By my count, this is approximately the 182nd version of Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War sisterhood. There must be something universal about the trials of the March sisters and their struggles for independence, agency, love, and happy endings on their own turns. Greta Gerwig, fresh off her Oscar nominations for Lady Bird, has given Little Women a decidedly modern spin. The story flashes back and forth between past and present, sometimes in consecutive shots, and feels full of authentic youthful energy. It’s also the first adaptation I’ve watched that has fixed the problem of Amy (Florence Pugh, affecting), widely regarded as the least liked sister. Through Gerwig’s telling, she becomes a self-determined woman, just like Jo (Saoirse Ronan), who recognizes the social trappings holding her back but chooses to do her best within this unfair system rather than rage against it. It’s like an empathetic reclamation for this often reviled character. The enjoyment of Little Women is how vibrant and different each of the March sisters is and how an audience can see degrees of one’s self in each little woman. Jo is by all accounts our lead and her struggle to be a successful writer pushes her against conventions of the era. There is an invented and very amusing bookend where Jo bickers with a blowhard male publisher (Tracy Letts) about “women’s melodrama.” It’s a meta commentary on Alcott’s book herself, especially with the helping of marriages and happy endings by story’s end. Ronan is a force of nature in the film and sweeps up everyone around her with charm. Meryl Streep is supremely amusing as an older rich aunt bemoaning the girls won’t get anywhere without marrying a wealthy man. The limited options for a working-class family are given great consideration, but it’s really a movie that seems to pulsate with the exciting feelings of being young, having the world stretch out before you, and chasing your dream, rain or shine. It’s also gorgeously shot and feels so assured from Gerwig as a solo director. There are a few detractions for this new 2019 Little Women, the biggest being how confusing it can get with its melded chronologies. If this is your first exposure to Alcott’s story, I fear you’ll get lost more than a few times trying to keep everything in order. The love story with lovesick pretty boy Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) feels tacked on even though it’s a feature of the novel. This newly structured, reinvigorated, charming remake of a literary classic feels definitely of the period and of today. It’s the first Little Women adaptation that made me realize how timeless this story really can feel in the right hands. It may be the 182nd version but it might be the best one yet.
Nate’s Grade: B+
As I was watching the sweetly good-natured but somewhat superficial 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I was left wondering if there could be a big screen story on minister-turned-children’s TV host Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers.” Was there enough material to open up this kind, affirming, gentle man into a three-dimensional character worthy of a deep dive? I’m still unsure after watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks as Rogers. The filmmakers made the conscious decision to construct a fictional narrative of family strife between a father (Chris Cooper) and his son, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a magazine writer. Fred Rogers begins as an assignment for Lloyd and becomes the change agent, pushing Lloyd, in the gentlest and most empathetic manner, to reflect on his anger over his father’s abandonment and to work through his feelings and potentially forgive the old man. Like the PBS star, the movie is sweet and optimistic and gentle and just a little bit boring. The film follows a pretty strict formula of catharsis, and while it works it doesn’t make A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feel more than a TV-movie plot attached to a malnourished Fred Rogers biopic. I understand the storytelling difficulties of trying to make a soft-spoken man who isn’t given to long-winded speeches a starring role, so it makes sense that his presence would be a catalyst for a family in crisis, basically serving as therapist. Hanks is fitting and affecting, and once again I feel like there are glimmers of a more complex man underneath the persona we’ll never be treated to in any big screen examination, like about his struggles raising his own children, his crisis of relevancy late in life. The majority of the movie is a father/son story that is well acted and pretty much fine, and “pretty much fine” is a perfect description of the film as a whole. It’s nothing you’ll regret seeing and it will generally be uplifting and sincere, but it’s basically a 108-minute greeting card.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Cars franchise is like the “goofy uncle” that nobody chooses to talk about at family reunions. We acknowledge it at most because we have to and then move onto other chipper subjects. I didn’t think it could get worse for Pixar than Cars 2. Then I watched Cars 3.
Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is starting to lose his championship luster when a new rival, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), speeds onto the circuit. Humbled and wondering whether his time is up, Lightning trains to be faster than ever and regain his title. He goes through a series of training struggles with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a spunky racing coach. Lightning misses Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, posthumously reappearing) and seeks out Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Together, they plan to win back Lightning’s title and prove he still has what it takes.
I was ready for this movie to be over after its first ten minutes, and that’s chiefly because it repeats just about all the paces of the original Cars. Once again Lightning McQueen is bested by a new rival and has to re-learn the basics of racing, center himself as much as a car can, and open himself up to the help of others. Except the villain isn’t really a villain, as Jackson Storm is just a newer model. He’s self-centered and cocky, sure, but so was Lightning McQueen. He barely registers as a character and more as a symbol of newer, faster, more contemporary racers. If there is an antagonist in the movie it might actually be aging, which raises more questions about this Cars universe that I’ll unpack later. The plot formula will remind you of another franchise’s third entry, Rocky III. The hero is bested by a newer champ, seeks out a new trainer because their old mentor died, and there’s even a beach training montage. Then the movie goes from Rocky III to Creed in its final act, and I’m thinking why not remake Rocky IV instead? There’s already a robot butler in that one (it practically writes itself). Suffice to say, the generic formula of going back to basics and believing in one’s self, this time with fewer side characters, is even less interesting 11 years after the first film revved its limited story engine.
I was flabbergasted at just how lazy the storytelling was (there aren’t even that many car puns). It feels too much like a rehash without any memorable set pieces. There’s a segment at a demolition derby that has potential but it never really hits its stride and just relies on the initial particulars. The relationship between Lightning and the other cars is also rather weak. His new mentor Smokey is simply a surrogate Doc. The bulk of the film after the first act is the relationship between Lightning and Cruz Ramirez. It would have been stronger if there were more to her fledgling character. She’s consumed by self-doubt and gave up on her dream of being a racer, which should tip off every audience member where her arc is destined. She’s assertive, optimistic, and highly energetic, but her defining character obstacle is her self-doubt, which limits her. All she needs to do is gain confidence, which is a pretty straightforward solution in a sports film replete with training montages. I don’t know if she was told she wasn’t good enough because she wasn’t “made” to be a racer, or if it’s because she’s a girl, so her perhaps her ascension can be seen as an improbably empowering moment for lady cars everywhere.
The most fascinating aspect of the Cars universe has never been the characters or the stories but the world itself. In a land of sentient motor vehicles, how are they born? We see them age but where do the little cars come from? How do they make anything considering they have tires instead of opposable thumbs? Why do the cars have teeth? What is the point of designating gender? Did any adult car tell Ramirez that she was a girl car and girl cars aren’t supposed to do boy car things like racing? How old is Doc’s mentor considering Doc died of old age? Where do the dead cars go? Is there a junkyard burial ground? Do they get recycled into new cars? Speaking of mortality, this entire world has to be some post-apocalyptic hellscape, right? There’s got to be like a Forbidden Zone, and just along the other side of a steep ridge is mountain after mountain of human skulls. The self-driving cars became sentient, following the SkyNet model, and rose up against mankind. In the ensuring thousands of years after, the sentient cars have adopted our ways even though they clearly don’t match up to their circumstances. They have forgotten the world of humans but are still trying to remake our world as theirs. Do these cars do anything other than watch races? Is this pastime the hierarchy’s form of bread and circuses? What kind of day-to-day existence do they have? Considering every living being is a motor vehicle that runs on fossil fuels, are the sentient cars aware of climate change and the greenhouse effect? Are they hastening the planet’s demise? What if inside every car were the mummified remains of a human inhabitant? What if during Lightning’s big accident a human skeleton pops out of the windshield? That might lead to an existential crisis in the Cars world that would make them rethink their place in history.
Somebody out there has to like these movies. I don’t know whom Cars 3 is intended for. It doesn’t present enough excitement or humor for children, and it doesn’t present enough substance and characterization for adults. It retreads familiar ground with lesser characters for lesser rewards. I knew every step of where this journey was headed, and without effective humor, characters, and surprises, I was tilting my head against my chair and just waiting for this mess to end. The reason there are three Cars movies is merely the profits Disney reaps from the toy sales and merchandizing (they estimate making a billion dollars in toy sales alone per Cars movie). There’s no other reason to supply the world three entries in the Cars universe before even getting a second Incredibles. The time with these anemic characters is not worth the 100 minutes on screen. I never thought I would reappraise Cars 2 but at least that movie had some exciting and colorful racing sequences and tried telling a different, albeit not successful story. Even a badly executed spy caper starring Larry the Cable Guy had something to it. In contrast, Cars 3 just goes in circles and expects you to be grateful for the same trip.
Nate’s Grade: C-
With only three films, Ben Affleck has successfully reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented directors when it comes to adult crime thrillers. It’s not just his superb directing chops; the man also serves as producer, lead actor on most films as well as a screenwriter, and Affleck’s ability to write flawed yet deeply human characters within genre parameters has accomplished actors flocking to work for him. Beyond his 2012 film Argo winning Best Picture, Affleck has gotten three different actors supporting Oscar nominations (Amy Ryan, Jeremy Renner, Alan Arkin). He’s an actor’s director and a man who knows how to satisfy an audience hungry for authentic genre thrills and interesting characters. His latest film is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel and is Affleck’s most ambitious film yet and it’s gorgeously brought to life. There’s still plenty to like and entertainment to be had with his Prohibition era gangster flick Live by Night, but it’s also unquestionably Affleck’s weakest film yet as a major director.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a hardened WWI veteran who says he came back to Boston as an “outlaw” (he seems to turn up his nose at being called a “gangster”). Joe settles into an easy life of crime with the local Irish gang lead by Albert White (Robert Glenister). Unfortunately, Joe’s lover, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), happens to be White’s main squeeze. Joe and Emma sneak around and carry on their relationship without proper discretion. Their secret is found out, Emma is dealt with, and Joe escapes with his life, serving a prison sentence and then enlisting in the Italian mob under local boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe is sent to Tampa to manage the rum-running business, starting his life over. The area is ripe for expansion and it isn’t long before Joe is making friends and enemies over his exploits. He falls in love with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), a fellow criminal with a working operation of Hispanic bootleggers. Joe warms to a local police chief (Chris Cooper) and his daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning) a girl who experiences the darker side of vice and becomes a troublesome born-again leader. All the while Albert White has relocated to Miami, and the specter of vengeance looms just within reach.
It’s a Prohibition gangster flick and Affleck makes sure to check as many boxes as he can when it comes to audience expectations for a pulpy hardboiled action drama. The production design is aces and the cinematography by Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) is beautifully composed with its use of light, shadow, and framing. There are shots of violence that are exquisitely rendered so as to be their own art, like a man falling down a stairwell with a Tommy gun blasting above bathed in light. The production details are a sumptuous aspect that Affleck and his team put supreme effort into to better make their movie transporting. The action sequences have a genuine delight as they pop. A shootout throughout the grounds of a mob-owned hotel is an exciting climax that finds fun ways to provide genre thrills. The rise-and-fall structure of the story, mingled with a simple revenge motivation, is a suitable story vehicle for the audience to plug into. There are fun characters, fun moments, and sizzling action, all decorated in handsome period appropriate details. While Live by Night has its share of flaws, a dearth of entertainment is not one of them.
Tone and coherency end up being Affleck’s biggest obstacles he cannot overcome. It’s somewhat of a surprise considering his other directorial efforts brilliantly melded several genres while telling invigorating stories. I think the main fault is a screenplay trying to do too much when more streamlining was optimal. The specific goal that sets Joe in motion is a bit hazy and fails to provide a larger sense of direction for the arc of the tale. Affleck’s previous films were rock-solid in crafting overarching yet specific goals that propel the scenes onto a natural narrative trajectory. With Gone Baby Gone, it’s finding the missing girl. With The Town, it’s getting closer to a bank employee without having that relationship discovered by his cohorts. With Argo, it was rescuing the hostages. With Live by Night, it’s mostly getting vengeance against Albert White, though we don’t know how. In the meantime, we have episodic incidents failing to register connective tissue or at least a cause/effect relationship where it feels like a natural order of organic conflicts. The opening act in Boston that sets up Joe’s tragic love, jail time, and enmity with White could be removed entirely. I’d miss the thrilling 1920s car chase, which is also unique in that it’s the first period car chase I can think of that utilizes the mechanical limitations of the vehicles for extra tension, but it’s at best a moment of flash. Having the story pick up with Joe putting his life back together in sunny Florida would have been a cleaner entrance into this world for an audience. Once Joe ingratiates himself into this new world, the audience has to play another game of character introductions and assessing relationships and the balance of power. It feels a bit redundant after having our previous act pushed aside to reboot Joe’s world.
It feels like Affleck is trying to corral so many historical elements that he loses sight of the bigger picture. Joe’s criminal path seems comically easy at times as he builds a fledgling empire along the Floridian west coast. First it’s the law and then it’s the KKK and then it’s religious revivals that need to be dealt with. Each incident feels like a small vignette that observes the historical setting with an angle that will be perfunctorily dropped in short order. The conflicts and antagonists don’t feel sufficiently challenging and that lessens the intended suspense. When Joe is dealing with the KKK, it feels like he’s restraining himself out of politeness rather than a series of organic restrictions. The elements and tones don’t really seem to inform one another except in the most general sense, which leads to the film lacking suitable cohesion. It’s easy then for Affleck to overly rely on stock genre elements to provide much of the story arrangements.
The characters have difficulty escaping from the pulp trappings to emerge as three-dimensional figures. Graciela gets the worst of it, proving to be a capable bootlegging criminal in her own right who loses all sense of personality, agency, and import once she becomes romantically entwined with our hero. It’s as if she erased herself to better heal his broken heart. How kind of her. The religious revival element is ripe for further examination but it’s kept at a basic level. We’re never questioning the validity of Loretta’s conversion and sudden celebrity. Chris Cooper’s pragmatic lawman has the most potential as a man trying to keep his morals amidst the immoral. The character isn’t utilized in enough interesting ways that can also flesh out his dimensions, and his conclusion suffers from that absent development. The characters serve their purpose in a larger mechanical sense but they don’t feel like more recognizable human beings.
Affleck’s innate talent with actors reappears in a few choice moments, just enough to tantalize you with the promise of what Live by Night could have been. The standout moment for me is a sit-down between Joe and Loretta where she unburdens her self-doubts. This is a woman who has been preyed upon by others, had her hopes dashed, and is trying to reinvent herself as a religious leader, but even she doesn’t know if she believes that there’s a God. The scene is emotional, honest without being trite, and delivered pitch-perfect by Fanning (The Neon Demon). It’s the kind of scene that reminded me of The Town and Gone Baby Gone, how Affleck was deftly able to provide shading for his characters that opened them up. Miller (American Sniper) has immediate electricity to her performance and reminds you how good Affleck is at drawing out the best from his actors. British TV vet Glenister is so good as a villain that seems to relish being one that you wish he were in the movie more. He has a menace to him that draws you in closer. Maher (The Finest Hours) is a memorable cretin who you’ll be happy to be dealt with extreme prejudice. There isn’t a poor casting choice in the film (hey Clark Gregg, hey Anthony Michael Hall, hey Max Casella) except possibly one, and that’s Affleck himself. I know part of the reason he selects his directing efforts is the possibility of also tackling juicy acting roles, but this time he may not have been the best fit. He’s a little too calm, a little too smooth, a little too out of place for the period, and his director doesn’t push him far enough.
A strange thing happened midway through, namely how politically relevant and vicariously enjoyable Live by Night feels specifically for the year 2017. It’s a movie largely sent in the 1920s with characters on the fringes of society, and yet I was able to make pertinent connections to our troubled times of today. After a contentious presidential election where many feel that insidious and hateful extremist elements are being normalized and emboldened, there is something remarkably enjoyable about watching a murder montage of Klansmen. The Tampa chapter of the KKK takes aim with Joe’s business that profit from fornicators, Catholics, and especially black and brown people. They’re trying to shake Joe down for majority ownership but they’re too stupid, blinded by their racist and xenophobic ignorance, to accept Joe’s generous offers, and so they can’t help but bring righteous fury upon their lot. There is something innumerably enjoyable about watching abusive bigots brought down to size with bloody justice. I could have seen an entire movie of Joe and crew tearing through the Florida chapters of the KKK and just cleaning out the rabble. This sequence whets the appetite for what comes later. Without going into specific spoilers, the climax of the movie involves the put-upon minorities rising up against their bosses who, like the Klan, felt they were too powerful, too indispensable, and too clever to be seriously threatened. In its own way, it’s like a dark crime actualization of the American Dream. Unpack that if you will.
Live By Night is Affleck losing the depth of his world to its surface-level genre pleasures and they are indeed a pleasure. This isn’t a bad movie by any measure, only one of slight disappointment because it had the markings and abilities to be much more than the finished product. The tonal inconsistency and storylines provide episodic interludes and enticing moments, whether in action or acting, but they don’t blend together to form a more compelling and impressive whole. It’s a gangster movie that provides the gangster genre trappings but loses sight of what makes the characters in these movies so compelling, the moral complications, shifting loyalties, the impossible positions, and enclosing danger. I don’t think you’ll sweat too much over whether the main character will come out on top, which somewhat hinders the intensity of the action. When your movie is more predicated on those genre thrills than character or story, that’s an even bigger hindrance. It’s a fun world worth visiting but it doesn’t have the staying power of Affleck’s better efforts.
Nate’s Grade: B
This holiday season, the movie with the most acting, by far, is likely to be August: Osage County, the adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony award-winning play. It’s a large dysfunctional family getting back together and opening old wounds, so, you know, the most relatable Christmas movie for some. It’s easy to see what attracted such A-list talent to this project because these characters are actor catnip; each is overflowing with drama, secrets, revelations, anger, and it’s all channeled through Letts’ barbed sense of humor and wickedly skillful dialogue. With Meryl Streep as the pill-popping matriarch, Julia Roberts as her resentful daughter, and a host of other inter-generational conflicts and secrets, you may feel exhausted by the end of its 130-minute running time (the stage play was 3.5 hours, respectively). The emotional confrontations feel like grueling pugilist matches, the melodrama kept at a fever pitch, but the film is never boring. Streep is her usual astonishing self and the deep ensemble gives each actor something to chew over. This is the best Roberts has been in years, and she’s not afraid to get nasty (“Eat your fish!”). Just when you think the story might soften, Letts unleashes another body blow, allowing no uncertainty that this is a family doomed. The story also provides insights into tracking the path of cruelty through the family tree, limb by limb. August: Osage County is stridently funny but also punishing in its no-holds-barred approach to family drama. If you’re looking for a movie that makes your family seem normal and even-tempered, this may be it.
Nate’s Grade: B
There are many people who think they can direct. It just looks easy to people. You get to tell everybody what to do all day. Who wouldn’t want that, right? And actors always think they know everything already, so there’s a litany of actors who feel like they can make the jump from in front of the camera to behind it with ease. Not everybody is going to be a Clint Eastwood, or a Robert Redford, or even the best of the current crop, a George Clooney. Every now and then you’ll find a true surprise, like Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) or Sarah Polley (Away From Her), but most actor/director projects come across like indulgent one-time pet projects (see: Drew Barrymore’s Whip It). Ben Affleck has easily endured his slings and arrows as an actor, though I’ve always found the man to be likeable, charming, and intelligent. Even so, nobody can excuse Gigli. When Affleck tried on the director hat for 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, it was easy to be skeptical. But then critics and audiences saw the film, which Affleck also co-wrote, and realized that this guy might have some serious chops after all. The Town, Affleck’s second directorial effort, proves that Affleck has found his rightful place in movies.
Doug (Ben Affleck) is a lifelong criminal living in the working class Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. We learn that this one-square mile produces more bank robbers than anywhere else in the world. It is a neighborhood seeped in the lifestyle of crime, the silent omissions of sin. Doug and his crew’s latest heist went according to plan except for one detail. Jem (Jeremy Renner), fresh from doing a nine-year prison stint, has taken the bank manager hostage in a moment of panic. The men blindfold Claire (Rebecca Hall) and deposit her along the Boston shoreline. Doug and his guys then become alarmed when they spot Claire in their neighborhood. She lives in Charlestown. Will she recognize them? FBI Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) check up on her and requests interviews. Is it only a matter of time before she discovers the truth? Jem wants to handle it quick and dirty, but Doug insists that he take the lead. He watches her from afar and can’t help but feel sorry for the trauma he has caused her. He asks her out for a drink after meeting her and Doug can’t stop himself from falling for her. Jem is incensed and convinced she’ll give them all away. Doug must reconcile his life?s choices and Claire now gives him a reason to finally walk away from the only life he’s known.
It didn’t take long for me to know I was in for something good. The pre-title opening sequence sets the tone and informs you that Affleck will be firmly settled in the director’s chair for some time. The opening bank heist crashes your attention. It’s filmed in quick cuts, swift camera movements, mimicking the ambush of the criminals as they throw people to the ground, upturn desks, and smash general office supplies. Then the scene cuts to a security camera footage of the same scene, and it’s static, and eerily silent and the contrast is fantastic. Then we smash right back into the fray and the chaos. Affleck refrains from the film turning into senseless genre junk. The violence in this film hurts. You feel its impact and wince at its approach, and you already get this sense before the credits even show up. Affleck wants his visceral violence to mean something, and these men of violence become more intimidating. Then there’s a scene about an hour in that had me gnawing my hand in anxiety. It all revolved around the possible reveal of an identifiable neck tattoo, where the only character who knows all the particulars of danger is Doug. He’s trying to nervously watch the eye line of the conversation, and I was physically trying to instruct the characters onscreen. The fact that I could get so caught up in a sequence of stellar tension that doesn’t involve cars, guns, or even overt threats of violence is a testament to the abilities of Affleck the director.
Doug’s crew is not a fly-by-night operation. They are honed professionals, knowing the timing codes for bank locks, how to dismantle security camera systems, and splash bottles of bleach all over the premises to eliminate usable fingerprints. And yet, when is enough enough? It feels like only days before Jem is pushing everybody for another job. They’ve barely had time to launder the money through drugs and gambling, given a cut to the local crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite), and they?re anxious for another score. Doesn’t anybody want to lie low for a while before the heat dissipates? Either this is just a conceit of only being able to work in a two-hour narrative or indicative or what a consistently dangerous life these men lead. These men know exactly where they?re headed; in fact, they seem resigned to their fate. Perhaps the expedited schedule is just another form of self-destruction or an impatient death wish, or perhaps it’s just an inflated sense of invincibility by guys who are good at what they do.
The area where The Town could have been better is with its higher ambitions. The Town dutifully delivers the goods when it comes to a crime picture. The three holdups are all satisfying, taut, well paced, and the action is choreographed in a manner that’s easy to comprehend. The middle holdup creates some dynamic images as the men speed through Boston dressed in plastic nun masks and armed with machine guns. There are several standout moments and images that prove Affleck knows how to frame an exciting action thriller. The climax is great, though the denouement leaves something to be desired. You pretty much anticipate what beats the movie has to hit as a genre piece. These brothers in arms will likely follow the path of doomed protagonists. But Affleck clearly wanted his second feature to be more than a slick genre flick. He had his sights set on examining systemic and cyclical nature of crime and abandonment. The opening informs us that bank robbing is a trade passed down in Charleston from fathers to sons. Doug’s crew are all second-generation criminals, their long absent fathers serving sentences in federal prisons. Affleck wants to explore the nature of what separates good people who make bad decisions, digging into the limited lifestyles afforded to these blue-collar lugs who have lived in brutality. The Town doesn’t quite succeed in this regard. The somewhat saggy middle touches upon these ideas but fails to spend enough time for anything substantial to stick. Gone Baby Gone was a better study of class and moral ambiguity. With The Town, you readily identify who the good bad guys are and who the bad bad guys are.
Just like Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s second feature excels with a glorified group of actors all given room to find their characters and show off their skills. Each actor kind of gets their own space to work and they all, from top to bottom, give stirring performances. The standouts among the cast include Renner and Lively, both barely recognizable in their parts. Renner (The Hurt Locker) is channeling James Cagney from his 1930s gangster pictures. Renner is a live-wire and creates bundles of nervous tension whenever he enters a scene. He doesn’t even have to say a word. His intensity radiates and keeps all the other actors on their toes, rightfully wary of the short-fused Jem. He’s magnetic, steals the film, and even gets a slightly touching sendoff that has managed to stay with me. Lively, best known as the fabulous face of the fabulous high-end TV show Gossip Girl, is going to open plenty of eyes about her potential. She plays Krista, Jem’s sister and damaged love interest to Doug before Claire comes onto the scene. Lively has levels of makeup and hard living coating her magazine-friendly good looks. Lively just doesn’t rely on makeup tricks to stand in the way for her character. She feels like the most tragic soul in the film. She has a kid, likely destined to be removed from her at some point, she operates as a drug mule, and she’s hitched her wagon to Doug as the man that will save her. When that comes apart, Lively herself disintegrates as well, but it’s never in a showy style. She barely conceals the pain consuming her very being. Her eyes are dead of life. Plus, her accent is spot-on.
The other performers give strong work just at a level slightly below Renner and Lively. Directing himself, Affleck gives a fine if overly whispery lead performance. Hall (Frost/Nixon, The Prestige) is effectively broken as she works through the post-traumatic stress and uncertainty her character suffers from. She’s highly empathetic, though you’re left wondering what she sees in Doug. Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) is so damn handsome but I wish he had more to do than running around and barking orders. His character always seems to be a mouth for exposition and chews over his righteous indignation. Chris Cooper (Breach) has one total scene in this movie as Doug’s imprisoned father but he nails it. His antipathy for his son and his late mother spills over but the moment never screams what can be expressed with subtlety. To Affleck notable credit, nobody in a movie about cops and robbers gives a performance that could be labeled as over-the-top or campy. These are genre roles but they are treated like real, muscular characters.
The Town cements Affleck’s status as a director. This is a more accessible, streamlined yet sturdy genre picture that has real reverence for working class Boston neighborhoods. I love the faces Affleck peoples his films with, real people. It’s small touches that add to the authenticity and visceral nature of the movie, touches that help make The Town more than just another run-of-the-mill crime movie. While there may not be anything groundbreaking on display (though I think Renner may get remembered when it comes time for awards season), Affleck’s directing credentials are only strengthened. This isn’t as good a movie as Gone Baby Gone, but what this film showcases is Affleck’s ongoing journey as a director, the shaping of his Michael Mann-esque style, and his intent to marry great drama with great characters played by great actors. I can genuinely say that I look forward to whatever Affleck picks to be his next feature. He?s here to stay, baby.
Nate’s Grade: B
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-
Chris Cooper is masterful in an unnerving and deeply contradictory role as a man of God, country, patriotism, and family. He was a respected FBI expert eventually discovered to be the biggest mole in U.S. intelligence history, directly responsible for the deaths of U.S. spies and interests in Russia during the Cold War. Writer/director Billy Ray infuses the film with the same stoic, controlled calm of his exceptional earlier effort Shattered Glass, and the movie unwinds like a great political thriller from the 1970s. The story is smart and engaging but it is Cooper that turns Breach into one of the best films of 2007. His performance is as varied and complex as the man he is portraying; frightening and intimidating but also empathetic and bound by a sense of honor, Cooper gives a performance that plays upon ambiguity and understatement. Watch the way he even drives people into walls when he walks alongside them in hallways. It’s that kind of intense, highly focused, and morally challenging work that deserves an Oscar nomination.
Nate’s Grade: A
Now that summer is but a hazy memory, get ready for a roll out of serious minded movies Hollywood hopes vie for serious award attention. It may be five years into the current war, but the movies are now cranking out Iraq-themed dramas that will dominate the release schedule for the approaching months. Things are about to get heavy and somber. First out of the gate, though, is The Kingdom, a film about the nebulously termed War on Terror set within the confines of an action movie. Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Rundown) knows how to create a stylized movie that feels organic to its genre, and The Kingdom is another example of his growing cinematic pedigree.
In Saudi Arabia, a housing enclosure of American contractors and their families is brutally attacked by terrorists that have infiltrated the Saudi security. Two hundred American lives are lost and FBI agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) is intent on leading a team of experts (Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman) to the soil of the Saudis, otherwise known as The Kingdom. The State Department refuses to authorize an investigation citing the jurisdiction of the Saudis as well as the danger of violent reprisals if agents are within reach of the perpetrators. Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) is assigned to baby-sit the American agents and keep them stuck in red tape during their five days allotted to them. Fluery refuses to take a subservient role and works with Al Ghaazi to get some answers.
The animated opening credit crash course in Saudi history is fun and informative, however, it really doesn’t relate to The Kingdom even though the damn movie is set in that country. Curiously, the movie only makes cursory statements on the wary relationship between the Saudis and the United States, but otherwise this movie could have been dropped in any nondescript Muslim country in the Middle East. If The Kingdom was relocated to, say, Yemen, I doubt the script would need that much fine-tuning; snip some references to royalty here and there. This is a story about the balance between a moderate Middle East regime and radical elements within the country willing to buck Western influence by any destructive means necessary. I’m measurably disappointed that the movie didn’t tackle more about the unique and tenuous Saudi-U.S. relationship, but then I accepted the fact that The Kingdom wasn’t so much about a country but an ideology that knows no borders.
To that end, The Kingdom is one part CSI: Saudi Arabia, one part political thriller, and one part gung-ho Hollywood action extravaganza, and none of the parts seems to work well together as a whole. The film doesn’t work as a cohesive unit and perhaps tries to do too much. Now, this does not mean that any of those parts are not entertaining. The criminal investigating is rather interesting because of all the cultural barriers between the U.S. agents and the Saudi governing system (a miscast Jeremy Piven, as an ambassador, admonishes Janet, in a very Ari Gold way, to “dial down the boobies”). The central mystery of who is responsible is pretty thin and easy to solve, which may be why the film spends so much time finding obstacles to delay our FBI team from getting their hands on the evidence. The political thriller elements are expressed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and yet they feel like thoughtful counterpoints to any rah-rah jingoism that The Kingdom may instill in an American audience. The climax provides plenty of fist-pumping violence but it also ends on a note about the futility of violence as well as the durability of hate. I even appreciated devoting time to interdepartmental jockeying and watching agency heads seeing who will blink first in a public relations-dominated world. The Kingdom doesn’t have a desire to become Syriana 2: No Blood for Oil, but it does possess a greater deal of intelligence and relevance than most of what big budget Hollywood is spewing out (I refuse to believe the FBI would send an agent, with a personal family tie to Israel, into a Muslim country).
Strict action fans, however, are going to have a lot of downtime on their hands. The Kingdom opens with an action sequence and closes with an action sequence, and there’s a wide gap in between those bookends. The final 20 minutes are devoted to a nail-biting ambush and rescue that transforms our FBI agents into improbable action movie warriors. Berg’s restless camera isn’t as well honed as Paul Greengraas (The Bourne Ultimatum), and sometimes you just wish the jittery cameraman would allow you to see what’s going on. I don’t know if the docu-drama emphasis is fully needed, especially when the movie jumps between shots of just two people having a conversation. Berg is a terrific director and the action sequences hit hard; I just hope he doesn’t become trapped trying to fit himself into one style.
In truth, the most intriguing part of The Kingdom is the relationship between Fleury and Al Ghazi. They begin frustrated and fighting for control, but soon, in true buddy cop genre fashion, a mutual respect forms as they search for the bad guys. The script offers helpful examples of good Movie Arabs and bad Movie Arabs, and the audience is able to easily identify the two sides. The interplay between Fleury and Al Ghazi leads to some humorous exchnages as well as some reflective opportunities, like where the men recount their families and declare they do not care why such dastardly acts were done, they just want to inflict some punishment on the rightful parties.
The acting, like the film, is a bit all over the place. Foxx seems to be on autopilot. Foxx has bunkered into his acting troupes; intense, penetrating stare, whispery dialogue recitations, and a cocksure attitude. Cooper is cranky and incredulous older timer along for the ride. Garner does her best with a character that was written for the sole purpose of concocting culture squabbles over the role of the opposite sex. She does unleash a torrent of anger and power in one very hard-core and frighteningly extreme fight scene. Bateman is playing comic relief and does sarcastic quips with great ease, but his character also gets unexpectedly thrown into a very harrowing experience and Bateman makes you feel every drop of his fear. Barhom (Paradise Now) gives a convincing performance of a man torn apart by his moral compass and the path of his country. He feels a sense of duty to protect the innocent but at the same time he is scoffed at by colleagues for helping “them.”
The Kingdom is an action movie with more on its mind than blowing up the enemy real nice like, though that also plays a key component. The pieces don’t fully add up to a whole and the film’s politics are a little tricky to get a bearing on; is this a red state movie, a blue state movie, or something for both audiences? Berg’s ambition is admirable and his film never drags out a soapbox to preach. The Kingdom is a topical movie aimed at planting seeds of debate among a mainstream audience in between their handfuls of popcorn and gulps of soda.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Written and directed by Stephen Gaghen, Syriana is very reminiscent of his Oscar-winning work with Traffic. It’s very dense, complex, and demanding of its audience, which is both its best and worst aspect. I needed a notepad to keep up with the multiple criss-crossing storylines. It’s similar to Traffic in scope and texture, but this film seems a whole lot angrier. Whereas Traffic felt like it was trying to hold a mirror up to society, show us the truth of the failing War on Drugs, this movie feels like a wake-up call as well as a call to arms. Syriana is desperate to shake people out of complacency and show them how the world is running. I love the fact that the “Free Iran” committee in the film that preach Iran’s desire for democracy are not backing the emir’s son that wants to educate his country, install democratic freedoms, put women on equal footing as men because … he wants to open the oil fields to China because they’re offering more money. They are backing the less-enlightened son because he’s willing to give America what it wants: oil. The movie is a mostly potent microcosm about questioning who has our best interests at hand. It’s a bit slow at parts and incredibly rushed at others, and your head will be left spinning trying to keep track of the wealth of information it throws at you. It is thought-provoking even without an emotional connection. This flick reminded me of The Constant Gardener, also a screed against the evils of big business though grounded in an evolving love story. This is a movie I admire more than I can say I enjoyed.
Nate’s Grade: B