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Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

If Marvel was ever going to have a dud in its near historic run of blockbuster success, it should have been Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that asked audiences to care about a talking raccoon and a tree creature who could only say three words. And yet that movie had me in tears by the end, and I was not alone. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither, Super) graduated from Troma to demented indie films to the Big Time with studio tentpoles. A sequel was fast-tracked and is definitely one of the most highly anticipated films of 2017 not named Star Wars. Can Gunn still deliver fans what they want without falling into the morass that is fan service, a sticky trap that can sap big-budget sequels of differentiation and make them feel more like product?

Set mere months after the events of the first film, the Guardians are enjoying their newfound celebrity and taking lucrative for-hire jobs. Star-Lord a.k.a. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are still going through their will-they-won’t-they sexual tension. Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is still looking to gain the upper hand. Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is growing up and still cute. Drax (Dave Bautista) is still mourning his family and trying to better fit in. And Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is still making rebellious, self-destructive decisions, like stealing valuables from The Sovereign, a race of genetically bred golden snobs. The leader of the Sovereign, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, looking good in gold), declares a bounty on the Guardians for their disrespect. The Ravagers are hired to collect the Guardians, though Captain Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hesitant to go after his surrogate son, Peter. Complicating matters further is the arrival of Ego (Kurt Russell), a mystifying man who happens to also be a living planet and Peter’s biological father.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is highly enjoyable with great moments, great action, and great characters but I was left feeling like it was a step or two behind the original and I’ve been trying to articulate just why that is. I thought perhaps it was better to be upfront. I think it all stems from the fact that it’s not as fresh the second time, it doesn’t quite have the same blast of attitude and personality to disarm and take you by surprise, and I’ll admit part of this is just due to the fact that it’s a sequel to a hugely popular movie. However, also because of this there are now a set of expectations that Gunn is leaning towards because audiences now have acute demands.

We have an idea of what a Guardians of the Galaxy movie can provide, and from those demands spur creative decisions that don’t fully feel as integrated this go-round as they did in the first film. It feels like Gunn is trying to also work within a box he’s created for himself, and for the most part he succeeds admirably, but it still feels slightly lesser. The standout musical moment occurs during an opening credits that involve an action sequence from a Baby Groot-eyed point of view. As the Guardians are flying and falling to destroy a ferocious alien blob in the background, Groot is strutting and dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO. It’s a moment of unrestrained pleasure and it also undercuts action movie conventions by having a majority of the events obscured or implied. It’s the moment that feels the most like that electric feeling of discovery from the first film. There are also 80s pop-culture references and cameos and some off-kilter comedy again. Much of it is fun, especially one cameo in particular as it relates to Peter’s father, but they also have the noticeable feel of boxes to be checked, expected items that now must be incorporated in what a Guardians of the Galaxy feature should be. Expectations can lead to fan service and then that leads to less chances and originality. Hey, I loved the 2014 original and consider it my favorite Marvel movie so I don’t want them to simply chuck out everything that worked just for something one hundred percent different. You want what you loved but you don’t want it exactly the same, which is the creative bind. Gunn leans into what the audience wants and I can’t fault him too hard. It’s still a really good film.

What Guardians vol. 2 does best is remind you why you love these characters. It even elevates a group of supporting players from the first movie into characters you genuinely care about, chiefly Nebula and Yondu. Both of these characters were slightly defanged antagonists in the first film, problems but problems you didn’t want to see go away. Yondu gets the biggest boost thanks to the thematic bridge of Peter’s search for his father. The notorious leader of the Ravagers has a definite soft spot for the scrappy human and it’s finally come to a head with his tempestuous crew. They mutiny on Yondu and declare him to be an unfit leader, unable to do what is necessary. This direction allows for a lot of introspection for a character that was essentially just Michael Rooker in blue paint. He has a history to him and he makes a moral deviation from his expected path, one that bears ongoing consequences. He’s Peter’s real surrogate father, and his acceptance of this reality brings a snarling secondary antagonist into the realm of a full-blown character that earns our empathy (a Mary Poppins joke also had me in stitches).

The same can be said for Nebula, who is working out some serious daddy issues. She is the stepsister to Gamora and holds quite a grudge against her green sibling. It seems that their father, Thanos, would constantly pit them against one another, and Nebula would always lose, and with each loss came a painful consequence. It’s the kind of back-story that’s given more time to breathe and develop. It opens up an antagonist into another person who is dealing with trauma and pain and who doesn’t play well with others, which seems as good a job description to join the Guardians as anything. Nebula has a fearsome sense of competition with her sister, and that parlays into some fun over-the-top action sequences. When the movie allows the two women to talk, as surviving sisters of rather than enemies, is where Nebula comes into her own.

Gunn makes sure there’s a grounded and emotional core to his characters, which makes these appealing underdogs and antiheroes ever easier to root for. Guardians vol. 2 doesn’t really move the overall plot forward too much but it does explore the relationships and their personal lives with greater depth and clarity. The characters are spread out into smaller pairings for a majority of the extended second act, which allows interesting connections and developments due to the personalities. Drax is paired with Ego’s assistant/pet Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and it’s an instantly winning couple, a man who only speaks literally and a woman who is able to channel the feelings of strangers through touch. They’re both relied upon for the greatest amount of comic relief and they routinely deliver. Klementieff (Old Boy) is a wide-eyed delight. Rocket and Yondu being stuck together allows for both to come to realizations that feel organic though also too fated by Gunn’s hand. Their general disregard for decorum leads to some great action sequences. Gamora and Nebula are working through their family issues and it makes both more interesting. When they come to a form of resolution it still feels awkward but earnest and right. But the biggest personal exploration is Peter and his own lingering space daddy issues.

Another fantastic addition to the movie was the character of Ego because of the wonderfully charming Russell (The Hateful Eight) and also because of what the character allows for. The very fact that Ego is a millions-year-old living planet is a clever curveball for the Peter Quill “who’s your daddy?” mystery sweepstakes. It also opens all sorts of intriguing questions that the second act wades through, like the exact mechanics of how Ego exists, projects a Russell-looking avatar, and what is his ultimate purpose. I’m going to steer away from spoilers but fans of the comic will already have suspicions where this whole father/son reconciliation may lead, and you won’t be disappointed. Russell radiates paternal warmth and it goes a ways to cover up the purposeful obfuscation of the character. Because Gunn has to hold back on certain revelations, some of them gasp-worthy, he can’t open up the father/son dynamic too fast or too unambiguous. As a result, the latent bonding relies upon more familiar touchstones, like throwing the ball out back with your pops or sharing a love of music. Russell makes even the most ridiculous thing sound reasonable, which is important considering we’re talking about a planet boning ladies.

Gunn also takes several steps forward as a visual filmmaker with the sequel. He has a great feel for visual comedy and how to undercut the more boilerplate heroic moments in other superhero fair. He fills his screen with crazy, bight, psychedelic colors and has a Tarantino-esque instinct for marrying film with the right song. The sequel doesn’t have as many iconic moments set to music but it will play most agreeably. The special effects are pretty terrific all around but I appreciate that Gunn doesn’t allow the movie to feel overwhelmed by them, which is important considering there are fundamentally CGI-only characters. Gunn’s action sequences, chases, escapes, and breakouts are presented with plenty of dazzling style and witty attitude to spare without feeling obnoxious. The comedy is consistently funny and diverting. There’s a bit with the need for tape that just keeps going and actually becomes funnier the longer it goes, undercutting the end-of-the-universe stakes with the search for something as mundane as tape. My screening was presented in 3D and I was worried about the film being set in space and being too dark. This is not the case at all, and while the 3D isn’t a high selling point like it was for Doctor Strange, it is a nice experience that doesn’t dilute Gunn’s gonzo color scheme. The level of thought put into his novelties can be staggering, like an end credits series of dancing clips that also manages to play upon a character note for Drax. Gunn manages to further comment on characterization even during the freaking end credits. The final showdown goes on a bit longer than necessary and is the only section of the movie that feels consumed by CGI spectacle, but the fact that only the end feels this way can be considered another small triumph of Gunn fighting through a corporate system.

Marvel knows what it’s doing to a molecular level. Almost ten years into their system, they know what works in their criss-crossing franchises and how to calibrate them for maximum audience satisfaction. At this point after Guardians, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange, they’ve more than earned the benefit of the doubt no matter the premise. However, entrenched success has a way of calcifying audience expectations. Guardians of the Galaxy was so funky, so different, so anarchic, and so wildly enjoyable. It should only be expected that the things that made it different would now be folded into audience expectations. The misfits can only be misfits for so long. It may not be as brash and fun or memorable as the first edition but it does benefit from the strong rapport of its cast and the deeper characterization, tackling some serious subjects while still slow motion stepping to a murder montage set to the golden oldies of the 1970s. The movie matters not because of the action, or the funny one-liners, or the adorableness of Baby Groot. It’s because we genuinely love these oddball characters. The first one introduced them and brought them together, and the second film deepens their bonds and widens their scope of family. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a sequel that provides just about everything that fans should want. If it feels slightly lesser it’s probably just because it can’t be fresh twice, but Guardians vol. 2 still dances to its own beat and it’s still a beautiful thing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Passengers (2016)

passengers_fridayonesheet-1Reading the raft of reviews for director Morten Tyldum ‘s (The Imitation Game) new sci-fi movie Passengers, you would think the movie must have killed somebody’s mother. The resoundingly negative press stems from a an early plot development that critics have decried as offensive, disgusting, misguided, misogynist, and even “Titanic in space.” After having seen this controversial film, I feel like some of the moral outrage is overblown, or at least purposely ignoring complexities and context. Passengers is a movie that makes you think and feel and my feelings were more than billious invective.

Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is a passenger onboard the Avalon spaceship as it hurtles across the galaxy toward the colony of Homestead II. It’s a gigantic, sleek, and powerful vessel and the trip is expected to last 120 years. Except Jim was awakened early. 90 years too early. His hibernation pod short-circuited and he’s unable to go back to sleep. He’s destined to live out his life and die alone before any of the approximately 5,000 other passengers awakens. The Avalon is large and lonely, save for a handful of robotic and holographic guides, notably an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) who advises Jim to accept his circumstances and find enjoyment. One year later, binging on exotic food, playing video games for hours, and living without rules has lost its appeal enough that Jim is considering suicide. Then he sees the sleeping face of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is awestruck. She’s beautiful but she symbolizes more. She’s a journalist and he reads all of her works, admiring her courage, sense of humor, ambitions, and determination. He feels like he’s falling for her and wishes she were awake. Jim asks Arthur, “What if you were stranded on a desert island and had the power to wish somebody else there? You wouldn’t be alone anymore but you’d be stranding them.” Arthur’s response: “Jim, these are not robot questions.” Jim decides to purposely wake Aurora, because if he didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a movie left. He hides his culpability and welcomes her to this new  grim reality and they find solace with one another. The truth hovers over their heads but it’s not the only danger for Jim. The Avalon is experiencing a wealth of small technical glitches that cascade into bigger problems. If Jim and Aurora don’t stumble upon an answer, all 5,000 people onboard could perish far from home.

jennifer-lawrence-passengers-2016-promo-images-1While far from flawless, Passengers has plenty at play to engage an audience on different levels, be they intellectual, ethical, or science fiction thrills. The premise is strong from the first minute onward and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) has an astonishingly imagintive command of world building. The first act is one of discovery for Jim and the audience, and Spaihts provides plenty to discover that fits within the logical future. Jim sends out a video recording asking for help and then learns it will take 18 years to be sent to Earth and another 30 years to get the answer. It’s a nice moment that brings some science smarts to the proceedings. Colony planets are the next big corporate venture, and I appreciated the little touches that made this future world feel all the more plausible and authentic. Jim is a lower-class skilled laborer and will owe a percentage of his life’s earnings to pay for the voyage (sound familiar?). There’s also a class system alive and well, as Jim is denied the more delicious food and beverage breakfast items because he is not a Gold Star passenger. Beyond these little touches, Spaihts delivers a remarkably efficient story structure. The emphasis shifts in half-hour segments just long enough to fulfill a plot purpose before moving on to a natural transition. The rich contours of the Avalon are explored with plenty of built-in mysteries like what’s on the other side of the crew door. It’s a story implanted with strong mystery elements to smoothly guide the intrigue of an audience. The small scenes open up to wider scenes, and every set on the Avalon fulfills a purpose either emotionally or with suspense. I was definitely hooked and wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of this brave new world. Tyldum impresses with how easily he translates his visual prowess into the realm of large-scale science fiction. The set design by Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception) is immaculate and had me begging to visit as many locations as possible aboard the Avalon. The many designs are more than just clean, sterile surfaces; there’s craftsmanship and personality in the rococo symmetry. I also greatly enjoyed the very intentional Shining visual motif of Arthur’s red velvet bar.

The film’s selling point is the relationship between its mega-watt stars, and Pratt (The Magnificent Seven) and Lawrence (Joy) deliver on their end. You could do far worse than spend 90 years with some of Hollywood’s most effortlessly charming, gorgeous, and self-effacing actors. Pratt and Lawrence seem to exist on a similar goofy yet spirited plane, and it works toward their eventual courtship. There’s a cute scene where Jim quizzes Aurora on her observational reasoning, guessing real aspects about several sleeping passengers. Jim is a man who feels out of place on Earth, looking to build anew, and Aurora is looking for an adventure worthy of a great story to equal her famous father’s literary works. It’s a fascinating question of whether a person would willingly jump forward in time 250 years, as Aurora plans to when she returns to Earth (if there still is an Earth). You’d be severing all tethers to human relationships from your past and also the world as you conceived. The characters aren’t the most in depth, and “Aurora Lane” is definitely a name that’s one step removed from being downright Jetsonian, but it’s the exceptional situation that makes them compelling to watch. How does one court the only other waking human being on a ship of thousands? What if Aurora happened to be gay? It’s a Last Man on Earth scenario that has been explored many times on TV and the big screen but there’s still something inherently interesting about the premise. I also enjoyed the care they build for their only other companion, Arthur the loyal bartender and confidant.

chris-pratt-passengers-robot-bar-2016Whether you see the movie as a parable about the horrible things people do when confronted with despair or as a fantasy for unchecked misogyny will depend upon if you view the problematic relationship as morally wrong but potentially empathetic or only irredeemably creepy. “You murderer!” Aurora accuses Jim when she discovers the awful truth, and she’s right. Jim has robbed her of a future and taken away her choice. I like to consider myself a relatively enlightened and progressive chap but I’ll admit I that I can only see things through my own white heterosexual male lens, so your mileage may vary. When Jim falls in love with Aurora from researching her background and pouring over every word she’s written in print, this may be the telltale sign for an audience. If you view it as a more heightened equivalent to falling in love through correspondence, an unrequited love fueled by missed chances, then perhaps you’ll still be onboard. However, if you view Jim’s love as the equivalent of falling in love with a coma patient (Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her?) and projecting feelings onto an unresponsive woman without agency, then this is a romantic paean that you’ll associate more with a horror movie.

There are several great and touching one-sided romances in the annuls of film, and I viewed Passengers as a higher concept rom-com where the misguided man (it’s usually the man) is hiding a secret about the murky circumstances surrounding the start of their relationship (like a She’s All That in space). That’s a fairly cheeky assessment of what could also effectively be dubbed a Stockholm syndrome romance, as Jim is the one responsible for kidnapping her from her planned future. I’ve read lots of ink from critics decrying this movie as an offensive, deeply flawed film. I think Passengers effectively communicates the full implications of Jim’s choice. It wants us to wade into that ethically troublesome pool with Jim. It doesn’t pretend he’s the good guy, though that judgment can be read too easily. It says Jim is a human being in a unique setting and that he made a selfish choice. There’s a complexity there I think is going ignored in a rush to moral indignation. I honestly think most people if given similar circumstances would make the same selfish decision. That’s not a lazy excuse but it is empathy, and empathy does not require comprehensive endorsement to still exist in some form or other.

With that being said, the movie certainly stacks the deck in Jim’s favor for some sort of redemption and/or forgiveness. The very fact that we have an actor as handsome and charismatic as Pratt shows the movie’s intentions. It’s not like Steve Buscemi was the one who woke up Jennifer Lawrence, and now that I’ve just written that sentence I’d be seriously interested to see that version of this story. I think that audience sympathies might be different for a more ordinary, homely man awakening a woman who, by conventional dating standards, would be out of his league on any planet. I think an audience might be more apt to interpret a lecherous angle to Jim’s actions if the part wasn’t so young and generally appealing. The opening act is the Cast Away section of the story that follows Jim’s discovery and isolation for a solid year, and it does much to engender good will for an audience, enough that his actions waking up Aurora force us as well into the uncomfortable ethical muck. “He was a drowning man, and he’ll grab onto anyone to save himself if he could,” is the only real overt effort at approaching apology.

maxresdefaultThis premise is strong enough that different angles could have been explored. What if we only spent the opening ten minutes establishing Jim and his life on the Avalon? The awakening of a second passenger would serve as the inciting incident but the movie would purposely hide behind the plausible theory that she woke up by accident, by the same mysterious malfunction that Jim will relate. It would also provide a longer period of time for Jim and Aurora to develop together. Then the Act Two midpoint would be the reveal of Jim’s involvement and the fact that he had been awake far longer than he initially told her, perhaps with the original opening half-hour cut down to a few impressionistic flashback bits to communicate the stark loneliness and desperation. We would be just as shocked as Aurora. It’s here that the movie could completely become a horror movie, with Jim chasing her down through the empty space station. Maybe she even finds a locker with other women he woke up that were then murdered because they too found out too much. Then she has to take him down or else he will keep repeating this murderous behavior until he gets his perfectly submissive Eve. Admittedly, that takes the movie in an entirely different, albeit still interesting, tonal direction.

Passengers seems to bounce back and forth between existential horror movie and broadly romantic soap opera. It doesn’t always mix but I enjoyed the collision of ideas, tones, ethics, and discomfort, at least before it rumbles into a third act that becomes a series of life-and-death action set pieces. It’s not that Passengers goes slack in its final act; the visuals are consistently engaging as the spaceship shuts down piece by piece. When the gravity goes, Aurora’s swimming pool water becomes a floating prison, endangering her life. It’s a terrific moment even if it only serves as momentary suspense. There was always something to keep my interest with Passengers, from the world itself to the mysteries to the ever-changing script to waiting for the awful truth to finally hit about Jim’s misdeeds. Ultimately your opinion of this movie will be entirely based upon your view of how the movie handles Jim’s decision and its aftermath. You may view the movie as a fiendish masculine fantasy that strips away a woman’s right to consent or as an empathetically challenging, morally dubious drama with a relatably selfish choice that requires real consequences and introspection. Pratt and Lawrence are winning actors even if they might not make the most winning couple. Passengers is engaging science fiction made with pristine technical care and a smart screenplay that layers mysteries worth unwrapping. I hope more audience members decide for themselves rather than turning up their noses thanks to the staunchly negative critical reviews reeling with offense. There’s more here than given credit and I feel Passengers is a journey worth taking for fans of large canvas science fiction that still demand a personable entry point.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

magnificent-seven-poster-2016Obviously the new Magnificent Seven remake was never going to be as good a Western as the 1960 original, or as good an action movie as its source material, Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai. Once you accept that, the question becomes whether simply being an enjoyable Western action movie qualifies as a success given its storied pedigree. If you can’t do better than the original, why bother making it as my friend Ben Bailey would question. The answer is of course blunt (money) but the conundrum is how does one improve on classic film masterpieces? I think the new Magnificent Seven found its footing by accepting its unquestioned ceiling and instead going down a different path, instilling the essence of what made the older films so superb, and just trying to be the best B-student it can be with its new set of guidelines for broad entertainment.

The dusty town of Rose Creek falls under attack by ruthless industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who wants the land for his mining company. He installs loyal toadies as lawmen for the town and to ensure any troublemakers are put to “justice.” Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) wishes to avenge her fallen husband and recruits a famous outlaw, Chisolm (Denzel Washington). He agrees to help and rustles up a powerful posse of gunslingers to defend the town from Bogue and his cruel forces.

There’s a reason this story still works as well as it does and that’s because the structure is ready-made for payoffs and audience satisfaction if the director and actors are capable. Act One establishes the threat and our two main roguish heroes, and then Act Two starts off with the gathering of the team, routinely one of the greatest sequences in screenwriting, and then the Act Two midpoint involves toppling the corrupt thugs controlling the town, and Act Three is the culmination between the forces of anti-hero good versus evil over the ultimate battle for the town. It’s an against-all-odds underdog tale with good but possibly doomed forces against a villain used to steamrolling through vulnerable citizens. I don’t care whom you are, that story structure worked then and it still works now. Fuqua and company don’t break a winning formula and know what strengths they have and how best to maximize them for top entertainment value.

magnificent-seven-2016-castThe biggest asset is this glorious cast, headlined by Washington and Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy). There isn’t admittedly much to these characters from a development standpoint. They’re given back-stories, though some of them are fairly airy and provide a bare minimum of effort. Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) in particular just kind of shows up and everybody shrugs and says, “Why not?” more or less. Also, while on this subject, it’s a bit contrived that when the bad side has their own villainous Native American that the script has to conspire for the only two Native Americans to face-off, especially when we’ve been given no history or connection between them prior to this climactic showdown. Back to the main cast, Washington settles into his suave badass persona we’ve come to expect from the man. He even fades into the background at times, ceding space for the other characters to have their moments. Make no mistake, though, because Washington’s character is a strong central anchor for this movie and even on autopilot this actor still produces attitude with style and gravitas. There’s also the simple pleasure of just watching Washington in a Western. The man was made for this setting of taciturn badasses. The brightest star of the picture is Pratt, expertly cast as a charming rogue with a big personality. What the characters lack in development they make up for in colorful personalities, which is acceptable in a genre that rewards memorably outsized figures of entertainment. Pratt is a fun rascal with a penchant for sarcasm and playing around with his prey. Every minute Pratt commanded the screen was a minute that captured my full attention.

The rest of the cast is solid and make the most of their screen time, putting in memorable supporting performances to compliment the stars. Vincent D’Onofrio (Jurassic World) is basically like a human equivalent of a bear or yeti. He’s this massive and animalistic creature and I appreciated D’Onofrio’s gusto in embracing the peculiarities. In a film of great casting and memorable characters, he nearly steals the movie. Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) has one of the more credible character arcs in the film as well as the best name (Goodnight Robicheaux). He’s haunted by a lifetime accumulation of killing. His flinty co-star Byung-hun Lee (RED 2) is the strong silent type and the two of them have a nice gunslinger chemistry, nicely contrasting but still a believable brotherhood in arms. Bennett (Hardcore Henry) is going to break out in a big way in 2016. She has a very arresting face (it’s her eyes) and an instant screen presence, which is hard to do with these guys soaking up much of the oxygen. She also gets to prove her mettle and not be treated as a romantic object, so hooray. My one concern with Bennett was that the costume designer had let her down, as it seemed the top of her gown was dangerously close to slipping off her shoulders at several key points. I understand this is designed to squeeze in a slight surge of sensuality for what is very much a PG-13 action flick but it became distracting with its obviousness. Bennett deserved better, though she might be another figure of T&A with her role in The Girl on the Train. We shall see (maybe much). The only sore spot is the villain, a wasted Sarsgaard (Black Mass) who never quite lives up to a diabolical nature worthy of the attention of our colorful cadre of anti-heroes. He’s a bully but he doesn’t seem formidable enough or that interesting.

magnificentsevenFuqua (The Equalizer) hasn’t been the most consistent stager of action with his up-and-down career but he puts out all the stops with The Magnificent Seven to great effect. The action sequences are robust and shot with great attention to geography and escalation. I knew exactly what the stakes were with each sequence and gun battle, and I knew the different people and their placement and the goals. With a crew of seven and counting, it can be difficult to adequately find room for each of the fighters to be well utilized and have at least a moment that matters (just look at what happened with Suicide Squad). The second half of Act Two is our team plotting how to compensate for the overwhelming forces coming down their way, and the plotting produces plenty of opportunities as the audience watches the setups and waits for the payoff jamboree. There are little payoffs, big payoffs, crowd-pleasing payoffs, character arc pleasing payoffs; it’s an action movie that knows the climax should be the best part, and it doesn’t disappoint. The town may be in rubble and strewn with corpses by film’s end, but you’ll be happy and content from the wealth of tense and smartly directed action. Helping things along, Fuqua’s Wild West photography is often strikingly beautiful with its use of natural light.

The Magnificent Seven makes up for its lack of originality and rich characters in colorful personality and the sheer scope and intensity of its action. It can’t contend with John Sturgis and Akira Kurosawa, but what modern movie can? I don’t fault the movie for failing to live up to the standards of two classics in two different genres. I instead credit the movie for knowing its strengths and knowing how best to develop and deliver them for maximum mass appeal enjoyment. The cast is wonderfully selected and given fun characters to dig into, and the onscreen camaraderie of our seven might not rise to the level of magnificence but it’s pretty good by all accounts. That’s a rather keen summary of the movie writ large; with modestly recalculated expectations, the movie may not be magnificent but it’s plenty good and plenty entertaining. Washington and Pratt are stars making full use of their broad star appeal. The action sequences are well staged and peppered with payoffs, and it’s worth congratulating the team on having several parallel lines of action and keeping all of the shifting particulars understandable for its audience. The Magnificent Seven is about as good as I expected any remake to be, and while it doesn’t rise to those storied heights it does achieve its goals with vigor and style.

Nate’s Grade: B

Jurassic World (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: B

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

imagesWho would have guessed that a movie that featured a talking tree and an anthropomorphic raccoon would be one of the best films of the year and one of the top grossing films of the summer? At this point for audiences, the Marvel name can do no wrong, but really it’s the degree of latitude given to Guardians of the Galaxy, an admittedly weird movie with strange characters, that allows this unique film to shine. Attaching offbeat director James Gunn (Super, Slither) to be writer and director was a risk that paid off tremendously, as Guardians is the Marvel film most entrenched with the particular personality of its creative director. This is a gleefully imaginative film that enjoys wading deep into weirdness, dancing to its adventurous Star Wars throwback beat, always with its focus set on comedy but not at the expense of quality drama or character development. Really, the characters are the focus of this entry into the franchise, and Gunn and his actors do a bang-up job of gathering the team and getting you to care about each and every one of them. Each one of these characters has a goal, several payoffs, and each is given their proper attention. In an ordinary superhero film, the archetypes would be ironclad. With Guardians, the tough guy made of muscle can also be a source of unexpected comedy with his literal-minded speech patterns. With Guardians, the talking raccoon can also be an emotionally disturbed victim of genetic experimentation who doesn’t know how to play well with others. These are damaged characters and their formation of an unconventional family unit is deeply satisfying and rather touching. I have seen the film twice and gotten teary-eyed both times. The real star of the film is Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation), and what a breakout role he is afforded; he’s like Han Solo’s more juvenile nephew. But like the others, the part is surprising in its depth, with a well of sadness and displacement he still hasn’t processed while he scavenges the galaxy. The plot can be a bit unwieldy at times but pays off better for repeat viewings. This is a world I want to spend far more time exploring and with these characters as my merry prankster guides. With a movie this action-packed, thoroughly entertaining, and gratifying, why come back to Earth?

Nate’s Grade: A

The LEGO Movie (2014)

MV5BMTg4MDk1ODExN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzIyNjg3MDE@._V1_SX214_Highly creative, cheeky, frenetic, and bursting with visual splendor, The LEGO Movie will likely surpass all expectations you had for what was assumed a 90-minute LEGO commercial. I cannot even tell if it’s actually a commercial or a subversive consumerist satire, or perhaps a blending of both. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller take their same anarchic, comic rambunctious absurdity exhibited in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street and produce another movie so fast-paced, so freewheeling in energy, and so comically alive that you feel rejuvenated by the end. These are gentlemen who fully know the storytelling power with animation and they create worlds that are astounding to watch. While completely computer generated, the world looks like it was stop-motion. In fact, the detail that everything in the physical world is made of LEGOs was a nice touch, including fire, water, and smoke. The story of an unremarkable guy (slyly stupidly voiced by Chris Pratt) mistaken for The One, and the complications that arise, is a fitting satire of superhero fantasy mythos filmmaking. The social commentary on conformity and the media is cutting without distracting from the plot’s ongoing mission. The characters are fun, the jokes land assuredly, and the action sequences are mesmerizing. But then it takes a meta turn in the third act that gives the movie a whole other prism that helps define its previous outrageousness while leading to a poignant message about the inclusiveness of play. It’s a movie that celebrates imagination and individuality, and while it will more than likely also sell a crapload of toys, it’s an animated film with more on its mind. To paraphrase the top radio hit in the world of LEGOS, everything is just enough awesome.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Her (2013)

herIt’s been several years for Spike Jonze since he escaped the turmoil around Where the Wild Things Are, an ambitious adaptation that ran afoul with studio execs over the oppressively sad tone (I agreed with the execs). He’s one of the most stylish visual directors working today, but Her is something very different for the man. For starters, it’s a film Jonze wrote himself; no collaboration with Charlie Kaufman this time. It’s also a pared down love story, focusing heavily on two characters and their exciting and emerging union. There are no visual tricks, no gimmicks, no overt special effects, nothing to distract from the central relationship commanding the screen. It’s a different kind of film from Jonze but one that’s just as brilliantly well made as his best. Her is a beguiling winner.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man struggling to get his life back together. He’s a star at his job where he writes other people’s personal letters for them, but he’s a sensitive soul still refusing to sign the divorce papers from his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). He doesn’t want to lose that part of his life. After watching an ad, Theodore buys a new computer operating system (OS) that promises to be the most lifelike possible. He pops the software onto his computer and, voila, the voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) emerges, chipper, helpful, and compassionate. Theodore is a new man with her assistance, and soon they grow even closer together on a romantic scale. Theodore and Samantha embark on the greta unknown together, but can a relationship work when it’s with a voice in your computer.

112189_galIt’s been weeks since I first watched Her and I keep thinking back upon it, turning it over in my mind, finding more and more to like about this captivating little movie. It’s a tenderhearted and poignant movie that also manages to have something to say about human connection. And this really is a love story, and an engrossing one at that, despite the fact that it’s man and machine. The romance between Samantha and Theodore is never looked down upon, marginalized, the setup to some punch line about how nerd can’t get dates with real women. You think the film might go there, and then Theodore’s co-workers just shrug when the truth comes out and treat his relationship like any other. I suppose you could make all sorts of analogues, but they are unnecessary because Samantha truly feels like another person. She’s given complexity, curiosity, impulses, and, yes, as voiced by the husky-voiced Johansson, an alluring edge. Because she’s a disembodied voice minus form, theirs is a relationship built upon intellect, conversation, personality, and a burgeoning connection, though they do cover the sex part as well. In fact, the climactic (pardon the pun) vocal exploration is simultaneously awkward, funny, heartfelt, and yes, even a little sexy, and the music crescendos to give it even more oomph. Samantha is learning just as much about herself as Theodore is. Their relationship is opening both of them up to the possibilities they might never have sought. In that respect, Jonze’s film falls under that sweet spell all engaging romances achieve where our spirits are lifted and we swoon along with the onscreen coupling.

I’ve found it tricky to talk about Her at least in describing the premise to other people; comparing Samantha to Siri has helped rather than just referring to her as an “operating system.” One concern I had was that Jonze was just going to deliver the premise in a very expected manner and Her would serve up more of the same. But he doesn’t. While this is a light science fiction film, it is extremely well developed and thought out. Jonze has taken remarkable care to flesh out his story and enrich the not too distant future world. It felt like a world that could reasonably exist. I enjoyed the fact that there were so-called surrogates for hire, people that would serve as the physical embodiments of the OS personalities, providing a different kind of encounter, one meant to converge intimacy with touch. I could see these people existing if this were the future. Even better, Jonze takes great care to develop the central relationship between his lovers, so that every unique complication is given some form of respectful coverage. They discuss the limitations but not just what you would assume. Yes Samantha has no body, but she can also be in many places at once, doing many things at once, and simply will outlive all her carbon-based life form companions. Can they make this last? Even with the technological component, old problems can rear their head, particularly jealousy, like when Samantha begins communicating with other OS personalities. Then there’s Theodore’s lingering divorce with his wife, a woman who can stir up old feelings and doubts. Without giving too much away, the end manages to be hopeful, melancholy, expected, and satisfying.

112187_galJonze also manages to slide in some subtle jabs about the state of communication and connection. There’s an early shot where Theodore is riding a train and everyone on board appears to be talking except that they’re all talking to their OS, each person an isolated unit. Theodore’s job also seems like a perfect social commentary as well as a clever conceit for a man who has unsurpassed skill with words but difficulty with the flesh-and-blood interaction. It works directly with the theme of the film. I also find it humorous, and a bit subversive, that Theodore has long-standing relationships with clients. He’s been writing letters for certain couples for years going all the way back to their first meeting. Think about that, this couple’s communication and courtship rest upon the words of an intermediary paid for his services. These people could go their entire lives thinking their partner is the author of such wonderful, heartfelt, observant words. That’s the dearth of honest communication plaguing human relationships, but it’s not a new problem. We’ve all ducked hard conversations. Many of us would love to have someone come in and do the dirty work while we sit back and reap the rewards. But a relationship built upon deceit or convenience will ultimately fall apart, or, in this new age of technological isolation and greater deception, will it?

Jonze’s direction seems invisible, like we’re dropping in on these characters and peaking on their lives. The overall technical aesthetic of Her is a clean, simplified look and feel for a love story that manages to be new and familiar. The production design has an eye-catching degree of colors, which bathe the film in a consistently dreamy, gauzy aura, echoing the screenplay’s warm heart. The score by the Canadian alternative band Arcade Fire is low-key but just as vulnerable, resonant, and special as the characters in the film. It’s mostly pared down piano trinkles but the reoccurring motifs stick in your head, elevating Jonze’s film. When Samantha takes up composing songs to express her sum total feelings of a moment, capturing a snapshot of a particular time as she refers, it’s nice to have talented musicians able to bring this to life.

Phoneix (The Master) gives such a tender, vulnerable performance that you worry that he’s going to be crushed by life. He has this remarkable way of making you want to hug Theodore, like he’s this sad puppy that just needs a good home. There are moments in the film where just one perfectly executed crinkly-eyed crooked smile tells me everything about this character. Phoenix plays his character as a good-hearted, amiable, and deeply romantic individual, and the sheer strength of his performance will knock you back. Theodore has such great pools of empathy, and a poet’s soul, which allows him to excel at his job but it also makes relationships hard. A relationship takes work, and Theodore may have not been up to the labor, as his ex-wife argues. Personally, I found a lot of striking points of similarity with the character and I think others will as well. Who hasn’t, in a moment of dark-clouded funk, wondered if they’ve reached the apex of their emotional experiences, that everything will somehow be lesser variations? Who hasn’t feared that they somehow tapped out on their ability to love as powerfully as before? As Theodore is picking up the pieces of his life, trying to determine his new sense of self, we’re learning alongside him exactly how Samantha is changing him.

112182_galBefore this movie, I would have said a Johansson (Don Jon) performance minus her body would be a travesty, but damn if she doesn’t give a performance that is worthy of the Oscar buzz. It’s easy to understand why Theodore falls for Samantha, and you will too. Johansson has never been this winsome and loveable but she’s far more than some idealized Super Girlfriend to be placed precariously on a pedestal. She’s learning too, making choices, some of them bad, and exploring the consequences. The depth of emotion she’s able to convey with a character only heard audibly is impressive. Samantha is a fully formed character that wants to be treated as such, and Johansson give her all the shadings of a living being. She’s inquisitive, funny, curious, but also eerily human in her mannerisms, like when she uses short breaths when feeling awkward even though she has no use for breath, obviously. Johansson is so easily sultry, voice included, but Samantha is not relegated to some high-tech toy, some quirky sexual fantasy. She feels real, which is why their relationship feels genuine and so moving and charming.

Who knew the most affecting love story of 2013 would involve a man and his computer? Her is an insightful, touching, and rewarding movie that hits you on many levels, satisfying all of them. It’s a smart film that explores the various complications of its premise while widening its scope further, it’s heartfelt and humble as it approaches relatable matters of love and loss and feeling adrift, it’s sweetly romantic while at the same time being tethered to reality, finding a perfect balance, and at its core it’s the tale of two people, one human and one mechanical, that find happiness in one another. People will likely pick the movie apart to search for personal messages from Jonze about his own divorce from filmmaker Sofia Coppola in 2003. Maybe that stuff is buried in there, but Jonze has crafted something far more applicable and enjoyable. Her is an openly romantic film that doesn’t shortchange heartache, and it posits that love is love no matter whom it’s directed at. Her is an extraordinary sort of movie and one I plan on revisiting again. Give this unconventional romance a chance and you may be delightfully surprised.

Nate’s Grade: A

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

1902Director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, Oscar winners for 2009’s Best Picture-winner war film The Hurt Locker, were hard at work on their next movie when fate intervened. They were about to start production on a film about a 2001 incident where U.S. Special Forces almost nabbed Osama bin Laden, the notorious mastermind behind 9/11. Then on May 1, 2011, the world learned that Seal Team Six stormed bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan and executed the most wanted man in the world. Bigelow and Boal scrapped all plans and rewrote their movie from scratch. Now they had the ending we’d all demand; isn’t a movie where we get bin Laden way better than one where he narrowly escapes? Zero Dark Thirty (military terminology for well after dark) is the stunning result of Boal’s impressive reporting and condensing, Bigelow’s masterful direction, and a great supporting cast that brings history to vivid life. If you’re like me, you’ll walk out of the theater whistling to yourself, speechless at the spellbinding artistic achievement of the movie. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what essential, invigorating, quality filmmaking is all about.

We may know about Seal Team Six and the lead presented from tracking the courier, but few people know of the CIA analyst at the heart of the manhunt. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young agent stationed in Afghanistan who desires nothing more than to be the one who helps ensure that bin Laden gets killed. We follow her decade-long quest as she chases down leads, interrogates prisoners, and successfully presses the CIA brass for action, resulting in the fateful raid that took out bin Laden.

96597_galYou can tell early on that Zero Dark Thirty is going to be an excellent film. Given the pedigree of is creators, my expectations were enormously high. I rated their previous collaboration as my top film of that year. I knew I was in capable hands when the film opens on September 11, 2001 but skips any visuals. We sit and watch a minute of a blank screen while the sounds of desperate 911 calls become a wall of sound. It’s enough to reassert the stakes while still being restrained. Bigelow’s directorial command is astonishing, pitting you in the thick of the action. There are a lot of moving parts with a movie like this, wheels within wheels, and Bigelow keeps everything moving and focused. It helps that the bigger manhunt is broken up into a series of mini-missions over the ten years. Bigelow and her talented production team have recreated the ends of the world to bring this story to life. That added sheen of verisimilitude gives every moment a sense of magnified power, an electric sense of relevancy. You’ll get goose bumps as they start circling the actual location of bin Laden. Bigelow, who won an Oscar for her virtuoso work on The Hurt Locker, still knows how to play every one of your nerves. There’s a clandestine meet up with a possible turncoat that is stuffed with dread. Every checkpoint, every safety procedure waved, you’ll be biting your nails, the voice in your head clearly saying, “Oh no, this isn’t going to go well.” Zero Dark Thirty is more crime procedural than the action thriller. Even so, Bigelow’s direction is top-notch and brings an intense, churning verve to the film, down to the smallest detail.

The film plays out like an absorbing, hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism, recreating the steps and false turns over the ten-year manhunt for bin Laden. There is a lot of information to process and over 100 speaking roles, and Boal and Bigelow do not stoop to pander to the less intelligent in the audience. You will be expected to catch up or fall behind. It can get confusing at points but Boal does an exceedingly articulate job of narrowing the particulars of the bin Laden case and presenting a clear through line. It’s a story that hops around the globe through a series of mini-missions, from a meet up with a possible al Qaeda spy to locking down a phone number to trace a courier in Pakistan. You see every step, every deal, and every effort that it takes to land the big break, namely tracking down bin Laden’s trusted courier to his Abbottabad compound. Boal even separates his narrative with titled sub-sections like a lengthy piece of journalism. We all know where the story is going to end up, but Boal’s supreme talent is making every step meaningful and tense leading up to that fateful raid May 1, 2011. The level of reportage detail is completely enthralling and will be relatively unknown to most filmgoers. Beyond 9/11 and the London bombings, I confess to being ignorant of the other al Qaeda attacks highlighted throughout. Therefore, not only is Zero Dark Thirty an exciting manhunt, it’s also an educational endeavor for most Americans.

92973_galThe proceeding two hours are an engrossing manhunt, but when Zero Dark Thirty gets to the raid sequence, that is when the movie ascends to a level of cinematic excellence unsurpassed this year at the movies. There is nothing else in 2012 that comes close to matching the 30-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound. My heart was in my throat the whole time. I was physically shaking. I was pinned to my chair. The conclusion, nabbing bin Laden, is one of the most riveting sequences in film I have ever seen. It’s like Bigelow has complete control of your senses, and even though we all know how this story ends, you’ll be glued to the screen, pulse racing, anticipating every step. After the film ended, I told my friend Eric that I felt like I needed to start smoking, thus was how exhilarated I felt leaving the theater (message to kids: don’t smoke, even if you see Zero Dark Thirty). My head was bustling afterwards. All I could think about was the masterful conclusion to a very good movie. The raid sequence is brilliantly recreated and just about portrayed in exacting real time; you feel like you’re right there along with the members of Seal Team Six. For a civilian, it’s fascinating jut to watch the minutiae of what went down, but under Bigelow’s taut direction, it’s the moment every American has been waiting for since September 11, 2001. Bigelow is also careful not to portray the death in any sort of jingoistic, fist-pumping context. She sticks with her docu-drama approach, avoiding sensationalism, and you don’t even see the shot that takes down bin Laden. The film is also very careful not to linger on bin Laden’s dead body or even reveal his face; she doesn’t, as President Obama said, “spike the football.” Bigelow deserves a second Oscar just for her superlative handling of those unparalleled 30 minutes of pure filmmaking bravado. Plus, it’s the best ending of the year at the movies.

Let me address the brewing controversy ensnaring the movie regarding its depiction of torture. Zero Dark Thirty does demonstrate torture but it never glorifies it or presents it as anything less than dehumanizing and morally repugnant. But torture did happen (I’m sorry Dick Cheney… “enhanced interrogations”) and to whitewash this regrettable period of time from the historical record is a disservice to the truth. This country, as well as any other, engages in extreme and detestable measures; we only hope that our leaders have the moral clarity to make these ethical lapses as few and far between as possible. Now, the politicians and bloggers have attacked Bigelow’s movie as tacitly condoning torture, indicting that it was successful in getting that big break. This is not the case. Zero Dark Thirty shows a variety of methods being used, and yes we get a heavy helping of torture and humiliation, but it’s when Maya and others start treating the detainee like a human being again, offering food and conversation, is when the progress is made. The film does not explicitly declare one interrogation method successful, however, I can see where people will draw their own (wrong) conclusion. If anyone wants to read my exact stance on torture, just check out my lengthy review of the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side. In short, torture does not work and Zero Dark Thirty does not purport that it does, though many may conclude otherwise. It seems to me that the critics don’t have enough faith in the audience to accept ambiguity.

2011’s breakout actress, Chastain (The Help), is the focal point of the movie and she delivers. Her character has no life outside of doggedly hunting for bin Laden. She’s completely driven by the goal of killing him, and as such she gets to uncork some dandy angry monologues dressing down her colleagues for their failing dedication. Chastian does a fine job of keeping a veneer around Maya, shrouding her emotions into a mysterious calm, which seems realistic given the nature of the character but also makes it tricky to connect with her emotionally. This movie is not the great character study that The Hurt Locker was, and so Maya gets some rather shrift characterization: she’s a workaholic fighting for credibility. The real star of the movie is the story so all the characters take a back seat to Boal’s journalism. While Chastain is quite good, I have to shrug my shoulders at the various critics groups throwing Best Actress accolades her way (go Jennifer Lawrence).

92974_galThe supporting cast doesn’t have a weak link amongst them, from Kyle Chandler (Super 8) as an outpost boss, Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a CIA superior screaming at the bin Laden team to “find me targets to kill,” Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) as Maya’s closest friend in a hostile land, James Gandolfini (TV’s Sopranos) as CIA director Leon Panetta, Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones’ Stannis Baratheon) as a skeptical NSA head, and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) as a member of Seal Team Six. That’s right America, TV’s Andy Dwyer helps cap bin Laden. But the real standout is Jason Clarke (Lawless) as an interrogator who eventually leaves the field for an office but still makes headway for Maya.

Much like The Hurt Locker, here is a movie that transcends politics and genre. Zero Dark Thirty is a nerve-wracking thriller, it’s an intelligent crime procedural, and it’s an engrossing and powerful work of relevant art. It operates on such a high level of artistic achievement that little else from 2012 even comes close. This thorough, intense, provocative, thought-provoking, morally ambiguous, thrilling, and generally tremendous movie is taken to a whole other level with its concluding act, brilliantly recreating the raid that took down Osama bin Laden, the most cathartic and satisfying ending of the year. You’ll be liable to whistle in awe at how accomplished Zero Dark Thirty is. Of course audiences should not accept every thing they see in the movie as unimpeachable gospel, as dramatic license is needed to help shape a formidable narrative. This is still a movie that desires to entertain and yea does it entertain. I look forward to the American public getting a chance to experience the same riveting theatrical experience that I had with my critical brethren, as well as the sense of catharsis and relief by film’s end. Zero Dark Thirty forgoes sensationalism for modulation, eschews moral righteousness for ambiguity, and expects the audience to keep up with its retinue of information. And you’ll be grateful to be given the chance to tag along. Run out and see this remarkable movie when you have the chance. Movies don’t get much better than this, folks.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Five-Year Engagement (2012)

Relationships are serious business. In most Judd Apatow productions, they’re funny business. With The Five-Year Engagement, there’s romance to be found in surprising places, but the omnipresent feeling is one of dread. All those advertisements highlighting the comedy will start to melt away, and what you are left with is a funny, if bittersweet, anti-romantic comedy, more uncomfortable with hard-hitting truths than congenial laughs. My theater even had a few walkouts.

Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are happily in love. He’s a sous chef in a trendy San Francisco restaurant and she’s eager to gain a graduate fellowship at UC-Berkley in psychology. She doesn’t get accepted to Berkley, but the University of Michigan offers her a spot. Tom and Violet agree to put their wedding on hold and move to Michigan so that she can take advantage of an amazing opportunity. Michigan is not to Tom’s liking, especially since he can’t find a fulfilling job and settles with making sandwiches at a campus sub shop. It’s all just temporary, he keeps reminding himself. Then Violet’s two years gets extended, and Michigan isn’t just a temporary pit stop, it’s possibly home. Tom’s disappointment spirals, and he and Violet begin to drift apart, he resenting her for giving up his own dream to support hers. She begins getting emotionally attached to her Psychology professor, Dr. Childs (Rhys Ifans), in ways that straddle the mentor-student boundaries. Meanwhile, Violet’s sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), gets pregnant after a one-night stand with Alex (Chris Pratt), Tom’s best man and coworker, at the couple’s engagement party. They get married, have kids, and Tom and Violet are still stalling. This is the story of two people who deserve their happily ever after except life keeps putting obstacles in their path to the altar.

You will be unprepared for how sobering The Five-Year Engagement can be. Some of these arguments between Tom and Violet cut right to the bone with an exacting level of painful authenticity. The level of uncomfortable intimacy can make the movie feel grueling. At the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s some Apatow version of a John Cassavettes flick. There’s still plenty of comedy but the film is much more of a drama than any previous Apatow production. Part of the squirm factor comes in the very nature of the premise. The Five-Year Engagement picks up where most rom-coms end, with our happy couple together at last. We know these two are meant for one another; however, the majority of the screenplay involves watching two likeable, funny, loving people drift emotionally apart. Eventually they get back together in the end in a mad rush to staunch the gloom prevailing over the movie. It’s a hard act to watch people drift apart, losing the connections that once bound them together, and witnessing the glow of romance fade into complacency and resentment. Again, this is all handled in ways that find humor in uncomfortable places (like Tom, hopped up on painkillers, apologizing for smiling during sad news), but it can still be uncomfortable, and I don’t know if the ending, while happy, will justify the journey for many audience members.

I was shocked how much I found myself relating to the plight of the characters in The Five-Year Engagement, so much so that I simultaneously felt an extra level of engagement and discomfort. I will spare you the gory details, as I am a gentleman first and foremost, but relationships that just fizzle out rather than ending in some abrupt manner (infidelity, commitment issues, lack of availability, etc.) are not any more enviable. I related to the general sense of malaise that can plague a long-term relationship, the feeling of being forever a plus-one in your spouse’s circles, the resentment over the demands of a job or school, the small cracks that mask a lot of pain, the kind that is suffused with rationalization that to assert what you feel is to be selfish and inconsiderate, the loss of intimacy, physical and emotional, the guilt of being unhappy or making someone unhappy, and the sad realization that maybe love just wasn’t enough. What happens when nice people who are good for each other are just dealt rotten circumstances? Phew. I feel like I’m turning this into a therapy session. Let’s talk about something inappropriate in the next paragraph.

The biggest reason for sticking it out, both for Tom and Violet and the audience, is that Segel and Blunt have terrific chemistry together. Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is a big endearing lug of a man, and putting his career on hold to support his fiancé gives him an extra surplus of sympathy as we watch him spiral into despair and then resentment. He’s a funny, likeable guy, and we know he and Violet are meant for one another and we want them to get together, even as this looks less likely to come true after the circumstances that push them away. Granted, you must swallow the hard-to-believe reality that Tom couldn’t find a decent job in Ann Arbor, a college town that has to have some fine dining along the outskirts of town if not in the city. Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) makes me fall in love with her yet again with a performance. Just like in 2011’s Bureau, she creates a charming, vibrant, luminescent portrayal of a person in love, so much so that I am envious of the man of her affections (her pantomime of “Circus Solei sex” made me feel all warm and fuzzy in multiple places). Violet has her own share of flaws but that just made her more relatable. I enjoy the way Segel, as a screenwriter (he co-wrote the movie with his regular collaborator, director Nicholas Stoller), is charitable with his characterization. He’s not afraid to make himself look mean and hurtful and wrong. He’s not afraid to make the girlfriends in his movies, even the ones who are about to dump him, justifiable in their decision-making. This is not a case of good guys and bad guys; it’s much more like life where everyone can draw good reasons, and the consequences just suck. Out of all of the Apatow films, Segel has done the best job of making his characters feel most like actual people than broad comedic types.

Luckily, the movie has its funny, peculiar little moments to make the drama bearable. I appreciate the little touches of comedy, which percolate through the heaviness. The wide supporting cast is peopled with the usual blend of oddballs and loudmouths. Pratt and Brie provide an ongoing foil as the couple who didn’t seem right for one another, made initial impulsive decisions, but have stuck it out and are happy; instead of waiting for the right time they embrace the mantra that there is no perfect time in life but the present. Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) is great as a smart-aleck who grows into a responsible father. Brie adopts a British accent and becomes even more adorable, as all fans of Community would know. She’s quite funny as Violet’s sister and has a standout sequence where she and Violet have a very adult conversation in front of children so they disguise their voices as Cookie Monster and Elmo. The juxtaposition is a hoot and yet also a nice moment to add characterization. I also enjoyed seeing Chris Parnell (TV’s 30 Rock) as a sad sack faculty spouse stay-at-home father who clears his misery with kitting. There are some gory comedic set pieces around arrows being shot into legs and toes getting amputated, but the movie’s best comedy comes in the small moments, from Tom ‘s patchy “I’ve stopped caring” facial hair, to a self-described “pickle nerd” played by Brian Posehn, to the percentages of every undergrad named “Ashley” or “Zack,” to Tom’s hopelessly overmatched chase with Professor Childs, to a running gag about grandparents dying before Tom and Violet wed.

I would like to take this time and observe that the University of Michigan, as well as its tenured professor, is responsible for the disruption of happiness between a young couple in love. How many other couples have you destroyed, U of M? When will your taste for suffering ever be quenched? And no, I’m not just saying this because I’m a diehard Ohio State Buckeyes fan, as well as a grad student. My point being: Michigan wants to kill Tom, Violet, and every person you hold dear (In short: Go Bucks).

You’d think with a title like The Five-Year Engagement they wouldn’t want to overstay their welcome, but like most Apatow productions, the film runs a bit on the long side. About 20 minutes into the movie, I felt the need to go to the bathroom. I rationalized staying put. Then about 90 minutes in, that urge became overwhelming but I reasoned the movie had to be over soon. And I kept telling myself that… for another 30 minutes. Then I just ran out and did my business, feeling the elation of relief. At over two hours, the movie feels excessive. Because of the drift away structure, the movie feels especially long in the second act, where we get hurtful scene after hurtful scene, and where Tom and Violet go their separate ways and start dating new people (the fact that Violet dates her smarmy professor feels realistic and yet also like a gut-punch to Tom). Some of the colorful characters that typical people Apatow productions feel more forced than usual, especially Violet’s collection of fellow psych grads played by the likes of Kevin Hart (Think Like a Man) and Mindy Kaling (TV’s The Office). They don’t seem well grafted to the story. The happy ending, while welcomed, also feels unlikely given the proceeding drama, and its brash adherence to rom-com conventions is a tad disappointing.

Watching the dissolution of a relationship is something of a hard sell to mainstream audiences, though Vince Vaughn was able to get audiences to see his anti-romantic comedy, 2006’s The Break-Up, which admittedly had bigger names and a lighter touch on the material. The Five-Year Engagement has its share of comedy but it’s pretty sublimated to the heavy drama of watching two people in love fall out of love and battle resentment, self-destruction, and apathy. Segel and Blunt are so good together we’re willing to give them a wider berth to stretch their wings, sow their oats, and eventually find one another again, falling back in love after a flurry of obstacles, realizing that finding and connecting with your right person is an ongoing process and not some prize to be awarded. I found myself connecting with the movie in several ways, so much so that it made me fee dour for the rest of the evening (you may feel differently). The movie gets so many subtle things right about how relationships can sour, and yet it still manages to overstay its welcome and fill its roly-poly narrative with annoying characters. At least the movie has helped me discover my perfect woman: Alison Brie with a British accent. However, Emily Blunt will also do in a pinch.

Nate’s Grade: B

Moneyball (2011)

Moneyball, based on the non-fiction book by journalist Michael Lewis (The Blind Side), finds a new way to reinvent the David v. Goliath tale with a man who reinvented the business model of baseball.

In 2001, the New York Yankees (team payroll: $125 million) have just knocked the Oakland As (team payroll: $41 million) out of the playoffs. Oakland General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) also has to suffer a summer where his biggest players leave the team to sign hefty free-agent contracts with bigger teams. He’s left with sizeable holes, a meager payroll, and the expectations to carry on winning. Beane is convinced that his group of paid scouts will be of no help. They’re men of an older era, sticking to the old ways of selecting talent (why the hell do these guys even calculate stuff like “good face” and “ugly girlfriend”?). Beane finds a kindred spirit in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale grad with a degree in Economics. Brand’s mathematical data focuses on one all-important stat – on-base percentage. Without getting on base a player can’t score runs, and no runs make it hard to win a game. Brand and Beane calculate a series of players undervalued by other teams. Their more cost-efficient model for success becomes known as “moneyball.” Together they put together a team of castoffs and misfits to contend for a championship against teams that have three times the Oakland As’ payroll.

Moneyball could be described as a baseball movie for people who don’t like baseball, but that’s a little too glib by half. It’s very much a sports film but it takes the underdog approach in a new, sleekly modernized manner. It’s about a guy bucking the traditional mode of thinking, the established order, and the chaffing and nay saying of those entrenched in the traditional, outmoded, establishment. There’s always something inherently entertaining about an innovator fighting the system and eventually being proven right after all the trials and tribulations. And with Pitt, a major movie star, giving a movie star-caliber performance, self-effacingly charming with a twinkle and a swagger, Moneyball just seems to fly by like a spirited caper. We’re watching a smooth operator work the room, playing other general managers off one another and secretly accruing his talent while duping his peers. At its best moments, Moneyball feels almost like a breathless con game. The intelligent, stats-heavy dialogue doesn’t stoop for much exposition. The stats and acronyms whiz by, with Social Network-style crispness thanks to Oscar-winning screenwriters Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin. It’s a pleasure listening to top actors savoring the smart dialogue. You just want to kick up your heels and relax like you’re watching a game at home, rooting for your team to pull out an unlikely coup. Moneyball plays best for baseball fans who won’t bat an eye at the stat-heavy chat. For non-fans of the game, well, you can watch Pitt spit chewing tobacco into a cup a lot.

Beane chooses not to get to close to his players so that eventual roster cuts and trades will be all the easier without emotional involvement. The movie kind of follows suit. The characters are kept at a surprising distance. The movie seems practically ambivalent about people. Moneyball seems to lack an emotional center; and people thought The Social Network was cold. Beane is given flashes of back-story about his flameout in the majors, which supposedly provides the guy a motivation to prove himself against his legion of detractors. But these flashes are not enough. Director Bennet Miller (his first film since 2005’s Capote) incorporates way too many scenes where we watch Beane driving, silently contemplating his life-changes. The feud between Beane and his curmudgeon manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman with the unkindest of haircuts), never comes to a head. Howe is upset at the thankless job of corralling a team of misfits and cast-offs into a competitive team. But like many other conflicts, the movie ducks from finding a real purpose for its integration. Howe just seems to be another naysayer who shakes his head at Billy. Surely the relationship between GM and manager should be more complicated than as presented. The Beane family flashbacks and his scenes with his daughter (the adorable Kerris Dorsey) are attempts to further humanize a man who has abandoned the advice of people for spreadsheets.

It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of the nation’s oldest sporting games, but Moneyball’s tone seems to toggle between reality and romanticism. For Beane, there are no small victories. Even success is deemed failure under the metrics of championship-or-nothing. “People only remember your last out,” he says despondently. So when the Oakland As fail to make a run into the playoffs (is a 2002 playoff series considered a spoiler?) the movie is left with a listless conclusion. Brand tries to prove to his boss the significance of what they have accomplished on their meager payroll, at one point winning a record 20 games in a row. But a winning streak of 20 games is not the same as a championship. Moneyball rightly proclaims the game of baseball as a rigged sport, where the divide between “haves” and “have nots” is vast. It is the only major league sport without a salary cap. The teams with the big pockets can afford the marquee talent. There’s a reason Lewis’ book has the subtitle “The Art of Winning and Unfair Game.” The implications of Beane’s accomplishments are unclear. His cost-efficient, stat-heavy approach was co-opted by the Boston Red Sox and turned into championships in 2004 and 2007. Is that a real vindication for Beane? It seems to me that the game’s issue of wealth disparity is still in full effect. Even if teams follow Bean’s approach, it still means that the bigger city, wealthier teams like the Red Sox or the Yankees can still outspend their competition. So it seems like to me that Bean’s moneyball approach simply meant that the focus changed on less costly talent. It did nothing to alter who could outbid their peers for the now-cheaper talent. It’s hard to squeeze a happy ending out of a story that concludes with the rich getting richer.

The movie is pretty much a buddy comedy, granted Beane is a much more dominate personality. Pitt feels like he’s coasting on charisma, though the actor gives a greatly entertaining performance. It’s not so much nuanced but he’s enjoying himself. The man looks eerily to be aging into Robert Redford, which begs the question about the nature of time travel. Hill (Superbad, Get Him to the Greek) gives a surprisingly adept dramatic performance. The comedic actor seems subdued next to the charisma of Pitt, like the character is continually awed by Billy. The Oscar-talk for the comedian seems a tad premature. He’s good but just because Hill delivers a good dramatic performance does not mean people should automatically start fielding his name as an award contender. That’s like saying let’s give an award to Paris Hilton because she could remember her lines. It’s also fun watching actors like Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) portray players that are still recognizable.

Moneyball says that baseball is not a game about heart, sweat, or the love of the game. It’s about numbers. That’s something of a cold message but Billy Beane is not one for false comforts. At its best, the film is a breezy caper with crisp dialogue and slick editing, but it’s also hamstrung by an inconsistent tone, a methodical pacing (133 minutes!), and a dearth of strong characterization. Beane was destined to be a baseball star but it wasn’t to be. Baseball is the most mental of all national sports, and it’s hard to crack such an insular model of play. That’s why baseball movies resort so much to romantic staples about the lore of this game. This is not a romantic movie; it toys with romanticism but ultimately sides with the science and number crunching. The emotion seems to have been squeezed out of the story thanks to the statistics. Moneyball is a baseball movie that fantasy baseball nerds have been waiting for. I’m not particularly a baseball fan (too slow), but I still found the movie to be a rewarding night out sans crackerjacks.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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