How to train your expectations for the concluding chapter in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise: step one, lower them. I was dispirited to discover what a disappointing final chapter The Hidden World comes across, especially considering the previous movies, including the 2014 sequel, are good to great. At its core it’s always been a tale of prejudice and family, dressing up a simple boy-and-his-dog story with fantasy elements. It also presents a world with danger and cost; even the fist film ended with the main character, Hiccup, losing a freaking foot. He loses his father in the second film. It’s a series that has grown naturally with heart, imagination, and a real sense of stakes. This is why I’m sad to report that the third film feels like a different creative team made it. The villain is a repeat of the second film, a dragon hunter with little to be memorable over. The plot is very redundant, stuck in an endless loop of capture, escape, capture, escape, etc. The addition of the new lady dragon is a perfunctory means to drive a wedge between Hiccup and toothless, his dragon. The lady dragon has no personality and needs rescuing too often. Her inclusion relates to a rather regressive emphasis on the need for coupling and marriage. The titular Hidden World amounts to a grand total of five minutes of screen time. The action starts off well involving the various colorful side characters but misses out on that sense of danger that defined the other movies. It feels goofy and safe and listless. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a sizeable disappointment and coasts on the emotional investment of the first two movies. You’ll feel something by the end, sure, but it’s because of the hard work of others and not this movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
Sometimes second place might as well be last place in the film industry. Pity Andy Serkis and the years he spent making a live-action, mo-cap enhanced version of The Jungle Book only for Disney to scoop him years in advance and deliver a billion-dollar hit. It’s impossible not to compare the two and unfortunately Serkis’ passion project is found wanting in many areas. For starters, there’s far less Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), which is a shame. He’s really only in the film for very little. I think Cate Blanchett is miscast as the voice of the snake, Kaa, who acts like a grand keeper of the jungle’s history and future. I’m not sold on Serkis as Baloo, a grumpy paternal figure present from the beginning that trains the wolf pups so they can join the pack. The middle half-hour Mowgli spends in the company of man with a kindly poacher also feels like the movie is spinning its wheels. It keeps the rest of the jungle on hold. There are some rather dark asides that can be quite surprising, from wolf pups plummeting to their doom, bloody scars, cute severed heads to haunt your dreams, and three separate occasions where characters will watch the light vanish from a dying animal’s eye. It’s definitely a more brutish, cruel, and dangerous world, but at what greater expense? The characterization doesn’t add up to much. The character relationships are minimal. The CGI creatures and settings look unfinished. The whole enterprise feels rushed even though it’s been on the shelf for some time, which may be why the studio was eager to sell it to Netflix for a cool $90 million. You’ll watch Mowgli and nod, generally entertained, but questioning whether it’s 90-million worth.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Who could have guessed that splatterhouse horror director Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno) was the right candidate to helm a children’s movie that hearkens back to the 90s era of Disney Channel? The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a whimsical and enjoyable family movie that is definitely made primarily for those under the age of twelve. It features a young boy (Owen Vaccaro) going to live with his uncle (Jack Black) who is a warlock and where the neighbor (Cate Blanchett) is a witch. He learns magic, self-confidence, and the legend of the hidden clock that may or may not trigger a doomsday. The 1950s house itself and its magical elements is practically another character in the movie and there’s a cheerful sense of discovery throughout, with a dog-like armchair, a topiary griffin, and a stained glass window that keeps changing. The school scenes could have been trimmed entirely, especially when you consider our main kid had enough motivation to try and bring his departed mom back to life. He didn’t need to impress a bully at school because he wanted a friend. Black (Jumanji 2) is charming as ever and a natural with children. The visuals are colorful and fun. The signature weird and icky details Roth adds made me smile, like pumpkins that vomit pumpkin guts as a weapon. Kyle Maclachlin (TV’s Twin Peaks) plays an evil wizard who wants to end the world after seeing the horrors of the Holocaust. That’s a dark implication for a “children’s movie,” and I appreciate that the film allows for the existence of darkness, which also includes unvarnished appearances of the occult and a red-eyed demon. How about that? The House with a Clock in Its Walls is an entertaining fantasy adventure for families whose kids like to tip-toe into spooky material but aren’t quite ready yet for the harder edged PG-13 scares.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Ocean’s movies, with the exception of the too-cool-for-school 12, have glided by on their charm, style, and a knack for having fun with cool characters and satisfying twists and turns. After 2007’s rebounding Ocean’s 13, it looked like the franchise was going back to dormancy, and then writer/director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) resuscitated it with an all-female team, following the exploits of recently paroled Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock). Like her (recently deceased?!) older brother, Debbie has a big score in mind, the New York Met Gala, but more specifically a $150 million diamond necklace to be worn by self-involved acting starlet, Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Debbie gathers a team of specialists and, with the help of he best friend Lou (Cate Blanchett), the assembled eight schemes to get rich off the neck of Ms. Kluger. Like its predecessors, this movie glides on by thanks to fun characters to root for and a fun heist that packs enough setups, payoffs, and reversals. The heist formula demands a protracted setup but this gives way to a bevy of payoffs, when done correctly, and even more payoffs when complications must be dealt with in a rapid time. Each of the ladies get a significant part of the heist, though not all of them have the same level of memorable involvement in the movie itself. Ocean’s Eight is a slick crime fantasy given a feminine twist, dipping into gaga fashions, killer jewelry, and celebrity worship. Bullock is a strong lead but it’s Blanchett that won my heart, so confidant in her wardrobe of striking men’s wear. Hathaway is a cut-up as a flaky actress needing constant validation. Part of the allure of the movie, and the heist itself, are the high-end clothes and accessories. Its prime escapism for the target audience to “ooo” and “ahhh,” as my theater did. Ross follows the house style of Steven Soderbergh closely with lots of tracking shots, zooms, and a consistent sense of movement. The pacing is swift and thankfully there’s a significant resolution after the heist that still finds time for even more payoffs. It’s not quite on par with the original, but I’d declare Ocean’s Eight the best of the sequels. It’s fizzy fun, but what happens if there are three more of them?
Nate’s Grade: B
With the continued runaway success of the box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it becomes more and more preposterous just how strange and unique it can be. You would think a mega franchise this valuable would be more prone to playing it safe, hiring established visual stylists who can produce product. Instead, the MCU finds interesting creative voices that can succeed within their very big sandbox. Enter New Zealand actor and quirky director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), one of the most surprising directorial hires in a decade of blockbusters. The Thor movies are generally considered some of the weakest films in the MCU, so there’s already plenty of room for improvement. With Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best Thor movie and one of the funniest to date for the MCU. It’s finally a Thor movie that embraces its silly, campy, ridiculous world and finds space to cram in more eccentricity.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to his home world of Asgard to find it in great peril. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling in their father’s stead, and that’s not even the worst part. Thor’s heretofore-unannounced older sister Hera (Cate Blanchett) has been unleashed from her prison and is seeking the throne she feels is rightfully hers. She is the goddess of death and chafes at Asgard’s revisionist history, trying to paint over its history as conquerors for something kinder and gentler. Thor is banished to an outlying planet, Sakaar, that’s essentially a junkyard for the universe. He’s captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and sold to fight in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) arena. Thor is trained to fight in gladiatorial combat, and his opponent and reigning champion is none other than the Hulk a.k.a. Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) alter ego. Thor must break free, convince the Hulk for help, get off this planet, and save Asgard before it’s too late.
Waititi has acclimated himself extremely well in the large-scaled world of blockbuster filmmaking, and yet his signature quirky sense of style and humor are still evident throughout, making Ragnarok the best Thor film. Let’s face it, the Thor films are completely ridiculous and trying to treat them as anything but is wasted effort. These movies involve alien Norse gods traveling by rainbow bridges and even though they can traverse the cosmos in spaceships they still sling giant broad swords. The more the films embrace the inherent silliness of the series the better. Ragnarok is the Thor movie that gets all the serious stuff out of the way in the first act, tying up loose ends from 2013’s Dark World, checking in with Anthony Hopkins’ Odin and the requisite MCU cameo (a superfluous Doctor Strange), and then introducing Thor’s long-lost twisted sister. From Blanchett’s intro, the movie becomes what it was set out to be, a lavish and consistently funny buddy comedy. Gone are all the Earthly constraints from the prior two films. It’s all aliens from here on out. Thor has everything stripped from him, his hammer, his family, his hair, and becomes an underdog once again. It’s a surefire way to make a living god more relatable. Fighting from the ground up, Thor makes all sorts of new friends and enemies, and it’s this evolution into an ensemble comedy where Waititi’s film shines. There’s a jovial touch to the world building that extends from the visuals to the variety of odd characters. Thor has never been more entertaining as Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) is able to stop being so serious and embrace his underutilized comedic chops. The man has a stunning sense of comedic delivery and a dry wit that’s right at home for Waititi. Hemsworth and his daffy sense of humor have never been better in the MCU.
Even with the added comic refinery, Thor is still the most boring of the Avengers, so Ragnarok solves this by introducing a new bevy of side characters that steal the show. The wacky world of the Thor universe was always its best aspect, and each new film pushes the boundaries a little further out, revealing more weird and wild planets and creatures. It feels like a Star Wars where we spend our time with the weird, scuzzy part of the universe. Ragnarok pushes those boundaries the furthest yet and introduces an entire cadre of loveable supporting players that you want to spend more time with. Tessa Thompson has a wonderful and intimidating introduction as she swoops in on a spaceship, makes her badass claim of her prized bounty, and then trips and falls, as she is quite tipsy from drinking. She regains her literal footing and still seems a bit out of it, but the ensuring process she goes through to claim what is hers is thoroughly impressive. As a Valkyrie, this is one tough woman, and Thompson (Creed) has great fun playing bad. She really reminded me of a female Han Solo. Thompson has a wily screwball chemistry with Hemsworth, and both actors elevate the other with lively give-and-take. Thompson is a terrific new addition. She has an enticing, irascible appeal without overt sexualization that sometimes befalls the Marvel female sidekicks (Black Widow, Pepper Potts).
Another character you’ll fall in love with is Korg, a rock monster gladiator played in motion-capture and drolly voiced by director Waititi himself. My question: is it possible for a director to steal his own movie? This is a character that feels stripped from one of Waititi’s dry, absurdist comedies and placed into the MCU. Korg is a would-be revolutionary but really he’s a joke machine and just about every line is gold. By the end of the movie, I needed a Korg spin-off series to further explore this unusual character.
The requisite villains of the film definitely play their roles to full camp, enjoying every moment. Blanchett (Carol) is like a Gothic Joan Crawford, marching with a slinky step and a sneer. Her multi-antler helmet completes the operatic sweep of the character. You’ll forgive me for my above comment on recognizing female characters independent of their sexuality, but man oh man does Goth Blanchett make me happy (especially with her hair down). It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Hela though. Every time we cut back to her I found myself getting somewhat impatient. I wanted to return back to the weird and wild world Thor was on. Blanchett is entertaining but her character can’t help but feel a bit shoehorned in (“Hey, you had a long-lost sister, and oh by the way, she’s basically Death itself, and she’s coming by to retake everything, so have fun with that and sorry for the short notice”). Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) is left to his Goldblum devices and it’s everything you would want. His signature stuttering deadpan is just as potent in the MCU, and the film finds strange little asides for him to make him even more entertaining. Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) has a plum role as Hela’s second-in-command who doesn’t really want the job. They actually gave this guy a character arc. It’s simple, sure, but it was more than I was expecting.
Ragnarok is a swan dive into a stylized, candy-colored explosion of 80s album covers come alive. The visuals and action feel inspired as much from the art of Jack Kirby as they do the pages of Heavy Metal. The overwhelming feel is one of irresistible fun, something you lean back, soak up, and smile from ear to ear in between handfuls of popcorn. The final battle feels suitably climactic and revisits Led Zeppelin’s immortal “Immigrant Song” once the action peaks, coalescing into a crescendo of cool. The trinkly 80s synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh (The Lego Movie) is fantastic and helps to achieve an extra kitschy kick. This movie is just flat-out fun throughout. It finds fun things for the characters to do, like when Banner has to not Hulk out on an alien world filled with stressors to trigger such an occurrence. That sequence almost feels like the grown-up, polished version of Adam West desperately running around as TV’s Batman in need of trying to find a place to dispose of a lit bomb. There’s an archness to the action and character interactions that is playful without being obnoxiously glib. I also enjoyed a climax that involved more than just out-punching the villains. Some might even charitably read it as a commentary on the over reliance of apocalyptic grandeur.
Playing from behind because of its hero’s limitations, Thor: Ragnarok finally embraces the silliness of its franchise, opening up more comic channels and vastly improving its entertainment quotient. The weird word and its collection of odd and oddly compelling characters is the best feature, and though it takes Ragnarok a bit of time for house cleaning, it becomes a steadily amusing big-budget blockbuster that maintains a cracked and lively sense of humor. It’s allowed to be strange and silly and campy. Waititi’s imaginative voice is still very present throughout the film, pushing the movie into fun and funny directions while still delivering the sci-fi action spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Ragnarok isn’t as deep as Civil War, as perfectly structured as Homecoming, or as subversive and different as Guardians of the Galaxy, but with a droll creative mind like Waititi, it becomes about the best possible Thor movie it can be.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Have you ever watched a movie that was so understated you wanted to jump into the onscreen world and push the characters around? That’s exactly how I felt with Carol, an unrequited lesbian romance set against the closeted and intolerant era of 1950s America. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a rich wife who meets Therese (Rooney Mara), a department store employee who assists with her Christmas shopping. They are both drawn to one another in the strange way that love works, and their possible relationship could jeopardize Carol’s custody of her young child. Because of the time period, so much of this romantic liaison is internalized and thus we get longing looks, small gestures that are meant to speak volumes, and plenty of starting and stopping, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks. I don’t have an issue with unrequited romances but Carol is one that feels like its entire world, painstakingly recreated, has been placed under glass for study. There’s no passion evident throughout the movie and I was left wondering what exactly Therese saw in Carol and vice versa. Neither woman has a particularly strong personality, though that could be a side effect of having to live publicly as a different person. I couldn’t get into them as characters and so felt little interest in seeing them together, which made the constant circling and nervous indecision even more belabored. Blanchett and Mara are quite good and director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There) handles the material with respectful subtlety, I just wish that Carol could have shaken off some of that subtlety and given me a better reason to care about these women. It’s understated to death.
Nate’s Grade: C+
What is it about old stories that we enjoy so much? I pose this question after watching a commercial for the TV movie, Killing Jesus, based upon Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling novel. While it’s based upon a popular book, what can possibly be told with this newest rendition of the death of Jesus that hasn’t been shown a thousand times in other movies? There was even a movie that was released in theaters last year, Son of God, which covered the same territory with equal reverence. There’s something to be said for good stories and the universal appeal of the familiar, but why do people constantly pay more money for new renditions of the same old same old? That question leads me to Disney’s live-action Cinderella, a fairly faithful and warm-hearted rendition of the oft-told tale. I can’t exactly muster many reasons for an audience to dust off their best glass slippers and run out to the theater, but if you’re looking for the comforts of old and some family-friendly entertainment, then Cinderella will charm with its modest and achievable goals.
Cinderella (Lily James) is the titular put-upon heroine suffering under the cruelty of her two stepsisters and her new Stepmother (Cate Blanchett). Cinderella thinks back to the advice her mother gave her at a young age, to always be “kind and courageous.” One day she rides off into the countryside and comes upon a handsome man who just happens to be the Prince (Richard Madden). He’s smitten with their exchange and convinces his father to open the royal ball to all members of their kingdom, in order to see his special someone once more. His adviser (Stellan Skarsgard) is against such matters because he wants the Prince to marry for a political alliance, not for love. Cinderella is forbidden from attending the ball by her Stepmother, but luckily she has a Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) who, with a pinch of magic, will make sure Cinderella attends in style and steals the Prince’s heart. None of this should be rather new to you, dear reader.
The first aspect of Cinderella I enjoyed was how it attempts to ground the story without losing a sense of magic to the proceedings. It’s still a fantasy film under director Kenneth Branagh (Thor), but there’s a concerted effort to place these characters in a world that resembles more of our own than the animated landscape from Disney’s original 1950 classic. Thankfully, half the movie isn’t spent with anthropomorphic mice wearing clothes and escaping the clutches of a house cat. There are a handful of helpful mice but at least they don’t talk and are mostly kept as cute accessories rather than co-stars. The reality of Cinderella’s hardships, especially after the death of her parents, is given an appropriate degree of solemnity. I also appreciated that the Prince is given an entire character to portray, one where his pursuit of a bride is placed in a political context about the security of his kingdom. He’s pressured to marry several available ladies for various political reasons, but he’s smitten with the girl he saw in the woods one fine day. The movie also succeeds in advancing a stronger, more developed relationship between Cinderella and her Prince. Instead of love-at-first-sight, they interact before the ball, and there is terrific chemistry between James and Madden (HBO’s Game of Thrones). There’s also a rather nice subplot between the Prince and his father (Derek Jacobi) that opens up their relationship. It’s a subplot that could have just as likely never existed and yet there’s something touching about the love shown between father and son. These moments, and the care to develop them, allow the characters to feel like flesh-and-blood people and to charm us all over again.
Another tilt toward greater narrative realism occurs with the villains, played by Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Skarsgard (Thor 2). While she’s still an arch villain, the treacherous Stepmother, who has no actual name, is given a generous treatment by Blanchett and especially writer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass). The movie actually attempts to articulate her position, one where a woman of her age is left with few options to secure her family’s stability after the death of a husband. She clearly knows how society sees her waning value and Blanchett does a good job of casting that bitterness in way that you’re still reminded why she’s so furious and devious. I was so pleased I wanted more. I wanted the Stepmother to break down and admit that Cinderella is proof that her father will never love the Stepmother the same as Cinderella’s mother; she’ll always be second place to a ghost, and Cinderella is a constant reminder of this. Blanchett is also deliciously dishy as the wicked stepmother every moment she’s onscreen. Skarsgard can’t compete with the main attraction, but he provides an interesting secondary antagonist as he schemes behind the scenes to ensure the Prince marries a specific maiden with a reliable family name. He’s seemingly devoted to strengthening his kingdom, and he can’t let something as important as a marriage securing an alliance to fall aside because the Prince happens to be in love with a commoner. The extra dose of political intrigue is further attempt to ground and humanize the fairy tale, and it mostly succeeds.
That’s not to say that the movie is without its fantasy pleasures. It is still a Disney movie about a famous Disney princess, and as such it maintains a bouncy, exuberant tone that keeps the heavier moments of drama from getting too heavy. Carter (Les Miserables) works wonders as the Fairy Godmother; she’s only in the movie for a solid ten minutes but she makes every second count. She has a silly nature that provides a welcomed jolt of scatterbrained comedy. Carter is clearly having a ball of her own with the role. The magical coachmen and assorted helpers supply extra cuteness. I also appreciated the quick fix of just creating a spell so that Cinderella’s step-family doesn’t recognize her at the ball. However, I never understood why all the artifacts of magic disappear at midnight but the shoes are left behind. Are they not magic too? Maybe only one of them happens to be magic and that was the one left behind. As presented, the shoe fitting is merely a ceremony rather than the missing clue toward finding the absent Cinderella.
So with all that said, does the new live-action Cinderella justify retelling what is one of the most retold stories in cinema history? I’d conclude a mild affirmative. It’s a charming adaptation that develops its characters with greater attention to detail, providing flights of fancy but also further humanizing the good guys and the bad. It’s no a deconstruction of the fairy tale, nor is it a revision, but it’s a faithful attempt to take what works but ground it in a slightly more realistic context, and it works. It’s at turns magical and touching and fun and buoyant and heartwarming. The casting all around is excellent, with every role impeccably chosen. Blanchett and Carter are great fun, and James and Madden have a winning chemistry. The technical merits are up to the same challenge, as the costumes and set design are gorgeous. Of course the aims of a new Cinderella movie are modest. Even if it benefits from a reworked attention to detail, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. It’s still the same story with the same major plot beats and the same ending we’ll all expect from the moment the Disney logo appears onscreen. The greatest achievement of Branagh’s Cinderella is that it makes you ignore these impulses. You find yourself once again returning to a familiar world and enjoying it all again.
Nate’s Grade: B
An all-star cast, a true-life tale that incorporates a treasure hunt, a race against time, Nazis, and fish-out-of-water tropes as non-soldiers are placed in harm’s way, plus the skills of George Clooney behind the camera; in short, how could this go wrong? With that plot makeup and this cast it would take more effort to tell a boring big screen adventure of the real-life Monuments Men (and women). And yet, the movie found a way. It’s by no means a bad film and its heart is in the right place, but allow me to explain why The Monuments Men sadly fails to live up to its mission.
It’s 1944 and Adolf Hitler doesn’t just have his sights on constructing a permanent empire, he wants all the world’s art treasures as well. The Nazis have been plundering famous works of art, and while the war is coming to a close with the Allied invasion, the fate of these priceless works of art may be in jeopardy. Frank Stokes (Clooney) is tasked with putting together a team to save Europe’s art from the Nazis. He puts together an unconventional group of soldiers (Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville) and search for the hidden loot.
The film looks like it’s going to be a high-concept heist film when it reality it’s a series of vignettes that do not add up to a solid whole. Early on, the Monuments Men team is scattered to the wind, divided into pairs, and so we have four or five competing storylines that don’t develop as desired. To be fair, there are some very good scenes, well executed and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Men Who Stare at Goats) where the conflict is turned up, but the film cannot escape the fact that it feels more like a series of scenes than a cohesive story. Not all of the stories are equal in their interest as well. The Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Damon storyline in France amounts to little else than her stalling for as long as the plot necessitates, then handing over the Very Important Info, then she’s swept aside. The comical asides, notably with Murray and Balaban, feel like scene fillers when there could be stronger material. Once they’re reunited as a group, you wonder why we even needed the time apart. Perhaps it’s an attempt to showcase a wider sampling of stories and perspectives on a complicated war, which is fine, but the characters don’t get the same complicated examination. Despite physical descriptors, these guys are fairly one-note and stay that way, which is a real shame especially when we start losing Monuments Men. The attention is split amongst a bunch of characters lacking proper development. If I felt like we knew these guys on any substantive level, I would feel more at their untimely passing.
Another issue that exacerbates the directionless feeling pervading the film is that it lacks a clear and concise goal. I understand they’re saving and rescuing art, but that’s kept vague until the very end of the film when it becomes more concrete. Until then, the guys are just traveling from place to place, retrieving this piece or that, having comic misadventures, and the movie just feels like it needs a stronger guiding force to corral all these stories, a concise goal that each scene builds onto and where the urgency increases. Late in the film, I got a glimpse of exactly what kind of movie Monuments Men could have been. Once the war is over, the Germans are replaced as antagonists by the Russians (two-for-two with classic American movie villains) and it becomes a race against time to get to the art before the Russians confiscate it. There was always a ticking clock in the film, as Hitler was assembling his art and his command would destroy them in spite of returning them. However, in the very end of the film, the urgency is cranked up, made real, and for once the film emerges with a sense of suspense. I think it would have been a more engaging film experience if the scope of the film were narrowed simply to the material covered in the climax, namely beating the Russians to the art reserves. It practically has a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel with two parties trying to outrace the other to the next precious treasure. How cool would that movie have been?
Another problem is the film’s seesaw tone never really gels together in a satisfying manner. The film awkwardly switches gears from drama to comedy to action without smooth transitions. Clooney wants his film to be a comical buddy comedy but also a poignant remembrance of the lives lost so that we can enjoy our great treasures. Clashing tones take away from the effectiveness, making us feel that Clooney didn’t feel confidant with either direction to make a movie. Alexander Desplat’s overbearing musical score instructs the audience what they should be feeling at any given moment. It vacillates without similar transitions informing you with little transparency that you should feel whimsical, now sad, and now heroic, now go back to whimsical. The entire film, from a story standpoint to a technical standpoint, cried out for a greater sense of unity.
Then there’s the question of whether art is worth people giving up their lives, and this is a valid question that deserves consideration. I was never in doubt what Clooney and company would say to this ethical query, but it’s as if Clooney has little faith in his own audience. He gives three separate speeches about the significance of art and culture and why it is worth dying for. I expected one hefty speech, but three? It’s like Clooney is afraid his audience will waver when blood starts to be shed, and so we need to be reminded by the professor why art is significant to mankind’s value. The point has been made; it doesn’t need to be belabored. The film even ends on recycling this debate, with Clooney putting one final stamp of judgment before the credits roll.
One gets the sense while watching The Monuments Men that it would make a better documentary than a fictional feature film, at least this incarnation of a fictional film. Hearing from the men who lived it will be far more interesting than watching the comic squabbles of Clooney’s crew through Europe. I was instantly reminded of an engrossing documentary from a few years ago called The Rape of Europa, which looked at the subject of saving the arts from Hitler, not specifically the Monuments Men. That documentary was filled with so many different fascinating stories, I remember thinking that any one of them could have made a stellar movie. Monuments Men is further proof that a sharper, more contained focus would be best rather than trying to tell as many war stories involved on the topic. Clooney has proven himself an excellent director and despite his film’s faults it’s still an entertaining film in spurts. I just think we all expected better given the pedigree of talent involved and the can’t-miss quality of the history.
Nate’s Grade: B-
With writer/director Woody Allen’s proliferate output, cranking out a movie every year, it’s all too easy to take the man for granted. Critics will argue his halcyon days are long gone, that the man is coasting on his past laurels. Of course when you’re comparing everything to Manhattan, Annie Hall, or Crimes and Misdemeanors, well sure most movies will be found lacking, even Allen’s. And there’s no real forgiving of 2001’s Curse of the Jade Scorpion. But when Allen hits a rich topic with a capable cast, he can still produce knockout cinema, as is exactly the case with the engrossing Blue Jasmine.
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is experiencing a tumultuous change of living. Her wealthy husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) has been indicted for a Ponzi scheme that fleeced millions. Her posh New York lifestyle has vanished, Uncle Sam has frozen the assets that haven’t been repossessed, and she’s forced to move in with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco. Jasmine immediately has her complaints, mostly about the men that Ginger seems to date. She also tries adapting to a life she has been ill prepared for. Much like a domesticated animal, Jasmine’s social skills and pricy tastes do not have real-world transitions into her getting a job and supporting herself. She’s looking for a way to re-enter the shrine of privilege, and that it through a man of means.
Blue Jasmine is a fascinating character study of a life of self-delusion, denial, greed, and guilt, and it is a marvelous film. Allen hasn’t done something this cutting, this precise in several years and it’s a reminder at just how skilled the man can be at building magnetic, fully realized characters, especially women. This is a rich, complex, and juicy character for an actress of the caliber of Blanchett (Hanna) to go wild with. Jasmine is something of a modern-day Blanch DuBois with a sprinkling of Jay Gatsby; she’s a woman who’s become accustomed to a luxurious fantasy world that she’s still striving to recreate, but she also is a woman who reinvented herself. As we learn in the opening scene, Jasmine left school without finishing her degree when Hal whisked her off her feet, to a world of privilege. She even changed her name from Jeanette to Jasmine at her husband’s whim. She also became particularly adept at looking the other way when it concerned her husband’s shady dealings. Surely she must have known what was happening (in the end, it’s pretty clear) but as long as her illusion of wealth was maintained then it was easy to not ask questions. Why ruin a good thing, even if that good thing is built upon ruining the lives of ordinary people? Two of those people bilked of their money were Ginger and Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), which make Jasmine’s complicity all the more troubling. Every line of dialogue from Jasmine needs to be studied and dissected, analyzing how buried is the real Jasmine.
Jasmine’s declining mental state is also given much attention and curiosity. We are watching in full view a woman go through various stages of a nervous breakdown. She’s medicating herself via booze and a cocktail of prescription drugs, but there are hints that point to something other than substances at play. She hints at undergoing electric chock therapy (does this still exist?) and she may have a touch of mental illness as well, though it’s unclear. Jasmine is given to talking to herself, reciting anecdotes and patter from previous parties with the rich and fabulous. It could be a sign of madness or it could be a desperate attempt by Jasmine to zone out, to return to that former life, to relive her former glory. Personally, I’ve done something similar, recited old conversations out loud to myself, though usually a line or so, not to the degree of recitation that Jasmine engages in. In the opening, it’s revealed that the lady she’s sitting next to on the plane, who we assume she’s talking with, is really just a bystander. She tells her husband she was confused because Jasmine was really just talking to herself. As Jasmine tries to get back on her feet, with delusions of grandeur about reinventing herself again, her world seems to be collapsing around her as she struggles to adapt to the real working world. A receptionist job for a dentist is beneath her as well as far too much for her to handle. She has one real sincere heart-to-heart where she lays out her true feelings, and it’s to her nephews in a pizza shop with no other adult present: “There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.
An enthralling character study, but Blue Jasmine also benefits from Allen’s precise plotting, folding back into flashbacks to create contrast and revelations. There is an economical finesse to Allen’s writing and directing. Every scene is short and sweet and imparts key knowledge, keeping the plot moving and fresh. It also provides back-story in a manner that feels unobtrusive. Jasmine’s more modest living conditions with her sister are contrasted with apartment shopping in New York City’s Upper West side. The class differences between Jasmine and her sister are put on full display when Ginger and Augie visit New York. However, Allen isn’t only lambasting the out-of-touch rich elite here. Few characters escape analysis. In this story, everyone is pretending to be someone else, putting on fronts, personas, to try and puff themselves up. Once living with her sophisticated sister, Ginger starts seeing her world with new eyes, mainly finding dissatisfaction and a yearning that she could do better. She meets Al (Louis C.K.) at a fancy party and gets smitten, though he’s not what he seems. She dumps her current boyfriend, buying into Jasmine’s theory that she “dates losers because that’s what she thinks she deserves.” She tries to remodel herself into a posh, inaccurate version of herself, a knockoff on Jeanette to Jasmine. It’s a bad fit. The person with the most integrity in the entire film appears to be, surprise, Andrew Dice Clay’s character. Augie is a straightforward blue-collar guy but he has a clear sense of right and wrong, one that comes in handy when he’s able to bust people.
This is much more a dramatic character study than a typical Allen comedy of neurosis, but I want to add that there are a number of laughs to be had, mostly derisive. There is comedy but it’s of a tragicomedy vibe, one where we laugh at the social absurdities of self-deluded characters and the irony of chance encounters. It’s far less bubbly than Midnight in Paris, Allen’s last hit, but that serves the more serious, critical tone. The class conflicts made me chuckle, as well as Jasmine’s hysterical antics and self-aggrandizing, but I was so thoroughly engaged with the characters and stories to complain about a lack of sufficient yuks. Confession: I generally enjoy Allen’s dramas more than his straight-up comedies.
Naturally, the movie hinges on Blanchett’s performance and the Oscar-winning actress is remarkable. I expect her to be a lock for another Oscar nomination if not the front-runner until later. She fully inhabits the character and lays out every tic, every neurosis, every anxiety, and every glimmer of doubt, of delusion, of humanity. She is a fully developed character given center stage, and it’s a sheer pleasure to watch Blanchett give her such life. You’ll feel a mixture of emotions with the character, from intrigue, to derision, to perhaps some fraying sense of sympathy, especially as the movie comes to an end. Blanchett balances the different faces of Jasmine with startling ease; she can slip into glamorous hostess to self-pitying victim to naiveté like turning a dial. I never tired of the character and I certainly never tired of watching Blanchett on screen.
Woody Allen has been a hit-or-miss filmmaker for over a decade, and you’ll have that when the man has the perseverance to write and direct a movie every freaking year. I had a pet theory that, as of late, every three years was when we really got a great Allen movie: 2005’s Match Point, 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2011’s Midnight in Paris. Well now my theory has been put to rest, thank you very much, all because Allen couldn’t wait one more year to deliver Blue Jasmine, a truly great film. It’s a tragicomedy of entertainment, an exacting character study of a flawed, complex, deeply deluded woman as her carefully calculated world breaks down. Anchored by Blanchett’s supreme performance, the movie glides along with swift acumen, doling out revelations at a steady pace and consistently giving something dishy for the actors and audience to think about. It’s funny, it’s sad, but more than anything Blue Jasmine is compelling as hell. This is one of Allen’s best films and one I’d recommend even to non-fans of the Woodman. Give Blue Jasmine a chance and you may be surprised what you feel, for the film and the woman, both complex, engaging, and memorable.
Nate’s Grade: A
We all seem to love child prodigies. The concept of someone so small doing something well ahead of their years seems to fascinate our minds. I suppose the same holds true for professional killers. We all seem smitten with teenage depiction of super-powered killing machines. Last year presented Kick-Ass whose real star was the adolescent Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz-Grace), pint-sized reaper of carnage. Then there’s River from Serenity, Gogo from Kill Bill: Volume One, the ladies of Sucker Punch, the Heavenly Creatures girls (at least this one is based on a true story), and pretty much half the cast of Battle Royale. Just wait until The Hunger Games comes to screens in 2012, built upon the premise of 12-18-year-olds fighting to the death on national television (so the premise is almost exactly Battle Royale). We love our innocence mixed with ironic cynicism. Along comes Hanna, the tale of another teenage girl leaving a trail of bodies in her wake.
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a sixteen-year-old girl living above the Arctic Circle with her father, Erik (Eric Bana). She’s been in survival mode all of her life, preparing for a day when she would finally break free and seek vengeance. CIA Agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) killed Hanna’s mother and has been lying in wait to finish the job, eliminating the rest of the family. Erik has taught his daughter well to think on her feet, master several languages, and become an excellent marksman/fighter. Hanna makes the choice to set their plan into motion. She triggers a device that signals to the CIA where they are. Marissa sends a crew to pick up Hanna and Erik, but only finding the girl. Once in an underground CIA compound, Hanna turns her focus on Marissa, killing her double (good call, lady), and breaking out of the compound. She finds that she’s been taken to Morocco. Fortunately, a family is traveling through the land and Hanna can catch a ride before she meets up with dear old dad in Berlin. Marissa sets out on a manhunt to find Erik. She hires a group of German criminals (led by Tom Hollander) to retrieve Hanna (“I need you to do things my agency will not let me do,” she reasons). Everyone is on a crash course to Berlin, where Hanna’s mysterious origin will be finally revealed.
Director Joe Wright blew away all my expectations for him. The British director was mostly known for visually lavish period pieces like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. This is a drastic change of pace and proof that the occasional art director can produce a great-looking, meditative action thriller that still delivers the goods. Wright’s camerawork is beautiful, making artful use of composition, lighting, and editing to deliberate purpose. There were several moments that I just got caught up in the look of the film, aided by the energetic if sadly too-often absent score by The Chemical Brothers (I love the chunky bass groove on “Container Park”). I was just impressed what could be produced under the guise of action cinema. This is an elevation of the genre. Wright’s color palette is awash in ominous reds, soft blues, and delicate yellows, which helps give the film this painterly approach to photography. Pay attention to the dream-like visual metaphors connected to fairy tales (Marissa seems to have a tooth cleaning fetish –“What big teeth you have…”). At the same time, Wright knows how to stage a terrific action sequence. His signature tracking shots allow the audience to become enveloped in the action, taking in the punches and kicks without the disorientation of the popular erratic editing style of modern action cinema. Bana taking down a bunch of goons in a subway level is made more thrilling because we see every second of activity, allowing the moment to build in tension as he is followed, then cornered, then strikes out.
17-year-old Ronan has left the awkward pubescence of The Lovely Bones far behind her. Like her Atonement director, she too steps far beyond our concept of what she is able to perform. Ronan is a five-foot-tall wrecking crew. She keeps her eyes intensely focused, tense blue orbs. At the same time that she convincingly kicks butt up and down the screen, Ronan successfully communicates the internal drama of her character. Hanna is an outsider trained her whole life for a single purpose. When she’s left in a Moroccan back room, Hanna is overwhelmed by the cacophony of noises by electronic appliances, at a loss to make the melange of sound cease. She’s a victim of her own upbringing and her father’s quest for vengeance. Ronan keeps her icy cool demeanor when she means business, but the Irish lass and her straw-blonde hair manage to find the girl inside the super girl. Bana (Star Trek) is suitably stoic and conflicted as the father, and all hail Blanchett (Robin Hood) as a good villain for once. With her Southern drawl, she presents an alluring sense of menace throughout without breaking down into over-the-top histrionics. Blanchett is so good as a slippery CIA agent that you wish she didn’t farm out her villainy to a group of German goons.
What holds Hanna back from greatness is it uneven natures of its plot and the lack of sustainable action. The movie is just as much a strange coming-of-age saga for a girl who was raised in the woods. The lengthy travelogue with the British family from North Africa through Spain kills the film’s momentum routinely. Things will start picking up, the excitement builds, and then we cut back to the goofy caricature of a flighty liberal family (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemying as the parents). Despite the painful “do what you feel?” parenting cues, the family unit seems to have some level of functionality. These scenes are meant to contrast with Hanna’s own upbringing. It’s meant to show the life that Hanna has never been allowed to choose. But I got that rather quickly. Also, if you want to sell the “alternative path” contrast it would have more impact if this foil family were more appealing and less annoying. Even moment Hanna tags along as a stowaway with this family it disrupts the momentum. I understand that Hanna needed some narrative excuse to get from the rocky deserts of Northern Africa into central Europe, but when you’re dealing with a super kid, why rely on her just hitching a ride with a van full of hippies?
What really let me down was the lack of sustainable action that developed. While I’ve already credited Wright’s handling of the onscreen fisticuffs, I just wish there was more of it. The action occurs in spurts that fail to keep up. That tracking shot fight sequence is wonderful, but it’s too short. Hanna taking out men twice her size is undeniably enjoyable, but short of an excellent sequence of hide-and-pummel through a cargo ship yard, Hanna is never put in a position of risk. Sure she’s in danger but she’s never overmatched, which is part of the reason why the action sequences only happen in bursts. Her competition never seems to be truly threatening. Hollander (looking eerily, eerily like celebrity blogger Perez Hilton) in white bike shorts is not that intimidating. He’ll stand out, which might not be what a CIA agent wants when she hires goons to track and kill a super kid, but he’s never more threatening than Henchman #2 status, though he’s been irresponsibly promoted for the purposes of this movie. I realize that Wright and his screenwriters, Seth Lochhead and David Farr, wanted a character-based action thriller. Hanna is that film, but it could have been a more thriller vehicle if more attention was spent on the realities of their dramatic setup. The problem with making Hanna a super kid warrior is that she needs either BETTER competition or MORE competition. Pick one. But having a small number of inferior toughs seems like the worst outcome for people who want solid, sustainable action.
The plot of Hanna is fairly conventional but the style and feel of the film are anything but. Wright has assembled a first-class art-thriller that would have been a work of true greatness if the plot could have gotten itself figured out. Splitting time between action set pieces and a family road trip is not an ideal use of running time. The action works fantastic, that is, when it does make its too-brief appearances. I’ve read several comparisons to Run Lola Run due to the stylized visuals, pace-setting electronica score, and likely general German setting, but I feel these comparisons are surface-level; Lola was a firecracker of style and energy rarely replicated in film (it’s my go-to film to show people who are self-described haters of foreign films). Hanna is no Lola, but Hanna is still a class ahead of her peers. Wright and company have produced a film that is moody, stylish, thrilling, and just a little bit ridiculous. As Hanna says to her prey, she just missed your heart. Whether that’s by design or accident, we’ll never know.
Nate’s Grade: B