebted to Tommy for getting him onto the road to his dream. Thanks to Tommy, Greg was able to move to L.A., find a place, become an actor with representation, and book commercial spots. Tommy is also an anchor weighing him down. Greg will routinely have to place his rising career opportunities at the mercy of Tommy’s capricious sense of loyalty. It’s a movie that explores the value of friendship and the lengths people will go.

This is also an extremely funny movie. Part of the allure of The Room is how it feels like a movie made by space aliens who didn’t quite understand human interactions. The head-scratching choices and dropped subplots and redundant, nonsensical plotting are all given examination, allowing the audience to be in on the joke even if they have never seen Wiseau’s actual movie. This is a film completely accessible to people who have never seen The Room; however, if you have seen The Room, this movie is going to be 100 times more fascinating and enjoyable. The sheer bafflement of what transpired is enough to keep you chuckling from start to finish. The Disaster Artist is wonderful fun, and the actors involved are here because they love Wiseau’s movie. The celebrity cameos are another aspect that helps to add to the film’s sense of frivolity, spotting familiar faces in roles such as Casting Agent #2 (Casey Wilson), Actor Friend (Jerrod Carmichael) and Hollywood Producer (Judd Apatow). Watching everyone have a good time can be rather infectious, but The Disaster Artist succeeds beyond the good vibes of its cast.

Rather than lap up the easy, mean-spirited yuks, The Disaster Artist goes further, following a similar point of view with 1994’s terrific Ed Wood by portraying these men as deeply incompetent filmmakers but also as sincere dreamers. Wiseau is clearly overwhelmed by the demands of being, let’s be generous, a traditional filmmaker, but he is also a person who set off to achieve a dream of his own. He was denied other avenues so he took it upon himself, and a mysterious influx of money he doesn’t like to discuss, and this self-made-movie star built a vehicle to shine brightest. Sure, ego is definitely a factor, though one could argue it plays some degree in all creative expression needing an audience. Wiseau didn’t let a little thing like ignorance of storytelling, film production, or how to handle cast and crew as human beings with needs stop him from plowing ahead to prove his doubters wrong. The filmmakers definitely find a certain nobility in this artistic tenacity, as did Tim Burton with Ed Wood. It’s natural to pull for the underdog, even an underdog that is so naïve it might be worrisome. You can laugh freely at Wiseau, and you will, but you may also start to admire his gumption. As the opening barrage of celebrity interviews posits, you could not make something like The Room even if you were the greatest filmmaker on the planet. It is nothing short of an accidental masterpiece. It is a movie that has entertained millions of people and one they feel compelled to share with friends and family, compelled to bring others into this strange, beguiling cult of fandom. While Wiseau may not have made a “good movie,” he has made one for the ages.

James Franco (11.23.63) deserves an Oscar nomination for playing Tommy Wiseau. I’m serious. He is channeling some Val-Kilmer-as-Jim-Morrison lightning when it comes to simply inhabiting the spirit of another person onscreen. It’s crazy that a movie so bad could inspire another movie that might legitimately compete for legitimate awards. James Franco is entrancing with his performance as he fully channels Wiseau, an almost mythic figure that we have never seen the likes of before. The accent is pitch perfect and impossible not to imitate after leaving the theater. Wiseau can be manipulative and cruel but he can also be generous and selfless. He takes great ownership over his friendship with Greg, so he believes all of his actions are to help their unique bond, even when he’s pushing that same person away. He so desperately wants acceptance but seems incapable of achieving it on anybody’s terms but his own. Wiseau is a fascinating film figure, and the movie does a fine job of neither overly romanticizing him nor vilifying him. Even despite his missteps, you may find yourself feeling sympathy for Wiseau, and that’s a major credit to the screenwriters and James Franco’s magnetic performance.

The other actors, a.k.a. everyone in Franco’s sphere of friends, are committed, enjoyable, and plugged into why exactly audiences have grown to love The Room for years. Dave Franco (Now You See Me 2) is effectively the perspective of the audience, deliberating how much of Tommy to put up with and when to walk away. Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) gets the most sustained comedic run as a script supervisor who is bewildered by Wsieau’s methods. Alison Brie (Netflix’s GLOW) is our chief source of confused expressions as Greg’s girlfriend. Ari Graynor (I’m Dying Up Here) wrings great laughs from her awkwardness with Wiseau as filmmaker and onscreen anatomically-challenged lover. Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) is Greg’s disapproving mother who worries about what kind of relationship her son has with a much older man. Zac Efron (Baywatch) is hilariously excitable as the inexplicable drug dealer, Chris R. Speaking of excitable, Jason Manzoukas (The House) and Hannibal Buress (Spider-Man: Homecoming) are a great team as the film equipment rental guys who can’t believe their luck with Wiseau. Even two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) gets some nice moments as an older actress who justifies in a heartfelt message why exactly everybody on set would go out of their way to work on such an awful movie.

If you’re a fan of The Room, then you’ll absolutely adore The Disaster Artist, and if you’ve never seen The Room, you’ll still find plenty of entertainment in Franco’s film. Wiseau’s 2003 film has to be experienced to be fully believed. The film-about-his-film provides the added extension of a coterie of characters to share in our bemusement and bafflement, providing a chorus of commentary. However, the movie isn’t all jokes at Wiseau’s expense. It evolves into a love letter for the power of art to bring distaff people together with a shared dream. Like Ed Wood, Wiseau might be incompetent by traditional measures of filmmaking but he ignored the naysayers and followed his artistic vision. Under Franco’s direction, he’s a modern-day Don Quixote, or just a really weird guy who lucked into a miraculous alchemy that gave birth to a cult classic. At the end of the movie, Tommy thinks he’s a failure. Greg reminds him to listen to the audience reaction. They are hooting, hollering, applauding, and having the time of their lives. He’s responsible for that and he should be proud of his accomplishment. I unabashedly love The Room. I introduce the theatrical screenings in Columbus. I loved The Disaster Artist book. This movie is everything I was hoping for, and it just so happens to be one of the funniest, most genuinely pleasurable films of the year.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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Power Rangers (2017)

If you were a 90s kid, you know about Power Rangers. Who would have known that a TV show that combined Japanese monster fighting footage with cheesy teen drama and slapstick would become a pop phenom and nostalgic touchstone for a generation of kids? As Hollywood is want to do with anything nostalgic, it was only a matter of time before the series got its own mighty morphin’ big screen revision.

In the coastal town of Angel Grove, five teenagers meet in detention and are destined for monster-smashing greatness. Jason (Dacre Montogmery) is a star football player and natural leader. Billy (RJ Cyler) is a nerdy whiz kid on the spectrum. Kimberly (Naomi Scott) is a former cheerleader who has been abandoned by her friends. Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (Becky G) are barely at school, both of them tracking their loner paths. One day the fivesome come across strange glowing rocks that imbue them with powers like super strength and agility. “Are we like Spider-Man or Iron Man?” Billy asks, to help orient a superhero savvy audience. They’re neither, of course, for they are the Power Rangers, an intergalactic warrior organization meant to protect worlds from threats. Zordon (Bryan Crantson) used to be a ranger millions of years ago and is now a floating head. He assembles the teens because of the looming threat of Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a former ranger tuned bad and bent on your standard world destruction. The angst-ridden, misunderstood teens must come together to stop Rita and save the Earth.

What tone does one adopt for a $100 million dollar reboot of a popular decades-spanning franchise intended for children that involves such names as Zords, Rita Repulsa, Zordon, Goldar, and the catch-phrase, “It’s morphin’ time”? Apparently the answer is a cross between Chronicle and Iron Man. For a show that even the most ardent fans would say was anything but serious, we have a fairly serious take on the material, at least serious enough when it wants to be. The filmmakers take a somewhat grounded approach to the sillier elements and that means a lot of palpable Breakfast Club-style teen angst and alienation, and it works. I was genuinely surprised that the second act’s focus on the teamwork and training of the five rangers was my favorite part of the film. It is an origin movie so expect a learning curve as the characters adjust to mastering their powers and abilities and the alien technology. You can’t just throw out a movie about space ninja cops that ride inside giant robot dinosaurs and battle monsters at the behest of a giant alien floating head without some setup. The training sessions cover a lot of ground but in fun ways that also build sequentially. The ascension of skills and confidence helps the characters open up and bond, and while some moments can be clunky (are any of their parents concerned where these kids go for seeming days on end?) it’s pleasant and satisfying to watch the outsiders finally find an understanding community of peers. The teen stars leave a positive impression, most notably Cyler (Earl of Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) and Scott (The 33), who definitely seems poised for bigger things.

The characters have enough relatable conflicts, drama, and insecurities to produce just enough shades of characterization to make them interesting and worth rooting for. Those conflicts are also somewhat surprisingly adult and modern, often in clash with their parents’ requests, something that might lead to some weird conversations in the car if parents bring their young kids. Jason is fighting against his popular image, Billy has a hard time fitting in and making friends because of being autistic, and Zack is the caregiver to his dying mother, and these guys are in a lesser tier of adult conflicts, so think about that. Trini is stifling against her parents expectations and labels, notably implying her own sexual orientation that seems to be tearing her up on the inside, something that she cannot even fully articulate at this time. Maybe the movie is trying to have it both ways by not referencing the word “gay” but it at least felt like a more valid inclusion of conflict and diversity than the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast. Lastly, Kimberly used to be the chief mean girl and the reason why she was jettisoned by the popular set is because she was cyber bullying a would-be friend. She spread a private nude picture her friend sent her boyfriend and shared it throughout school (Jason tries to helpfully mitigate this by saying, “Thousands of pictures are sent in school,” which begs the question about Angel Grove’s underreported sexting epidemic). The team dynamic and the characters opening up to one another were enjoyable enough that I didn’t mind the relative dearth of action for 90 minutes of the two-hour running time.

It’s a backdoor superhero movie that finds some interesting dark twists on its source material. The original TV show sought, in the most 90s way, “teenagers with attitude,” but the would-be rangers were just sort of normal teenagers. The 2017 movie at least provides that attitude and edge in a way that doesn’t feel as generic as a kid riding a skateboard and drinking a Mountain Dew eight inches away from his face. The TV show was campy and colorful and relatively trifling, and the movie version attempts to put more danger and loss into the emotional stakes. Zordon is given a new back-story; no longer is he simply a disembodied mentor, now he has a scheming reason for the rangers to succeed. It’s a small thing but it opens up the character of a floating alien head, and I cannot believe I just wrote that sentence. The friendship between our core group of characters matters so that, in the end, when it looks like they might lose, it does feel like something is going to be lost. With that being said, this isn’t a reboot that’s all gloom and doom. The reality of waking up one day and having super powers is played to the hilt of teen wish fulfillment and it makes for a fun series of self-discovery moments. These are teenagers adjusting to their new powers (heavy-handed puberty metaphor?) and enjoying the new potential unleashed for them. Their fun is contagious as is their camaraderie.

In fact, the conclusion where the rangers do morph and don their armored suits and drive their robotic dinosaur Zords may be the weakest part of the movie. The ultimate payoff feels a bit lackluster and mechanical, as if it’s simply falling back on cataclysmic citywide destructive action because that’s what is expected in these kinds of movies. Every person should anticipate a giant monster on giant robot brawl to conclude the story as it concluded every one of the 830 episodes. It’s just not that interesting especially since the big bad Goldar is simply a big personality-free heavy that looks like he’s made from runny Velveeta cheese. Rita, as portrayed with screechy, kooky camp by Banks (Pitch Perfect 2), feels like she’s been transported from a different Rangers universe. She literally gobbles gold to summon her colossal champion. She didn’t feel like an effective antagonist, and that’s even before her wicked scheme correlated with shameless product placement. Rita, Goldar, and their overall evil scheme makes for a rather perfunctory conclusion that feels like a downturn from the earlier, better events. Director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) has a directorial style I’ll dub “Michael Bay lite” considering how much his hyperkinetic, blue-tinted, light flared universe jibes with fellow Bay production disciple, Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). His visual compositions can get excessively busy at the worst times, making it hard to fully engage in the onscreen action especially during the climax. There isn’t that much action until the final confrontation, and I think this unexpectedly works as an asset to a franchise-starter that functions as an origin tale. Akin to the elongated tease from 2014’s Godzilla, there is a sense of relief from watching the rangers in their full suits and fighting with full powers. However, it lacks more payoffs. The movie expects that delaying the final presentation of its heroes is good enough to arouse audience satisfaction, and it’s not.

The revised, souped-up Power Rangers (nee Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers) is a fitfully entertaining movie that works more often than it doesn’t. Fans of the TV show will probably be pleased with the big budget big screen heroics and the reverence shown, though older fans might feel a bit closed off from the teen-centric tone. The relatable angst and group camaraderie made for efficient characterization that helped make the rangers feel like people rather than suits of armor and superfluous gymnastics. I enjoyed the characters enough so that I didn’t miss the scattershot action and its slow motion stylistic indulgences. The special effects are fine and transparent its filmic influences, from Chronicle to Iron Man to even The Breakfast Club. It feels familiar but yet still different enough from the cheesy TV show, so it manages to justify itself. As far as my own history, I was just a bit too old once Power Rangers hit, so it was never my nostalgia. I found the new movie an acceptable origin tale that walks a delicate tone that allows serious moments to have weight and non-serious moments to be fun. If you’re a Power Rangers kid, I’m sure you’ll find enough to sate your demands. If you watched the trailer and thought it looked like something worthwhile, you might find enough to be suitably entertained, especially with well-calibrated expectations. If you’re anyone else, then I doubt there’s enough to necessitate your mighty morphin’ dollars.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Infiltrator (2016)

the-infiltrator-infiltrator-1sht_reflection-v2_rgbIn the mid 1980s, Pablo Escobar and his cartel were responsible for billions of dollars worth of narcotics filtering into the United States. It’s the kind of work that can fill up Robert Mazur’s (Bryan Cranston) career. He works as a Florida Customs agent but his specialty is going undercover for his assignments. He’s called out of retirement with the promise of striking high in the ranks of Escobar’s ring of lieutenants. Mazur’s partner, Emir (John Leguizamo), uses an unreliable informant to start the new identity, and so Mazur poses as a money laundering expert who offers his sundry services to the Colombian cartel. After blurting out that he has a fiancé in lieu of accepting a prostitute’s services as a very 80s way of saying “thank you,” the agency must now provide him with a fake wife, played by rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger). The two have to rely upon one another in a world of criminals and murderers who would have no gutting them.

My main feeling once The Infiltrator had come to its natural conclusion was that everything about this movie should have been better. It’s a terrific premise as we follow the undercover travails of a man trying to stay one step ahead and keep his dual lives separated, invariably having them bleed into one another especially as danger escalates and his cover may be blown. Then you add an untrained partner and the conflict magnifies from there. Then you have Mazur work his way up the food chain to the major lieutenants of Pablo Escobar. This movie should be exploding with dramatic irony, weighty decisions, and magnificent suspense, but it’s really not. So why not?

infoOne reason is that the movie whiffs with its modest ambitions, namely in its shallow character study of Mazur and the lingering effects of pretending to be a very bad man. Going undercover has to be one of the most stressful jobs in law enforcement, and living two different lives has to have a noticeable psychological impact, eating away at our protagonist and affecting his relationships and sense of self. That doesn’t happen with The Infiltrator as the few glimpses we get of Mazur’s home life are mostly harmless check-ins. A red light is installed in his home to mean a secret special phone line. You would assume that some family situation has to draw out conflict from this scenario, maybe Mazur’s little girl answering the phone before he can reach it. Nothing of consequence happens with daddy’s special red light phone. The family, absent anything important to do but wait at home, becomes a drag on the narrative and doesn’t even fulfill what you would assume would be its primary service: contrast. In the world of The Infiltrator, sex, money, and drugs are rampant, but our protagonist is unaffected. He remains the same character from the beginning of the story to the end. We don’t really learn more about him other than he is skilled at going undercover. We don’t see any particular toll on him psychologically. We don’t feel the threat of what he’s going through because the movie doesn’t pretend it matters enough.

Going undercover with the Medellin Cartel should provide endless suspense scenarios. This movie should be rife with conflict, and yet it consistently finds deflating, coincidental outs to save its characters. As a good screenwriting rue of thumb, it’s acceptable to use coincidence to put your character into greater danger. It’s not a smart idea to use coincidence to save your character from danger. Example: in Donnie Brasco, a man approaches Johnny Depp’s character and clearly refers to him by his agency name, implying working together with the FBI. That’s a good use of coincidence. With The Infiltrator, Mazur’s secret recording in his briefcase is discovered by a mid-level cartel operative, for once it feels like Mazur is vulnerable. Then the movie quickly dispatches with this guy for a rash explanation and so he takes his secret to his grave. There’s another moment where Emir’s informant is about to squeal to some very bad people, with Emir in the room sweating bullets, and he too is wiped out before sharing his privileged information. The movie is filled with these frustrating solutions just when it seems like tensions is developed. The entire appeal of the undercover mob movie is the twists and turns to hide the real identity and make it out alive. I’m genuinely dumbfounded how much of this movie just skates by with little regard to drawing out effective tension.

I think I can crystallize just how poorly The Infiltrator handles its many threads of conflict with one great example. Kathy and Robert Mazur are fake getting married according o their cover stories, so what else does a fake bride-to-be do but seek out her fake husband’s tuxedo that he wore decades prior upon his real wedding to his real wife? Why does Robert need to wear the exact same tuxedo? Can his office not afford to rent a new one that likely more accurately represents his fitting size? Even if this cost-cutting measure was plausible, why must Kathy be the one to pick it up, and from Mrs. Mazur? It’s contrived and forced conflict to shove these two characters together, so that Mrs. Mazur can ask pointedly, “Are you sleeping with him?” Rather than say nothing, or dismiss the assertion, Kathy provides what has to be the most irritating and obfuscating answer: “I think you know the answer to that.” Does she? The film seems to think there is a simmering sexual tension between Kathy and Robert Mazur, but it never materializes. I guess we’re just supposed to assume a sexual tension. This scene is a pristine example of characters operating at a sub-level of intelligence because the movie wants to force contrived drama when there is already plenty of organic drama being ignored.

The last third of the movie is built around the relationship that Mazur and Kathy form with Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt). With an actor of Bratt’s stature, you’d be lead to assume his character will have a significant amount of screen time; however, The Infiltrator also boasts blink-and-you’ll-miss-them performances from Amy Ryan and Jason Isaacs, so maybe not. Bratt’s character is a family man and we’re treated to several scenes with him and his wife. It’s meant to engender sympathy so that when the end comes around we can feel some conflicted emotions. Except this is another area where the screenplay cannot live up to its aims. At no point did I feel sympathy for this mobster. He’s a “family man” and we even see him with his daughter… in one scene who asks to sleep over at a friend’s. Robert preaches about the importance of trust and family in that typical way that all thinly veiled mobsters do in movies, and he even cooks, which is another personality trait I’m sure we’ve never seen in a film about mobsters. The entire last act is predicated on our undercover duo feeling guilt over setting up Robert and his family in an eventual sting, and this guilt feels entirely manufactured.

infiltrator-movie-bryan-cranston-diane-krugerCranston (Trumbo) is the real draw here and it’s easy enough to see how alluring the undercover gig is for an actor of immense talents. In the opening scene we get a sense of Mazur on the job, digging deep into a seedy drug dealer lounging in a bowling alley and making passes at the waitresses. It’s a meaty introduction that whets your appetites for the different personalities that Cranston will have to draw from on his next assignment. Cranston is routinely entertaining to watch but I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed at what the film was asking him to do and what I fully know he’s capable of delivering. It’s like hiring a world famous chef and asking him to fix your plumbing. The other actors don’t distinguish themselves in their fleeting scenes except for Kruger (Inglorious Basterds) and Joseph Gilgun (TV’s Preacher) as a convict that Mazur likes to have pose as his driver/muscle. In the case of both actors, you wish that more had been made with their dynamic to the mission.

The Infiltrator is based on a true story and I assume that what I see on screen closely echoes Mazur’s real exploits and predicaments, but somewhere along the way the filmmakers lost track on what made this story tick. The psychological aspects are barely touched upon, the family conflicts are given careless lip service, the suspense sequences are clipped, under developed, and often solved by convenient coincidence, and the characters are too shallow to grow out from their stock roles. I know these are real human beings for the most part but they don’t feel anything more than genre archetypes. The Infiltrator does enough at a serviceable level of entertainment that it might pass some viewers’ lower threshold to fill an empty two-hour window. With all of its ready-made suspense possibilities and internal and external conflicts, this real-life story should be far more compelling than the one we’re given, which settles too often. It’s a genre movie masquerading as a character study except it’s blown its cover.

Nate’s Grade: C

Godzilla (2014)

another-godzilla-posterWhen it comes to the monsters of cinema, it’s hard to beat out Godzilla, and not just because, you know, he’s hundreds of feet high and can breath fire. The famous monster began as a cautionary tale about nuclear weapons, destroying man’s hubris and often the good people of Tokyo. The legendary beast has been hibernating as such since 1998’s not-so-spectacular big-budget return, a film that the Japanese loathed. But like all ancient being, Godzilla has been resurrected again and given a splashy new coating of CGI devastation. If only the filmmakers had decided to leave out the humans and make Godzilla the rightful star.

A scientist (Bryan Cranston) warns the Japanese government of a massive impending danger. The offspring of a giant creature, a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO), has hatched and heading straight for the United States coastline. Attracted by nuclear power, the U.S. military tries to lure it away from populated centers. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is witness to the monstrous destruction and just wants to get back home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child in San Francisco, exactly where the creature is headed. There’s also the emergence of an older creature, one that has taken to combating the MUTOs to the death. This is the legendary Godzilla.

The big guy is back in a very different approach from 1998’s Godzilla (i.e. “better” approach). Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters), an avowed Godzilla fan, has made a reverent big-budget ode to the king of all monsters; however, the resulting film is more of a disaster epic than a monster brawl. The perspective is often framed at the human-level, which grounds the film from going too overboard into disaster porn territory like, say, Man of Steel. The effect is thrilling and adds a greater sense of verisimilitude to the mass chaos and destruction. It reminded me in some ways to 2008’s Cloverfield, where a group of characters is just trying to survive the periphery of all the collateral damage of a giant monster. There are sequences that directly relate to Fukushima as well as the tsunami from 2004. It’s almost like somebody watched the stirring movie The Impossible and said, “Yeah, give us some of that in our giant monster movie.” I don’t know if these sequences are entirely necessary. Watching Ford carry around a little Japanese tyke, wondering where his parents might be amidst the confusion post-monster attack, it relates to our modern response to tragedy and worldwide disaster, but do you really want to watch Ford have to find this kid’s parents? If there is a commentary to be found in the movie, it’s the uncontrollable and destructive power of nature pushed to the brink by mankind’s own energy crises. After all, the MUTOs are attracted to and strengthened by consuming nuclear energy. Godzilla is argued to be an “alpha predator” but also a figure to bring balance back to nature. I think it means that there can be only one giant monster and Godzilla is going to eliminate the competition.

godzilla-attacks-golden-gateBut the real question of any giant monster movie is the degree of satisfying, smash-em-up fun it provides, and the new Godzilla is a mostly agreeable venture. The action sequences, mostly saved for the climax, are cool and well thought out, but Edwards proves to be a brilliant visual stylist than a composer of action. This is a movie where the moments stand out better than the action. Edwards’ command of cinematic visual arrangements is at Spielberg levels of being a natural showman. I can easily think back on small moments, images that pop, visual reveals that are executed with aplomb, far more so than a central example of an action piece. I loved the horror-esque reveal of the elevated train being on track to head right for the MUTO. I loved the hide-and-seek nature of Ford waiting for the MUTO to pass. I loved when Ken Watanabe’s advice was literally just, “Let them fight” (I started chanting it in my seat). My favorite part of the movie is actually what was previously shown as a teaser trailer, namely Ford and several other paratroopers diving into the destructive city scene. The eerie hum of the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith plays over, each man has a red flare streaking from their leg, and we watch them quickly descend through the sky, nervously awaiting what is on the other side of those heavy clouds, only to discover a city on fire, glowing like a hearth, and through the goggles, a monster fight taking place. The entire sequence is a visual standout, a thrilling set piece, and a reminder that Edwards has more on his mind.

Edwards does a lot of intentional teasing of Godzilla, so much so that it can get frustrating for an audience. I understand he’s building to a payoff reminiscent of Jaws; we’ve been teased for so long that we will go nuts when we finally see Godzilla in full glory, and it works. However, it also works as a detriment. There are several points in the film where it looks like we’re about to get some exciting Godzilla/MUTO action, or even just a MUTO wrecking havoc, and then the film cuts away, often to news footage. It’s a choice that begins as artistically clever but can become maddening in time. There is a lot of visual obfuscation throughout the film, far more so than the same compliant I had with last year’s Pacific Rim. Edwards will show Godzilla’s tail just swinging behind a building, or his colossal foot coming down with authority, or the wispy shadow of giants in billowing clouds of smoke. All those near misses can add up to cinematic blue balls. And so much of the action and destruction happens at nighttime, leading to a dour color palette heavy in grey and dark blacks, making the good stuff all the harder to see. I cannot even fathom why someone would want to see this film in 3D with those darkened glasses. It’s 90 minutes of foreplay that you may start to grow restless that we’re getting a Godzilla movie that will never show the goods (shouldn’t Godzilla be in a Godzilla film?)

godzilla1The problem with a disaster movie on a human-scale is when you don’t give a damn about any of the human characters. Now, Godzilla should be the star of any Godzilla movie but I understand execs fearing that their monster movie needs some relatable human drama. The problem is that the writing doesn’t do anything with these characters, forcing them into tidy and token roles that we’ve come to expect from large-scale disaster movies. Did anyone really feel anything about whether Ford would get back to his wife and child? Did anyone feel anything for anyone in this movie, beyond a slight reservation whether they would be squished, if even that? I’m not expecting three-dimensional characters here but even Roland Emmerich films do a decent job of establishing a milieu of people at various points of the globe we know will somehow coalesce together. There is so little effort to mask the character’s grand design: exposition mouthpieces, symbols of military threats, the noble family man, the beleaguered and crying wife. Seriously, there is a great cast of actors in this movie and they are given nothing to work with. Olsen (Oldboy) gets to look realistically scared and cry but she deserves so much better. Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad) gets all the best yell-worthy lines. But it’s really Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass 2) who suffers the most since he’s placed as our impassive stand-in for a human protagonist. He’s so blank throughout the film and there’s little charisma to pull you in. His character, and the performance, feels no better than an elevated extra, Grunt #13. When we have to spend 90 minutes with these lackluster characters rather than some awesome monster fights, that’s when the film flounders.

I’m conflicted about the end results of Godzilla, an entertaining, surprisingly artistic film that can nail small moments of cinematic grandeur but has trouble matching its vision. The human-scale approach grounds the action, but do we want a giant monster movie grounded from a limited vantage point? The constant teasing builds a payoff for finally seeing Godzilla, but don’t we want more actual Godzilla in a film bearing his name? The human-scale, as well as the slow dodging of showing Godzilla, mean the storytelling emphasis is on an array of human characters, but what happens when they are poorly written, poorly developed, and lacking in charisma? The movie does more right than wrong but I’m left with the unmistakable feeling that, while a step in the right direction, there is too much self-sabotage holding back the movie. It actually made me re-evaluate and appreciate Pacific Rim even more. I can’t say this movie is nearly half the fun as Rim was. The monster design of the MUTOs is rather lacking, resembling a cross between the monster from Cloverfield and more patently the arachnid aliens of Starship Troopers, down to the heads that look like staple removers. Edwards has proven himself a big screen talent with a terrific feel for grandiose visual spectacle. I just hope if there is a sequel that we can skip all the slow buildup and just get to the main event – Godzilla beating the crap out of some other lesser yet still giant monster.

Nate’s Grade: B

Argo (2012)

The reinvention of Ben Affleck as movie director took a big step forward with the critical and commercial success of the 2010 Boston cops-and-robbers thriller, The Town. While I’d argue Affleck’s first outing as a director, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is still his best, The Town won over plenty of doubters. Here was an actor-turned-director who could deliver smart drama, intense suspense, and coax Oscar-caliber performances from his brilliantly assembled casts. Have you seen Blake Lively half as good in anything as she was as a tragic junkie single mom in The Town? She’ll be able to get work for years just from the demo reels of that performance. But with two sturdy, complex, taut genre movies under his belt, Affleck still had doubters. The political thriller Argo takes Affleck far out of his Bostonian comfort zone. The creative stretching proves fruitful because Argo is a stirring, fascinating, and engrossing true-life story that should at last silence the remainng doubters concerning Affleck’s talents behind the camera.

In 1979, The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken by a storm of Iranian protestors. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for an exasperating 444 days. During the takeover, six Americans escapes through a back alley and found asylum with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). There they waited for months, trying to work out a plan to escape. If caught by the mob, it’s very likely they would be deemed spies and executed. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his scheme. His idea is to pretend the six American hostages are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for their sci-fi movie. His superiors seem dubious but Mendez gets the green light. He heads to Hollywood and puts together his team, a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and an established producer (Alan Arkin) on the outs with the industry. They settle on the screenplay “Argo” and have to build a credible cover story. From there, Mendez travels into Iran to meet with the hidden hostages to sell them his scheme. They were all coming out together or nobody was getting back home.

Argo is a fascinating story that seems like it could only exist in the movies, and yet it’s a true story and one hell of a story. It’s a mission movie, so we know the familiar flow of the film even as the details seem fresh (unless you’re Canadian). The very idea is one of those “so crazy it might work” plans; one State department official asks, “You don’t have any better bad ideas than this?” Even though we know it was a success, that doesn’t stop the movie from being engrossing. Argo flies by like a caper film as the CIA gathers the resources and experts to try and put together a ramshackle rescue mission. There’s feeling out the Hollywood angle, gathering the pieces to create the illusion of an actual film production, and the urgency of the façade. Even though it’s a bit outlandish, the fake movie plot seems worlds better than the other possible plans being pitched by the government agencies (smuggling in bicycles and maps?). I thought it was genuinely interesting just to be granted access to a room where people where debating rescue options and picking them apart. The film is consistently intriguing watching smart people come up with smart solutions to challenging problems.

Argo really is three movies expertly rolled together into one; a Middle East thriller, a Hollywood satire, and a D.C. procedural. It’s a bonus that every one of these segments works but it’s even more surprising, and rewarding, that the different segments all snap together without breaking tone. Credit Affleck the director for making sure his movie parts don’t overpower one another. We can go from a tense Middle East sequence where the hostages might have just risked exposure, and then we’ll cut to Hollywood and laugh at the cantankerous Lester. It’s a delicate balancing act that Affleck superbly handles. The humor of Hollywood doesn’t detract or minimize the seriousness of the Middle East chapters; it allows room to breathe, to let off steam. The D.C. segments are the biggest expository moments but they give scope and meaning to the danger. Each of these segments is compelling and each one could have been a captivating movie all its own. We’re fortunate that Argo gives us all three.

Audience ignorance aside, we may know how this story ends but that doesn’t stop the film from being completely nerve-wracking. Affleck showed remarkable skill in The Town when it came to building exciting sequences that felt like they would explode with tension. When it came to Argo, there were moments that literally kept me on the edge of my seat, a rarity with action films. The beginning sequence of the American embassy is rapt with suspense, as the security system deteriorates and the people inside realize the inevitable. They start destroying classified state evidence but really they just have to sit and wait, hearing the footsteps, knowing what is near. The sharp screenplay from Chris Terrio (Heights) does a tremendous job of developing clear suspense sequences. There’s the tension of the precarious subterfuge, of the hostages hiding behind enemy lines, so to speak. If one wrong person were to discover their identity, it could quickly unravel. There’s a whole team of children being paid to piece together shredded documents and photos like they were jigsaw puzzles. Knowing this, it makes the scenes where the group ventures out of the embassy thrilling. The group has to visit a marketplace as part of their cover and it’s terrifying.  We know the steps of escape, and each one could easily blow up and get everyone killed. Just when you think you can breathe a sigh of relief we’ve moved onto the next challenge and the tension washes over you again. The climax is so tense that your audience will likely erupt in applause when the hostages eventually escape, relieved and proud of the accomplishment.

The maturation of Affleck as a bonafide directing talent continues. There’s a growing confidence in his direction. The man doesn’t have to rely on flashy visual artifice nor does he seem to be hewing to one notable style. He’s directing each movie as its own beast, be it crime thrillers or true-life suspense story. The man knows where to put his camera in the thick of the action. Affleck also eschews the popular shakycam docu-drama approach that too many filmmakers automatically does all the work of establishing realism. Docu-drama visuals can work when properly utilized, but too often I find it to be self-consciously arty and an annoying distraction. Affleck’s camera remains steady but holds on his actors, giving them space to emote. Three movies into his directing career, Affleck has established himself as one of the best men to direct actors. He’s already lead two actors to Oscar nominations and might just earn a third for Arkin. Plus there’s the fact that Argo, top to bottom, is cast with great character actors. You have people the likes of Michael Parks (Red State) who are there for one line. It also helps Affleck the actor to have Affleck the director.

The only nagging problem with Argo is that it’s rather light when it comes to character development. The caper is the star of the movie and sucks up most of the screen time. The film does an excellent job of recreating the anxiety that the hostages felt. I can’t say we get to know any of them well as people. I can’t say we get to know much about Tony Mendez either, beside the de rigueur parts of being a CIA agent like divorce, child custody, and long nights of loneliness. The best-developed character in the movie is Lester Siegel, and while he’s terrifically entertaining, it’s something of a misstep for the cranky Hollywood producer to win that title. He’s a man who knows his value in the ever-changing currency of Hollywood; bitter, crabby, but hopeful of making a difference. Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is a natural fit for the character and brings more dimensions to the role. I wish the same care were given for the other people in the story, particularly those in harm’s way. The nuanced approach to character with Gone Baby Gone and The Town is just absent. Thankfully, the story is so engrossing that it’s not a mortal wound, but you do wish there was a greater emotional involvement in the film rather than a generic empathy of rescuing those in danger. Also, the Canadian involvement seems curiously downplayed even though their ambassador was the one hiding them for months. His role in the movie plays like he’s Guy #8. I know we tackle the CIA’s involvement but Canada could use more recognition for their integral contributions.

Argo establishes Ben Affleck as a dependable, versatile, actor’s director; someone along the likes of a Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack (I swear I don’t have a “Sydney” key lock in my brain). Affleck has proven to be a director who immerses himself into his stories, and his fingerprints are on every frame, every performance. He just nails it. The pacing is tight, the suspense builds to near unsustainable levels, and the tones are expertly juggled to prove complimentary rather than distractions. Best of all, Affleck lets Terrio’s terrific script take center stage. The incredible true-story of Argo is the biggest selling point for the movie, and Affleck doesn’t try to gussy up a whopper of a tale. The film has even more unexpected resonance given the recent spur of violent protests in the Middle East, notably the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Argo doesn’t sensationalize the hostage crises for cheap popcorn entertainment. Nor does it glorify or denigrate the Iranian’s outrage over the U.S. giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah. For a very political subject, the movie takes a very muted political stance, relying on the facts of the situation. The movie finds a rare poignancy in its appeal to the power of international cooperation. By the end of the movie, you might even tear up when you hear the actual hostages and government officials recount their struggle and ultimate triumph. Argo is that rare breed of a movie that seems to have everything. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that Affleck is here to stay as a top-level director.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Contagion (2011)

For the germophobes amongst us, you probably want to skip seeing the new thriller, Contagion. Like for life. Never see this film if you’re the type that needs a paper toilet seat cover before sitting down to do their business. Contagion is a movie that makes you reevaluate basic human interaction. You may not leave the house again without covering yourself in plastic and a year’s worth of Purel. Director Stephen Soderbergh (Che, Ocean’s Thirteen) has assembled an all-star cast to drop like flies like only Hollywood’s most talented can do. Contagion is an intelligent, unnerving, technically authentic thriller that will make you cringe just watching people cough.

Contagion’s main character is a virus that begins its origin in a Hong Kong casino and quickly spreads from there. A British model takes it to the UK, a Chinese waiter goes home infected, a Japanese businessman keels over dead on a return trip home, and Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home from her business tripe back to Minneapolis and goes into seizures. The next day, she’s dead and soon after having her brain dug out for an autopsy. The spooked docs alert the Centers for Disease Control immediately; something is definitely wrong with Paltrow’s brain (insert Coldplay joke here). The head of the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), and his specialists track the expansion of the virus. He dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minnesota to coordinate inter-agency action and interview Beth’s husband (Matt Damon), who appears to be immune to the virus. He’s in shock and isolated from his remaining daughter. He’s still trying to make sense of how quickly everything fell apart for his family. Capitalizing on fear, anti-establishment medical blogger Alan Krumweid (Jude Law) steers a panicked public toward a homeopathic medical alternative that he just so happens to have a financial stake with. The World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to investigate the Hong Kong casino and overview hours of security footage to glean the origins of the virus. But she, like others, soon find themselves in ever-increasing danger as the world races against time to beat this new threat.

For those expecting an action-thriller with plenty of doctors barking moral quandaries and racing against time to escape government agents… you will be sorely disappointed. Contagion is much more cerebral, cool, like a scientific procedural that plays the premise out in a realistic fashion, which means it’s often short the fireworks that mainstream audiences have come to expect from disaster movies. The CDC is really the main setting as they try and determine the origin of the virus, breaking down the virus, and projecting its rate on infection and contamination. Soderbergh has onscreen titles indicating how large the population centers are for the plot settings, reminding us simply with text how vulnerable to danger all those people are. The real pleasure of the film is watching A-level Oscar actors puzzle out how to solve this multi-faceted crisis. The movie does a minimal amount of explanation and expects an audience to be able to keep up with its scientific analysis. Soderbergh’s film is much more in keeping with The Andromeda Strain than Outbreak (find that monkey and all will be happy again!). You witness smart people doing smart things and still making little traction. This isn’t necessarily Irwin Allen territory of disaster. It’s a disaster that seems all too reasonably possible rather than being trapped in the belly of a ship that has turned upside down. Getting sick is a lot harder to avoid especially in our modern world. Globalization has done many wonders for the world, but by making the world a smaller place it also means that we’re all much more susceptible to the spreads of pandemics. No longer can geography be held as a total defense. We’re all one flight away from the spread of the next great illness (as the end credits to Rise of the Planet of the Apes also remind).

Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) cast a wide net all over the world to see the ramifications of crisis. Things go rather quickly. By the end of the first week, the CDC is coordinating its resources and media strategy to not inflame panic. Easier said than done when ignorance and fear are in large quantities. The reaction to the news, the intra-government squabbles over resources and money, the exploitation of fear by opportune business types, the rising resentment of those left out of the loop, and even the kidnapping schemes for those known to have access to medicine. Contagion works because it gets the details right without losing track of the big picture. The film feels eerily plausible at every beat. Nurses are on strike refusing to be near the sick until uniform safety protocols are established. Funeral homes refuse to handle infected bodies out of health concerns. These are absorbing details that feel completely authentic yet would easily have been overlooked in other disaster pictures. The movie even addresses recent pandemic fears related to H1N1, SARS, and the perceived “overreaction” when these potential worldwide disasters turned out to be milder bugs. A government agent asks the head of the CDC if some terror organization could have weaponized the bird flu. “They don’t have to. The birds are already doing it,” the CDC head replies.

While Burns lies out a host of characters and scenarios with increasing tension as stakes mount and the death toll rises, Contagion just kind of drifts into an ending for the last 20 minutes. I was expecting another big wallop, some kind of sudden plot turn that reestablished an ongoing threat, but it wasn’t to be. The tension just sorts of lets out slowly like a balloon, playing against movie laws. That means that Contagion, wile tense, eschews a dramatic buildup for a climax. Burns and Soderbergh instead to play out their realistic “what if” experiment to its conclusion, which makes for a realistic if somewhat inert final act. There’s no chasing monkeys or butting with government agents willing to sacrifice infected town for “the good of mankind”; it’s just government employees doing good work and trying to minimize damages. It’s exciting to watch smart characters break down a nasty new virus and try to understand it and get ahead of it, but once they succeed, it’s not as exciting to watch the aftereffects of people getting better and returning to a normal existence (minus 30 million people on the planet – the solution to fixing unemployment?).

Because the emphasis is on the cross-sections of plot and scientific breakdown, the emotional connection to the characters is limited. There are a lot of famous faces that appear in this movie; even bit parts are taken up by the likes of Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Demetri Martin (Taking Woodstock), Enrico Colatoni (TV’s Veronica Mars). Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) is probably the closest thing the film has to an emotional center. He’s immune to the virus but he has to watch his family fall apart with the knowledge that his wife was Patient Zero. On top of that, he has to deal with the fact that she was cheating on him. That’s a healthy brew of emotions to confront in such a heightened situation, and Damon does a nice job of putting a human face to the mass tragedy. Winslet (The Reader) is superb as a CDC investigator, so duty-bound that even when she awakes to discover she has become infected she goes through protocol trying to investigate who serviced her room so that others will not share her fate. Law (Sherlock Holmes) is suitably sleazy as a moral relativist trying that uses his army of Internet followers to discredit the government’s response. Fishburne (Predators) has terrific poise as the man in charge of scrambling the response forces, keeping his cool, and being the public face of the government response until an all too human scandal tarnishes him. But perhaps the best performer is Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Glory, The King’s Speech). She plays one of the chief CDC scientists studying the virus and takes some extreme measures to test a potential vaccine. She has a scene with her sick father that is likely the most emotionally affecting moment in the film. Her sturdy determination even when most vulnerable is selfless.

Contagion is a smart by-the-book procedural thriller that may not be dramatic enough for audiences fed by Hollywood disaster films. The film is far more analytical and detail-oriented to its benefit and sometimes detraction. It’s got stars galore and some plenty of rising tension, but the film also follows a realistic blueprint toward a rapid world response to a new pandemic, which means that well-developed characterization is spared amidst all that fraught scientific lingo. As a result, Contagion feels more like a docu-drama than an amped-up Hollywood thriller with its finger firmly pressed upon American anxieties. Contagion is a bit overextended and data-heavy. It’s a stripped down indie in studio clothing. Soderbergh’s movie is a bit too lean and clinical to be fully satisfying and emotionally engaging, especially with its somewhat inert ending. It’ll sure make you look at free bowls of peanuts differently. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s skull.

Nate’s Grade: B

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