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Infinite (2021)

The cast and crew of Infinite were taken by surprise when their corporate overlords decided to shuttle the big-budget action movie to its fledgling streaming service, Paramount Plus. Fortunately for me, I had just purchased a yearlong subscription plan because I wanted to watch Bar Rescue whenever I pleased, so I was one of the lucky ones to gain access to this first “Paramount Plus Original Movie” as it quietly premiered. It might be for the best after all. Infinite is a high-concept action movie by committee that feels so lacking in just about every critical department.

Evan McCauley (Wahlberg) is a man suffering from schizophrenia, or so he believes. He has strange visions in his head from past historical time periods and he instinctively knows how to forge a samurai sword. He’s interrogated by Bathurst (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who recognizes Evan as an ancient foe that he has fought through multiple past lives. Bathurst wants to kill Evan before he can remember who he is and stop Bathurst’s evil scheme. Evan is rescued by Mora (Sophie Cookson, Kingsman) who informs him that he is one of the Believers, a group of immortals who get reincarnated after each death. They’re waging a secret war against the Nihilists, lead by Bathurst, who want to obliterate the world rather than be reborn into it again. Evan must relearn his many pasts and help the Believers recover a hidden doomsday weapon his past self hid.

You’d be forgiven if you thought you had watched Infinite before, perhaps in a past life, because it’s so highly derivative. The story runs on two very well-worn tracks of science fiction storytelling, the Chosen One plot and the Secret War plot. You’ve seen variations on both in plenty of familiar sci-fi action movies, comic books, and the central pillars for countless Young Adult titles. Think about being told this statement: “Your ordinary life has been merely an elaborate cover, and you’re no ordinary person but secretly a powerful and important [fill in the blank] and there’s been a war going on in the shadows between [fill in the blanks] and you’re the key to solving this ages-old conflict.” I bet many of you can already think of similar titles that apply. There’s Harry Potter and Highlander and The Matrix and the Assassin’s Creed series and even more specific examples like Wanted, where it too features a sexy woman rescuing our lead in a sexy car and fending off bad guys while she informs him of his secret true calling. Even Ejiofor was in a strikingly similar movie just last year, 2020’s The Old Guard. It’s all so vaguely familiar at every moment that you’ll question whether it’s all built from spare parts.

Then there’s the added reincarnation angle, where people have amazing skills that they never knew they possessed (The Matrix, Wanted) and souls going from host body to host body (Cloud Atlas). In fact, David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, essentially wrote this very story in his 2014 novel, The Bone Clocks. In that novel, we learn that there are two factions of immortals who are reborn after every death, one group that preys upon the souls of mankind and another trying to defend the innocents. That book explores a lot more in the realm of identity (characters are reborn in different genders and races), time, and purpose than with Infinite, which settles for a recycled B-movie doomsday plot that even video games are getting tired of now. If past lives and reincarnation is just another disposable gimmick for super powered beings duking it out over a cataclysmic MacGuffin, then why bother with the existential possibility of the premise?

For a movie that takes so much time to spit out clunky exposition, Infinite is fairly incoherent and, occasionally, self-defeating. When you’re entering any new territory, there’s going to be a learning curve. Imagine how Neo learned about his misconception of reality, the war and history with the machines, and his capabilities he was opening himself up to. Exposition is best done in portions equally spaced out and tied to action, so our characters can learn through doing and failing and then succeeding. With the gimmick of past lives, it could open up such intrigue and possibility about human potential as well as the difficulty of these immortals finding one another across the globe for centuries, restarting with every rebirth (a fact explored in The Bone Clocks). It also would lend itself to characters being reckless with action movie stunts because, at worst, they die and take a twenty-year or so timeout before getting back into the action. Nothing of real interest happens with the past lives gimmick. The movie treats it as a shortcut to give its characters superpowers, and by tapping into those memories, now they have all these crazy super abilities that no mortal could accomplish in merely a single lifetime (sorry Bruce Lee). Imagine if in The Matrix, instead of Neo learning and training that they just uploaded everything into a Chosen One 3.0 security patch they downloaded (yes, he downloads skills, but we see the process demonstrated as visual progression). It’s boring to watch. The movie even could have explored more about these past lives, experiences, and lessons learned rather than in kaleidoscopic flashbacks. For the entire premise, Infinite seems so strangely limited in scope.

Then there’s the plot device that destroys the scheme of the villains. The Nihilists are tired of the eternity of being reborn and stuck with the accumulation of their memories. Bathurst says when he begins anew in the womb, he is a fully cogent adult brain and it’s nine months of torture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the only interesting component in the entire movie that relates to the reincarnation premise. The Nihilists want to destroy all life so then they can never be reborn again, though this still seems theoretical. They have also developed a special device that will store a person’s consciousness onto a computer hard drive or microchip, supposedly stopping that consciousness from being reintegrated into a new host body. If this is the case, why isn’t Bathurst and his Nihilist fellows taking advantage of this? They’ve already developed a solution that works and doesn’t involve the destruction of all life on the planet. I don’t even know why Infinite introduces this absurd plot mechanic considering the damage it does. I guess it was an attempt to raise the stakes with immortals where death isn’t permanent, but for the purposes of the movie, a death means they are taken out of this present fight for the fate of the world. The stakes are still there. The implications are also nebulous, as they talk about souls as currency but can human souls be downloaded onto a portable technological deice? This entire plot device is silly in conception and even worse in execution, with big swirly bullets that also glow as they zip along.

Wahlberg (Spenser Confidential) is on autopilot for the entire movie. He’s laconic and nonplussed and without any hint of humor or fun to be had. His under-performance is compensated by the overacting of Ejiofor (Doctor Strange) in a disastrous dynamic that reminded me of the 2011 Oscar hosting performance by the tandem of James Franco (under performing) and Anne Hathaway (over performing). At least Ejiofor is holding my attention with his high energy level and a maniacal glee that reminded me of James Bond villains. The problem is that nobody else is delivering this same arch level of camp. Everyone else in the cast is trying to play things so icy cool and nonchalant, and it just makes all the characters feel like boring robots.

And yet all of this could be forgiven if Infinite had some memorable and exceptionally exciting or well-developed set pieces to entertain. Much can be excused or mitigated if an action movie delivers upon its action. Alas, Infinite cannot escape the orbital decay of its lack of imagination. The derivative nature extends to the action, which consists of a series of rote chases and gunfights. There is one sequence that had promise for the scale of its destruction, a car chase through the different floors and levels of a police building. It’s viscerally entertaining to watch all of the many things gets smashed while raising the question just how fragile concrete walls are constructed to be in downtown metropolitan architecture. This is also the moment that Evan is brought into the new world, which means it’s all downhill from here. Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) is an action genre veteran and can be counted on for some degree of style to jazz up the proceedings, but he can only do so much with sequences lacking points of interest and tension. Infinite would play better as campy nonsense, but it won’t acknowledge this identity.

Given how derivative everything appears, it’s surprising Infinite is based on an original work, the self-published 2009 novel The Reincartionist Papers by D. Eric Maikranz. The author offered his readers ten percent of his advance for whoever helped get him to sell the film rights to Hollywood (true to his word, Maikranz paid out in 2019). Already, this is more entertaining to me than anything provided in the 106 plodding and incoherent minutes of Infinite as a movie. The high-concept premise is reduced to a lazy shortcut for superpowers for a group of know-it-alls trying to act cool and strut while delivering exposition by the truckload. The action is stifled, the characters are dull, and the world feels so sprawling but without needed definition. This could have been any combination of Chosen One and Secret War story elements. What about Harry Potter battling the bullet-curving killers from Wanted? Or what about Neo facing off against the ancient society of werewolves and vampires in sleek lather catsuits? Or an immortal special ops crew that must track down other immortals before they can do lasting harm? This mix-and-match formula belies how truly interchangeable the story elements are with Infinite. It closes on voice over by Wahlberg that genuinely made me guffaw. Looking to the future, he says, literally, “Well the possibilities are… infinite.” For this hopeful film franchise, I strongly doubt that.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Locked Down (2021)

I’m already starting to dread the inevitable onslaught of movies and fictional narratives tackling the COVID crisis, and I don’t know if that’s ever going to be truly inviting for me. After the near year of pandemic fatigue, I can’t see myself wanting to relive the experience through my media. Naturally, this is partially because of how fresh everything is. Years down the road I may hold a different opinion and find COVID-19 stories more engaging. I’m sure there will be worthy ones to explore with the best storytellers that movies and television can afford. Right now, I’m not looking forward to the rom-coms about couples being forced together, or forced apart, and I’m not looking forward to the zombie movies that seem all too obvious in commentary. It is with this context that I watched the new 2021 movie Locked Down with wary curiosity. It was filmed during the quarantine in London over 18 days. It stars big actors, has a director and writer who have worked on highly esteemed projects, and it’s the first big project to feature the pandemic while we’re still in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. It has temporary notoriety but is it any good?

Linda (Anne Hathaway) and her husband Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are stuck at home like everyone else in London thanks to COVID-19. He’s struggling for work and she’s struggling with the mental weight of her job and the impending knowledge her friends and co-workers will soon be laid off by Linda herself. The couple is also heading for a divorce, though they’re keeping that quiet from concerned family members checking in. Paxton’s sense of self is falling apart, and the rebellious biker who got into one unfortunate bar fight long ago seems to be fading. Now he doesn’t know what he’ll be and he’s forced to sell his prized motorcycle. Linda gets the idea to pull off a jewelry heist that she and Paxton have an unique opportunity for. Could it be the thing that makes them feel excited again? Could it bring them back together?

Locked Down has some significant tonal shifts but more so in ambition than execution, because at its core its really a talky, mumblecore relationship drama, but one that I found a little too lax and shapeless and ponderous to jibe with. Screenwriter Steven Knight can be a tremendous writer. He’s written Eastern Promises, Locke, Dirty Pretty Things, and created Peaky Blinders. He knows plot, he knows character, he knows structure. This, though, doesn’t feel so much like it was a script needing to be told as it was an experiment in could they make a movie about the pandemic and film it during the pandemic. The heist elements are rather haphazard and ultimately mean little to the overall storyline, merely serving as an instrument to reconcile our couple and force them to rely upon one another for a shared triumph (this shouldn’t be a spoiler). I think your overall view of Locked Down will depend upon your opinion of how the heist elements are handled. If it seemed like the start of something more exciting, more engaging, then you’ll be disappointed. If you didn’t care about the particulars of a heist during COVID times, and you didn’t want a more purely genre plot device to take over from the character-driven relationship drama,then you might be more charitable. For me, I love heist movies and the formula is ready-made for payoffs and entertainment. However, I also enjoy character-driven relationship dramas but I just wasn’t connecting with this one.

The characters of Paxton and Linda felt too overly written for me and lacking the more intriguing nuances that I find in the best of observational mumblecore cinema. To be fair, being overly written is not an indictment in itself. Quentin Tarantino characters are overly written and we love them. Viewers love big characters that demand your attention and equipped with monologues that we wish we could recite when life’s challenges afforded us the opportunity to wax poetic. The central agreement we have with characters, whether they’re realistically drawn or idiosyncratic or cartoonish, is that they need to at least be interesting. You need to want to spend time with the characters.

With Locked Down, I was getting as restless as the onscreen couple. I didn’t find them interesting because the same character notes were being hit over and over with little variation. The monologues, while having moments of life and personality, didn’t provide me greater insight at minute 80 than they did at minute 40. The experience felt like watching actors workshop characters and looking for extra meanings that seemed to be elusive. Listening to these characters talk more should make them more interesting, make them more personable, and make them more complex, right? While they uncork some well written asides, they’re each just rubbing the same nub of an identity crisis. The pacing also made the repetitive portions feel even longer. The metaphor of what Paxton’s motorcycle represents is so overblown and simplified. After spending so much time listening to these two bicker and argue in the same rooms, I was hoping for the heist as a needed escape, something that could finally serve to motivate the characters out of their pity parties and force them into a new conflict. I needed something, anything more to hold my waning attention. Alas, I finished Locked Down in the same patient, pursed-lip stupor as it began. These characters did not deserve this much extra breathing room.

I like Hathaway (Colossal) and Ejiofar (12 Years a Slave). Watching them leap into what is essentially a two-hander filmed play sounds like a good bet for entertainment, especially with a writer with the credentials of Knight (we’ll ignore the outlandishly bonkers 2019 Serenity). Hathaway and Ejiofor are good together too. They have a spark that works, her anxiousness melding well with his dismissive pessimism. Again, the characters they’re portraying aren’t poorly written. There just isn’t enough polished material for them. That’s why each feels like they’re grasping to discover the character like it’s being formed in the moment. The entire movie feels like an overextended improv workshop everyone involved is developing in the moment. Good mumblecore movies can make you feel like a fly-on-the-wall with real people, but these characters are so overly written that an improv feeling doesn’t so much replicate the recognizable rhythms of life as it does an ungainly acting class in search of more direction and discretion. There are some other celebrity appearances in the form of Zoom cameos, and that’s something I’m not looking forward to with the incoming COVID movies, the ugly selfie aesthetic prevalence.

Locked Down feels more like an experiment to see if the filmmakers could make a movie under such unique and trying circumstances.  It feels more like an acting exercise in need of more development and a little more vitality. There are fleeting moments that seem to tap into a universal despair and uncertainty many of us have wrestled with during our COVID isolation, but then the movie will just as likely throw in a hidden patch of poppies in a garden and a joke about nobody seeming to recognize the name Edgar Allen Poe. I watched Locked Down over the course of two nights, and mt girlfriend and I literally had forgotten we watched the first hour until coming across it again and going, “Oh yeah, we need to finish that after all.” I feel like that sums up the movie well. Within a day, I had already forgotten it, and that was before I even finished the full movie. They made a movie during COVID. Now make better ones in the future.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Old Guard (2020)

What do you do with an action movie where the action is actually the least interesting part? The new Netflix film, The Old Guard, is based on a comic book series by Greg Rucka (Whiteout) about a mercenary squad staffed with immortals through the ages. Lead by Charlie Theron, whose character Andy traces back to at least the Medieval period, leads the team and sees promise in their newest recruit, Nile (Kiki Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk), a U.S. soldier who is shocked to discover she can come back to life. It’s through this new recruit that we get an introduction to the hidden world of immortals and their hidden history, and it’s these flashbacks that I found the most entertaining aspect of the entire two-hour movie. Watching Theron swing a Viking battle axe is a lot more fun than watching her stalk corridors with a gun. There’s also some great little moments that show an attention to developing the characters and their psychology. Andy has a centuries-old love that was trapped in a suit of armor and thrown into the sea. Besides the fact that drowning is horrifying, imagine dying, then reviving, and then drowning again and again, every few minutes, for an eternity. Wow that is a new level of horrifying. Each of the characters has an interesting history and some degree of dimension, and it’s these soul-searching conversations that I enjoyed the most as they discuss the costs of living forever. However, it’s not quite forever, because immortal heroes have an obvious problem about holding stakes, so at some point the immortals will lose their healing ability, though they don’t know when. It’s something, but it feels more arbitrary, and the super smarmy pharma CEO villain (Harry Melling) is a non-starter as a threat. The action sequences almost feel like a chore, like the filmmakers are checking boxes instead of using them to advance the plot in meaningful and exciting ways. The action isn’t bad but just mundane, lacking memorable set pieces or engaging complications. Even their use of taking punishment is under-utilized in the design. Simply put, a movie with this kind of premise and with Theron as your lead should be more exciting. I loved Mad Max: Fury Road. I loved watching Theron lay waste to goons and gangsters in 2017’s Atomic Blonde, a movie built around her physical capabilities and smartly constructed action set pieces. However, the action we get with The Old Guard lacks the same transformative ability and fight choreography. It’s just thoroughly fine, at best, and I kept wondering if they were saving themselves for a big finish. Sorry to disappoint, it’s just more office hallways with limited gunplay. The energy level is lacking and the music choice throughout the film affects this as well, with the same kind of downer tracks playing again and again. I would rather have spent these two hours listening to the immortal stories around a campfire.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Lion King (2019)

Ever since the run-up of Disney’s live-action remakes, I’ve been predicting what would happen with the newer films, and it all seems to be coming true. The problem with Disney remaking hit animated movies from the 80s and 90s is that there hasn’t been enough distance. The immediate audience is going to demand their nostalgia exactly as they remember it, and they will not be happy with anything less. It’s not like a scenario where the original movies could be improved upon, like 2016’s beautifully tender Pete’s Dragon. What these live-action remakes offer is an uglier, inferior version of an animated classic. There’s no reason for most of them to exist. They won’t be different; they won’t be interesting. It’s a sludgy, auto-tuned cash grab that shows no end in sight. Before this year, I did not expect Tim Burton’s Dumbo to be the best of the three 2019 Disney live-action remakes, but here we are. I guess the concept of Disney eating its own tail with these live-action remakes is symbolic of the studio “circle of life,” and the perfect segue way to The Lion King, a remake missing the wonder and magic of the 1994 original.

King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones again) rules over an African prairie and preparing his young son Simba (JD Mcrary and Donald Glover as an adult) for his eventual rule. Mufasa’s scornful brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) conspires to have Mufasa killed and Simba banished. Blaming himself for his father’s death, Simba runs away and finds kinship with a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner) and a warthog named Pumba (Seth Rogen). They preach a carefree life of “no worries.” This new life is interrupted when Nala (Beyoncé Knowles), Simba’s childhood friend, returns seeking help to remove Scar from the throne. Simba must confront his fate and treacherous uncle and bring balance back to his ailing homeland.

The biggest appeal of director Jon Favreau’s Lion King remake is the stunning special effects. It’s been ten years since James Cameron brought to life a photo realistic alien world that dazzled audiences, and the advances have only made the professional fakery more startling. This movie was completely “filmed” inside a computer. Every single shot, every blade of grass, every pebble, every photo realistic morsel onscreen is the result of digital wizards. In 2016’s The Jungle Book, there were still some physical elements filmed, chief among them the human boy, but now it’s all done away. The remake looks like an HD nature documentary. One could question the use of the technology, $250 million to recreate what ordinary cameras on location could achieve, but I’ll choose to congratulate Disney and Favreau on the remarkable technical achievement. The Jungle Book was a big leap forward and The Lion King is that next step. However, the special effects are ultimately the only selling point. Come see how real it all looks, kids. The rest of the remake left me feeling unmoved and occasionally perplexed.

This is an almost exact shot-for-shot recreation of the original movie. It made me think of Gus van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake and why anyone would go to this much trouble to make a copy. You’ll feel a tingle of recognition with different shots and scenes and then that feeling will transition to disappointment and lastly resignation. It’s the same, just not as good.

So what exactly is different with the live-action Lion King of 2019? Very very little. Despite totaling a half hour more movie, it really only has one added incidental Beyoncé song, a small character beat where Timon and Pumba explain their philosophy on more fatalistic terms, an explanation how Nala left the pride lands, and more poop and fart jokes. The filmmakers have added realism in appearance but also added more scatological humor, which seems like an odd combination. There is a literal plot point attached to giraffe poop. Instead of a whispery feather, petal, whatever finding its way to the baboon Rafiki to let him know Simba is still alive, now we watch the life of a tuft of fur as it travels from creature to creature, at one point being consumed on a leaf by a giraffe. The next image is a ball of poop being rolled by a beetle with our tell-tale tuft of lion fur. I guess it’s more emblematic of the whole “circle of life” theme, but I didn’t think Disney was going to literalize the poop aspect. The new Beyoncé song is fairly bland and unmemorable. That’s it, dear reader. Lion King 2019 is 95 percent identical to Lion King 1994 in plot, and yet the original writers do not earn a screenwriting credit thanks to arcane animation writing guild rules, and that is madness. It’s their story, it’s their characters, and it’s almost entirely their dialogue, and to not have their names rightfully credited where they belong is wrong.

There are some definite drawbacks to that photo realism as well. When lions and other animals are photo realistic, they have facial structures that don’t exactly emote, so it looks like all the animals often just have their jaws wired shut. You’ll listen to the vocal actors go through a range of emotions and watch these plain, unmoved faces that you start to wonder if maybe all of the dialogue should have just been voice over. As soon as I saw Mufasa speaking, I was immediately shaken by the image and longed for the expression of the animation. I never got over it and it made me feel removed from the film, even more so. This is the trade off of realism; animals don’t actually speak, you know. Another trade off is that the film becomes much more intense especially for younger kids. I would not recommend parents take the littlelest ones to this movie because now, instead of watching a traditionally animated band of characters brawl, you’re watching realistic lions and hyenas scrape, claw, and hurl one another to their deaths. If kids were traumatized by parts of the original movie, I can only imagine the nightmares that await. Strangely, the photo realism also mitigates the film’s sense of scope and impact. The stampede sequence feels far less dangerous because the camera doesn’t pull back that far, showing a massive herd from a distance. Subsequently the sequence loses some of its urgency. Then there’s also simply identifying who may be who when those fights come, because you’re trying to pick out realistic animals instead of distinct creatures with specific character designs.

The aspects you enjoyed with the 1994 Lion King will still be enjoyable, even if they suffer in direct comparison. Hans Zimmer’s score is still magnificent. The songs are still catchy, though some of the arrangements are a bit under-cooked, like the speak-sung “Be Prepared.” The song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” occurs absurdly early in the Simbla/Nala reunion and takes place in the sunny afternoon. So much for “tonight” (the famous Nala “bedroom eyes” moment is also quite diminished from a real lion’s face). The jokes are still funny because they were funny the first time. The things that worked the first time will still work to some degree, even if the presentation leaves something to desire. Several of the vocal artists just sound flat, especially Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) who comes across so blasé. I missed the casual menace of Jeremy Irons. The best vocal performances belong to Eichner (Difficult People) and Rogen (Long Shot), maybe because they’re already broad personalities, or maybe because they felt the most comfortable to occasionally steer away from the original script, finding small room to roam. Florence Kasumba (Black Panther) also delivers a snarling and effective performance as one of the hyena leaders, Shenzi. They’re the only vocal performances that fare well in competition.

I need to defend the art of animated films. There is nothing wrong with animated films simply because they are animated. A live-action version is not better simply because it’s more “real.” I hear this same argument when it comes to making a live-action anime. Animation is a wonderful medium and has a magic all its own that often live-action cannot emulate. The animated Lion King is beautiful with bold colors, strong visual compositions, and emotive characters with specific designs. The live-action Lion King is missing much of that, at least when it’s not recreating exact shots from its predecessor. I don’t know who this movie is going to appeal to. Parents will be better off just playing the original for their children at home. Die-hard fans of The Lion King might enjoy seeing their favorite story told with plenty of cutting-edge special effects magic. I would have been happier had the filmmakers attempted something like Julie Taymor’s transformative and ground-breaking Broadway show. I would have been happier had they just recorded the Broadway show. The new Lion King is a lesser version of the 1994 movie, plain and simple, and if that’s enough for you, then have at it. For me, these Disney live-action remakes are making me feel as dead in the eyes as a photo realistic lion.

Nate’s Grade: C

Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

It’s been a couple of hours after watching Sherlock Gnomes and I still have alcohol working through my bloodstream (a byproduct of having to watch Sherlock Gnomes) and so I thought why not begin the review writing process and see where this goes. A little pretext first: I had no intention of watching this movie. Every time its trailer came before a movie I was watching, I cringed harder than I ever have. I cannot remember another movie trailer that I would describe as soul-killing as this one, with its emphasis on butt humor and an extended joke about a thong-wearing gnome farting in the mud. To watch this trailer was to look into the empty abyss and have it look back into you. It was this repulsed reaction that entertained my friend Ben Bailey so much that he insisted that we watch Sherlock Gnomes one fateful evening (he paid for my ticket and my suffering). I loaded up at the theater’s bar and the bartender made the easiest upsell he ever did in his life, and I took my tall adult beverage, sat in the theater, and awaited the end, like a man heading toward execution. Then a funny thing happened and Sherlock Gnomes was not the film advertised in its abysmal, life-questioning trailer. It’s still not great, though.

Following the events from the 2011 original, Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden gnomes have relocated to a new home in London. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) are entrusted with the gnome-specific responsibilities of the garden by gnome leadership. I guess it’s about making the place look nice. Anyway, Sherlock Gnomes (voiced by Johnny Depp) and his trusty sidekick Watson (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) are looking into the disappearance of gnomes all over. One unfortunate day, while Gnomeo and Juliet are away from their garden, the rest of the gnomes have been kidnapped. Sherlock Gnomes and the others vow to find them, believing the culprit to be Sherlock’s longtime nemesis, Moriarty (voiced by Jamie Demetriou).

Remarkably, a solid 80 percent of the trailer for Sherlock Gnomes is not in the finished film. The fart Jacuzzi? Gone. The “no ship Sherlock” bit? Gone? The thong-wearing gnome twerking? Gone. This fascinates me. We’ve long been plagued with trailers that ultimately have moments not in the final product, but I’ve never seen a movie, let alone an animated feature, where the clear majority of its trailer does not exist. Animated films take many years in development and are generally costly. If a live-action film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost those days of work. If an animated film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost months if possible years of toil. How does this happen? Was the trailer an intentional ruse meant to advertise a far more juvenile, base, and dispiriting movie? The trailer features several jokes or references that, I assumed, were never intended for the final product because these scenes involve the other gnomes who were kidnapped. That means they were animated and either radically changed the story or these jokes were cynically constructed to produce a misleading trailer to appeal to children with farts. This truly fascinates me and befuddles me, a worthy mystery for Sherlock Gnomes (UPDATE: theory confirmed!).

The actual Sherlock Gnomes film I sat through wasn’t actively painful but it wasn’t particularly engaging or rewarding either, a mediocre children’s movie that will vanish from memory upon the ride home. There were a handful of moments where I rolled my eyes but no joke, no pun, even approached the pain of that trailer. On the flip side, there was perhaps two jokes that drew a mild chuckle and that was it. For the majority of the 86-minute running time, I just sat and took it all in, never really engaging. It was boring yet inoffensive, colorful yet unimaginative, and derivative yet silly enough to be a trifle. The look of the animation as a bit more polished than I was anticipating. The use of lighting and scale is well balanced. The voice acting was acceptable from the star-studded cast and I didn’t feel any great sadness for anyone’s involvement. The lessons and plot twists will be predictable enough for someone over the age of eight, but hey, everybody needs to learn some time. The use of the Elton John song catalogue (he is a primary producer) is the most forced element in the film, elbowing in one song or another, including “original songs” that you won’t even remember. Much like the rest, John’s contributions are mediocre and easily forgotten.

I kept wondering about the strange world building and its implications. This is a clear application of Pixar’s oft-used formula of the secret-life-of, this time with garden gnomes. Except there’s a segment where Sherlock and Juliet go to a club populated with dolls, stuffed animals, and toys of all sorts. So it’s not just garden gnomes that are secretly alive, it’s also children’s toys. Which means this is essentially the same universe as Toy Story. For whatever reason, and maybe it’s a misplaced sense of novelty, we stick with the gnomes. These creatures worry about being smashed, though can they be put back together much like Humpty Dumpty (except he couldn’t be put back together even with the help of all the king’s men and horses, no never mind this references. Also, what good are horses going to do putting together the shattered pieces of an egg-man? Do horses have thumbs to pick up the broken pieces? I feel like this entire aside might be attributable to the alcohol still in my system). If breaking is their biggest fear, why do these gnomes take such unnecessary risks with their safety and well-being? When Gnomeo is tossing Juliet in the air atop a ladder, I worried for her little gnome life. This cavalier attitude prevails amidst the larger gnome community, and my only conclusion is that these creatures are either thrill-seeking junkies or masochists. Then I began thinking of the life of other garden gnomes. I assume most gnome-owners don’t exactly have an entire menagerie of these things, and so the majority of gnome existence must seem awfully isolated and lonely. Their communities must be few and far between. Then I started thinking about transforming past Best Picture-winners into gnome format, and let’s just say that 12 Years a Garden Gnome was not a good idea for anyone.

This is a sequel and combined spin-off for the animated gnomes world, so the holdover characters often feel superfluous. This is clearly more of a Sherlock vehicle and there are even references to the Hound of Baskervilles and The Final Problem, among others. This is trying to establish a Sherlock Gnomes franchise first and foremost. The Gnomeo and Juliet subplot feels rushed and foolishly resolved. Now tasked with running the garden, Juliet feels overwhelmed with pressure and Gnomeo feels like he isn’t getting attention. Rather than support her, or see things from her perspective, he pouts and accuses her of taking him for granted. To conclude this storyline, she actually apologizes, and I shouted, “Apologize for what?” A better rendition of this storyline is realized with Sherlock Gnomes repeatedly being indifferent to Watson’s contributions. When the main theme, character arcs, and plot points involve new characters, you might as well get rid of the holdovers and go all-in on Sherlock Gnomes. Was there a picky audience that would have said, “I will only accept another gnome-related children’s film if it has the tiniest connection to the last gnome-related children’s film”? Also, there’s another garden gnome children’s film on the horizon, Gnome Alone, so stay tuned, gnome aficionados.

The victory is that Sherlock Gnomes is not the seventh-seal-breaking apocalyptic event that its reprehensible, punishing, life-sapping trailer suggested. Hooray for you, Sherlock Gnomes filmmakers. The finished product is still a mostly middling time-waster that feels like a Gnomes relaunch. I fully admit this movie was never intended for someone my age, but I attempted to see its merits for its intended audience. If you have young kids, this is a reasonable 86-minute time waster while you, presumably their parent, can do something better with that time. Go back to that novel you keep pushing off. Have some alone time with yourself or another person. Or simply close your eyes and enjoy the silence. Whatever you do, Sherlock Gnomes is an adequate comic adventure that will afford you time to think.

Nate’s Grade: C

Side note: While looking up images, I came across an entirely gallery of Sherlock Gnomes poster parodies for movies like I, Tonya, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Darkest Hour, The Disaster Artist, The Post, and even Call Me By Your Name and  All the Money in the World. Even All the Money in the World but in gnome form! This is inane!

UPDATE: Thanks to the amazing connectivity of the Internet, someone closely involved with the Sherlock Gnomes production contacted me to inform me that my theory about the trailer discrepancy was correct. Paramount’s marketing team wrote the trailer and insisted the production spend valuable time animating it. The more juvenile jokes were designed, as this source indicated, to put as many butts in the seats opening weekend, and that the marketing department said they knew best, and that was that. The production spent time creating scenes for a trailer they had no intention of ever being in the finished film with scenes that badly characterized what kind of movie it would be. This drove the production team crazy. You can blame Paramount’s marketing department for the soul-killing trailer. Thanks, Sherlock Gnomes source, for reaching out and clearing up that mystery.

Doctor Strange (2016)

doctor-strange-comic-con-posterAfter eight years and over a dozen movies, the unstoppable box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems like it could successfully sell the public on any concept, no matter how undeniably bizarre. This is the same studio that made us weep over the death of a tree that said three words. At this point, I think I can argue that the MCU has a higher film-to-film consistent quality of excellence than Pixar, the other most trusted brand in cinema (Pixar’s creative/emotional highs are certainly higher but they’ve had their share of misses). Marvel has earned the benefit of the doubt. The common complaint is that their movies feel too formulaic and insubstantial. I would definitely argue against the latter and the former needs no real defense. Marvel has built an empire on a system that works because it delivers crowd-pleasing and character-oriented blockbusters that are packed with payoffs for fans and newcomers. The alternative, chiefly the dour bombast of the fledgling DC film universe, isn’t much more appealing, but then again I have been labeled a “Marvel shill” by those infuriated from my inconceivable pan of the very conceivably terrible Suicide Squad, so take my word with some skepticism. For any other brand, Doctor Strange could be too weird. With the MCU, it’s another comforting sign they really know what they’re doing.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant New York neurosurgeon who loses full control over his hands after a horrible car accident. He travels to Nepal to seek out holistic remedies to aid his recovery and instead finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic. She takes a liking to Strange and invites him into their temple to train as a pupil of powerful sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong). Former sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has gone rogue and believes the only way to survive the oncoming cosmic giant Dormammu is to join him. Doctor Strange must summon all the skills of multiple dimensions in order to save the day.

doctor-strange-movie-tilda-swinton-benedict-cumberbatchDoctor Strange is at its core an origin tale and one that feels somewhat familiar at least for its first half. It’s likely not an accident that Stephen Strange bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvel’s other egotistical, arrogant charmer, Mr. Tony Stark. He’s a man who has to be humbled and learn the error of his ways and his outsized hubris, which makes for an effective character arc to structure an introductory movie around. It also makes fine work of Cumberbatch’s otherworldly sense of haughty superiority (I can’t wait to watch future Strange and Stark banter). The first half is essentially Training Montage: The Movie. Strange learns about the ancient mystic arts and, more importantly, super powers. The movie doesn’t follow Thor’s lead and argue that magic is another form of science. It declares magic as its own thing. Strange learns how to open portals, how to shift reality, how to astral project, and even how to stop time. Each new power is given proper attention and the learning curve adjusts as needed, allowing an audience to process the various rules and dramatic stakes. It’s a structurally smart assembly of mini-goals to keep an audience secure in what otherwise could be overwhelming for its New Age mumbo jumbo.

After the origin heavy lifting is taken care of that’s when Doctor Strange becomes everything I could hope for, namely a highly imaginative action movie with a breakneck pace and a boundless sense of imagination. This movie feels kinetically alive and unpredictable in ways that few Marvel movies even approach. Once Strange and Kaecilius meet at the halfway mark it becomes a gallop to the finish line with one highly entertaining action set piece after another, and even better they are wildly different. We don’t have battles about running and firing weapons or just punching bad guys extra hard; instead, it’s reality itself that bends to the will of the fighters. Characters walk on walls, shift the state of architecture, create teleportation portals to hop in and out of, shift the entire gravity of the world to force people away from said portals, and turn New York City into a kaleidoscopic playground. There’s an extended chase scene that literally feels like a series of M. C. Escher paintings come to starling life. The sequence is eye-popping in the best way and, shocking enough, it’s not even the climax of the movie. There are so many fun possibilities for crazy action sequences. There are other sequences that stand out, such as an out-of-body fight between two warring astral projection foes. The real climax of the movie is something I’ve never seen before, a battle that takes place as time resets. The smoldering ruins of a cataclysm are put together brick-by-brick and characters dodge the debris as it rapidly reforms. It’s visually thrilling to watch but it’s also a clever sequence because there are continuous opportunities for danger and in many ways that your brain cannot naturally suspect, like when a wall reforms and traps someone within. Whatever your feeling on the general MCU and its blockbuster formula calibrations, Doctor Strange is a great leap into something different, momentously exhilarating, and inventive.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) was an intriguing choice considering his background in supernatural horror, but, as should be obvious, the MCU overlords score again with their foresight and risk-taking. Derrickson’s visual influences hew much closer to Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski Siblings than the greatest hits of the MCU, and that’s exactly what this world needed to stand out on its own. I cannot overstate just how enjoyable the last hour of the movie can be, though this isn’t meant as a backhanded slight against that first half. The action-packed hour only works because of the setup from before and laying a careful foundation for the characters, their dynamics, and the rules of this trippy universe that bends conventional physics. All the careful world-building and training montages set up the sprint through a fireworks factory of fun, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time, eagerly anticipating the next detour into crazy.

I’m even going to impart you, dear reader, with some advice I haven’t given since 2013: if possible, see this movie in 3D. The hypnotic visuals and elusively shifting reality demand to be seen with the added help of the third dimension. The movie will still obviously work in a non-3D format but why deny yourself the full impact of these incredible visual experiences? New York City contorting is worth the extra few bucks alone.

doctor-strange-spell-cumberbatchThe acting is another highlight for such an enjoyable movie. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) easily makes for a terrific lead actor, someone who can bring a sense of gravitas or dry sarcasm when called upon. His sense of comedy is underrated and this Sorcery Supreme gets his fair share of punctuating the weird and wild with a perfectly delivered joke. A bit with a sentient cape allows for great physical comedy. His American accent is also much improved from earlier far spottier efforts in 2013’s August: Osage County and 2015’s Black Mass, which featured perhaps the worst “Baustun” accent in recent memory. Cumberbatch is the charming smartass, the know-it-all who realizes how much he still has yet to learn, and his final showdown with the Big Bad Evil sheds large-scale disaster for something much more personal (no giant portal in the sky or faceless army of monsters/aliens, hooray!). His character arc of learning that it’s not about himself culminates in a brilliantly conceived sequence that satisfies. The other standout is Swinton (Snowpiercer) who once again melds with her character, who happens to be a mysterious Celtic mystic who may not even be human. The early half is instantly elevated when Swinton is on screen. She presents a matter-of-fact sense of the preposterous that is downright serene. It’s also a role that is more than just a requisite mentor as The Ancient One has some secrets that will be revealed. I was also genuinely pleased with how much screen time Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Rogue One) gets for his villain, who has a wicked deadpan. I pity Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) who plays the underwritten love interest role we’ve seen similar to Natalie Portman prior performances. She at least gets a few good scenes before being forgotten.

With each additional entry into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fan in me gets to reexamine and realign the pecking order of quality. In my own subjective rankings I would say that Doctor Strange is just below the top tier of the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, Iron Man) and on par with Winter Soldier. This is a highly enjoyable and highly imaginative action movie teeming with eye-popping visuals. Many of the visual set pieces are stunning and demand to be witnessed on the largest screen possible. The movie never loses its sense of fun and wonder while still respecting the dramatic stakes of the cataclysmic events, and when it goes big it makes it matter. I have no previous attachment to this character and Doctor Strange was just about everything I wanted the film to be and then some. It’s another sign that Marvel can take any property and find the formula to make it a satisfying smash. I enjoyed Doctor Strange enough that I want to see it again, and this time even bigger to better soak up the strange.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Triple 9 (2016)

triple_9-620x918-600x888-1Sometimes the most upsetting movies are the ones that have a glimmer of promise and then never take advantage of that promise, instead falling upon staid genre clichés and predictable plotting that makes you wonder how a good idea was smashed into a boring and formulaic product. Triple 9 falls into this category of film disappointment. It has a great premise: a group of corrupt cops (Chiwetel Ejiofer, Anthony Mackie) are in debt to an Israeli mob matriarch (Kate Winslet) and owe her one last score, and their solution to ensure they can get away with their crime is to arrange for a new cop on the beat (Casey Affleck) to be killed, thus providing a major distraction. The problem here is that none of these characters are at all interesting. They all have conflicts and the movie does a fine job of providing each one with some kind of pressure and general motivation, but outside of the forces against them, you can summarize them in a scant few words apiece (drug addict, war vet, single dad, etc.). The plot events also just seem to coast around until a pile-up of climaxes, all of which lack satisfying closure as the body count mounts. It’s hard to care, and the only character that seems worth following is Affleck’s newcomer sniffing out the dangers that are closing in on him. Woody Harrelson feels like he’s making a special guest appearance from a separate movie from Oren Moverman as a drug-addled and angry detective. Too often the characters feel out of orbit from one another, the storylines rarely coalescing. It feels like everyone was given the same acting note of being dour and harried. Winslet’s hammy turn as an Israeli mob boss allows her to reuse her accent from Steve Jobs. Director John Hillcoat (Lawless) provides a certain charge with how he stages the robbery sequences but it’s not enough. Triple 9 is a movie that wastes a great cast, a fine premise, and a talented director. It’s not terrible by most accounts but it’s resoundingly mediocre, and sometimes that can be even worse than bad.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Martian (2015)

MV5BMTc2MTQ3MDA1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODA3OTI4NjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Based upon Andy Weir’s nuts-and-bolts scientific “what if” tale, The Martian is the movie equivalent of Apollo 13 crossed with Cast Away. Just far less personable volleyballs. But there are potatoes. Space potatoes.

After a powerful storm on Mars forces NASA’s crew to flee, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead and left behind. He wakes up hours later, shrapnel in his gut, and retreats back to the Mars mission base. He has to survive close to two years before he has any hope of being rescued on the hostile world. Before that, he has to establish some kind of communication with NASA, and even before that he has to somehow grow food in the arid Martian soil. Back at home, NASA is debating their limited options to bring back Watney and whether or not they should tell his crewmates that he survived.

In conversations with my friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey, he said that The Martian was the opposite of Gravity, a film he subsequently loathed, because it was smart people making smart decisions. There is an inherent enjoyment watching intelligent people tackle and persevere over daunting challenges, and this sets up The Martian for lots of payoffs and satisfaction. We see both sides of the problem and it provides even more opportunities for challenges and payoffs. Naturally the stuff on Mars is more compelling because of its extreme dangers and isolation, but the Earth scenes are also enjoyable as the NASA determines the soonest they might reach their lost astronaut. Just like the similarly themed Apollo 13, there are challenges to be overcome and the solutions are not without risk themselves. I enjoyed how the screenplay kept throwing out new obstacles; just when you think you can breath for a while the status quo is upset again. The slew of new obstacles doesn’t feel contrived either but rather realistic setbacks. It’s a wonderful storytelling structure that constantly keeps things moving forward and ramps up the urgency. As a result, we don’t ever feel safe right until the climax, and even then you’re still sweating it out because of all the complications and adjustments.

-1It’s revitalizing to watch a movie that treats science with a sense of reverence. Mark Watney endures in the most hostile of environments through his ingenious use of the resources he has because of his understanding of science and math. Just as MacGyver proved there was something satisfying about watching a guy make a bomb out of a toilet paper tube, some chewing gum, and a bobby pin, it’s entirely enjoyable watching Watney think his way out of problems, and this starts early on. Watney’s first problem after he regains consciousness is to remove an embedded piece of shrapnel in his gut. The scene plays in a methodical fashion without any obtrusive edits, allowing the full task to settle in with the audience. The man has to perform surgery on himself and dig inside himself, and if he doesn’t get this done soon, sepsis might set in (no doctors without borders here). From there, the situation only gets more serious as Watney’s food supply, even when generously rationed, will only last a fraction of the time it would take NASA to send a rescue team. He has to grow food on an alien planet. That itself could be its own movie, a glossy crossover special from the SyFy Channel and the Home and Garden network. This is a survival story that doesn’t rely upon coincidence or some sort of divine intervention but on the understanding and admiration of science and its possibilities. Though America’s favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that in this movie universe, all the science decisions are being made by science professionals rather than, you know, politicians who adamantly open ignorant statements with, “I’m not a scientist.”

Another aspect I wasn’t quite expecting but took hold of me is how uplifting The Martian turns out to be. It’s a celebration of human endeavor and particularly cooperation, as the United States reaches out to other nations for assistance. Watching the determined souls risk their lives to retrieve one fallen man is the kind of thing that represents the best in us. Sure, there’s something to be said about the fact that it’s one prized American life that countries are spending billions of not trillions of dollars to rescue and perhaps that money would be better spent helping more lives on Earth. There’s also the curious fact that the world has spent a ton of money rescuing Matt Damon in movies. From Saving Private Ryan, to Interstellar, and now The Martian, we seem to value Damon above all else.

This isn’t exactly a one-man show with half of the running time flashing back to Earth but Damon’s star quality and acting chops makes it so you don’t mind being marooned with this man. Watney’s recorded messages are a slick way to deal with the internal thinking of its protagonist while giving the character more opportunities to charm thanks to a rich sense of gallows-level humor. At no point is Mark Watney flippant about his unique predicament but his sense of humor goes a long way to further engender the audience’s good will. He’s not moping and having existential crises; he’s getting to work, and it’s through the problem solving that we get to know this character, his ingenuity, his personality, his fears, and his distaste for disco music. Damon steers clear from playing the character too large and bearing his soul as the metaphorical representative for all of humanity and its place in the cosmos. He’s just one guy who happens to be lost millions of miles from his home planet, and he’s making the best of it.

maxresdefaultBeing a Ridley Scott film, naturally the film is downright impeccable from a technical standpoint. The photography is great, communicating the frightening and awe-inspiring scope of the alien topography, especially when compared to maps for scale. The visuals find ways to further help communicate Watney’s dilemma and diminished resources. Scott’s visual sensibilities are so naturally attuned to developing tension. I was holding my breath at times from the suspense of certain sequences even though I long assumed that Watney would make it back home safe and sound. A scene with a desperate need for duct tape was a real nail-biter. There isn’t a bad performance among the star-studded cast of actors who must have been grateful for even a tiny morsel of screen time. I have no idea what Kirsten Wiig really does in this movie as the NASA PR person besides fold her arms in rooms, but hey, she’s there, along with Donald Glover as a socially awkward physicist. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) gets to pour over the regret of leaving a friend behind, Jeff Daniels gets to once more practice his skill of being an authoritarian blowhard he honed from The Newsroom, and I even was able to tolerate Kate Mara (Fantastic Four), so that’s something.

The Martian is a natural crowd-pleaser. It’s engineered from the start to engage an audience with its survival thrills, present a series of increasing payoffs with new challenges and solutions, and by the end of our journey we’re treated to a rousing finish that carries a poignancy and sense of inspiration about the best in all of us, what can be accomplished through grit and cooperation and sacrifice. It’s a movie that let’s the science of survival be the ultimate star, with Damon serving as a handsome host to guide us through the marvels of the universe and duct tape. When dealing with the vastness of space and the vulnerability of human life, it’s easy to feel insignificant in comparison, but that’s where the human will to endure and to work together comes in and reconfirms the possibilities of the collective inhabitants of this giant blue orb. The Martian is a sci-fi thriller, a potent human drama, and one of the best times you can have at the movies.

Nate’s Grade: A-

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12-years-a-slave-posterIn 1841, free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in Saratoga Spring, New York, performing as a trained violinist. Some traveling performers offer him serious money if he’ll play with their circus act in Washington, D.C. Solomon bids goodbye to his family, never knowing he will not see them again for a dozen years. He’s kidnapped, imprisoned, and sold down South to a series of plantation owners. He insists he is a free man, but who will believe him? He’s a black man in chains, and frankly many people just do not care. He learns to adjust to the rules of his new life, finding some companionship with the fiery Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and looking for a trusted source to mail a letter to Solomon’s family. It’s a life of daily terror and Solomon could  be killed at any moment if word got out that he knew how to read and write.

12 Years a Slave is, as expected, a hard movie to watch at times but it is an essential movie to be seen. A friend of mine literally had this conversation with a movie patron (I wish I was only making this up):

Customer: “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll end up seeing 12 Years.”
Friend: “Oh. Well it is a hard movie to watch.”
Customer: “It’s not that. I’m just waiting for a movie that finally shows all the good slave owners doing nice things. It wasn’t all bad.”

12-years-a-slave-trailerThis brief conversation exemplifies for me why a searing drama like 12 Years of a Slave is still vital in 21st century America. This is a slice of history that cannot be forgotten, but just as sinister is the amelioration of its cruelty. As time passes, and those with direct personal experience are long gone, then the mitigation begins, and you have ignorance consuming people who want to whitewash America’s original sin, like the above movie patron. I’ve even read, simply on message boards for this very film, a dubious prospect I admit, people arguing, “Can’t we just move on already?” and posing false equivalences like, “Well the poor Southerners who worked as indentured servants had it just as bad.” I swear I am not deliberately setting up a straw man argument, these are actual gripes people have. It’s as if acknowledging the totality of the horror of slavery is, in itself, some kind of insult to people today. It’s history and vital history that need not ever be forgotten or mitigated, and we need more films dealing with this subject.

There is zero equivalency to treating people as subhuman property, stripping them of all human rights and dignity, separating them from their families, beating them, raping them, murdering them without consequence, being punished for defending yourself, and kept in a constant state of terror where anything horrible can happen to you at any time without reason. Sorry slavery apologists, but even the notion of a “kindly slaver,” which the movie actually showcases, is erroneous. Whether they don’t beat their slaves as often or addressed them as people, slave owners are still profiting from the institution of slavery, and as such the notion of a “good slave owner” is antithetical to the very insidious nature of plainly owning another human being.

With all that said, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at the cruel reality of slavery but one that demands to be seen. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) doesn’t pull his punches when it comes examining the unrelenting misery of slavery. There’s a whipping scene where he are in the safe position of focusing on the faces of those involved, studying their horror, but then McQueen has the camera turn around and you see, in graphic detail, the ravaged back of an innocent woman, the bloody result of every one of those whippings that we watched at a comfortable distance at first. This is a gory example, and the film is rather restrained when it comes to this aspect. This is not simply wallowing in sadism. Hollywood has yet to have a definitive film showcase the traumatic reality of slavery. 1997’s Amistad gave you glimpses, but most of Steven Spielberg’s movie was set in courtrooms arguing the philosophical nature of inherent rights. I wish they would remake the classic miniseries Roots; today’s TV landscape would be more permissible at showing the graphic terror of slavery than 1970s network television. With 12 Years a Slave, there are several uncomfortable moments that will make you gasp, but overall, while retrained on the gore, you feel the overall devastation of a slave’s predicament. Every moment of life was at the whims of another, and a victim could be trapped at every turn. Solomon is beaten soundly, and after he defends himself, he is rounded up to be lynched for his audacity. The aftermath is portrayed with stark tension, as Solomon is left hanging by a noose, his feet barely touching the muddied ground, trying to maintain his stance or else choke to death. And like the long takes in shame, McQueen’s camera just holds us there, trapping the audience in the same strenuous dilemma. The worst goes to Patsey, who is raped by her master and tormented by the master’s jealous wife. Both Solomon and Patsey are damned with every decision. By the end, Solomon is rescued and reunited with his family, but you can’t help but think about all those other unfortunate souls left to mire in slavery. For millions of them, there was no set limit to their desolation.

12-years-a-slaveFrom a script standpoint, the movie flows more as a series of scenes rather than a traditional three-act arc. Writer John Ridley (Red Tails, Three Kings) works from Solomon’s own autobiography and does an incisive job of recreating the dimensions of mid-19th century America and the diseased mentality that accepted slavery. No more is this evident than in the frightening character of Edwin Epps, played with chilling absorption by Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s favorite collaborator. Epps is the kind of man who uses selective Scripture to justify his heinous actions. “A man can treat his property how he likes,” he quips with authority. Epps’ plantation is the worst along Solomon’s hellish odyssey. Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) spookily possesses Epps with great ardor, bringing out the snarling dangers of a man and his unsavory convictions. You’ll cringe over all the unwanted lascivious attention he gives to Patsey. He is a weak man through and through, but one who rages against others with his weaknesses. Fassbender is electric and keeps an audience extra alert when onscreen.

The acting is exceptional and infuriating. Ejiofor (Serenity, Salt) is commanding in a performance that stays with you. There is so much the man has to communicate with his eyes, those great orbs of his. Because of his circumstances he must hold back his ire, do what he can to make it another day, and his adjustment to the horrors of slavery are heartbreaking in itself. He must always be cautious, and when he dares to risk trusting a white man, we feel the same tremors of trepidation. There’s a great scene where Solomon, having been betrayed, has to come up with a credible alternative in the moment, with so much riding on his improvisation skills. It’s as suspenseful a moment as most Hollywood thrillers. The most heartbreaking performance, though, belong to Nyong’o, who is making her film debut in a major way. As Patsey, she symbolizes the mounting torment of unremitting victimization, a woman begging for death but too proud to make it happen. She has some intense monologues where not one word feels false. She is a broken woman struggling to find her footing, and watching her get abused in so many different ways is gut wrenching. She’s more than a martyr and Nyong’o shows you that.

Undeniably a good movie, there are still enough filmmaking choices that hold it back for me, and it all comes down to Solomon as the protagonist. The movie’s center was not as strong as it needed to be, and that is chiefly because our focal point, Solomon, is not well developed as a character. I feel pings of something approaching shame just bringing up the subject, but I must profess that Solomon is just not given much to do beyond suffer. As a free man, his adjustment to the absurd cruelty of the institution of slavery is meant to serve as an entry point for a modern audience, to have the safety of our lives suddenly stripped away. But if I had to describe Solomon as a character, I could say that he mostly vacillates between two modes: shock and solemn dignity (“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”). Strange that Patsey and Epps and even Epps’ wife are shown more dimension than the lead character. I’m not asking for Solomon to suddenly become a more active character and to rise up, Django Unchained-style; the context of slavery limits his opportunities to express himself. I just wanted more to this guy to separate him from the others suffering onscreen. And maybe, ultimately, that’s the point, that Solomon is, at heart, no different than any other slave. I can agree with that in philosophy, however, this approach also nullifies my ultimate investment in the protagonist. I feel for him because he suffers, I feel for him because I want him to find some semblance of justice (an impossible scenario given the circumstances, I know), and I feel for him because he is a good, honorable man. But I do not feel for him because I have an insight into the character of Solomon Northup. Fortunately, Ejiofor does a superb job of communicating as much as he can non-verbally. It just wasn’t enough for me.

twelve-years-a-slave-michael-fassbenderTo criticize 12 Years a Slave makes me feel awkward due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but hey, plenty of people make mediocre movies exploring Holocaust atrocities too (does anyone ever dare say, “Get over it,” to Holocaust survivors?). A horrifying historical subject does not give filmmakers cart blanche to slack when it comes to the important elements of storytelling, like story and characterization. 12 Years a Slave, by extension, is an exceptionally made movie with moments to make you wince and cry, gifted with powerful acting and sensitive direction. It is a searing recreation of the many facets of slavery, not just the sheer brutality of the beatings. You will understand on multiple levels the terrorism that was the institution of slavery, a vicious reality that should never be forgotten by a complacent citizenry. I can applaud 12 Years a Slave for its technical excellence, depth of performance, and historical accuracy; however, my personal investment in the protagonist was somewhat limited because Solomon Northup was not developed sufficiently enough. I certainly empathized with the man, but too often I felt like I was watching Solomon as a suffering symbol rather than a character. He’s obviously an interesting figure and I wanted more dimension. While not exactly rising to the level of a Schindler’s List for the institution of slavery (as some have dubbed), 12 Years a Slave is an enthralling movie in so many ways. It’s just a shame that an underdeveloped protagonist would hobble a film so otherwise worthy.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Salt (2010)

Congrats to the Columbia marketing team for what is by far the most imaginative advertising campaign ever. Weeks before Salt was going to open nationwide, the most bizarre story broke this summer. A dozen American citizens were revealed to be deep cover Russian agents. Apparently, their purpose, as given in the mid-to-late 1980s, was to infiltrate American society and get cozy with policy makers (and yet not one became a lobbyist). Instead they mostly raised families and lived in the suburbs of New Jersey. It’s unclear exactly what they accomplished. This hearkens back to a simpler age where we had clearly identifiable “enemies” that existed as nation states. Things are just too complicated in the post-9/11 age of the War on Terrorism. The dozen Russian spies were deported to Russian in an exchange for three American spies. I feel somewhat sad for these dozen Russian spies, especially Anna Chapman, the red-haired femme fatale that became the face of the scandal. These people grew up in the United States and for many that’s all that they know, and now they have to live in picturesque Russia. I wonder how long before they themselves defect back to the States.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA agent who?s just about to go home after a long night of CIA stuff. An old Russian agent has defected, and Salt is the best interrogator they have to separate the real from the nutso. As she?s about to leave, the Russian talks about a plot to assassinate the Russian president, and the killer will be a Russian spy posing as an American, Evelyn Salt. Her superior (Liev Schreiber) wants to clear things up with nervous government officials, but Salt bails. She’s concerned that her German national husband (August Diehl from Inglorious Basterds) has been abducted. She races to find her husband, outrun U.S. agencies on her trail, and maybe assassinate the Russian president as foretold.

Believability is a fluid reality. When it comes to action thrillers, if they’re hitting the right numbers hen you give them a bit of a pass. What might normally kill a mortal can merely incur a flesh wound. Salt is packed with thriller absurdities, especially toward the end, but I posit that this movie is no less believable than most of what we see in the Bourne trilogy. The trick with Salt is that the pacing doesn’t ever let up; as soon as she?s slotted as a potential Ruskie spy, she goes on the run and the movie doesn’t slow down. It hops from action sequence to chase sequence to real-life Frogger sequence on a busy highway, all the while Evelyn performs miraculous feats of derring-do, impervious to normal rigors that would severely injure the rest of humanity. But you see, she’s a trained spy, and therefore can handle it all with aplomb. She can create her own missile thanks to an office desk and a fire extinguisher and some ordinary household chemicals (don’t try this at home, kids). In the opening seconds of the movie, Evelyn is being harshly tortured and interrogated in a North Korean prison (in her bra and panties for extra exploitation value). If she can survive that, surely this Superwoman Spy could survive escaping a batch of really lousy guards and National Security agents who seem bewildered by such art of deception like the masterful Putting on a Hat, or the more dangerous Dying One’s Hair a Darker Color (that can stain, you know).

Let?s briefly talk about the entire premise of Salt. Before this summer, naturally, this Cold War holdover plot device would seem ludicrous. Such deep cover Manchurian Candidate-like operations that take decades upon decades of time seem like a crapshoot. As proven by this summer’s most bizarre story, people who go deep under cover for extended periods of time are rarely able to snake their way into the corridors of power. It’s not like these people are planted to marry ambassadors or up-and-coming politicians. It’s essentially like a horse race, except you have to bet on which pony 25 years down the line will be the winner or spawn the winner. The odds of success seem remote at best and a waste of resources. This Cold War program also stipulates that these sleeper agents would still hold allegiance to Mother Russia nearly 20 years after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. It’s this same mistaken idea of delayed national allegiance that surfaces when Chinese politicians try and justify how they will solve the guy/girl population disparity in their country. The Chinese politicians feel that the men of their country will come to America and find all those Chinese orphans that were adopted by American parents. Somehow these former Chinese orphans who have grown up in a different culture, in a different family, and with different gender rights and freedoms, will suddenly say, “Of course I will go back to the country that gave me up as valueless!” It’s this same basis at work for the Russian sleeper agent plan. But yet these super sleeper agents have miraculously found their ways in high positions of power. Maybe that’s the secret to educational reform. Students are more likely to be self-starters when they’re determined to bring down the infrastructure of another country.

What saves Salt is that the action sequences are good. Director Phillip Noyce has extensive experience in Hollywood and working with large stars. Noyce directed the stellar Jack Ryan thrillers Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger; he even has experience with Jolie, having helmed 1999?s boring Bone Collector. Noyce has a great presence of mind and knows how to fill the frame up to please the senses. He knows how to compose a nice action sequence and, here?s the shocker given modern action cinema, allows the audience to fully understand what is going on. The chases have genuine excitement and the escapes come across as organic instead of contrived, which is something of a compliment for a spy film. Evelyn Salt hopping from car to car across a highway is cut together into one smooth sequence to rattle the nerves. There are some spectacular car crash images in the film, particularly when Salt escapes from police custody by driving off an overpass. Noyce finds a way to make the screen both frenetic and oddly pretty, without being self-conscious about its popcorn purposes.

Jolie has proven herself to be more than capable when it comes to handling action. She doesn’t look as spookily thin as she did in 2008’s Wanted, which is good when you want to believe that she can be a world-class brawler. She’s tough as nails and plenty easy on the eyes. The role doesn’t require much of Jolie’s exceptional sex appeal. In fact, she’s rather maternal and her driving motivation is to rescue her husband. There are all sorts of needless flashbacks to her wedding day, little snippets to remind you that she loves her husband, in case you forgot. Jolie’s character is a bit of an enigma by design. Obviously given the star power and the fact that it?s a summer movie, you expect Jolie and her character to be in the right by the time the end credits roll. And yet the movie and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Thomas Crown Affair, Equilibrium) spends about half of its running time letting you fully believe that Evelyn is a turncoat (though if she was originally Russian, would she be a turncoat?). The most interesting aspect for me regarding Salt’s character was when we flashed back to the 11-year-old version (Cassidy Hinkle) of her after a car accident. Her head is bandaged, and because the girl is the younger version of Jolie, her lips look like those wax novelty lips to match Jolie’s signature pillowy pout.

Salt is a rather nuts-and-bolts thriller that balances absurdities with efficient action. With pacing so swift, you don?t have time to start nit-picking the small things, and the big things you just swallow as part of the overall package. Salt needs you to be caught up in the moment, in the chase, and not second-guessing all the plot fallacies. The film pretty much follows Jolie’s lead and is straight-faced nerve. It provides the thrills you’d want in a summer popcorn blockbuster without getting too serious. As a spy thriller it goes down like a shamelessly entertaining beach read. After all, what are the odds that your friends and neighbors of twenty years could actually be decades-in-the-making Russian sleeper agents? Well, do they look like Anna Chapman?

Nate’s Grade: B

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