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Rocketman (2019)

It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?

Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.

I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.

The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.

The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?

There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.

The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.

The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.

With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?

Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

There has always been an element of suspension of disbelief with the Jurassic Park films even with the hubris-pushing premise, but the sequels specifically have had to manage a rising tide of incredulity and sense of dumb. You can only keep going back to a dinosaur-infested island or thinking this time mucking with the DNA of large, extinct, highly advanced killing machines will be different. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom may be the dumbest yet, and while it does have moments of fun and excitement, the dumb outweighs all else.

Years after the deadly attacks at Jurassic World, the volcano on the island has reactivated and the remaining dinosaurs are in imminent danger of another extinction (except for the flying ones, but whatever). Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), with sensible footwear this go-round, is looking to raise money and awareness to save the thunder lizards. A wealthy magnate (James Cromwell) wants to save the dinosaurs and whisk them to a wildlife preserve far from mankind, but first they must secure the raptor Blue, and in order for that to happen Claire needs to convince her former flame and co-worker Owen (Chris Pratt) to go back. They venture back to the endangered island only to run into more trouble from stampeding dinosaurs, new super predators, and a plot to house and sell the creatures off the island.

Maybe it’s just a side effect of being the fifth movie in a generation-spanning franchise, or maybe it’s a holdover effect of the 2015 film’s meta-commentary about audiences becoming complacent with what used to inspire awe, but it feels like returning screenwriters Colin Trevorrow (The Book of Henry) and Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed) couldn’t be bothered picking a tone or developing their plot. It reminds me of the seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, specifically the back half of episodes. It felt like the creators had certain conclusions in mind and rather than smarty develop storylines that would naturally reach those conclusions, the “how” of the narrative became jumbled, confounding, and frustrating. I felt the same way while watching Fallen Kingdom; the stylish set pieces were likely established first and foremost and the stuff in between, you know the story and characters and their interaction, was given far less attention. It didn’t matter how we got from one set piece to another. This lack of consideration leads to many moments that keep you from fully engaging with the movie, namely dumb and/or awful characters doing dumb things for dumb reasons. The conclusion of Fallen Kingdom seems meant to leverage interest in a third movie, which is already scheduled for release in 2021. Was this 128 minutes the best way to get there?

When people repeatedly do stupid things, it tests your limits of empathy. This happens to me with horror movies and it happened for me with Fallen Kingdom. It’s the kind of movie where a little girl runs into her bedroom and hides under her covers from an approaching hungry dinosaur. The ensuing image of the stalking beast entering the bed with the claws is a killer image, but what did we lose getting here? This little girl was not established as some dumb kid either. The preceding hour showed her as resourceful and plucky, so this just erases all that. There’s another moment where characters have to choose between escaping through an ordinary door or an open window and crawling along the edge of the roof… and guess what they choose. This is the kind of movie where characters will be in danger and then, hooray, another character arrived in time to save the day, and then another character arrived to save the shortly-after next day. Then there’s a bad guy who enters a dinosaur cage simply to retrieve a dino tooth for his personal necklace of dinosaur teeth. I’ll repeat that. He’s not extracting them to sell to another bio-engineering company for its DNA (the opening scene presents this very example). He’s removing dinosaur teeth for his own personal decorative hobby. My preview screening groaned in unison loudly at how stupid all of this was. How am I supposed to even enjoy this dumb character’s inevitable death when they’re this dumb and undefined?

The dumbest action of all is tied to its central premise of saving the dinosaurs. When Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm (relegated to a two-minute cameo, don’t expect much) was championing letting the dinosaurs go extinct again and the folly of mankind playing God in the realm of genetics, I was right with him, and I’m no GMO spook. Bringing gigantic, killing machines back to life was clearly a mistake as five movies have now shown in great, bloody detail. At some point a lesson must be learned. I know that Fallen Kingdom is meant to imbue the dinosaurs in an animal rights lens, with Claire trying to atone for her time shaping and selling these creatures for public consumption. The animal rights angle never clicked for me. There are moments the film really tries, wanting you to shed a few tears for the fate of these gigantic creatures. Maybe you will, and there are a few shameless sequences to make you (the child sitting next to me was losing it at points). That’s why it’s not enough to have the bad guys have bad guy plans but they also have to be cruel and abusive in their treatment of the dinosaurs. The multi-million dollar ploy to weaponize the dinos also baffled me. Are they going to be that much better than firepower? There’s a reason we don’t just drop hungry lions into our war zones.

The new characters fail to add anything of merit to the story and larger Jurassic world. Cromwell’s Benjamin Lockwood is basically just a John Hammond stand-in (“Oh, there were TWO super rich dudes who funded the research and park now”). He’s confined to a bed for most of the movie and adds little besides his bank account. Then there are the two main team members, computer whiz Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and med vet Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda). He’s only here for comic relief and to do computer magic whenever called upon, and she’s only here for spiky attitude (she gets called a “nasty woman” for commentary?) and to do medical magic when called upon. Each of these characters is less a person than a handy plot resolution. When the movie transitions into its second half, both of them are kept on the sidelines. Then there’s little Maisie (Isabella Sermon) who has her own secret that really doesn’t come to much of anything and begs further examination. I suppose her perspective relates to a difficult moral choice at the end over the value of life, but she still felt underdeveloped. Even the villains are disappointing with the exception of Toby Jones (Atomic Blonde) as a slimy, one percent businessman looking for new thrills. I wish the screenplay had devoted more time to establishing the rich’s entitled sense of privilege even as it comes to a new world with living dinosaurs as the next big, commoditized play thing to buy and sell.

With all that said, there are moments of enjoyment and excitement to be had with Fallen Kingdom. Director J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls) has a great gift for finding the right image and holding onto it for maximum impact. He showcased this in his crafty, brooding, and highly effective ghost story The Orphanage and in his emotionally uplifting and harrowing tsunami survival drama The Impossible. With his first crack at a major studio movie, Bayona comes most alive in its second half when the movie transitions into a haunted house thriller in a mansion of secrets. His command of visuals and mood comes into sharper focus and there are some tense, delightful sequences. As much as I wrote about Fallen Kingdom being a movie of set pieces and little else, those set pieces are actually pretty entertaining. The island material only lasts about a half hour, wasting little time in getting the important pieces in play. There’s one long take inside a submerged capsule taking on water that keeps spinning and ratcheting up the tension that reminded me a bit of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. There’s another sequence involving a blood transfusion that I thought married comedy and tension better than anything else in the film, and it served a purpose that was credible.

If you can shut off your brain and stuff your mouth with a steady supply of popcorn to thwart your incredulous grumbling, there might be enough to enjoy with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. It’s technically well made and the special effects are pretty good, the photography is evocative, and there are potent set pieces and imagery to stimulate the pulse. It’s loud, dumb fun, but for me, this time, the dumb outweighed the fun.

Nate’s Grade: C

 

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Petes-Dragon-PosterI have no personal love for the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon. I thought you, dear reader, deserved to know this morsel. I never felt a sense of wonder from the animated dragon creating mischief while a town tried to rid itself of an orphan and a bunch of hillbillies sang an ode to child abuse (it was a different time?). Disney has gotten into the self-cannibalizing habit of dipping into its own past and remaking its animated hits for a new generation of moviegoers. It worked splendidly with last spring’s Jungle Book, and the new version of Pete’s Dragon is further proof that when Disney aligns the right artist with a vision and gives them latitude to express that vision, rewards are generously reaped. This is a delightful, heartwarming, and enchanting summer movie that got me crying.

Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy who lives in the wooded reservations with one very special friend, a furry green dragon he has named Eliot. He’s been living in the woods for six years after Eliot rescued him following a car accident that claimed the lives of Pete’s parents. One day a park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), comes across Pete and brings him back into town for medical evaluation. He’s a mystery child, a bit feral, and demands to return home into the woods. Grace incites Pete into her home and her family, but there are worries about the boy acclimating to society. All the while Eliot is looking for his best friend and mournful that they might have to part ways after all.

peter-et-elliott-le-dragon-peter-et-elliott-962309Pete’s Dragon is a simple story but this is not a detriment to its ultimate effectiveness. Rather the filmmakers take care to treat this childhood fable with enough heart and earnest emotion that the movie feels fully developed to its aims. The characters and their journeys aren’t exactly revolutionary, but I didn’t mind at all. This is an old-fashioned family film told without irony and set in a nondescript past that adds to the universal appeal of its message. It’s elegantly simple but there are poignant themes running under the surface, namely an unmistakable level of melancholy with Pete’s process of growing up. This feels like Disney’s version of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, a movie that examines the hard but necessary transitions of childhood and the acceptance of a sort of loss among the fantastic. This movie isn’t consumed with a dour interpretation of childhood as an oppressively hellish existence of misunderstanding (I didn’t connect with Where the Wild Things Are if you couldn’t tell) but it does acknowledge a loneliness of being absent a family to call your own. Pete’s life with Eliot is filled with boyish excitement and adventure but he knows he can’t hold onto that world much longer, and this realization magnifies the remaining time with Eliot. From start to finish, Pete’s’ Dragon is bursting with warmth and resonant emotions.

I was unprepared for the emotional wallop that this film delivered. Not since perhaps Pixar’s Up has a movie so effectively triggered my sympathies in its opening ten minutes. In a beautiful yet tastefully restrained sequence, Pete becomes an orphan and is rescued by Eliot, and the vulnerability and compassion of this moment already had me tearing up. Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for the “boy and his dog” stories, and while Eliot is a special dragon by design he is, at his core, a rendition of man’s best friend. Their relationship is one of love, companionship, and protection. They’re a pack. When Eliot spots Pete cozy in a family house, he’s crestfallen but accepts that a placement in the human world is where Pete belongs. And then at the end after a fraught situation, Pete instinctively runs to Eliot and leaps into his arms, and Eliot takes him in, holding him dearly, and it was at this point that I couldn’t stop the flow of tears even if I wanted to. Happy tears, people. The takeaway of the film is the formative bonds of family and the need to reach out for that nourishing companionship. While it’s highly emotional, it’s all earned and avoids cheap maudlin, manipulative theatrics, short of one extended sequence of Eliot’s capture.

I never would have expected such an old-fashioned yet preternaturally charming movie from the team responsible for the somber indie Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Director/co-writer David Lowery is locked-in with its goals and finds ways to build its characters through small, cumulative actions. The film also has a marvelous sense of place as get a strong feel for everyday life in this foggy Pacific Northwest environment. Contributing to that sense is a terrific soundtrack of low-key folk songs that thrum with a lovely homespun gentleness that taps into the earthy magic of its setting. The score strings-heavy by Daniel Hart is perfectly attuned to the emotional rhythms of the film without becoming overbearing. The photography is often gorgeous and the editing near invisible with how effortlessly it presents its story with room to breathe. There’s a standout sequence that highlights just how well all of these individual elements come together to form a greater whole. Pete escapes from the town’s hospital and desperately runs outside. He is dazed by the activity of the modern world and the geography of the town, and the residents of this town are just as dazed about Pete, a wild child exploring his alien surroundings. He hops aboard a school bus and the children inside are amazed at Pete’s daredevil antics. The chase sequence is set to the Lumineers’ “Nobody Knows” and it builds upon the sense of discovery, community, and mutual awe. It’s a wonderful sequence that develops patiently.

Part of the success of the movie is also due to the skill and implementation of the special effects team. Eliot is a cuddly creature you want to take home with you yet he can still be intimidating under the right circumstances. He’s on screen a lot but his magical qualities don’t diminish. This is one highly communicative dragon and it’s easy to empathize with him (those exquisitely emotive canine eyes help). There’s a tenderness to him that convinces the audience early on to take a journey with Eliot and see what happens next.

The human specimens are heartfelt and enjoyable as well. Ostensibly the main character, his name is in the title after all, the role of Pete rests on the tiny shoulders of actor Oakes Fegley, and he aces the part, tapping into the rougher, wilder edge while also selling the dramatic moments in a clear relation to his interpretation of the character. The next main character is Howard (Jurassic World) and she’s quite good. She gives a maternal performance that doesn’t go overboard while still allowing her to come across as an independent, thinking woman with her own desire for proof of the fantastical. She has several tender moments with Fegley. The actors all perform ably. Even West Bentley (TV’s American Horror Story) works well in the movie, and when was the last time that could be said? Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) is enjoyably hammy as the villain who’s not much of a villain. I wish Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) was in more scenes because his grandfatherly presence is so enjoyable to watch and he so easily slides into the part.

Disney is two-for-two when it comes to 2016 live-action remakes of its old catalogue, and if The Jungle Book and now Pete’s Dragon are any indication, then bring on the remakes. The original Pete’s Dragon was never a memorable or enjoyable film for me, so there was already much to improve upon, which is what the new version does in every way. It’s poignant, heartwarming, earnest, and bursting with feeling. It’s a simple story told exceptionally well with artistry and grace. There’s a dash of indie flavor to the mainstream filmmaking. I think this movie will appeal to people of all ages, grown ups that are looking for some magic in their movies, as well as families looking for a movie that will entertain children but won’t rot their brains. It’s fortunate that we can end such a mediocre summer at the movies on a high note, and Pete’s Dragon is a wonderful infusion of the old and new, magic and reality, heartache and triumph. It’s a movie dripping with purity, and one that demands to be seen and hopefully cherished.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Jurassic World (2015)

217255Director Colin Trevorrow won the proverbial lottery after his 2012 film, Safety Not Guaranteed. The charming indie gem won many hearts, one of them Steven Spielberg. Trevorrow went from a rom-com that was made for under a million dollars to directing a Jurassic Park franchise reboot. Even last year’s Godzilla director, Gareth Edwards, had a previous film that somewhat primed a logical path for his impressive new gig. Enough time has passed for Jurassic Park to be new again, and the extra varnish of cutting-edge special effects, high-profile stars, and a renewed sense of fun remind us just how universally enjoyable it is to watch dinosaurs and then watch dinosaurs eat people.

Jurassic World has been open for a decade plus now and audiences are getting bored. As a result, the board of directors for the park is looking to “up the wow factor.” They’ve genetically engineered a new hybrid dinosaur (Indominous Rex) that has never existed before in history, but nothing bad could happen, right? Owen (Chris Pratt) is a Navy trainer who is working on training a group of raptors to follow commands. A security leader (Vincent D’Onofrio) is convinced that there’s money to be made with military applications if dinosaurs can follow orders. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is in charge of the day-to-day operations at the park. Her nephews (Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson) are visiting as one last holiday adventure before mom and dad get divorced. She knows little about her nephews (she’s a workaholic – what originality), but when they’re put in mortal danger, Claire’s protective nature kicks into overdrive. The Indominous Rex escapes its paddock and heads from pen to pen deeper into the park, killing for sport. It’s up to Claire, Owen, and a team of trained raptors to stop this newest monster.

JWSuperBowlTrailer-Raptors1What Trevorrow and his Safety writer Derek Connolly do well is establish a summer thrill-ride that places fun above all else, and it achieves this goal. Jurassic World is consistently entertaining and engaging, with action sequences that are shorter but constantly push the narrative forward. With all the Jurassic films, there’s a palpable sense of dread, of holding back before things get really nuts, and Trevorrow has fun teasing an audience; however, he also delivers on what he promises. The dinosaur action is visceral and rather violent for a PG-13 film, but the segments are diverse in orchestration that it never feels like the movie is repeating itself. That’s quite an accomplishment considering that the Jurassic sequels have mainly been a series of chases. There’s a definite nostalgic reverence for the original 1993 film, summed up with Jake Johnson’s geeky control center character. Trevorrow takes more than a few nods from the almighty Spielberg with his own directorial style. There’s also a surprise sense of humor, which can be quite amusing in moments and far too comically broad in others, like the forced screwball romance between Owen and Claire. The story this fourth time is less a cautionary tale of science and more of a monster romp, imploring a finale that feels reminiscent of Godzilla being called out to save the rest of us tiny humans from the newest and biggest monster. It feels like Trevorrow and Connolly accepted they would never recreate the magic of the original, so they’re aiming to just make the best sequel possible instead. If you’re looking for dinosaur mayhem, Jurassic World has plenty and a sense of what makes summer movies work, mixing in the right amount of suspense, humor, and well-crafted payoffs.

There are a few subplots that have to be swallowed or ignored for maximum benefit. The Raptor Force Five subplot is either going to be cool or silly, or both, and will go a long way to determine your overall feelings on Jurassic World. I know this idea has been in the works for several Jurassic sequels, so there doesn’t seem like there was ever going to be a movie that did not involve raptors being trained into some kind of combat role. This subplot connects to other points in the film about the nature of control/accepting being out of control, the building of a relationship, and the coordination for corporate interests. There’s a reason that the Indominous Rex seems to have special abilities that the handlers were not informed about, and this will be carried over into an assured sequel. For me, I thought the raptor hunting party was more fun than dumb. It had a Disney Wild Adventure feel for it, like we’re crossing over into Call of the Wild. I liked making the raptors allies to the humans who could be rallied for the final fight.

I appreciated how thought out the world building was; Jurassic World feels like a living, breathing amusement park in operation. From the Seaworld-like Mosasaurus aquatic shows, to the baby dinosaur petting zoo (I would totally spend hours there), to the celebrity-recorded comedy bits educating riders about safety supervision, to the listless park employee wishing each new rider to have a happy day. During the pterodactyl attack sequence, which is the most frenzied and exciting sequence, the crowds run for cover, including one guy who runs away while still carrying a clearly identified margarita in hand. That’s fantastic because it means that the park probably has a cheesy pun-laden menu of adult beverages (Tea Rex?) but it also means that even during an attack, a customer is determined not to lose his, likely, $10 margarita. While the “we can’t close the beaches” corporate mentality is somewhat tired as a plot obstacle, it’s still entirely fitting in a modern setting. It was the little details that told me that Trevorrow and company really thought the premise through and made their world feel far richer.

maxresdefaultOne could also look at the social commentary in a fairly cynical manner and find Trevorrow giving in to the summer movie machine. Claire’s character explains that after years of operation, the public has grown tired of dinosaurs, and so they have to engineer a new bigger, badder dinosaur just to grab flagging interest. What once was magical has now become accepted and everyday. It’s easy to apply this critique on movie audiences themselves; we’ve become jaded from movie spectacles. What once blew our minds, like the original Jurassic Park, has now become passé. We’re constantly looking for the shiniest new toy but will lose interest soon enough. And then there are the fleeting images of people being more involved with their cell phones than the spectacle they paid to see. That’s right, annoying moviegoers who are unable to break from their phones for a two-hour window, Jurassic World is making fun of you, and rightfully so. The chief product of this desperation to give the audience what it wants is Indominus Rex, a beast that slashes a rampage through the island. In a sense, Trevorrow is externalizing the audience’s demands into the antagonistic monster, and finally just gives in, essentially saying, “This is what you want, right?” I can’t tell whether the social commentary holds up well, especially with the end that relies upon a metaphorical power of nostalgia to conquer the manifestation of audience apathy, or if Trevorrow just gives up. Is the concluding monster-on-monster brawl just mass appeal pandering?

I have a major solution to this dangerous park scenario. First, only herbivores allowed. Is any person going to reasonably refuse to go see millions-year-old multi-story extinct creatures because they primarily eat plants? I’m sorry, no way. That right there would solve most problems if the animals inevitably get loose. I would not believe a single person who would refuse to see living dinosaurs just because they lack a T.rex or other predators. That’s like Internet cretins refusing Angelina Jolie as a one-night stand because they don’t like the way her knees look. Nobody is this picky when awe-inspiring greatness waits. From a legal standpoint, I would also make sure guests sign a waiver before entering the park, thus mitigating any potential lawsuits over being attacked and eaten. How expensive is this park by the way? You have to charter a boat off the coast of Costa Rica, so that sort of price range already eliminates plenty of would-be customers.

I know many millennials who consider Jurassic Park to be their own Star Wars, a film that delighted the imagination and imprinted a love of movies at a young, impressionable time. Movies have never been the same since, especially in the sea change of computer generated effects replacing practical (Oscar-winning Sam Winston is retiring because of our over-reliance on CGI). We all want to experience that sense of awe again, like when we saw the T.rex roar for the first time. Movie moments like that send shivers but they are rare, so it’s unfair to compare Jurassic World to Park. However, it’s fair game to compare it to the lesser sequels, and that is where World stacks pretty favorably. Its sense of fun above all else, while remaining true to its larger vision of a real park, is a satisfying summer diversion. The dinosaur mayhem is satisfying and occasionally scary. The script does just enough to keep you from wanting to watch the human characters get squashed. In the wake of its box-office shattering opening weekend, expect the park to stay open.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Help (2011)

Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling publishing phenomenon has now become a box-office smash. In 1963, Jackson, Mississippi, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is coming home after graduating from college. Her ailing mother (Allison Janney) is convinced that she will die without any grandchildren and pressures Skeeter to find herself a man. Instead, she finds herself a job writing for the city newspaper. She answers reader household and cleaning questions as “Miss Mryna.” She seeks help from Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a middle-aged woman who’s worked as a maid to rich white people her whole life. Skeeter soon changes her focus and wants to interview other maids about the indignities they experience. She wants to get their story out there. This is a time where it was actual Mississippi law that anyone working against segregation could be imprisoned. They try reaching out to Minnie (Octavia Spencer), a maid recently fired from the services of Mrs. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the queen bee of the Southern belles. Minnie is much more outspoken and her mouth causes her to get into trouble. The only job she can find is in the household of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, The Debt), a woman ostracized by Hilly’s forces. Skeeter transcribes the life stories of a dozen maids and the results become an anonymous bestseller that sets Jackson tongues a waggin’.

The Help enlists a colorful cast of characters (no pun intended) and tells a familiar story about people taking a stand during a tumultuous time in history. This is traditional classic Hollywood storytelling with the respective characters banding together, leaning upon one another, building camaraderie and victory, and then finally able to stand up to their antagonists, which in this case is really just Howard’s snooty racist character. It’s well told, well directed (both credits to Terry Tate, childhood friend of the author), very well acted by every member of the cast, and watching all 145 minutes is like being fed a heaping helping of home cooking. You leave feeling full and sated, and some may even feel nourished. You feel good about yourself. I tried to resist but resistance was futile. I can’t help but enjoy The Help. And even though I walked away liking the film, something stuck in my craw. It felt a little too prefabricated, too eager to be liked, to go down easy, gentle, a sweet Southern story about women taking a moral stand and finding their voices. But what is the film’s real focus when it comes to race relations?

Naturally nobody is going to look as The Help as an exhaustive document of the Civil Rights era, but the movie seems to seriously downplay the intensity of that struggle. Sure it pays lip service to Medgar Evans assassination but by this time there were riots, churches being bombed, children being killed, open collusion between law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, and the Freedom Riders were being met by violent mobs. There are a lot of bigger things going on than black maids sitting down for interviews with a college girl. Come on, this is Mississippi we’re talking about here, the home of racism. I understand that the Civil Rights movement had thousands of anonymous acts of courage and the actions of these (fictional) women should not be out rightly discounted. However, the parting message of the film seems to be not about the courage of the black maids but the tenacity of Skeeter, a middleclass white woman who herself grew up with “help.” The Help’s mixed message on race relations reminds me of a similar situation with 2009’s beloved The Blind Side. That movie wasn’t so much about the triumph of a black athlete so much as a glowing picture to how great rich white people can be. And Sandra Bullock got an Oscar for it; that’s how great a white lady she was. The Help is another example of Hollywood taking a story primarily about minorities and having white people necessary to tell that story. Why are white people always necessary to tell some other race’s stories? Skeeter is an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South. That’s how she starts. By the film’s end, she’s now… an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South and now she has a publishing career. Good for her! Good for heroic white people! They had so much to lose back then.

I guess my main fault is that this is not Skeeter’s movie. I don’t even think she’s needed. Yes she provides the outlet for the stories and secrets of an undervalued class of people. But did she need to be the co-lead? Does she need her own storyline where she stands up to her mother cowing to racist social norms? She had her own maid (Cicely Tyson) unceremoniously dumped while she was at school. Surprisingly this does not give too many insights to Skeeter’s character. Do we need any scenes of her going out on dates so that we can forever be reminded how ahead of her time she was, how liberal and progressive she was and destined to be unappreciated by a pool of men who were looking for only pretty housewives? As my friend China Gentry said, we’d all like to think we’d be the forward-thinking progressive voice of change in these historical dramas, to make ourselves feel better, but we’d most likely just be another silent face in the background. The boyfriend storyline is a complete waste of time. Skeeter goes out with a drunk jerk, he comes back and apologizes, they go out again, then after she gets published he freaks out and storms out. And that is the last we see of this guy. That’s the end of his story. He apparently puts his foot down when it comes to dating a female author. This storyline adds nothing to the overall narrative or to the character of Skeeter. There’s entirely too much Skeeter in the movie, and I say this as a gigantic fan of Emma Stone (Easy A). It’s not the actress’ fault either because she performs well in her first dramatic film role. This is just not her movie. This is not a movie about heroic white people; at least it shouldn’t be. This is a movie about the help, so let’s devote more time to them, notably Minnie and Aibileen. The movie opens and closes with Aibileen’s voice over. She is the star of this story. Why do I need another character just to coax out her story? Yes, I understand the limitations to a woman in Aibileen’s position in those days, but that’s no excuse. She deserves to be the focus.

Davis crushes in this movie. She is a one-woman force of devastation. You can just see the wear on her face, the tremor in her eyes, the sadness etched into her face. This is a woman beaten down by her position, and Davis is excellent. How good is this woman? She’s so good she got nominated for an Oscar for a single eight-minute scene in 2008’s Doubt. That’s Judi Dench territory right there (Dench famously won a Best Supporting Actress trophy despite only appearing onscreen for about nine minutes in Shakespeare in Love). She has a few big acting moments but mostly she’s not an outspoken woman. She’s more a downtrodden woman used to the many disappointments of her lot in life. She raises other people’s children while seeing very little of her own son. She develops close relationships with those kids, and the kids feel more attached to their maids than their mommies. And there’s the shattering disillusionment that these children, who once loved their maids, will transform into spitting images of their parents. The help gets treated less like family and more like a disposable, impersonal employee. The ease of severing ties can be heartbreaking. And Davis lets you feel all that without even having to speak. Spencer (Dinner for Schmucks), in easily her biggest role of her career, is enjoyable with the more outspoken role. She’s more the mouthpiece for the audience.

As I admitted in my review of 50/50, I don’t think there’s any role that Howard (fun fact: both Howard and Stone will play film versions of Gwen Stacy) can play where I won’t fall in love with her somewhat. This is more a hypothesis than a theory at this point. Hilly is a social queen, the Southern belle who likes things just the way they are. She has influence over the other middleclass wives in Jackson, but she does make for a pretty marginal main antagonist given the time period. She can threaten the livelihoods of the maids, so she is a threat, and her worldview is decidedly racist (she thinks using the same toilets will spread “black diseases”). She’s built up enough to be a threat but not enough to be unstoppable. She’s defeatable, unlike the intolerant ideology so prevalent in the South. We can’t defeat racism but we can topple one racist white lady. Well, we can laugh at her and bring up the fact that she ate something very gross once. I won’t go into spoilers, but this plot point where Minnie gets wreaks personal vengeance on Hilly via baked goods feels out of place for the tone of the film. It doesn’t fit.

I resisted seeing The Help for so long, believing it would be a painful experience with mushy emotions and many life lessons served up on an easy platter. And to some degree, the movie is exactly that. But it’s also hard to dislike the sweep of the old fashioned storytelling. The Help is a nice movie, extremely well acted, and filled with period details that will make the audience sense its authenticity. It’s easy to get caught up in the writing and the acting, so it’s easy to ignore the otherwise somewhat questionable examination on race relations. I don’t know why we still need white people to tell “their story.” The Help is a well-crafted movie but it fails to move the conversation forward. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation. Not every Civil Rights era story is required to properly educate the public, let alone a work of historical fiction. Maybe I should just sit back and enjoy the story like so many million readers have. But the power of Davis’ performance claws at my memory, telling me she deserves a better movie focused on her character. For once, I’d like to see a Hollywood movie about race relations that doesn’t require white people as a framing device. Let’s let the right people tell “their story” for once.

Nate’s Grade: B

50/50 (2011)

50/50 is based upon the experience of screenwriter Will Reiser, a writer for HBO’s Da Ali G Show who contracted cancer before his 30th birthday. Reiser’s real-life travails with his buddy Seth Rogen (who serves as executive producer) through the good times and bad. I guess when you get cancer it helps to have an established movie star as your good friend. It also helps when you write a terrific script, which Reiser has accomplished. Originally titled I’m With Cancer, I guess the studio felt that a movie with “cancer” in the title was a hard sell to mass audiences (On a related note, Showtime’s comedy-drama The Big C, about Laura Linney finding the humor through cancer treatment, was previously titled The C Word. I don’t know about you, but when I heard “the c word” the first thing that comes to mind is not “cancer.”). Even with a more oblique title, 50/50 manages to walk between comedy and drama with flair. It’s probably the funniest movie you’ll ever see about cancer. Definitely funnier than My Sister’s Keeper.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a relatively healthy 27-year-old. He likes his job writing for a Seattle National Public Radio station. He likes his girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), an aspiring painter. He likes his best friend, Kyle (Rogen), a dude prone to speaking whatever is on his mind. Then one doctor’s visit changes everything. Adam has a very serious form of spinal cancer. He begins chemotherapy to try and stop the tumor’s growth. Rachel drives him to his hospital treatments, helps him during his long nights of nausea, but ultimately it proves too much to bear. She leaves him. Luckily, Adam has a young therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), helping him put his life in order. Adam’s chances of surviving this rare cancer are exactly as the title proclaims, 50/50. As he comes to grips with the measures needed to survive, Adam finds himself growing closer to his therapist in a completely unprofessional degree.

50/50 may be the least sentimental movie I can recall about the realities of living with cancer, and that is its greatest attribute. That doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t cover serious issues in a flippant manner. Instead of hitting cheap sentiment and milking cancer for easy tears, the movie, thanks to Reiser’s sharp script, forgoes false feelings and finds something more rare and true. There’s no real playbook for something as unexpected as a person in their 20s being diagnosed with terminal cancer. It seems like a cruel irony to be stricken with an illness so young. Adam doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t even drive due to the danger. He’s pretty mild-mannered and a bit of a pushover. Adam tries to not let cancer get to him, to shrug off the heavy implications, and to just make it seem like any other personal setback. If he doesn’t treat it like a big deal, maybe it won’t be and his friends and family can follow his lead. This kind of self-manufactured blasé attitude, even in the face of cancer, seems like an apt approach for a younger relaxed generation. Naturally, this denial-heavy approach doesn’t exactly work. It’s too easy to confuse numbness with acceptance. Fortunately, Reiser does not let his story slip into easy maudlin theatrics. We don’t need anybody reminding us, or Adam, how serious his situation is. On the other hand, we also don’t need anybody moralizing about any self-help slogans. Not everyone sees adversity as a blessing into Discovering Who You Truly Are. Reiser refrains from his characters making anything approximating Big Life Statements. Cancer does not lead to automatic personal epiphanies. If it did, we’d have a lot more people inhaling carcinogens and volunteering to work in the Chernobyl ruins.

50/50 doesn’t ignore the sometimes odd and dark humor that arises from life’s predicaments. That means this is the only cancer movie where the guys try and use the disease as a way to convince girls to sleep with them. At no point do I remember this occurring with Terms of Endearment or Beaches. And this opportunistic babe hunting doesn’t make the boys come across as sleazy. Adam can’t even enjoy the one-night-stand as his back pain robs him of the pleasure of his nubile well-wisher. The tone is very controlled. The raunchy comedy is not a distraction; at no point does any situation feel like a comedic setup. The comedy comes from the characters being genuine to who they even through the trying circumstances. If your friends are funny, chances are they’ll still be funny talking about cancer. The humor doesn’t make light of things nor does it just play everything for laughs. Humor is how we humanize, how we make the insurmountable digestible.

50/50 also treats its characters with a bittersweet sense of reality; these people are flawed and relatable. They are not instantly made into self-actualized saints thanks to cancer. Adam’s girlfriend actually breaks down because she cannot handle the extra responsibilities and emotional wear and tear. Their relationship fizzles. This seems far more realistic considering many people will feel like they did not sign-up for sleepless nights, 24-hour care, and watching their loved one waste away. It’s a strong individual that can endure that kind of collateral pain, but the movies make it seem like every romantic partner is unnaturally selfless. They become ideal partners, but really most of us would just bail. Reiser easily could have easily written his ex-girlfriend as an insensitive shrew. While she does cheat on the guy, thus making her easy to dispel, Howard makes her vulnerability relatable. She even comes back trying to make amends, forcing kisses upon him to weaken Adam’s resolve. Kyle relishes the opportunity to finally be able to tell off Rachael, a girl he admits to disliking from the start. I don’t get the instant hate, but maybe it’s my complete adoration for Howard even when she’s playing a bad girl that blinds me to her offenses. To dismiss her as a “bitch” seems unfair. How would you react if your boyfriend/girlfriend were suddenly diagnosed with cancer? Could you last?

I found all of the characters to be empathetic and relatable (though a lead who waxes about the glory days of radio and works for NPR seems a bit hipsterish), especially in their personal struggles surrounding Adam’s illness. Adam’s mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), can be overbearing and would have easily been kept as a caricature in other movies. In 50/50, the film examines her own struggle – a husband with Alzheimer’s who can’t talk to her and a son with cancer who chooses not to talk to her. The isolation she feels, the loneliness, always putting other people’s needs ahead of her own, this is culmination of the caregiver, a role as I’ve stated that too often gets canonized. In 50/50, the reality of living with illness is dealt with in a meaningful manner. The people surrounding you are also affected by your illness. You cannot shut them out to spare them from pain. Adam realizes this too as the film progresses to its moving conclusion.

The heart of 50/50 concerns two sets of relationships. The one that will catch the most attention is Adam’s budding romantic relationship with his therapist. Their romance feels like it emerges naturally, albeit in a slightly hurried up pace for our small timetable. It’s a romance built upon the chemistry of the two actors, the strength of their individual performances, and the fact that Reiser forgoes anything obviously romantic. He cleans out her car. She gives him a ride home. It’s little things that seem like they matter on a personal level, not the outsized theatrics of romantic gestures. The movements are small but they add up, and we can feel it too. So when Adam, at his lowest point, calls her and says, filter down and radiating in emotion, “I bet you’d be a good girlfriend,” it’s a moment that feels earned. I also greatly appreciated Katherine’s own insecurity about being a therapist. Too often movies depict therapists as omniscient beings that have a fortune cookie answer for all of life’s mysteries. Kendrick hides behind evaporating smiles as her character’s defense mechanism. In 50/50, we get to see a character that is honest about her insecurities about a job that advises others. It’s refreshing. The other main relationship is between Adam and his best friend, Kyle. His best buddy is his spark, the guy who gets him out, who shakes him from moping around. He cares but goes through unorthodox methods to show that care, including trash talking and ball busting. He remains likable to his shaggy core because he has Adam’s best interests in mind, even if that means scoring with girls.

Director Jonathon Levine (The Wackness) gives the movie an improbably beautiful look. This is one cancer comedy that is simply pleasing to watch for the cinematography alone. He doesn’t overpower the narrative with self-aware visual touches, though there is one that stands out. When Adam receives the news from his doctor, the audio becomes distorted after the shocking word “cancer” is uttered. The picture becomes blurred. The world seems to have been swept away. I imagine this sonic body blow is pretty much how Reiser recalls receiving the news, and if not it still feels authentic. The score by Michael Giacchino (Up, Super 8) is subtle and doesn’t intrude too often, ably assisting the drama instead of smothering it.

50/50 is an unsentimental film that manages to be moving and genuinely entertaining on its own terms. It can be rude but that doesn’t mean it lacks sincerity. The characters and their dilemmas feel all too relatable, even the ones we hope don’t become us. The 50/50 production has followed a subdued edict, forgoing sappy melodrama and easy pathos. These emotions are earned the old fashioned way, through characters we care about and drama that feels truthful. The mixture of the course and sweet gives the film a decidedly Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) flavor even though his name is nowhere to be seen. Gordon-Levitt, who at this point can do no wrong in my eyes, gives one of the best performances of his already accomplished career. The comedy, lead by Rogen’s obnoxious best friend, keeps the movie from being bogged down in melodrama. It’s the only way to stay sane, and 50/50 recognizes this and delivers a film that earns its tears and laughs.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Eclipse (2010)

This may be an obvious statement but I will never be a teenage girl. Shocking news to anybody who never knew of the existence of my Y chromosome. Regardless, it’s hard for me to empathize with the madness that surrounds the cultural juggernaut that is the Twilight series. I cannot work myself into a frenzy. I cannot get madly passionate about the merits of Team Jacob vs. Team Edward (though full disclosure: I lean more toward Jacob). I cannot even understand the appeal of the main character and why she’s worth every human, vampire, and werewolf fighting over her. I just can’t walk in the same shoes of the Twilight faithful and their devotion to author Stephenie Meyer’s series. I get the appeal because its adolescent wish fulfillment with the flashes of danger muted by the overall security of traditional values (the vampire wants to wait until marriage before they have sex). I fully acknowledge my divorce from this conjured reality of the Twilight series. But that doesn’t mean I can’t judge the films on their merits. The first film worked for what it was, the second one was resoundingly bad, and now the third film, Eclipse, manages to reheat the same love triangle squabbles and call it something fresh.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is about to graduate high school and, presumably, graduate from the human race. Her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), has pledged to grant her wish and make her a vampire so they can truly be together forever. Bella’s friend/werewolf/ab model Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is vehemently against this plan. He wants Bella to be with him instead. He’s the safer choice and she doesn’t have to become dead for a happily ever after. Bella is torn between her two romantic options, again. However, Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) is out their plotting vengeance against Bella and the Cullen clan of “vegetarian” vampires. She’s creating an army of newborn vampires in Seattle. The army is so powerful that the Cullens reach out to the werewolves for an alliance. Mortal enemies comes together, including feuding paramours Edward and Jacob, to protect Bella and vanquish Victoria once and for all.

For starters, stuff actually happens in the third Twilight movie. I know that’s a fairly damning comment in itself that one must wait until the third movie for action. But here’s the thing: the plot fails to advance more than an inch. At the end of New Moon, Bella pretty much made her choice when she decided to whisk to the other side of the earth at the very utterance of Edward’s name, leaving poor Jacob high and dry. In Eclipse, she solidifies her choice. In New Moon, Bella implores Edward to turn her into a vampire, which he agrees to do after she graduates from high school (what a bizarre academic motivation strategy). In Eclipse, Bella further implores Edward to turn her into a vampire, which he is reluctant to do, but eventually he agrees. In New Moon, the werewolves and vampires don’t like each other. In Eclipse, that’s about the same, but they form an uneasy alliance to protect Bella, the most important girl in the whole wide world. The third film feels like a student’s paper revision; characters now add supporting evidence to explain their decision-making. Bella now gets to expound in further detail why she should be turned into a vampire (hint: she doesn’t feel like she fits in), Jacob adds to a budding Master’s thesis on why he is the better romantic option for Bella, and Edward gets plenty of opportunity to be the wet blanket, whether he’s turning down a horny Bella (no action there) or warning her about the dire lifestyle of today’s modern vampiric American. Much of Eclipse is people sitting around and chatting about their decision-making, verbalizing stuff that Meyer has no ability to place as subtext. By the end of the movie, at least you feel satisfied that everybody has weighed their options, even if they keep making the same dumb mistakes.

Speaking of action, Eclipse greatly benefits from having an external threat throughout the movie. The first two films felt prosaic and self-involved partially due to the fact that an antagonist was never introduced until the final act of each movie. The first two movies were two hours of brooding and making cow-eyes at each other, followed by a requisite climactic fight that felt anything but climactic.

With Eclipse, we have Victoria building her army of newborn vampires, and we see that army form, wreck havoc on the streets of Seattle, and for once the Twilight series feels like it has a real threat. That’s because Victoria has never ever felt like a threat. I don’t know how she’s represented in Meyer’s books, but in three movies, this curly-haired vampire has always come across as woefully unintimidating. She feels like a Kate Hudson romantic comedy character with fangs. It just doesn’t work no matter how fast the filmmakers show she can run through forests. The Cullen clan will occasionally chase after her, that is, when they’re not lining up like they’re making superhero posse poses. Victoria has never cut it as a villain, so it’s a good move for her to amass an army of super vampires that will do her bidding. The audience is repeatedly told, rather than shown, how serious the newborn vampires are because, you see, newborns still have some human blood in them. Never mind that the Twilight movies have never made mention of this power before. What’s puzzling is that Victoria has been building up her base of bloodsuckers for over a year, so why aren’t there like a ton more? The army of newborns consists of like twelve vampires. I understand the logistics of having to feed and house multiple vampires, but if I was planning for a brutal assault I’d want as many of these super vampires as I could sire.

Let me rephrase some of what I just said. New Moon did have an antagonist and her name was Bella Swan. She was sullen, whiny, self-involved, casually hurtful, and she led around Jacob on a leash. The dude is obviously in love with her, and even tells her face-to-face in Eclipse. Bella toyed around with her self-described “best friend” for whatever she needed and then she screwed him over for her sparkly vampire. In Eclipse, she starts to repeat this same pattern of behavior. Every movie makes it emphatically clear that Bella and Edward are destined to be together, and yet every movie has Bella engage in this annoying, wishy-washy “Maybe I’ll be with you, maybe I won’t” dance to make the boys fight over her one more time and thus validate her existence. I’ve seen this type of behavior before; it’s loathsome. She’s less unlikable and callous in Eclipse. Bella is absent any defining characteristic so that the millions of Twilight readers can insert themselves into the story as the girl everybody wants to fight over. Edward practically hounds her at every turn to marry him, which also seems like another case of wish fulfillment. Bella seems defined by whatever man she has at the current time. I’m surprised more of Meyer’s readers don’t find this fact insulting. Well, in Eclipse Bella doesn’t magically sprout a personality so you’re stuck yet again with the Bella bores.

Director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) was an interesting choice to handle all this teenage melodrama. The visual aesthetic is much more refined and accomplished, and the pacing is infinitely better. New Moon was 130 minutes but felt eight times that long because of all the repetitious plotting and brooding, not to mention the gratuitous beefcake shots. Eclipse is only six minutes shorter than its predecessor and yet it moves along at a steady jaunt thanks to the immediate external threat. It still has to fit in all those beefcake shots to make the soccer moms swoon, but at least the movie maintains that pulpy teenage synergy from the first Twilight movie. The special effects have greatly improved as well, which makes the wolves vs. vampire fight scenes more entertaining to witness for the right reasons.

The screenplay for Eclipse includes all sorts of extras to round out the Twilight universe, though they are tangential to the plot at best. Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed) get their back-stories revealed, which means flashbacks with costumes! While each is momentarily diverting, why am I getting time taken out from the movie to flesh out the lives of what are, essentially, background characters? At least Slade doesn’t just let the actors jaw away with exposition; he shows the audience their pre-vampire lives. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has adapted every movie so far and she seems well aware of what her audience expects. Eclipse has the exasperating habit of not leaving anything implied. When Rosalie warns Bella about choosing to become a vampire, Bella promises she’ll never want anything more than Edward. “There’s one thing more you’ll want,” Rosalie says. And then, because the audience is perhaps too thick to pick up that subtlety, she adds, “Blood.”

Our threesome of young actors all seem to have their parts well memorized at this point. One part pouting, one part glowering, and two parts yearning. This is the meatiest film yet for the actors as they all get to assemble heir cases. Jacob argues that he’s best for Bella and tries to convince Edward that if he truly loves her, he won’t let her become a vampire. Edward knows the heartache that comes with transforming into a monster and watching as everybody you love dies while you seem to be standing still. Oh, and there’s that whole insatiable desire to drink blood thing, which is just gross. Bella realizes she’s in love with two guys at the same time. She also realizes that in order for her relationship with Edward to last, she will inevitable have to be turned into a vampire. It’s the fork in the road every “girl who dates vampire” story must ultimately lead.

Stewart and Pattinson give serviceable performances, though Stewart seems like she’s doing you the favor of acting, like she’d rather be elsewhere. Once again, Lautner, who seems to have the most fun with his role, upstages them. There’s a sequence where the threesome share a tent in the mountains, and Bella is freezing and the ice-cold Edward cannot warm her. A plan is hatched: Jacob will crawl into the sleeping bag with Bella and warm her with his body heat. The ridiculousness of the scene is pierced by Lautner deadpanning, “Well, I am hotter than you” (which left my packed theater screaming in approval). Even though he’s saddled with quasi-stalker dialogue like “You love me, you just don’t know it yet,” Lautner makes the most of his wolf-boy licking his wounds.

Here’s another revelation thanks to Eclipse: vampires are apparently made of porcelain. When a vampire is destroyed in the Twilight world, they literally can have limbs snapped off like it’s nothing. They look like dolls getting ripped apart. Occasionally someone will have their head beaten and the vampire cranium will just shatter into thick pieces, much like a porcelain doll. Weirdest of all, whenever a vampire gets hit they are accompanied by this rattling sound effect, like inside the vampires are filled with rolls of nickels and dimes. It’s bizarre and distracting. I don’t ever remember this happening to vampires in the previous two installments. Why not go the Buffy route and just have dead vampires turn into ash? It doesn’t have to be as violent and nauseating as vampires getting staked on HBO’s superior True Blood, but I expect more than vampires just breaking. These are the creatures of the night. They should not be fragile little porcelain dolls. I know Slade and the producers went this route so that they could ramp up their bloodless action and get away with more onscreen.

The fact that something other than two-hours of lovey-dovey romantic declarations and intense, self-indulgent brooding happens means this is by far the most action-packed film in the Twilight series yet. It’s still not that good but it is a vast improvement over the dour suckfest that was New Moon. In fact, since Eclipse repeats many of the same plot points there really is no reason to ever watch New Moon. Skip it altogether. Once again, little of consequence happens in the film but at least Bella isn’t insufferable and we get some nice supernatural fight scenes out of it. The appeal of the series has failed to be translated on the big screen. It’s all about the swoon, and Eclipse will keep the Twi-hards swooning as they take in their male sex objects brought to visual life. Once again, I will state that the Twilight series comes across like a tedious teenage soap opera scrubbed clean of teenage hormones. Eclipse is probably the most guy-friendly of all the films so far, but even that isn’t enough to keep old material interesting the third time it’s reheated.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Terminator Salvation (2009)

The fourth Terminator movie ultimately comes across as a lifeless enterprise. It’s set during the war between man and machine, which means John Conner (Christian Bale) is leading the human resistance, as was prophesied. He must stop those crafty machines from finding and killing Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who is destined to be sent back in time and become Conner’s father. The storyline focuses a lot more attention on the mysterious man Marcus (Sam Worthington), who isn’t so mysterious because they give away in minutes that he’s a machine. But he’s a thinking machine that reclaims his humanity, or whatever. The point of this movie is to make some cool action sequences and not step on the toes of the previous movies. Director McG (Charlie’s Angels) has a few nifty visual tricks up his sleeve, but this is one soulless machine just going through the Action Blockbuster subroutine. The character development is nil, the story is muddled, the machines are dumb, and Bale forgoes any normal kind of speaking voice in favor of growls and hissing. The throwbacks to the other movies can be fun (a 1984-aged Arnold!) or agonizingly lame (shoehorning in famous quotes like, “I’ll be back”). The movie is competent and has one or two exciting chase sequences, but that is simply not good enough coming from this storied action franchise. Terminator Salvation plays out more like Transformers, where the robots are big and bad and loud and sort of dumb. I guess that sums up the movie pretty well.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Who the hell are you Spider-Man 3 and what have you done with the franchise I loved? After the massive financial and commercial success of first two Spider-Man chapters, my expectations had been raised fairly high. The more time that passes the more I reflect on how disappointing Spider-Man 3 sadly is. Part of my dashed hopes are because the 2004 Spider-Man sequel was a wonderful follow-up to a pretty swell introduction, and I placed that movie in my Top Ten list for the year and consider it one of the best comic book movies of all time. There’s some great popcorn entertainment to be had with Spider-Man 3, but man is this film just beside itself in wasted potential, a lack of focus, and some really poor choices.

Things are going pretty well for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). He plans on asking Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to marry him and New York City is planning a parade out of appreciation for Spider-Man. But the good times can’t last long. Harry Osborn (James Franco) has accepted his fate and become a second generation Green Goblin villain, out to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Spider-Man. But Peter also has to be on the lookout for his job at the newspaper. Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is an unscrupulous photographer out to replace Parker and nab a picture of Spider-Man caught in a bad light. An alien substance has also hitched a ride to Earth via meteorite and sought out Peter Parker. The black goo attaches itself to Peter and forms a black Spidey suit, one that gives him intoxicating power and a slimy menace. The new Peter cavalierly flirts with bouncy lab partner Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), hurts his friends, and loses his do-gooder ways.

Meanwhile Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from prison. It seems the police got it wrong and now inform Peter that Marko confessed to being the one who killed Peter’s uncle. While on the run Marko happens to tumble into an open pit that is a science experiment and becomes fused at a molecular level with sand. He uses this new power to rob banks in order to save his sick daughter at home. Peter, with the power of the alien suit, hunts the Sandman to get his own slice of sticky vengeance.

The film has way too much on its plate. There are too many characters, too many undeveloped storylines, too many coincidences, too many contrivances (Amnesia? Really? Really?), and too many aborted moments of drama. Spider-Man 3 is an undisciplined mess. The film practically stumbles from one scene to the next and lacks the coherency and intelligence of the earlier entries in the series. The third film tries to do too much and please too many interests, and as a result it may end up pleasing few fans. I had some trepidation when I learned that there was going to be upwards of three villains for this movie, but I swore that it could work since Batman Begins confidently worked around a trio of big bads. Three villains do not work in Spider-Man 3. Let me dissect this rogue’s gallery and where they fall short.

1) The Sandman is kind of a lame idea from the start. His power seems to limit his available locations, and I’m surprised that he wouldn’t stick to beach areas as a means of playing to his sandy strengths. Regardless, the character plays no part in almost anything that happens, and the Sandman is given one note to play. He’s got a sick daughter and he robs to try and pay for her medicine. That’s great on paper but it never really seems to give the character any sense of urgency or frustration. If he got special sand powers why not sneak into banks through cracks in walls instead of forming as a giant sand monster? Church attempts to imbue the character with a sad soul but he just comes across as being wooden. If he was really on the hunt for money to save his daughter then why does he just slouch around all the time? Wouldn’t it be easier to rob a city not patrolled by a web slinging super hero? How can he say he’s a misunderstood victim of luck just minutes after he tried killing Peter? He seems like a dull lunkhead. The Sandman is given a tiny wisp of character detail (sick kid!) and that’s it. He doesn’t get any other characterization and is kept on the run and pops up whenever the film needs him. He becomes a token character until the very end where Church is given 2 minutes to pour his heart out to Peter. Two minutes of character at the start, two minutes at the end, and a gaping center. The Sandman isn’t so much a character as the ideal of some issue that the filmmakers want to have Peter work through.

And what is that issue? Why vengeance and forgiveness. You see, Spider-Man 3 foolishly rewrites its own history and now it was the Sandman hat killed Peter’s Uncle Ben. This revision does not work at all and actually legitimately damages Spider-Man. Just like Bruce Wayne is tackling crime to alleviate his guilt, so too is Spider-Man, who can never shake the fact that he could have prevented his uncle’s death had he done the right thing moments before. By introducing a new killer it means that Peter has no responsibility for his uncle’s death. This completely strips away the character’s guilt and rationale for what compels him to swing from building to building to fight crime.

2) Eddie Brock/Venom is wasted as well. Director Sam Raimi has said before he’s not a fan of Venom and doesn’t get the character, and I feel that his contempt carried over into the film. Venom and the black alien goo are given about the same abysmal care as other half-baked plot points. Eddie Brock has about three total scenes before he gets to transform into Venom thanks to the alien substance, and none of these scenes fully flesh out who the character is or justify his relationship with Peter Parker. When we do see Venom in the finale its all too rushed and hokey. The effects make him look less like alien and more like a wax figurine (I suppose there could be intelligent wax life amongst the stars). For whatever dumb reason the alien suit has to retreat so we can see Grace’s face while he taunts and mocks with bad vampire teeth that are meant to inspire what exactly? The character is rushed and underdeveloped and should have been saved for the next sequel instead of being given lip service in this one. Venom is supposed to be the evil doppelganger to Spider-Man, not some smart-alleck with frosted hair that gets about 15 minutes of screen time. I like Grace, I really like him a lot and envision him as his generation’s Tom Hanks, but he does not work in this movie. He could, but I get the sneaking suspicion that Raimi sabotaged the Venom role on purpose or at least subconsciously. The villain goes out with a whimper and it feels like a giant, foolish wasted opportunity that becomes more maddening the more I discuss it. The presence of Venom feels like a shallow attempt to placate a younger generation of comic fans and to sell more action figures.

The alien goo suit is supposed to tempt Peter and bring out his wicked wild side. So what does he do? He acts like he’s auditioning for the lead in The Mask. This embarrassing sequence is painfully goofy and will make you cringe and shield your eyes. Peter flirts with girls and dances at a jazz club, and this is supposed to be the dark side of Spider-Man? What the hell? I acknowledge that Peter has always been an unpopular dork and would be a dork even if he ventured to the dark side, but how does this square with the more serious and edgier tone the film is grasping for? Evil Peter seems more like a broody emo kid, with shocks of black hair in his eyes and traces of eyeliner. The dark side of Spider-Man, much like the rest of the film, is given little time or thought. Peter’s trials with the symbiotic suit last about a reel or two and then it’s abruptly finished.

3) Harry should have been the main focus of this sequel and it?s a shame the filmmakers had to cram so much crap into a story already heavy with plot leftovers. Harry has the most obvious arc through the three movies and deserves better than to be knocked out of commission by amnesia. The conflict between Peter and Harry is where the film finds its emotional core and it would have been wise to expand this section and eliminate one of the other underutilized villains (my vote: both Venom and Sandman). Harry’s vow to avenge his father is far more interesting than what the other two villains have as motivation, and plus Harry requires no extra time-consuming setup to slow the pacing down. I’m glad the final battle encouraged Harry to come out and play; the film finally gives Franco the screen time he deserves, but it should have been more. The worst plot device in the film involves Harry’s all-knowing butler who has some vital information he most certainly should have shared years ago. So much time is spent on storylines that go absolutely nowhere, and the musical chairs of villains, that the film resorts to having a freakin’ butler tap someone on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me sir,” just to tie things up in the most awkwardly shrift way possible. And even if what the man says is true, how does his perspective add any clarity to the situation? Think about it. I have.

The romance between Peter and Mary Jane feels awfully trite and meandering. Spider-Man 3 lacks the tight focus of the second film. It throws contrivances to place a wedge in their relationship, like the fact that Mary Jane is fired from her Broadway gig but doesn’t tell Peter, or the fact that they never seem to answer the phone on time when the other person is apologetic. Gwen Stacy is less a character than simply a dimwitted blond tool to make Mary Jane jealous and sulk. The ups and downs in this relationship feel pretty forced and some moments defy all human understanding. At one point Mary Jane is forced by Harry to break up with Peter to spare both their lives. So she breaks the news in a park, and Peter is devastated, but why in the world does she never say anything again? Why would she not clear things up after time had passed to explain her actions? Spider-Man 2 ended with Peter finally getting the girl but also on a hint of doubt, and it was marvelous. Spider-Man 3 just sort of ends with everyone presumably in the same place they started.

Spider-Man 2 really succeeded on how focused it was and how it related its action with character. Spider-Man 3 has to resort to cheap and lazy devices to cover its storytelling pitfalls. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the film has to resort to a newscaster narrating our final battle where he actually asks, “Is this the end of Spider-Man?” This might be the end of the quality associated with Spider-Man.

After having spent a whole slew of words detailing in length where the film goes wrong, allow me to illustrate some of what the film does right. Whenever it sticks to action, that’s when Spider-Man 3 works, and Raimi has cooked up some wonderful whiplash-inducing action sequences. The first battle between Peter and Harry is intense and sets the film on the right path, but the action as a whole isn’t as closely tied to Peter’s domestic life and emotional troubles as it was in the other films. A high-rise rescue from a crumbling office building will stir some 9/11 memories but it is awesome to behold. The effects have improved and the swinging shots through New York look the best they ever have. The greatest moment in the film is perhaps the birth of the Sandman as he rises grain by grain from a pile of sand and attempts to reform himself. Aided by some lovely music, the moment takes on a beautiful and unexpected poignancy. This is where Raimi and the CGI wizards hit it out of the park. Nothing rivals the train sequence in Spider-Man 2, though.

It might be dangerous to say, but I feel jilted from this film and either new blood needs to be brought in or the filmmakers need more time and control to make a Spider-Man sequel worthy of its name. This is the gold standard for super hero movies and its been tarnished and sullied. Spider-Man 3 has moments to dazzle and excite but it also feels battle fatigued from carrying the dead weight of extraneous characters and half-baked storylines. There are too many balls in the air for Raimi to juggle. This Spidey chapter squeezes too many ideas in too short a space. After obliterating box-office records, Sony has stated that they plan on three more Spider-Man sequels. If this film is the tipping point, then I’m afraid of what will be swinging down the pipe in years to come.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Lady in the Water (2006)

Writer/director/twist-abuser M. Night Shyamalan must have been smarting from the cool reception to his last high-concept thriller, 2004’s The Village. Shyamalan has built a reputation for smart, eerie, complex movies, as well as forced twists and endings that leave the films in shambles. He went back to basics. Lady in Water started as an ongoing story he told his kids at bedtime. His kids participated in the creation of the story. If we didn’t learn from last year’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl, movies where children helped shape the story should be left as bedtime stories. Lady in Water is further proof of this.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the fix-it man at an apartment complex. Someone?s been swimming in the pool late at night and clogging up the filter. The unexpected culprit is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a waif of a girl. She says she is a “narf,” a sea nymph who’s crossed from her world, the Blue World, to ours. Her purpose is to plant the seed of change by finding a special individual. When her mission is complete a giant eagle will carry her back to her world. Cleveland accepts being her guardian and protector and assists her on her quest. He mingles with the apartment complex’s eclectic residents, trying to figure out who fits what role to help Story. There is one hairy problem. A scrunt, a wolf-like beast with twigs and long grass for fur, is after Story. An evil monkey creature is overseeing the whole weird affair.

Early on, Lady in Water was advertised as “a bedtime story by M. Night Shyamalan,” and just like your typical bedtime story, the thing feels entirely made up on the spot. The story sounds like a little kid making up a book report: “There’s this grass wolf, see, and it’s after this sea lady, and there’s these evil monkeys that oversee everything, and an eagle carries her away when she’s done, but she’s like the unknown Queen of the sea ladies, and she has helpers but can’t say who they are, and they all have special abilities, except some of them can only do stuff, and no one can see her leave.” What? Was Dio an unaccredited co-writer for this? Lady in Water feels like Shyamalan is haphazardly throwing spontaneous obstacles and rules into his story, hoping something sticks when it just muddies up the story.

Naturally, there are many unanswered questions brought about by the supernatural subject matter. Why is it an eagle that plucks Story away to safety when she?s fulfilled her mission? Wasn’t part of the schism between man and the Blue World because man moved to land? Wouldn’t something aquatic make more sense to rescue her? What about the entirely unnecessary evil monkey judge? Why is it even there? Why does it just sit there idly if the scrunt breaks the rules (and if the scrunt is a rule-breaker then why not just bust inside Cleveland’s home and eat the chick)? For that matter, if the monkey judge is so evil then why does it even respect the rules? Why don?t the evil monkey judges side with the already evil scrunts? Why do the scrunts hate the narfs so? Who established these systems of rules for narf contact and scrunt hunting? Do the monkey judges allow the narfs to get killed as long as it’s during the right time? Is it like a boxing match (“Touch gloves, to your corners, and no biting after the bell”)? And of course everyone believes this tripe. Shyamalan could fall back on the excuse that his tale is a bedtime story and not meant for extensive examination. Sure, not everything needs to be explained but that doesn’t mean Shyamalan can get away with being lazy.

There’s no finesse in the writing. Shyamalan seems to have taken his frustration with the dwindling critical reception of his works hard. The movie critic character, Mr. Farber (a droll Bob Balaban) is one of two items, either the embodiment of his ire, a figure out of touch with human emotion and the public’s trust, or Shyamalan making a preemptive strike. The critic complains there are no more original stories left in Hollywood; well, Mr. Smarty Pants, what do you think of a tale of narfs and scrunts? The problem is that the film critic is not unlikable, just cynical, and despite how dismissive Shyamalan may wish to be, the critic’s complaints and observations about the film industry are solid. In Lady in Water, characters do speak their feelings so casually. People explain back-stories and motivations like it was written on foreheads. The critic character is so inconsequential as well, so the notion that Shyamalan spends so much energy on him makes it feel like a score being settled.

What?s more irritating is how self-involved the movie comes across. The whole purpose of Story’s venture to our world is to inspire a gifted writer, a writer whose work will be seen as unchecked genius that will cause great change throughout the world. Nations will renounce war, men and women will greet each other as brother and sister, and the world will be a profoundly better place to live, all thanks to one artistic genius that changed the world. And who plays this artistic genius lying in wait? M. Night Shyamalan. In conjunction with the critic character, perhaps Shyamalan is proclaiming that his movies will stand the test of time, despite what those fuddy-duddies at their typewriters say. Lady in Water is either an intense example of artistic insecurity or an unflappable, monstrous ego.

Shyamalan is too gifted a filmmaker to make outright bad movies. However, he is prone to making very misguided choices. The addition of the monkey judge just mucks things up and more unanswerable questions. Are the monkeys like the regional overseer? Is there a tri-state office run by a giraffe with twigs on its head? Shyamalan’s plot is too formless and relies on some garish ethnic stereotypes, like the nattering Jewess and the screechy, rail-thin Korean teen. His sense of direction takes a back seat to his writing. Many moments are filmed out of focus, or the camera bounces around trying to capture whoever?s talking, always seemingly just out of reach. His visual aesthetic feels noticeably simpler. There’s a certain unapologetic yearning in Lady in Water to be a Steven Spielberg film, from the John Williams-like score, to the assembly of characters wanting to believe again, to the heaping helping of schmaltz. Lady in Water is proficiently crafted (special thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle) but the movie is an unmistakable artistic misfire.

Giamatti is a dependable sad sack, and he deploys an array of stutters and tics to convey how damaged Cleveland Heep is. He’s good but then he always is, no matter how stupendously awful his material may be (he did survive Big Momma’s House). Howard is one of the more beguiling and intriguing young actors in the movies right now. She bewitched me in The Village, but in Lady in Water she befuddled me. It’s hard acting as a made-up creature. Howard relies on lots of vacant, supposedly, ethereal staring. She comes across as less supernatural and more like a club kid on ecstasy.

Lady in Water is not an unmitigated disaster but it’s definitely not good by any stretch of the imagination. M. Night Shyamalan seems to fray with every new movie, and Lady in Water is by far the man?s most ridiculous and self-involved flick. He’s too great of a talent to write off, even during his misfires, but we can’t be expected to iron out his narrative kinks every time. Shyamalan’s films generally center on broken people looking for their place in the universe and finding a grander plan for their pain. Hopefully, after the birth pain of Lady in Water, Shyamalan can find his place in the artistic landscape and spare us more half-baked bedtime stories.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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