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Incredibles 2 (2018)

The prevailing problem with Pixar sequels (and prequels) lacking “Toy” in their title is that they never feel like stories needing to be told, tales that will enrich our understanding of the characters and their larger world. I would much more gladly like a Monster’s Inc. sequel where Adult Boo is visited by her old closet-dwelling friends rather than an inoffensively cute prequel explaining how characters became friends long ago. The Incredibles universe always seemed like the one most demanding of a real sequel. Writer/director Brad Bird created a rich retro-futuristic world with numerous possibilities. I’m happy to report that Incredibles 2, while not soaring to the exact heights of its predecessor, is still a very worthy sequel that even manages to outshine the original in select areas.

Taking place literally seconds after the conclusion of the 2004 film, the Parr family fights together against the Underminer. The city, however, is none too happy about the collateral damage. Superheroes are still illegal. There’s no more relocation either. The Parrs are stuck, until a pair of billionaire siblings (voiced by Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener) reaches out to try and repeal the superhero ban. They want to position Helen Parr a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holy Hunter) for the public relations campaign (she causes a lot less collateral damage than her husband). Bob Parr a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) encourages his wife to go out and save the day, though he’s barely holding back his jealousy. He takes on the domestic duties, helping Dash (Huck Milner), moody daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), and the young baby, Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile, reprising the role of voicing a baby, for real). A villain known as the Screenslaver is terrorizing the city and hypnotizing citizens through hijacked broadcasts. Elastigirl tries to uncover the mystery of the Screenslaver while Mr. Incredible tries to juggle the realities of stay-at-home parenthood.

Bird’s sense of visual inventiveness is still heartily alive and whimsically well in the medium of animation. Bird’s original film was an imaginative marvel with its intricate action sequences, some of which are the best in any medium, animated or live-action. He’s a choreographer of action that upholds the basic tenants of action, namely that if you have characters with special abilities, they should be utilized, along with attention toward geography and the purpose of the scene. It’s a genuine pleasure to watch well developed action sequences that go beyond flashy style, that account for mini-goals and organic complications. Take for instance Elastigirl’s motorcycle chase scene. It’s exciting as is but when the bike breaks apart, taking advantage of Elastigirl’s stretchy powers, that’s when it becomes even more gratifying and clever. There is a group of lesser super heroes that come out of the shadows thanks to Elastigirl’s heroics. At first they’re played for primarily comedic value, but Bird smartly turns them into a force to be reckoned with when they band together. I especially appreciate having a character with portal-manifesting powers and finding many opportunities to explore this unique power. When the film is humming with its visual energy and inventiveness, Incredibles 2 is a gloriously entertaining and satisfying action movie told by one of the best on the business.

The action is on par (no pun intended) with the first film even as the overall experience lacks the emotional stakes and depths of the first Incredibles. That should not be seen as some destabilizing deficiency as The Incredibles was a nearly flawless film (it’s my second favorite Pixar film after WALL-E). There were moments in the original film that transcended the superhero setting, where they Parr family felt like real people with real emotions and relatable stakes, like Mr. Incredible’s confession that he’s not strong enough to suffer the loss of his family. While Bird’s film made several homages to the James Bond cannon, there were real stakes. People could die. Many superheroes did, albeit mostly off-screen. This was Pixar’s first PG-rated film and that’s because it dealt with some heavy thematic issues in a mature manner. The bad guys weren’t like the movies, Helen Parr warned; they would kill children if given the chance. Incredibles 2 doesn’t have any real moments like that to cut through the whiz-bang.

This time it’s Elastigirl enjoying the limelight, and there’s a notable feminist message of a woman finally getting her due. She relishes the adventure though is willing to sacrifice it for her family if needed, which her husband will refuse to allow her to do. Her success is his success, he reminds himself. The sooner she succeeds the sooner he can also get back out there to fight crime. I think one of the reasons the characterization isn’t as developed this time is because of the abbreviated time frame. We’re literally picking up seconds from the first movie and dealing with the immediate consequences. We’re only following the events of a few weeks, maybe months at most, and while the Parr family undergoes trials and disappointments, It feels like maybe there just wasn’t enough space for the characters to have succinct arcs and grow substantially. This is a quibble for an otherwise great movie. Incredibles 2 still stay true to the characters you love.

The exploration of Mr. Incredible’s descent into domestic life was my favorite part of the film, and I had been worried it would be outdated Mr. Mom-style jokes. The movie steers away from most of the tired gender tropes, moving past simply having an incompetent man performing household duties in hilariously incompetent ways. The jokes aren’t dependent upon a man doing them so much as someone who feels out of step and beleaguered, so parenthood in general. The first movie was about midlife identity crises and that has carried over into this sequel as well. Bob has a meaningful challenge with each one of his children, having to re-learn old concepts with his son and adapt to new ones, having to tackle the minefield of dating with his daughter and finding the right tone, and the increasingly the demands of a child with, let’s call them, special needs. The Jack-Jack segments are inspired pieces of old school Looney Tunes slapstick. Each new power provides another point of discovery for our characters that, remember, are initially clueless about Jack-Jack’s amazing abilities. Mr. Incredible is so eager to get back to being a super hero that forcing him to confront his own inadequacies as a parent is a smart way to better open him up as a three-dimensional character. I enjoyed the action of Elastigirl’s spotlight missions but I kept looking forward to returning to the other Parrs.

In a few areas I would even say Incredibles 2 has its original beat, especially in the realm of comedy and visual inventiveness. Part of that is simply the advancement of the technology allowing Bird more freedom to up the ante as well as showcase more intricate facial emotions. There are some areas that just cannot compare, which is not to say that they are bad on their own. The late twist of the villain’s identity should be more than obvious for anyone paying attention. The themes of this movie are much hazier this time around. There are a few that pop up, like police surveillance and body cams, then a general screed against the general social malaise brought on from technology, then breaking unjust laws to serve a more realized sense of justice, and then finally the movie settles on what seems like its true theme, the danger of being too dependent on, essentially, government assistance. If the superheroes represent the government, the villain’s plot is to shake people away from waiting for the superheroes to fix everything and growing over reliant on outside assistance (finally a summer blockbuster with a message even Paul Ryan could love). Bird has featured some Randian ideals in past films, The Incredibles a prime example. My pal Ben Bailey strongly believes that the first film’s villain had the right idea though wrong method. Superheroes are by design egotistical. The belief that there are people who are better and deserving of a elite, preferential status seems antithetical with the sequel’s major theme. Or maybe it’s the mutated evolution of Ayn Rand’s sense of political objectivism. Feel free to debate at the kitchen table with your own family.

If the major fault of Incredibles 2 (there is no “The;” look it up if you doubt me) is that it can’t quite live up to the dizzying heights of the original, then that’s hardly a damning fault. In the 14 ensuing years, the superhero movie has become the dominant Hollywood blockbuster, and Bird needed to think long and hard about how his return visit would distinguish itself from a cluttered landscape of super heroics. Bird finds meaningful and interesting stories for both the “normal” version of his family unit as well as their super selves. Fans of the original should find more than enough to entertain themselves with even if the depth and characterization aren’t as wonderfully realized. There’s great comedy, great action, and great fun to be had with Pixar’s best sequel not with “Toy” in its title.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Get Out (2017)

get-out-2017-2After years as a brilliant sketch comedian, Get Out is Jordan Peele’s first foray into horror, and if this gifted comic mind only wanted to make suspense thrillers from now on, that would be mighty fine. This is the first horror movie in years that left me buzzing, feeling charged and anxious, anxious to share with others so they too can feel the full effect of this live wire of a movie. It may be my favorite theatrical horror film since 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, and what they both have in common is a knowing understanding of their genres and expectations, a delicately balanced sense of tone, and a funhouse of darkly clever surprises. This is a movie rich with commentary, suspense, payoffs, and it all begins by exploring the dread-filled everyday existence of African-American men in this country as a waking horror movie that cannot be escaped.

Before even going further, I advise most readers to go into Get Out with as little knowledge as possible, which I understand means delaying reading this review. I can accept the loss of eyeballs knowing that more people will go in with an even greater ability to be surprised (I’ll avoid significant spoilers below, so fear not, dear reader).

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is visiting the parents of his girlfriend for the first time. He’s worried that Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) hasn’t mentioned that he’s black. She assures him that her rich, wealthy, and liberal family won’t care in the slightest. Rose swears her parents are the least racist people she can think of. Dean (Bradley Whitford) is a retired brain surgeon, Missy (Catherine Keener) is a hypnotherapist who volunteers to help Chris stop smoking, and Rose’s younger brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), is obsessed with martial arts and lacrosse. They also have black housekeepers, which Dean says he hates how it looks. It isn’t long before Chris’ sense of unease starts to make him rethink this weekend getaway and whether or not something sinister is under the surface.

landscape-1475698470-screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-41406-pmEarly on, Peele tips his hand to the sharp social and genre criticism. In the opening scene we watch Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man, walking around lost in a tony suburban neighborhood. He checks his phone for an address when a lone car drives past him, stops, and turns around, pulling up next to Andrew and idling, blasting the old song “Run Rabbit Run.” He takes one look at the situation and immediately turns around, heading in the opposite direction. “Not today,” he says to himself, clearly providing voice to the audience’s apprehension. And yet, he’s incapacitated, and abducted by masked assailants. Even self-awareness and avoidance will not be enough for this man to survive if captured within the crosshairs of modern White America. He becomes another horror victim just like we might see splashed across the news all too often.

Peele’s biting social commentary is ever-present but it never outpaces the genuine fun and entertainment from his genre storytelling. It’s a condemnation of the fallacy of a post-racial society and an exploration of the uncomfortable burdens African-Americans are disproportionately expected to bear in general. Rose’s family is all too happy to show off how seemingly inclusive they are. Rose’s father confesses, with no legitimate conversational prompting, that he would have voted for Obama a third time (trust me, there’s a lot of people in the camp, Dean). Yet he seems to enjoy awkwardly inserting recitations of “my man” while also trying to openly explain why he has eerily subservient black housekeepers. Rose’s antic brother seems to hungrily size Chris up as a physical challenge to battle, openly admiring his “genetic gifts.” Despite their self-styled liberalism and protests to the contrary that race doesn’t matter, the family can’t help but treat Chris like an other. Race “doesn’t matter” to people who have the position where it might not matter, the same going for those who elect to be “color blind.”

This stifling sense of condescension and pandering is best exemplified in a deeply awkward sequence where Chris is introduced at a party to the whole older majority-white neighborhood. One man informs him he likes Tiger Woods. Another says being black is hip. A woman squeezes his muscles in transparent lust. Another asks what the “African-American experience” is like and whether Chris feels being born black is an advantage. All through this meet-and-greet gauntlet, Chris is holding his carefully crafted smile, trying to shrug off the mounting discomfort, and being told not to make a big deal out of it. After all, these are well-educated liberals, the “good ones.” They can’t be racist too.

get-out-trailer-screen2Get Out is also an excellent example of a movie that straddles a precise tone to perfection. Peele has a carefully refined comedy sensibility, but I was genuinely awed in his ability to go from sardonically funny to creepy funny to just plain creepy. There’s an increasingly heightened sense of dread from the get-go. It’s like any other horror premise where our protagonist goes into the house they shouldn’t and combats a host of horrors be they supernatural or superhuman. In this case, the scary scenario is white people. There’s a general off feeling about the Armitage estate and this is best encapsulated with their hired help, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel). They seem to be in a robotic daze, smiles plastered to their faces, their tone of voice disquietingly calm and meticulous. Even the antiquated and culturally incongruous vocabulary they employ contributes to their unsettling vibes. Something is wrong here. There is a remarkable scene where Chris speaks with Georgina, and she hovers closer to him to apologize. Peele keeps the camera locked on his actor’s faces in extreme close-ups and he has a damn good reason for it. Gabriel (The Purge: Election Year) tries to reassure him all is normal and in one mesmerizing moment the camera fixates on her as she repeats “no,” each time a different reflection, her eyes tearing up as she tries to fight back subverted emotions. It feels like you’re watching twenty emotions and impulses fighting for dominance behind an impassive mask of compliance. Peele magnificently finds ways to keep his elements intensely upsetting while still finding room to laugh and break tension and increase tension.

While more a suspense thriller than a traditional horror film, Peele proves himself shockingly adept at a genre that I would have assumed outside his comfort zone. The shot arrangements and the natural development of tension shows clear knowledge and affinity for the horror genre; Peele knows when to hold onto a moment for extra suspense, when to pull back, and especially when to litter the camera frame with something to draw the eye. Peele has a great eye for his troubling, surreal visuals. When Chris is hypnotized and instructed to “sink into the floor” it’s like he’s falling into an inky void while his consciousness plays out on a square, like his life is a movie only he can watch from a distance. You feel the helplessness but it’s also a beautiful and beautifully unnerving image. There are a few jump scares accompanied by loud musical stings but the far majority of the movie is the overwhelming discomfort and dread marvelously kept at a continual simmer. I was squirming in my seat for long stretches and started backpedaling in others, and I can’t remember another movie in years affecting me that well. It’s partly the terrific execution of his genre elements but also partly because I liked the protagonist and had no idea what would happen to him next, which is the foundation of all horror. The last act cranks up the genre elements but Peele has brilliantly structured his script, laying out all the pieces he’ll need that provide an array of payoffs when we’re breaking for the finish line. This is a movie that knows how to satisfy all audiences, rest assured.

The actors are pitch-perfect and Kaluuya (Sicario, Black Mirror) delivers a star-making performance. He has to wear his own mask to deal with the small and large iniquities of whether or not these people are sinister or whether they’re just oblivious cretins. Chris is a black man expected to mind his manners and to laugh away the casual ignorance afforded by the oblivious privilege of others. He can never be unaware as the lone black man in a sea of white faces. It’s a position I think many people in the audience will be able to relate to and hopefully others can empathize with. Kaluuya has some standout emotional sequences where he digs deep to show the real depth of a character others fetishize or dismiss. Kaluuya is also British and you’d never know it. The Armitage family clan are each their own slice of weird. Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods) is exploding with thinly veiled smarm and great comic awkwardness. Keener (Capote) is chilling in her icy WASP den mother role with her weapon of choice, and hypnotic aid, being a literal silver spoon. Williams is like her blithely privileged character stepped out of HBO’s Girls, and her flippant attitude to Chris’s perspective belies something familiar and darker. The other best actor in the movie is LilRel Howrey (The Carmichael Show) who play’s a friend to Chris that works for the TSA. He’s a reliable and reliable crude source of comic relief but he’s also our ally on the outside, and he behaves like an intelligent investigator trying to save him. I was actually applauding his sensible steps to see through the sinister conspiracy.

maxresdefault-3It’s been hours since I saw Get Out and I’m still buzzing from the experience. I was unprepared for how genuinely unnerving and invigorating the movie was as a horror thriller, character piece, but also as a trenchant social satire on race. Jordan Peele has established himself as an immediate visionary in the world of horror, taking the black protagonist who might usually be the first to get killed in a Hollywood slasher flick and widening the boundaries of horror. The real-lie horror film is day-to-day existence in the United States as a person of color. Get Out was conceived in the Obama era but has even more renewed resonance under the beginnings of the Age of Trump. I remember people saying that America now existed in a post-racial world, but we live in the kind of world that takes a call for innocent black lives to stop being executed by police officers and transforms it into All Lives Matter. It’s a hazardous world and Peele has created a marvelous movie where the insidious, ever-present force that cannot be escaped is not a maniac with a chainsaw or some cranky ghost, it’s white society itself. As the news has indicated, from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland and numerous others, there isn’t exactly a safe territory to escape to. Danger and death can come at any moment as long as a larger society perceives black skin as a threat first and a person second. Get Out is a timely movie but also timeless, thanks to how brilliantly conceived, developed, and executed Peel’s movie performs. This will make my top ten list for the year. Simply put, stop whatever you’re doing and go out to go see Get Out as soon as possible.

Nate’s Grade: A

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)

If you’re looking for a pristine example of mediocrity, then let Percy Jackson serve as the new definition. From the acting to the special effects to the story, this movie barely registers anything other than a disinterested shrug. Based on a series of young adult books, clearly the producers were eyeing a potential lucrative franchise, which may explain why they hire Chris Columbus as director. The modern-day scions of ancient Greek gods is an intriguing starting point, until you realize that the film is just going to become one big, dumb retread through Greek mythology without a hint of wit. It’s Greek mythology turned into a kid’s book report who never read deeply into the source material. The film’s best asset is its collection of adult actors (Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Rosario Dawson), which take your mind off the fairly bland teen actors in the lead. Percy Jackson would be a more forgivable drag if it presented any moments of wonder that didn’t feel trite. The plot has the maddening habit of making characters stupid for plot reasons (hey Lightning Thief who wants to start a God-on-God war, when you have Zeus’s lightning bolt, thus sealing an impending war, don’t stop and monologue!). Yet the film has enough going on that you can follow it with ease and a minimal commitment. Consider putting on Percy Jackson when you need to do some household chores; it deserves that kind of attention.

Nate’s Grade: C

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Studio execs are always seen as the bad guys, right? They meddle in the affairs of artists, more concerned about dollar signs and marketing potential than in lasting, authentic artistic achievement. Director Spike Jonze, the most lauded video music director of all time, has gone through five years of trials to bring the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are to the big screen. He’s had his funding cut, he’s been dropped by one studio, and the second studio contemplated starting over from scratch after seeing an early cut of the movie. The studio heads were worried that Jonze’s take was too sullen and too scary for children. They asked for something a tad more uplifting about a boy that runs away to have adventures with giant monsters. Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers (Away We Go) insisted on their vision and stuck it out, and 18 months later, that vision is what made it to theaters. Having now seen Where the Wild Things Are, it pains me to accept that maybe those studio honchos had a point all along. Jonze’s film is eclectic and visually wondrous but this is not a children’s movie; this is a movie about childhood intended for thirty-something adults and film critics. And man, it’s a downer.

Based upon Maurice Sendak’s masterful 1963 book about an unruly child “sent to bed without supper,” we follow Max (Max Records), a nine-year-old on a tear through life. His older sister is growing up and hanging out with older friends, his dad is absent, and his mother (Catherine Keener) is trying to juggle work, kids, and having a life her own. One night she has a man over (Mark Ruffalo, in cameo form) and Max gets upset. His mother isn’t giving him the attention he feels he’s owed. So he acts out, bites his mother, and when she responds with genuine terror, he runs away. He finds a small boat and sails away across the ocean to a mysterious island. It is here that he encounters the titular wild things, giant beasts that act out in very similar ways. Max declares himself the king of the beasts and they accept. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini, a fabulously warm performance) is the happiest to have somebody new to play and listen. There’s also the small goat-creature Alexander (Paul Dano), the eagle Douglas (Chris Cooper), the elusive KW (Lauren Ambrose), and the married monster couple, the pushy Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and the subdued Ira (Forest Whitaker). Together they form an unorthodox family that still falls prey to in fighting and jealousies.

First off, Jonze does a magnificent job of creating the world of the wild things. The cinematography by Lance Acord (Lost in Translation) uses a lot of handheld cameras to trail after Max, communicating the kinetic energy of youth. The movie looks gorgeous but doesn’t resort to a self-conscious gloss. Acord makes the wilderness look inviting and dangerous. The wild things are amazing creatures to watch, brought to startling life by Jim Henson’s creature shop and seamless CGI artistry to provide facial expressions. If these creatures were purely computer generated, they would lose a sense of magic. Watching the furry suits interact with the real world brings so much more enjoyment to the movie. These giant creatures look real and intimidating. I liked the fact that there’s one character, The Bull, who just stands in the background alone, and the other wild thing monsters make a point of not noticing him. He’s the weird disaffected kid on the outside. I also appreciated that the movie doesn’t pander to make the monsters cute and cuddly. They continue to be scary. At one point Carol even chases after Max with the intent to eat him. Jonze and Eggers have made a movie about childhood that doesn’t coddle children. The production design by K.K. Barrett (Marie Antoinette) is nicely imaginative, though it only deals with a handful of stick huts. The fort that the wild things construct is fantastical, like an alien structure but made completely out of twigs.

Jonze and Eggers have made a movie all about the feelings of childhood; however, it seems that almost all of those feelings are negative. Sure Max bounces around with youthful energy, and his imagination goes to exuberant places, but the movie paints a broad picture of how painful and disappointing childhood can be. The movie doesn’t capture the wonder and excitement and possibilities of childhood; it focuses on the somber realities of what it’s like to be misunderstood, lonely, and incapable of changing anything. What about the pleasures of childhood? Even when Max engages in his fantastic creativity it usually leads to destruction and hurt feelings; everyone ends up in a worse place. A great example is in the opening sequence where Max tries to snare his older sister and her friends into a snowball fight. He gets them to play along and then everything is great, until the older kids accidentally take it too far and Max is left embarrassed, hurt, scared, and incredibly angry, which leads to lashing out, which then leads to regret and attempts to rationalize it as not his fault. This pattern is repeated throughout, where Max will get scared or confused and this triggers bouts of physical violence, like literally biting his mother. You might think his time on the island would be an escape, but really all of the monsters are manifestations of Max’s fractured psychology. KW represents his older sister’s approval so deeply longed for; Judith represents his defensiveness; Alexander represents his feelings of marginalization and helplessness; and Carol most closely resembles Max’s id, concerned that his family is falling apart, prone to jealousy and sudden violent outbursts when he doesn’t get his way. It all can make for an interesting psychoanalytical experience but it also can get tiresome. Listening to needy, whiny, morose monsters can be exasperating after awhile when there isn’t anything else resembling a plot. Where the Wild Things Are feels somewhat like Jonze and Eggers are subjecting everyone to their own therapy.

This shaggy, somewhat draggy movie has little else going on, so we watch Max boss around the monsters, commission colossal forts, run around, sleep in a big pile, and more or less try and hold a family together when they are moving in different directions. Things slow down a lot on this island. Max himself is a polarizing figure. Some people find him relatable, his pain and fears, and still others find him to be a wild brat. His behavior seems to go beyond that of a normal child acting out. I’m not going to prescribe the kid Ritalin, but me thinks there may be something else amiss with Max (am I alone in my diagnosis, people?). My wife and our friend Dan Hille both thought Max was an insufferable and unsympathetic brat who learned nothing by the end of the movie. I feel that Max has to have learned something, since his entire time spent on the island was him working out his troubles to gain a little more perspective. Records is a real find as a child actor, and he’s the only human onscreen for like 90 minutes. I thought he carried the movie ably enough and finely displayed the conflicting emotions of being nine years old.

Will you like Where the Wild Things Are? That’s difficult to surmise. It may depend upon whether you can identify with Max; I couldn’t for the most part. This is a much easier movie to admire than to like. There’s very little fun to be had. The movie has an implicit sense of loss and melancholy throughout. Children’s movies don?t need to be all happy endings and feel-good lessons, but then again they don’t also have to be densely Freudian. Childhood isn’t all innocence and rainbows, but it’s also not all rain clouds and emotional meltdowns and feelings of impotence. The movie presents childhood as an unyielding hell. I know other people love Where the Wild Things Are, and I respect that artistry Jonze and his crew brought to this movie, but I doubt I’ll ever watch this movie again in my life. For once, the studio execs had it right.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Nothing comes easy when dealing with acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. The most exciting scribe in Hollywood does not tend to water down his stories. Kaufman’s latest head-trip, Synecdoche, New York, is a polarizing work that follows a nontraditional narrative and works on a secondary existential level. That’s enough for several critics to hurtle words like “incomprehensible” and “confusing” as weapons intended to marginalize Synecdoche, New York as self-indulgent prattle. I guess no one wants to go to the movies and think any more. Thinking causes headaches, after all.

Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a struggling 40-year-old theater director trying to find meaning in his beleaguered life. His wife (Catherine Keener) has run off to Germany with his little daughter, Olive. He also manages to botch a potential romance with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a woman who works in the theater box-office who has an unusual crush on Caden. He’s also plagued by numerous mysterious health ailments that only seem to multiply. While his life seems to be in the pits, Caden is offered a theater grant of limitless money. He has big ambitions: he will restage every moment of his whole life to try and discover the hard truths about life and death. Caden must then cast actors to portray the various people in his life. Sammy (Tom Noonan) argues that no other actor could get closer to the truth of Caden; Sammy has been following and studying Caden for over 20 years (don’t bother asking why in a movie like this). Caden also casts his new wife, Claire (Michelle Williams), as herself. The theater production gets more and more complex, eventually requiring the “Caden” character to hire his own Caden actor. Caden hires Hazel to be his assistant and Sammy falls in love with her. Caden admonishes his actor, “That Hazel isn’t for you.” Caden then tries sleeping with “Hazel” (Emily Watson) to get even with the real Hazel. By producing a theatrical mechanism that almost seems self-sustaining, Caden wants to leave his mark on the world and potentially live forever.

I heard plenty of blather about how mind-numbing Synecdoche, New York was and how Kaufman had really done it this time when he composed a script that involves characters playing characters playing characters. People told me that it was all too much to keep track of and that it made their brains hurt. The movie is complex, yes, and demands a viewer to be actively engaged, but the movie is far from confusing and any person or critic that just throws up their hands and says, “Nope, too much to think about,” is doing their brain a disservice. The movie is relatively easy to follow in a simple linear cause-effect manner; Kaufman only really goes as deep as two iterations from reality, meaning that Caden has his initial doppelganger and then eventually that doppelganger must get his own Caden doppelganger (it’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds if you see it). Now, where the movie might be tricky to understand is how deeply contemplative and metaphorical it can manage to be, especially at its somber close. That doesn’t mean that Synecdoche, New York is impossible to understand only that it requires some extra effort to appreciate. But this movie pays off in huge ways on repeat viewings, adding texture to Kaufman’s intricately plotted big picture, unfolding into a richer statement about the nature of life and death and love.

Theater has often been an easy metaphor for life. William Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.” Kaufman movies always dwell substantially with the nature of identity, and Synecdoche, New York views identity through the artifice of theater. Caden searches for something brutal and true via the stage, but of course eventually his search for truth becomes compromised with personal interests. Characters in Caden’s life are altered and in the end when Caden steps down, as himself, reality starts getting revised. The truth is often blurred through the process of interpretation. Caden ends up swapping identities with a bit player in the story of his life, potentially finding a greater sense of personal comfort as someone else. Don’t we all play characters in our lives? Don’t we all assume different identities for different purposes? Do we act differently at a job than at home, at church than at a bar? Caden remarks that there are no extras in life and that everyone is a lead in his or her own story.

Kaufman’s movie is also funny, like really darkly funny and borderline absurdist to the point of being some strange lost work by Franz Kafka (Hazel even mentions she’s reading Kafka’s The Trial). You may be so caught up trying to render the complexities of the story to catch all of the humor. The movie exists in a surreal landscape, where the characters treat the fantastic practically as mundane. Hazel’s house is constantly on fire and yet none of the characters regard this as dangerous or out of the ordinary. It is just another factor of life. The entire subplot with Hope Davis as a hilariously incompetent therapist is deeply weird. Caden suffers some especially cruel Job-like exploits, particularly what befalls his estranged daughter, Olive. He’s obsessed with her hidden whereabouts and European upbringing, to the point that Caden cannot even remember the name of his other daughter he has with Claire. There is a deathbed scene between the two that is equally sad and twisted given the astounding behavior that Caden is forced to apologize for. There are running gags that eventually transform into metaphors, like Caden’s many different medical ailments and the unhelpful bureaucratic doctors who know nothing and refuse to divulge any info. Kaufman even has Emily Watson, an actress mistaken for Morton, play the character of “Hazel.”

This is Kaufman’s debut as a director and I think the movie ultimately benefits by giving its writer more control over the finished product. The movie is such a singular work of creativity that it helps by not having another director; there is no other artistic vision but Kaufman’s. While the film can feel slightly hermetic at times visually, Kaufman and cinematographer Frederick Elmes (The Ice Storm) pack the film with detail. Stylistically, the film is mannered but this is to make maximum impact for the vast amount of visual metaphors. Synecdoche, New York never feels as mannered as the recent Wes Anderson films, henpecked by a style that serves decoration rather than storytelling. The production design for the world-within-a-world is also alluring and imaginative, like a living, breathing dollhouse.

The assorted actors do well with their quirky, flawed characters, but clearly Hoffman is the linchpin to the film. He plays a character from middle age to old age, and at every step Hoffman manages to infuse some level of empathy for a man routinely disappointed by his own life. The failed yet lingering and hopeful romance between Caden and Hazel provides an almost sweet undercurrent for a character obsessed with death. Hoffman is convincing at every moment, even as a hobbled 80-year-old man, and gives a performance steeped in sadness but with the occasional glimmer of hope, whether it be the ambition of his theater project or the dream of holding Hazel once more. Morton is also wonderfully kindhearted and endearing as the woman that just seems to keep slipping away from Caden.

There’s no other way to say it but Synecdoche, New York is a movie that you need to see multiple times to appreciate. The plot is so grandiose in scope and ambition that one sitting does not do it justice. Kaufman has forged a strikingly peculiar movie that manages to be surreal and bleakly comic while also being poignant and humane. This is a big movie with big statements that can be easily missed, but for those willing to dig into the wealth of metaphor and reflection, Synecdoche, New York is a rewarding film experience that sticks with you. By the end of this movie, Kaufman has earned the merging of metaphor and narrative. I have already seen the movie twice and still cannot get it out of my thoughts. This isn’t the kind of movie that you feel warm affection for, like Kaufman’s blissfully profound Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This movie is less a confounding puzzle than an intellectually stimulating examination on art, the human experience, and, ultimately death. If people would rather kill brain cells watching whatever dreck Hollywood secretes every week (cough, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, cough) then that’s their prerogative. Give me a Charlie Kaufman movie and a bottle of aspirin any day.

Nate’s Grade: A

Into the Wild (2007)

Undeniably well made, I just couldn’t emotionally connect with the main character, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirch). Chris turns his back on his affluent parents and his bourgeois lifestyle and heads off into the wilderness to experience nature and find what has been missing in his life. Director/screen adaptor Sean Penn turns Chris into a Jesus-like figure that touches all those who he encounters on his cross-country tour that will meet its end in Alaska. I found the character treatment to be a tad naive and off-putting, and his lack of communication with his family, especially his younger sister who was in the same boat with him, seems especially cruel. And yet, the movie has its share of transcendent moments that bury themselves deep inside you, like when Chris befriends an 80-year-old widower (Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook) who is given new life. The closing moments, when Chris has accepted is fate, is profoundly moving and exceptionally performed, and this is coming from a guy that felt an emotional disconnect from the main character. Into the Wild is lovely to watch with top-notch cinematography, a fabulous score by Eddie Vedder, and fine acting by a diverse cast. I’m very impressed by what Penn has accomplished here. However, I admire the movie more than I can embrace it, and it all goes back to the character of Chris. He’s a mystery and both romantic and frustrating, which is kind of a fit summation for the movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Capote (2005)

This is a really solid, probing movie about human relationships and the oversized personality of famous author Truman Capote. It’s a very illuminating character piece on its titular star. We see many different facets of his character; part of the connection is because Phillip Seymour Hoffman is so flat-out brilliant in his portrayal of Capote. He’s got that unmistakable nasal voice down, but Hoffman excels at the little things of character, his command of a crowd, his inflections, his physical movements, his ability to look exhausted and pained but embarrassed and prideful at the same time. Capote shows you why everyone wanted to rub elbows with him with how he tells a story and whips up an audience. This is another in the trend of warts-and-all biopics, and you see how calculating he is (he says he never lies). Every confession he offers is manipulative and meant for self-gain, like when he tries to get a witness to talk or get the Kansas P.I. to show him the murder photos. You see how the wheels work within this character. And then Capote shifts as he delves further into the case into his unlikely relationship with Perry Smith. Capote keeps them alive by providing money for their attorneys so he can get more for his book. But there can be only one ending to provide closure to his book — their death. There are several wonderful exchanges of dialogue between Smith and Capote and their quiet, smiling lies they give each other. All we see of Smith is the polite man who draws and read poetry in his jail cell, and the bond growing between him and Capote. The film’s climax eradicates any sympathy built and we see the unpredictable, unmerciful nature of violence. Capote really hammers home the dichotomy of persona, with each side playing the other. The cast is splendid and everyone makes their small roles click, particularly Catherine Keener as novelist Harper Lee and Chris Cooper as the Kansas P.I. What’s even more surprising is that Capote was even better the second time I saw it. There’s so much to find in this excellent character piece.

Nate’s Grade: A

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

Yes it’s an uproarious sex farce, that’s a given from the ads, but this movie is also surprisingly sweet and genuinely moving. A lot of credit goes to star/co-writer Steve Carell and co-writer/director Judd Apatow, creator of some of the best, most honestly funny TV series unjustly cancelled. Apatow is a master at mining human comedy for pathos, where you get a great sense of character and really feel for those onscreen, and yet nothing feels cheap or unwarranted, all the while deriving comedy from the situations. We need more men like Apatow in the film industry. Carell can do it all whether it’s deflecting his insecurity, which we feel so bad when he comes up with outrageous things he’s overheard to make himself seem like one of the guys. The supporting cast is top-notch. They’re basically the stock roles in a sex comedy and yet they bring so much more to the table, with a true-to-life boys-will-be-boys camaraderie that you can identify with. The character relationships in The 40-Year-Old Virgin really elevate the story and the jokes and make the film something really special. It’s not merely a barrage of gross-out humor; it’s a nice story with some very tender moments. This is a movie that goes well beyond its gimmick premise, never feeling like a skit blown up into a feature film. It mixes in psychology, heartbreak, awkwardness, but also insights into loneliness and human connection. The best character-based comedy in years.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Interpreter (2005)

This is a polished political thriller that hearkens back to the day of the 1970s, where Hollywood was willing to put out smart, complicated, involving political intrigue and have faith that adults would enjoy. The premise is sound and director Sydney Pollack sure knows how to add layers of complication and mystery as well as make you doubt everyone’s involvement. A scene where all the film’s major players somehow get on the same down town bus is a masterpiece of nuanced suspense. The ending, not so much. Nicole Kidman, as the white African U.N. interpreter that hears a planned assassination one night, is credible but a bit weightless in her part. It’s not enough the pretty girls are taking the ugly girl parts (Monster,The Hours), but now they’re taking African parts? Granted, the idea of a white African allows for a new insight into the struggle for ethnic and cultural identity. Sean Penn gives a nicely rattled performance, giving his character more edge then it even deserves. The Interpreter is a geo-political thriller that trusts its audience and mostly delivers a good time.

Nate’s Grade: B

S1mone (2002)

Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit like a crack addict (my apologies to Chris Rock). His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).

Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.

Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.

There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.

When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of very funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.

As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?

It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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