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Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

James Cameron has been dreaming about making Alita: Battle Angel for decades. He bought the rights to the 90s manga and has been sitting on the property, having to continuously push it back because of technological demands and the demands of, at last count, a thousand Avatar sequels. Cameron co-wrote the screenplay and handed the directorial duties over to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), a talented visual stylist who has been struggling of late. The marriage looks good and the final 122-minute feature is the closest a live-action film has ever gotten into replicating the look and feel of an anime, for better and worse.

Hundreds of years after the fall of civilization, a lonely scrapper and doctor, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the remains of a cyborg with a still beating heart. He puts her back together with a new body and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). She’s special and learning about the big new world, trying to unlock her memories of the past, and we’re talking way way back into the past. She’s old technology, something that’s quite valuable for the street gangs that strip amputees for parts and for the global corporation whose emissary (Mahershala Ali) needs to reclaim the powerful tech. Alita falls in love, learns about her sense of humanity, and fights lots and lots of robotic villains.

This visual decadence of Battle Angel is the greatest reason to see it, especially on the big screen if able. The future setting is immediately visually engaging, with people walking around with mechanical limbs that look like they were literally cobbled together with whatever junk was lying around. There is a have/have not dichotomy between the huddled masses trying to eek out a living in a garbage city and the floating metropolis above that regularly dumps its trash onto the people below. It’s easy to see the influences of Battle Angel in other media, like Elysium, as well as its own cyberpunk influences, from the likes of Blade Runner to recycling the chief sport of Rollerball. The character design is to die for in this movie, with exceptionally assembled figures that stand out in memorable, dangerous, sometimes junky ways. There are a number of different robotic killers with colorful and unique weapons and personalities, and the larger world invites further scrutiny. There is a bustling post-apocalyptic life here and it’s plastered on a splashy, broad visual canvas with some spectacular special effects. Not all of the effects are at the highest level, from some compositing issues with faces to the big anime eyes (more on that later), but Battle Angel is an expensive movie that puts it all onscreen. The world is fun to watch and the action sequences feel ripped directly from the manga, with larger-than-life creatures fighting in vicious and frenetic ways. Even when the movie feels like it’s losing its momentum there’s always the visuals to enjoy.

The central idea of this post-apocalyptic junk town being populated with deadly bounty hunters who work for a mysterious conspiracy is a great starting point. There is a bevy of killers with different allegiances and different codes, and then you throw in a powerful new addition who doesn’t remember her hidden past and you’ve got a recipe for drama and conflict with some crazy characters. There are even little dark touches that I would have thought would have been clipped in the adaptation process. Battle Angel has so much going for it that it can get a little frustrating when it feels like it’s spending so long to stay in the same place. The plot revelations are fairly predictable but still effective, but the long delays between them are filled with numerous action set pieces that diminish a sense of progression. I liked the Alita character and her relationship with her surrogate human father, but I didn’t think enough of any other relationship she had in the film. I wasn’t that invested in uncovering her past, which was still a bit too vague for me as a non-reader of the source material. At the end of the story, Rodriguez has set up his audience for a continuing saga of strife that feels too incomplete. Alita has learned more about herself (though I’m still confused) and has a goal of vengeance (against a force that is left too vague) and a renewed sense of purpose (built upon a relationship that doesn’t feel that affecting). It’s a curious end point and a questionable decision for a movie this expensive to assume it would secure demand for a presumptive sequel.

Where Battle Angel began losing me was because its title character, Alita, became too overpowered for her own good, eliminating a sense of stakes early on. The battle calculus skewed far too quickly. After the first act, actually from her first fight onward, there is never any doubt whether Alita will triumph. She doesn’t undergo any training or any real learning curve when it comes to her superhuman defense. Right from the get-go she’s doing amazing acts of fight choreography and making it all look easy. She even defeats an enemy when she’s only a one-armed torso. That’s admittedly impressive but another indicator that there is no real threat that can be posed against her. No matter how huge the cyborg, or how many pointy appendages at their disposal, it’s only a matter of time before our little pint-sized warrior is eventually triumphant. There is really only one fight where she’s presented with any slight disadvantage, the aforementioned one-armed torso sequence, but this too is shortly rectified. She goes from having a nigh-invincible body to an even more nigh-invincible body, making her, you guessed it, even more powerful. This reality takes something away from the numerous cyborg-on-cyborg battles, and without greater variance on the scene-to-scene needs, the fights become somewhat stale. Visually they are still impressive with a sense of fun watching the manga pages come to startling life, but without stakes and variance, it’s all the same punches with less power.

Now Battle Angel isn’t the only story to deal with an overwhelmingly powerful protagonist (see: Neo, Superman, just about every character on Dragonball). The solution is usually a specifically applied weakness or, most often, the vulnerability of those closest to the hero. It’s the regular people that can be gotten to, that can be endangered, that approximate the “weakness” for the overpowered protagonist. However, for this to work, you need an emotional connection to the characters in order to feel their potential loss. This cannot work if the characters are stuck in archetypal mode and add little help. That’s the problem with Battle Angel; I didn’t really care about any of the other characters. They had points of interest, a tragic shared back-story, a dream to escape their earthbound poverty, some secrets they don’t want getting out, but it’s never enough to make them feel that much more refined than the secondary background players. The film doesn’t even go the route of really threatening the more vulnerable people in Alita’s life, which is a strange miscalculation. What we’re left with is a very kickass robot woman doing her thing and taking down the big bad cyborgs. It’s entertaining and there’s enough of an interest in bullies being beaten by the underdog, but Alita isn’t really the underdog and so the many action sequences become a tad tedious.

Salazar (The Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gives an expressive performance and enables her superhuman cyborg to find a semblance of her humanity. Because of the character design the degree of performance capture relies much on the micro expressions of Salazar, so if she overdoes it then Alita can lose that tenuous sense of reality. She finds a balance that makes her feel real, at least real enough to exist in this world. Waltz (Downsizing) is enjoyably paternal with a few dark secrets of his own. His rocket-powered pickax thingy falls under my category of something that’s futuristic but not exactly practical. This wouldn’t present much of a problem except his character is an expert at using the parts he can scrounge up to get the job done. Skrein (Deadpool) has found a real career for being sneering villains with oh-so punchable faces, and he succeeds yet again. Ali (Green Book) and Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) deliver enough with so little that you wish the screenplay asked more of them than the occasional in-shadows skulking. It’s interesting to look at this cast, which has four Oscars to their names (possibly another one for Ali), and an additional nominee with Jackie Earl Haley.

Let’s talk about those eyes. The film is based upon a popular manga and anime and James Cameron was determined, from the earliest point, to recreate that stylized big-eyed look famous to Japanese art. It’s one thing on the page and another brought into real life, and the response has been all over the place. Some cite the uncanny valley and cringe while others argue it makes Alita more vulnerable, the eyes being the window to the soul and all. It does set her apart from the crowd, which is supposed to befit her character and where she came from, so to that end it works. It’s not as distracting as I feared and you do grow accustomed to them. However, was any of it necessary? Would we feel any different for Alita if she had more human-sized eyes? I doubt it. The costly effect of a very costly movie ($200 million reported) made me think of a similar quirk with the 2011 Green Lantern film where Ryan Reynolds’ suit was a CGI effect. Rather than simply wearing a costume the filmmakers spent millions applying one in post-production, and in the end what of value did it offer to the experience?

It’s hard for me to watch Alita: Battle Angel and understand why this was a property that James Cameron set aside for almost two decades. What about this makes it special or at least separates it from the pack of imitators? It’s a world with points of interest and characters that could be interesting, though many stop short at the design phase. The live-action version is entertaining and visually sumptuous, but I was finding myself grow tired of the film’s loose stakes, predictable plotting, simplistic themes, and archetypal characterization. The action can be pretty fun but even as Alita lines up more obstacles and more enemies we never feel threatened or concerned. Without a larger sense of danger and plot development the many fights start to grow monotonous. The special effects are wild but they service a story that seems ordinary genre. Alita: Battle Angel ought to please fans of the source material but it short-circuited for my attention.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Downsizing (2017)

Alexander Payne is not exactly the first name you would think of when it comes to science fiction. The man has a history of road trip comedies, average Midwestern men, mid-life crises, and the colorful miscreants of society. The fact that the director of Sideways and The Descendants is tackling The Incredible Shrinking Man is a bold move. Payne is outside his comfort zone with Downsizing, and it shows at points. While never quite satisfying the possibilities of its premise, Downsizing is still worth watching for its memorable moments and for the sheer brilliance of one outstanding performance.

In the not-too-distant future, science has developed the technology to shrink human beings to five inches tall, approximately 1/100th of their size. A middle-income couple can live like the top one percent because their money goes further. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a schlubby, regular guy suffering from the ennui of a job he hates and a life that feels unfulfilled. He and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to undergo the downsizing procedure, which is irreversible. Paul’s wife backs out at the last minute but he doesn’t find out until after he’s gone small. Now with a McMansion all to himself, Paul has to readjust to what he thought his new life would be like. He moves into a condo and shirks the offers to join the parties of his hedonist neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz). Paul finally decides to live life and embraces new experiences, the biggest befriending Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese cleaning lady who was downsized against her will for being an overseas political activist. Paul feels drawn to this woman and she opens his eyes to the larger world around him.

The strangest part of Payne’s movie is that the main thrust of the story could have been told without all of the science fiction dross. This is very much a romantic comedy/drama that follows the formula of a man jilted at the altar who has to get his life back together, finds someone new who changes his perspective on life, and then they get together by the end. You could have plucked this story and set it in an ordinary world and it still would have worked, which begs the question whether the world of Downsizing is properly applied. The consumer commentary seems muddled, with the rationale for downsizing being helping the planet, reducing the population so to speak, but really it’s an escape into a fantasy of wealth. People are downsizing so they can live in luxury and leisure. This should set up Payne for his incisive brand of satire as he skewers the selfish and self-righteous foibles of mankind, except that doesn’t really happen. Sure, eventually in the second half the movie opens up its tiny world a little wider, revealing the not-so-hidden subculture of immigrant labor toiling away to keep everything stable and pretty. It’s obvious social commentary and rarely does it go a step further than just recognition. And so the film becomes another in a long line of movies about a man who must be shaken from his malaise and enjoy the possibilities of life he never knew existed. Downsizing eventually ignores its sci-fi conceit to tell a relatively ordinary tale of self-actualization.

Payne’s premise would have best been explored through the more open parameters of a television series. Downsizing is an interesting concept that leads to other natural questions over how this tiny world operates and also how it interacts with the larger community. There’s a small scene where a drunk overhears Paul’s plan to shrink and argues that little people shouldn’t be granted the same voting rights as “normal-sized” citizens. The normies contribute more to society and should be given more credit, he argues, before being shooed away. This political division could have made for an interesting topic of reflection itself, but like many of Payne’s pit stops, it comes and goes after whetting your appetite for further examination. What about a story where downsizing is a punishment to do away with the “undesirables” of a nation? A TV series would have allowed more room to explore, with finer nuance, the details and possibilities of this fanciful world. Payne allows his movie to breathe, taking extended jaunts on different ideas but rarely enough to satisfy your sense of curiosity. The last act takes place at the original downsized colony in Norway, though at their diminutive size I wonder if it took them months to travel in Dusan’s yacht. It’s meant to think about what will come after humankind has passed the point of no return when it comes to climate change. Paul has to rethink what he wants his legacy to be and what meaning his life will have, which then pushes him into a rather simplistic choice of go with the girl or the cause. Given the rest of the movie’s focus, you shouldn’t be surprised what decision he ultimately makes.

However, the real reason you should legitimately see Downsizing is for the astounding, star-making, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performance by Hong Chau (Inherent Vice, Big Little Lies). I cannot recall another movie where a character comes in at the halfway mark and just takes over completely, single-handedly lifting the movie up. Every moment she is onscreen is made better. You’ve never seen a character in a mainstream movie quite like Ngoc Lan Tran. She’s a political dissident, amputee, and lower-class cleaning woman who teaches Paul about the class divides. Tran is tragic, comic, caustic, lovable, and Chau is an acting revelation. I’ve read several reviews that found her to be a cringe-worthy, borderline racist depiction of an Asian woman meant to be laughed at, and I strongly disagree. At no point was I laughing at Tran because of her status, her ethnicity, or her broken English cadences. I was laughing because she was a force of nature that blew away the pretensions of others, that cut to the chase, and spoke her mind in a carefree and honest manner. Her matter-of-fact affectations are so perfectly delivered in accordance with the character’s personality. There are moments where her character is being set up for one thing and Tran goes entirely in another direction, and whereas you might have laughed at the start she surprisingly earns other emotions. Take for instance a scene where Dusan tries to ditch her by making an excuse about a sudden travel commitment. Tran takes this moment and turns it into a genuinely poignant monologue about the unexpected nature of fate. By the end she’s crying out of sheer elation, and those tears are not meant for ridicule. Downsizing realizes what an asset it has and makes her the deserved focal point of the second half. You’ll fall in love with her too. Chau doesn’t just deserve an Oscar nomination; she deserves to win everything.

Downsizing is an episodic high-concept comedy where the shrinking is irrelevant to the main storyline that evolves over two plus hours. This is an adult movie that explores some mature topics with surprising time and scrutiny, and then it can also be a simplistic rom-com that misses the mark on larger, Swiftian social satire. It’s another story in a long line of disaffected, middle-aged men finding their groove again, except then it becomes the story of a Vietnamese activist and her unique persona. Hong Chau is the reason you should see Downsizing above all. She doesn’t so much steal her scenes as just take full ownership over the back half of the movie. Her performance is so uniformly excellent that you wish the rest of Payne’s uneven movie could meet her commitment. There are a lot of ideas here that seem to get brushed aside for the conventional formula of a romantic union, even if the pairing is rather unconventional. Downsizing is an entertaining movie that doesn’t quite amount to more than the sum of its little parts.

Nate’s Grade: B

Tulip Fever (2017)

Tulip Fever was originally filmed back in 2014 and has endured two years of delayed release dates. In the time it took the studio to make and release Tulip Fever, Alicia Vikander filmed The Danish Girl, it was released, and she won an Oscar, and now she’s going to portray Lara Croft in a new Tomb Raider franchise. The question arises why something seemingly so innocuous would take so long to release. The studio seems quite hesitant about the finished product. The Weinstein Company even packaged a rare red band trailer for their movie, something more associated with ribald comedies and bloody action films. A movie about tulips and love affairs seems like an odd choice, but hey, people got to see some extra Vikander nudity for free. It’s being dumped into theaters over a tepid Labor Day release and the advertising is billing it as an “erotic thriller,” which is a mistake on two fronts. It’s not truly erotic, lacking a primal carnal power, and it’s not really a thriller. It all smells less than rosy and more of desperation.

Set in the early 1600s in Amsterdam, and the nation has gone wild for tulips. The flowers are being traded and sold in the backs of taverns, and the tulip market seems limitless. Meanwhile, Sophia (Vikander) is a young woman who is married off to Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz), the self-described “king of peppercorn.” The relationship lacks passion as their nightly sessions fail to deliver a child. Cornelis, thinking about his legacy, hires a painter, Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan), for a portrait of he and Sophia. The painter falls in love with his subject and he and Sophia begin having an affair. The servant woman, Maria (Holliday Grainger), is witness to her mistress’ secrets, and as their affair continues, both parties devise an elaborate means that they can be together.

Tulip Fever is awash in strange and ineffective plotting. Firstly, the film never presents a suitable rationale for why Sophia would fall into bed with Jan. It presents her frustrations and malaise with her husband, so being in a position for finding a passionate alternative and outlet is established. After a few painting sessions with Jan, apparently they’re smitten with one another, though the movie never does the slightest work to establish a spark between them. It’s not like much would have been required. Make Jan a charmer who makes Sophia feel valued and desired. A handful of careful exchanges hinting at an inappropriate fascination are all that was needed. Instead their coupling feels largely arbitrary and from thin air. Movies directly hinging upon romantic affairs succeed on the virtue of making you feel the desire of the characters, whether that’s a romantic yearning or even just simple hardcore lust. Sexual tension is a paramount necessity. I felt no chemistry, desire, or even sexual tension between DeHaan and Vikander. There was no heat or sensuality here. Then there’s the matter of Sophia’s relationship with Maria, our curiously chosen narrator. We’re told that Maria sees Sophia like a sister, but once again the movie doesn’t show anything to indicate a particularly close relationship between the two. Then when Maria announces her pregnancy she threatens her “sister” if she gets thrown out of employment. She’ll tell Sophia’s husband what she’s been up to with her painter pal. Maybe it’s the hormones but that doesn’t exactly sound like a close, sisterly relationship. Although just when it seems like Maria might be a thorn in her mistress’ side and upset the power balance, the story abandons this idea altogether and Maria recedes back into a harmless cherubic aid.

It’s during Maria’s pregnancy where Tulip Fever’s plotting becomes its most tonally egregious, becoming a 17th century episode of Three’s Company. Sophia’s mission ever since her wedding has been to get pregnant and produce a son for her husband to carry on his family line, but due to a combination of erectile dysfunction and impotence, this seems like an unlikely task. So when Maria is pregnant, the two ladies scheme to do a switcheroo; they’ll pretend that Sophia is really pregnant, downplay Maria’s changes, and then pretend the newborn is Sophia’s child. This plan leads to several almost comical sequences to maintain the ruse, like when Sophia pushes Maria aside to take claim over her recent spate of morning sickness. The entire time I kept thinking that wouldn’t it be so much easier for Sophia just to get impregnated from her younger lover? Instead we’re given this storyline that approaches farce, and that’s not the end of it. Tulip Fever also features faking one’s death, sending the drunkest person out to retrieve the most valuable item in the country, a character conscripted into the Navy immediately, and contrived mistaken identity developments that also require characters to never do any follow-up questions to confirm the worst of what they think they just witnessed. These kinds of farcical plot elements indicate that the filmmakers were not confidant that their central relationships could sustain a narrative unto themselves. And yet I’ll admit that these unexpected plot turns provided a level of entertainment that was lacking beforehand.

The actors do what they can with their characters and marshal forward with straight faces. Vikander (The Light Between Oceans) is a luminescent actress who can communicate paragraphs through her tremulous eyes. She very capably conveys Sophia’s mixed emotions over her marriage, her gnawing sense of loyalty, and when in the throes of passion, an unburdening that serves as a personal awakening. Sadly, those romantic throes are paired with DeHaan, an actor I’m becoming more and more skeptical with every new performance. In the recent sci-fi bomb Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, he chose to speak in a bizarre voice that mimicked 90s Keanu Reeves. With Tulip Fever, I understood the origin of that voice, because in this movie he sounds like 90s Keanu Reeves gamely attempting his woeful British accent in Dracula. Does Dane DeHaan have range or is he incapable of playing anything without ironic detachment? He makes for a pretty pitiful romantic affair option, and I never cared what transpired to him. Waltz (Spectre) becomes the most sympathetic character by the film’s end and has a genuine character arc that might elicit some real emotion. He’s pompous and a bit oblivious, but he never really becomes the film’s villain. He doesn’t mistreat Sophia. He doesn’t threaten anyone. He just wants a child, and a wish he made to God haunts him. He truly cares about his wife, and it’s only later that Sophia realizes what her plot machinations have done to this man. Waltz’s performance is well within his nattering wheelhouse. The supporting cast includes Judi Dench, Cara Delevigne, a hilariously pervy Tom Hollander, Kevin McKidd, and an unrecognizable Zach Galifianakis. It’s enough to make you wonder what in this story got them all here.

The story seems to exist only in parallel with the tulip market that gives the film its title. It feels like two different movies on different tracks that rarely come together. I hope you enjoy textbook economics lessons on market bubbles, because you’ll get plenty information imported on the buying and selling power of tulips. These little flowers just kept going up and up in value and investors believed that they would never go down (oh how familiar this sounds). At times the movie hints at being a Big Short in 17th century tulips futures. This could be an interesting topic because of how foreign it is today, the thought of flowers being so valuable that a person’s life savings might get squandered. However, the story that takes shape in Tulip Fever feels generally unrelated. It’s a love affair with comical complications but the only time the bullish tulip market factors in is when supporting characters get rich quick from some lucky bulb prospects. They just as likely could have gotten their fortunes through any form of gambling. It didn’t have to be tulips. The setting doesn’t feel integral to the story the movie wants to tell, which is a waste of such a supremely unique moment in world economics history. Although there is a moment where Maria narrates that a madness took over people, and I so dearly wanted her to follow up that statement with, “A tulip madness.” Unfortunately, she did not.

Tulip Fever is a costume drama that may have appeal for those usually left cold by the stuffy genre of half-glances and unrequited passions. It does have some screwy plotting linked to its screwy couple, so while it doesn’t quite work as a developed story with engaging characters, it does make for a fitfully entertaining experience. The messy plotting and arbitrary coupling limit the power and empathy. I ultimately felt more for Waltz’s character by the end than anyone else, and I don’t know if that was intended. It’s a handsomely made film with strong production design, costuming, and cinematography. If only the characters and their exploits were worthy of such efforts.

Nate’s Grade: C

Spectre (2015)

MV5BMjM2Nzg4MzkwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA0OTE3NjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_It’s hard to keep a franchise that can almost count its decades on one whole hand fresh and relevant, but Daniel Craig’s time as 007 has done just that. Starting with 2006’s magnificent Casino Royale, we got a grittier Bond, a man with a bruised psychology that was interested in more than just how many bad guys he could callously kill and sexy ladies he could securely seduce. It was a franchise that modeled itself more after the Jason Bourne films, and it worked tremendously, giving the 40-year-old franchise new relevancy for modern audiences that have grown up on the Bond canon. 2012’s Skyfall was the biggest bond hit of all time, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. It was going to be a hard act to follow. Spectre, for all intents and purposes Craig’s franchise farewell, is a lousy swan song. It’s the weakest of the Daniel Craig Bond era but that claim would require me to rewatch 2008’s Quantum of Solace; however, just from memory, Solace had more engaging moments, stunts, and even a better theme song, so I’ll stick with my proclamation: Spectre is the most mediocre Craig Bond.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is hunting the organization responsible for the deaths of those closest to him, namely Vesper (Eva Green) and the prior M (Judi Dench). His path has lead to the nefarious SPECTRE terrorist organization and its mysterious and feared leader (Christoph Waltz), who has his own personal reasons for causing Bond misery.

maxresdefaultThe movie’s biggest mistake was its insistence that the audience will want to know how all the events tie together as a whole. Due to this position, it makes Spectre the awkward retcon exercise it is, trying to provide winks and nods to past Craig Bond outings while saying, “Oh yeah, all that evil stuff, well this guy is The Guy behind it all.” Adding an extra layer of a criminal conspiracy doesn’t somehow make those events more interesting or provide the need for conclusion; it piggybacks off the earlier movies and pretends it has shown its own work. Spectre thinks the accumulated plot events and deaths of three movies is the same as properly setting up a story and its villains, and that’s just not the case. The other problem with trying to connect the dots to three previous movies is that Spectre has even fewer chances to stand on its own merits, which are admittedly fewer. Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) is a bland addition as a Bond Girl, and oh does she pale in comparison to the capable and indispensable Rebecca Ferguson in the latest Mission: Impossible sequel. Their relationship is never as interesting or as properly developed as the film thinks. The stakes of the movie (surveillance abuse) feel too abstract and low-key, or at least poorly articulated, to feel important. If you’re going to turn the focus of the narrative on offering an apparent climax for multiple movies, it better deliver and feel like it was worth the effort, and Spectre just does not feel like that.

The other thing hat just doesn’t work is the bad guy, which is puzzling because Waltz was born to play a James Bond villain. The Craig Bonds have followed the more stripped down route even in their villains, once the parlance of the most colorful megalomaniacs that action cinema had to offer (and there’s also the eccentric henchmen). There’s a delayed buildup to revealing Waltz (Django Unchained) where other characters will talk in hushed whispers about just how dangerous and powerful the man in charge of Spectre is. A nagging problem is that we’re too often told these things without being shown them. A similar problem affected Skyfall where we spent half the film being told how dangerous and skillful its villain was, but at least Silva (Javier Bardem) lived up to the hype when he arrived, at least for a little while before degenerating into your standard psychopath. Waltz has exactly two sequences before the final showdown. That’s it, and for one of them he’s almost entirely in shadow at the end of a large table of shadowy figures. He’s not given a strong angle to play with his villain (spoilers) and his ultimate personal connection to our 007 agent feels far too forced and slight. Just like the rest of its hasty retconing, Waltz’s connection is meant to feel significant but its not dealt in any way like it should be significant. It’s almost a casual toss-off. It’s even worse when Waltz calls Bond his “cuckoo,” meant to be dark but is just really silly. Waltz is completely wasted in what is little more than a perturbed middle manager role. His climactic showdown with Bond feels impractical even for Bond movies. His downfall is even worse and made me laugh out loud how easily it all comes crashing down. If the emphasis of your movie is how the Big Bad is responsible for all the previous misfortune, then you better make sure the character was worth the wait.

spectre-daniel-craig-monica-bellucciSam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) returned to the director’s chair and stages some nicely photographed sequences, but with the exception of a stirring opening sequence, the action of Spectre is quite tame and forgettable. The opening in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations has an interesting atmosphere and an ongoing tracking shot to pull us in from the start. From there, Bond has to take out a high-profile Spectre baddie and their struggle eventually carries over into a helicopter, both men punching wildly and trying to hold on for dear life as the copter whizzes upside down repeatedly. It’s a good set piece with some fun and unique aspects, like Bond escaping the crumbling wall of a building, but it’s the sheer thrill of watching the battle inside the helicopter that makes this opener a doozey. After that, I was sad to discover that nothing could measure up. Skyfall also peaked with its opening action caper but it still held my interest as it barreled toward its conclusion. I was resisting the urge to go to sleep with Spectre. An air chase over the trails of a mountain is interesting but doesn’t evolve, which is something vital to all exciting action sequences. If the action is static, it’s most often not going to be good after the initial rush wears off. There’s a decent car chase late at night in Rome but I got to think why Bond would be fleeing just one henchman even if that paid muscle were played by physical brute David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy). The film’s budget was reportedly $245 million and I just do not know where that money went.

The Craig era will be known for revitalizing the franchise, saving it from its self-parody excesses that were swallowing the series alive. We were watching Craig’s version of 007 become the hardened, quip-heavy, flippant killing machine and womanizer, except that he doesn’t feel like that character by the end of Spectre. If the course of four films was to bring the Bond we know into fruition, then it didn’t quite work, and that personally thrills me. Craig’s character is far more interesting, haunted by the people he couldn’t save, than the action hero Bond staple. However, while Craig’s character maintained a trajectory that staid true to its aim of bringing more depth to its central hero, the series was starting to hew closer to the classic Bond mode of empty bombast, and Spectre is the final proof of this. It’s getting closer to the crazy villains and spy hijinks of old territory. It’s a story that wants climax and resolution but cannot supply it without relying heavily upon the three previous movies to supply the weight this one lacks. It’s a rather lackluster farewell for Craig, an actor who deserved better. Judging by his interviews, I think he’s just happy to be out. He’ll be missed. Spectre will not. Now bring on Idris Elba please!

Nate’s Grade: C+

Big Eyes (2014)

big_eyes.15ce0090408.originalLike most people, Tim Burton is a filmmaker who likes working with a select set of familiar faces. Since 2001, Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter has appeared in every one of his films. Johnny Depp has appeared in every Burton film since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, save for Planet of the Apes. It got to the point where you knew if Burton were attached as director, these two would be riding shotgun. No so fast, as Big Eyes is absent Depp, Carter, other longtime collaborators like editor Chris Lebenzon, and really any noticeable sign that Burton actually was the director. This bizarre biopic about a scandalous secret in the art world fails to justify more than a casual viewing.

In the 1960s, Margaret Keane’s (Amy Adams) portraits of waifish children with large, tragic eyes were the most popular art of the decade. They fascinated the public who couldn’t get enough, including clamoring for reprints so everyone could have their own Keane work of art. Except the world at large never knew that Margaret had painted them. Her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), was posing as the real creator. He appeared on television, ran with famous celebrities, and always looked for the next platform to elevate the Keane name, all while Margaret stayed home and painted. She agreed to go along with Walter’s version of events because the public was more accepting of a male painter, and Walter was such a natural salesman. The world could never know the truth.

Big-Eyes-1Being a true-life story, there are certain limitations inherent in sticking to the facts while still telling an engaging story, and Big Eyes suffers from this. There is an interesting story here, no doubt, and that is clear and on display when Margaret and Walter square off in court as a majority of the third act. Before then, the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) plays in a very linear fashion, telling the story very conventionally except for the annoying narration of a news reporter (Danny Huston). The reason this character is clumsily inserted into being our narrator is because the real main character, Margaret, spends two acts being so passive and often hidden before she gathers the courage to challenge her husband and expose him. Naturally, there’s got to be a realistic character arc where our heroine goes from naïve and inactive to stronger and active, but it takes most of the movie. In the meantime, she paints and paints and literally hides herself from the world. It feels like the movie forgets about her while Walter is gallivanting around on her fame. Ironically, the movie actually becomes a series of men attempting to tell Margaret’s story; the first is her husband but the other is the invented and unnecessary narrator.

To make up for the time the film seems to paint a more flattering than deserved picture of Walter. I think perhaps they want the audience to fall under his spell just like Margaret and then slowly come to the same dawning realization. His initial argument is that female artists are not taken as seriously in their era, and I’m sure there’s truth to this. It was generally harder for a woman to be seen as legitimate in just about any capacity other than homemaker in the 1960s. We spend a full two acts with him charming others and hoodwinking the art world. He’s portrayed as more of a used car salesman con man than what could be described as a dangerous egotistical drunk who exploits his wife. The movie gives him a few nasty moments but it seems to portray Walter with light judgment, even after he endangers Margaret and their daughter’s lives. With Margaret figuratively and literally a kept woman cooped up for so long, Walter’s antics start to come across as vamping, filling time until Margaret hits that point on her character arc to leave him. It becomes tiresome then to just watch Walter sputter and spin his way to greater fortune and fame, though he deserves credit for popularizing the printing of painting reproductions that sell for cheap. Walter Keane, footnote in the art world for commercializing it for the masses. Waltz (Django Unchained) is an effortlessly entertaining actor and charming cads with a thinly veiled air of menace are his specialty. It’s a waste of his talents because Walter is kept as an ongoing mystery rather than an opportunity to explore a complicated character’s psyche. We find one falsehood after another, but in the end, he’s still just a mystery left unsolved.

There is amusement to be had at points as to be expected when it comes to keeping up a con, almost getting caught, the scrambles to continue hiding the big lie. This fun is at the expense of Margaret, which the movie wants you to think about and not think about at various points. There are streaks of comedy but I’d hardly call Big Eyes a comedy (sorry Golden Globes categorization). Terrence Stamp is enjoyable as a disapproving art critic who cannot believe what Walter is doing or why he is popular. The final act is easily its most entertaining as Margaret finally gets to call out her scoundrel of a husband for his bad behavior. It takes several unexpected turns that seem too fanciful to be true, and yet they are. The courtroom setting feels right for this script, and if there were a rewrite, I would have used it as the primary setting. The story could be introduced through a series of flashbacks. At least that way we don’t have to wait for Margaret to be the strong heroine we need, and we don’t have to be constrained by the wait of linear storytelling. This approach would strip away some of the redundancies of the plot and at least allow Margaret an opportunity to be the one telling her story.

big_eyesAnother problem with Big Eyes is that at no point does it feel like a Tim Burton film. The man is better known for his dips into Gothic fantasy, but in 1994 he showed he could more than pull off a conventional film in Ed Wood. Just because the story doesn’t involve weird fantasy characters and violence doesn’t mean that Burton cannot still add value being the man to tell that tale. Unfortunately, there is no point while watching Big Eyes that feels like it was directed by Burton. The director could have been anybody. If you kept the identity of the director secret, I cannot imagine more than a slim number of participants accurately guessing who directed the picture. I wonder what attracted Burton to the script, which does have its share of true-life eccentrics and hucksterism, both appealing aspects for the man. It’s just lacking a sense of vision that Burton usually has in spades, even if that vision over three decades has become a tad commoditized. I won’t go as far to say the film is poorly directed because a majority of the problems remain with its script rather than the actors or shot selections. Still, Burton doesn’t bring much to elevate the material. Perhaps that’s a positive, he didn’t attempt to overpower the narrative with a superfluous detour in style, but then why hire Burton?

Adams (American Hustle) is a consistently good actress and she does her best with the part, but the limitations are even too much for her talents. By no means is she bad but she’s playing a passive character often given to worry. She’s stashed away for a majority of the movie. You feel like Adams is acting with one hand tied behind her back.

Big Eyes is a movie that intrigues you with its potential only to frustrate you with its eventual execution. The true story behind the film is juicy and outlandish, crying out for the venue of cinema. The struggle between husband and wife over the ownership of an empire is a conflict that hooks an audience. Thanks to a repetitive plot structure and character vamping, the film limits the heights it can achieve. Burton’s presence is not felt at all throughout the film. The comedy often sours when you realize the full context of what’s going on, a much more serious affair than the film often wants you to think about. The characters are kept at a distance and given arcs rather than deeper exploration. She will become active and find her voice, fighting for credit. He will be the con man who wants to keep everyone distracted, fueled by jealousy at his wife’s abilities. There’s more psychological complexity here, but Waltz and Adams are slotted in very narrow boxes. They have little to work with and their performances show it. Big Eyes isn’t a bad film but it’s one that deserved to be better in just about every regard. It’s a fleeting curiosity more than a fully developed film, and that’s a shame given the source material. Expect Burton to return back to the safe embrace of Johnny Depp’s arms at any moment.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets-Most-Wanted-PosterThe Muppets are back, though their new film seems to vaguely be recreating the amusing if somewhat slight Great Muppet Caper. The same blend of Muppet-staple sweet goofiness and anarchy is still a pleasure to watch, causing me to laugh throughout; it’s just that there are more leaden stretches between the laughs. The side stories have more interest and humor than the main storyline where Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious Russian doppelganger. Ricky Gervais is wasted as a criminal sidekick and he doesn’t bring much energy to the film. Fortunately Tina Fey, as a gulag prison guard, and Ty Burrell, as a Pink Panther-like Interpol agent, rise to the occasion. Burrel, teamed up with Sam the Eagle, made the movie for me. Their comic interplay and rivalry is the best and gives way to the best use of sight gags. It’s an amusing and agreeable film but there’s a noticeable spirit missing, possibly from the departure of living Muppet Jason Segel as an actor and a co-writer. I was shocked that Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the 2011 movie, was the same man behind these new tunes. With the exception of maybe two songs, the remaining majority of the songs are downright dreadful. Within minutes of leaving my theater I could not for the life of me remember one of the tunes. The celebrity cameos are also less fun, many poorly integrated into the film, just the actors appearing and then vanishing. James McAvoy just walks onscreen to deliver a package. Is that the best use of everyone’s time? Still, while a noticeable step down from 2011’s The Muppets, the movie still has enough of the Muppet charm and silliness to entertain. It’s just missing some of the magic that made their return so special.

Nate’s Grade: B

Django Unchained (2012)

1904It’s an understatement that no one makes films like Quentin Tarantino, though after Pulp Fiction it seemed like everyone was trying. The famous writer/director is an audacious filmic DJ, taking samples from all genres and mixing and matching them into a new and elevated form of art; he takes low-grade B-movie concepts and genres and turns them into highly literate A-class films. My only quibble is that, while I heartily enjoy the man’s unique efforts, I don’t know if we’re ever going to see a different Tarantino anymore. Since 1997’s Jackie Brown, he seems intent on re-imagining exploitation films and B-movies and putting his articulate spin on them. I have yet to dislike a Tarantino film (I rate Jackie Brown the lowest but that’s still an A-) and I’ll be first in line for anything the man attaches himself to as writer/director. Django Unchained is Tarantino’s ode to spaghetti Westerns, and it’s every bit as violent and tense and entertaining as you’d hope it to be.

In 1858 Texas, an abolitionist bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and enlists his help in tracking down a team of outlaws. They strike up a mentorship, gunning down outlaws for money. “Kill white folk and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” Django reasons. After a successful season nabbing bad guys and training Django in the ways of shooting, the men come to a crossroads. Django is looking for his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She was torn away from him and sold off to wealthy Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django cook up a scheme to rescue Broomhilda. Schultz will pose as a rich power player wanting to enter the “mandingo fighting” game (think savage gladiatorial combat). Django will play a black slaver, and expert when it comes to picking out prized fighters. With a generous offer, the two get invited to Candie’s family plantation, dubbed Candieland. Standing in the way of their plan is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head of the house. Stephen is deeply suspicious of their guests and ready to expose them for who they truly are.

89366_galI’ve been dragging my feet writing a review of Django Unchained and I’m trying to determine why that is. Just after typing that sentence I spent 30 minutes checking my e-mail. I’m an avid Tarantino fan, so I’m left wondering what my hesitation is about. I certainly enjoyed the film, thoroughly, but perhaps my question is whether I should have enjoyed the film as much as I did given the historical reality of slavery. No movie will ever approach the true horrors of slavery; even the very act of owning another human is a detestable and crushing reality. Of course I’m coming at this movie from the perspective of a white male, so I feel like aspects of my commentary can only be minor. Is the backdrop of slavery too horrific for Tarantino to stage his spin on a revenge-filled Western? Spike Lee seems to think so via his critical public remarks. Tarantino has great glee in reveling in over-the-top movie violence, the kind that audiences (at least mine) cheer for. I guess the questionable angle is marrying the two realities and tones. You don’t want to take away from the brutality of slavery and at the same time you want to tell a compelling revenge-soaked thriller that satisfies with its buckets of blood. I’d say Django Unchained mostly finds the right balance to hit you in the gut one minute and the next have you clapping along.

It seems like the media is pressing every black celebrity for his or her personal thoughts on Django and especially Tarantino’s copious use of the N-word. Tarantino has gotten into hot water before with his penchant for the N-word, notably his own sequence in Pulp Fiction, but the N-word is entirely period appropriate for Django. Let’s face it, a majority of Americans, let alone Southerners, had really one word for slaves, and it wasn’t kind. This is the word that would have been uttered. However, after seeing the film a second time, I can see the complaints about the overwhelming use of the N-word. If you were to turn this into an awful and disrespectful drinking game, you’d probably pass out before DiCaprio even steps onscreen.

Like Inglourious Basterds, this movie is really a series of sit-downs that simmer with tension. The man has gotten so good with establishing the particulars of a scene, what the characters desire, and to push it to its breaking point when it comes to tension. While I don’t think anything approaches the highpoints of Basterds, this is still a movie that luxuriates in beautifully played tension and the danger lurking underneath Tarantino’s finely crafted words. And let’s talk about those wonderful words of Tarantino talk, the kind that seem so effortless to build sensationally interesting characters. The man sure enjoys writing his umpteenth variances on badasses engaging in verbal pissing contests (the literal kind are far less entertaining, at least for me). When you have character this sharply developed with such counter objectives, I could watch them duke it out all day. There are some pacing concerns with the movie, particularly once we get to Candieland, but when I’m engaged this much in a movie, I’d rather it go overboard than scrimp. Tarantino’s signature cool/funny/funny cool dialogue is alive and well. Every scene advances the plot, pushes it toward its bloody conclusion where bodies explode with sprays of red mist. It’s completely over-the-top in the Kill Bill vein, enough to draw snickers and laughter from a crowd, but Tarantino knows how to serve up a satisfying ending even with a body count to rival Hamlet.

89365_galI don’t want to give the wrong impression that Django Unchained is deadly serious given the subject matter and historical context. I don’t think it disrespectfully sanitizes the horrors of slavery, but Tarantino’s brand of humor finds opportune moments to poke through. There’s a sequence with an early version of the KKK, a group of Southerners on horses arguing over whether they need to wear the ill-fitting bags on their head they prepared (plus Jonah Hill cameo). I was laughing so hard I thought people around me were going to shush me. It may well be the funniest thing Tarantino has ever written. There’s also natural humor to be had in the awkward handling of race relations, something that hasn’t exactly been perfectly ironed out to this day. A wealthy plantation owner (Don Johnson) struggles to explain how his slaves should treat Django, presented as a freeman by Schultz. “You want me to treat him like white people?” someone asks. This is followed promptly with a curt, “No.” There’s also plenty of gallows humor to be had with the over-the-top violence that pervades in the finale. It’s all key moments to blow off steam, so to speak, and make the film more bearable.

Django Unchained follows a traditional Western plot; in fact I’d say what we watch is essentially Tarantino’s whacked out spin on The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas is even referenced in the film by name). Our lead character, Django, is in the Clint Eastwood mode of the strong and silent type. Schultz is the one who does all the talking while Django learns and glowers. They make a terrific buddy team and you almost wish that Tarantino had just diverged his story and allowed them to keep doing their bounty business. But Django’s wife needs some saving and that’s where the movie slows down. I wish Broomhilda had been given more character development. She’s pretty much the princess that needs saving, much like the German folk tale we learn is where Broomhilda gets her uncommon name. My sister described Django Unchained as a love story and I think that’s being a little generous (Tarantino did cut much of her torture, physical and sexual, from his script). We certainly feel Django’s desire to rescue her, and we worry about all the plot machinations and masks the characters must wear to accomplish this feat. With that said, the movie still has plenty of sucker punch surprises, much like Basterds, where violence erupts and despicable characters are given arias to illuminate the depths of their depraved worldviews.

I do wish that Tarantino had been a bit more judicious with his editing (the first without longtime editor Sally Menke who died in 2010) and curtailed all his self-indulgent meta film homage nods. We get stuff like Amber Tamblyn (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) in one shot. Why you ask? See her father also stars in the movie in a small role, and he once played a character titled “Son of a Gunfighter.” So in his own credits, Tarantino lists him as “Son of a Gunfighter” and his daughter as, what else, “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.” When all of that contorting is for an end credits gag and one shot in the whole movie, you feel like it was strictly masturbatory. Then there’s the original Django, Franco Nero, asking Foxx how to spell his name. Old Django asking new Django how to spell his name. I guess it’s supposed to be like a cinematic passing of the torch but it’s another moment that feels superfluous in a 165-minute movie. The movie can get a tad exhausting. The final 15 minutes, while still smartly written and boasting some terrific bloody comeuppance, feels like an add-on that wasn’t needed. It does manage to tie some elements back together but at this point the audience is ready for Django to ride off into the sunset, not have another obstacle to overcome in improbable yet badass fashion. At my first viewing, the kid behind me kept complaining to his parents that the movie had failed to end (“This is still going? It’s already been two hours!”). I also understand the fruitless and ironic nature of asking Tarantino to reign in his self-indulgences; that is, after all, what makes him who he is.

As expected from Westerns, the movie is a boy’s show. Foxx (Ray) has a steely screen presence that works very effectively for the character. The man’s quiet confidence and growing insolence play well, as he burrows into a role that boosts his confidence and assertiveness. Foxx’s journey from beleaguered and shell-shocked slave to mighty walking vengeance is definitely a full performance and one that Foxx delivers without any winks to the camera. Waltz (Carnage) will be dinged for playing a character similar to his Oscar-winning role in Basterds, but he’s still joyously entertaining, with that strange speech pattern of his that he plays like a musical instrument. He has a lot to say with plenty of theatrical flourishes, but that’s what makes him so entrancing. Simply put, Waltz and Tarantino are a match made in heaven.

93034_galDiCaprio (Inception) doesn’t appear until over an hour into the film but he’s worth the wait. At my first screening, I thought DiCaprio was good but was unimpressed. Upon a second viewing, I must say my appreciation grew for the man’s performance. Calvin Candie is certainly a vile man and DiCaprio is able to give him such an intriguing brio; he’s not the magnetic source of evil that Waltz was in Basterds, a man able to stay two steps ahead of his prey. Candie is easily taken for a fool. He’s not the smartest guy in the room but he can work up a pretty sizable fury; DiCaprio actually cuts open his hand during a confrontation and remains in character, undeterred. But the best actor in the movie is Jackson (The Avengers). There are far more layers to his head house slave than meets the eyes. It sure seems like he’s really the fist behind the glove. He may put on an act for company, but the man is far more calculating and sinister than anyone else in the film. You know he’s a good villain when the audience cheers the loudest at his demise (don’t act surprised, spoiler-phobes). I wouldn’t be surprised if Waltz, DiCaprio, or even Jackson get nominated for supporting Oscars.

It seems like Tarantino has also stumbled into a hidden lucrative subgenre at the box-office, namely the historical revenge film. Who doesn’t want to see a group historically shafted get some sweet revenge, the bad guys punished, and all with sparkling dialogue? In 2009, Tarantino went on a Nazi scalping spree and got to shoot Hitler in the face. With Django, a brutalized slave becomes the hero of his own story and kills some vile slave owners and traders. It’s essentially a Nat Turner-style rebellion from history, albeit with some harebrained scams and colorful characters. Following this lucrative model, Tarantino could take other maligned minorities and give them cinematic justice. Sadly, there are too many examples to count where Tarantino can take inspiration.

Django Unchained is a bloody, rollicking, talky, messy, exciting, surprising, uncomfortable yet satisfying movie and probably one of the oddest crowd-pleasers in recent memory. I saw it on Christmas day and my theater was a sell out. They loved it, soaking up every minute, laughing at the funny parts and wincing at the gruesome violence. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. It doesn’t whitewash the evils and viciousness of slavery, but at the same time Tarantino knows how to serve an audience and their demands for big characters, big set pieces, and big vengeance. Django is a sturdy Western/blaxploitation film, and whatever other genres Tarantino feels like tossing into his cinematic blender. Whatever you classify it as, Django Unchained is another Tarantino original specialty and his tremendous talent comes through loud and clear, even with a few false endings and self-indulgences at play. It looks great, has a great soundtrack, and presents great acting talent reciting Tarantino’s great words like they were prized possessions. It’s a bit long and a bit overdone, but when you’re enjoying yourself, who wants to leave the party early?

Nate’s Grade: A

Green Hornet (2011)

Unassuming, impetuous, and with a lowbrow sense of duty, The Green Hornet gets by on its self-aware, campy, chummy tone thanks to co-writer/star Seth Rogen. The slimmed-down comedian plays a news media playboy who tries to right his life by becoming a super hero with his deceased father’s assistant, the kung-fu connoisseur Kato (Jay Chou, making a very poor English acting debut). Where the movie works best is when it upends formula convention, like making every character insecure about their personal standing, including the villain (Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz), who is aggravated that the “Green Hornet” is dazzling criminals with his digital age marketing. When the film thumbs its nose at convention, it plays like a mischievous prank on super hero/crime fighting tales. Green Hornet is a movie that at times is too busy, too childish, bordering on a bromance between Rogen and Chou. But with director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) at the helm, there are enough quirky visuals to keep things interesting to the noisy climax. Rogen and his film can never be accused of being too serious, and given the material that’s a blessing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Water for Elephants (2011)

Would you believe at no point does the film Water for Elephants come close to explaining its title? I have never read the best-selling 2007 novel, where I’m sure it’s given some glancing explanation; so allow me to thus pontificate. Rosie the elephant is given tubs of whiskey at several points in the movie, which she happily laps up thanks to her prominent proboscis. So does that mean that the “water” for elephants is whiskey? If that’s the case, then this is really a tale of dangerous enabling. But then again, how do you tell a four-ton pachyderm that she’s cut off?

Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is one exam away from becoming a licensed vet from Cornell in 1931 when he’s delivered some tragic news. His Polish immigrant parents died in a car accident. Distraught, Jacob runs away and hops onto a passing train, stumbling upon a crew of circus performers. The train belongs to the Benzini Brothers circus, led by the fiery August (Christoph Waltz). He’s about to be thrown off the train when he panics and screams that he’s a vet. August hires the kid as the team’s newest vet and Jacob finds animals that are in bad shape and pushed to their limits. He recommends a mercy killing for the main attraction, a white horse that the boss’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), performs upon. He takes some initiative and puts the horse out, despite August’s wishes. Lucky for them all, they find a new star attraction – Rosie the elephant. Robert doesn’t know the first thing about elephants, or “bulls” as they’re referred to by performers, but he’s tasked with getting the creature ready to perform or else everyone will be destitute. The man has a way with pachyderms, and the Benzini Brothers experience a windfall of new business, looking to take on Ringling Brothers. But the whole time, Jacob is making moon eyes at the boss’s wife, despite everyone telling him at every turn not to.

The biggest issue this movie has is that the trio of main characters all feel like they exist in separate movies. There is zero chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon, further dampening their lukewarm romance. Robert is a character defined by being young and having a moral center. He’s not a person so much as an alternative. Marlena is the damsel very distressed, and Witherspoon plays her part all in all slow cock-eyed glances. If I had to pick one of the three, I’d choose to go with August’s version of the story just because he’s a more interesting character than our do-gooding Jacob. August is a huckster who needs to take care of a caravan of drifters and sell them to the public as the stuff of dream and legend. He has some charisma, he’s constantly leveraged against debts, and he is pressured to keep things afloat and to keep people from mutinying. This is beyond the heyday of circuses, so he knows that too many shows with too few people means that his troupe will be picked apart by circus carpetbaggers. You actually start to empathize with him at turns, and then he goes off and beats animals or his wife and that’s that. August is an interesting, vulnerable, flawed character, and he’s given the thankless role of being setup as sneering villain. I would have rather watched August try and keep his deteriorating circus together than watch another tired romantic triangle.

The romance that so much rides on is about as sure-footed as a drunken elephant. Part of this is the failure of Pattinson to deliver a performance that doesn’t feel wooden and artificial, as if he’s posing more than acting. But the romance, which dominates the film’s narrative, is given such scant reasoning that it expects the audience to simply fill in the blanks. He’s a young, good-looking guy who loves animals. She loves animals. Her husband is a jerk, so what’s the problem? Naturally, she’d just run to whatever available catch she could find to escape her hell so anything that delves into more character detail would be a waste of time, right? The movie seems to think so. The love triangle all inhabit very rigidly defined parts. Just because a woman is married to a nasty guy doesn’t mean I instantly want her to get together with just any alternative. Sure this lady deserves to be treated better, but just because a film presents “Option B,” and that option happens to set teenage girls aflutter, doesn’t mean I’m rooting for “Option B” just because it’s not “Option A.” That’s not enough for me to make a satisfying romance, but that’s all Water for Elephants has its aim set on. I need more effort, movie. It’s no surprise that the romantic moments are the weakest parts of the film.

The real star of the movie is Rosie the elephant. She’s a natural performer and she’s got more presence than Witherspoon. I needed more moments with Rosie. After a somewhat boring first act, I started wishing that Rosie would replace someone in this dull love triangle. Imagine how much more interesting this movie would be if it was the heartbreaking story of one man, on woman, and one elephant. Maybe Jacob likes fat-bottomed girls. For animal lovers, there are some wince-inducing sequences of animal cruelty, mostly at the hands of the temperamental August.

The very opening sets the story up for a colossal disaster in the end, and the fact that we are not delivered disaster is a disaster of storytelling (too much?). I’ll try and keep the spoilers in a general sense without going into specifics. The film is bookended by the framing device of Old Jacob (Hal Holbrook) leaving his nursing home to see a circus and tell his life’s story. During his conversation with a circus leader (Paul Schneider), the young man is taken aback when Old Jacob reveals he was apart of the Benzini Brothers troupe when “it” happened. We’re told that it’s like the third biggest circus disaster in history and it has reverberated through decades. I’m set up for something memorable. I’m set up for a tragic ending, likely involving Marlena so that their love will forever have that tinge of unrequited longing. Then when we do eventually head to our big moment in the big top, well it’s far from memorable. Once you assess the ending, you realize that there is very little to make it number three on history’s lists of circus-related mayhem. If this stuff registered as number three, what the hell was number four? A clown catching his hair on fire? And then the movie carries on to some ludicrously happy ending, which seemed tonally inappropriate given the mood of the film and the poorly written romance between Jacob and Marlena. I was prepared for something operatic and terrible, and skimping out on that after an exasperated setup makes me feel hoodwinked, like listening to August bark about the greatest sights and sounds imaginable when they’re all just a trick. Something tells me that screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers, P.S. I Love You) was not intending to add some meta commentary on how his story is built for dissatisfaction.

Water for Elephants is a watered-down romance that flounders thanks to three different actors acting like they’re in three different movies. Also, it doesn’t help your romance when so little work is put into making young people fall in love. There are fascinating circus-related tidbits that make me wish the movie was more Depression era circus drama than Depression era circus romance. It’s a handsome enough movie from a technical standpoint, and it has some points of interest and some interesting characters, but its shackled to such a weightless and naïve love story. This movie was described by many as an “old fashioned” kind of film, and generally that can be construed as a warning signal. When people dub something “old fashioned” it can tend to mean “boring except to older people.” It just so happens that my screening of the film was an open caption screening, which attracted dozens of our nation’s elderly and hearing impaired. I didn’t so much mind having grown up with subtitled foreign films. But one delightful accident of seeing this open captioned screening was that they captioned everything. Every sound, every offhand piece of dialogue that would ordinarily go unnoticed and undetected. So now I got to see, as subtitle form, such discoveries as Guy in Background saying, “Hey pick that up,” and Other Guy in Background responding, “Okay. Put it where?” It was more exciting than what was going on between Jacob and Marlena. Now let’s get that elephant drunk!

Nate’s Grade: C

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino has always been an artist that thumbs his nose at convention. Just as critics accused his last film, Death Proof, as wallowing in exploitation muck, here comes Inglourious Basterds, very loosely based on the correctly spelled 1978 Italian movie. War movies seem like a natural fit for the QT mold with their staunch violence, tough guy bravado, and vengeance-filled storylines. Tarantino has been working on the script for this film for over ten years, taking a break to produce the Kill Bill features. The finished product is a bloody alternative history wish-fulfillment fantasy with little conscience. This isn’t any sentimental, well-meaning, reflective war movie. This is war Tarantino-style and a celebration of war movies in general. Cinema becomes the weapon we win the war with.

In 1944, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is given a unique mission. He is to assemble and lead a crew of Jewish-American soldiers for one purpose — to kill Nazis. They will be dropped into German-occupied France and will use guerilla tactics to dismember Nazis and strike fear into the higher ranks. Aldo personally assigns each soldier with the task of collecting 100 Nazi scalps. “And I want my scalps,” he commands. The “basterds,” as they’re called, face steep opposition. S.S. Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) has earned the nickname “Jew hunter” for his terrifying precision at sniffing out Jews hiding along the French countryside. In the film?s terrific opening sequence, he systematically interrogates a French farmer into giving up the Jews he is hiding. Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) is a Jewish teenager who manages to miraculously escape this bloodbath.

Years later, she owns and operates a movie theater in Paris. The German high command wants to screen their newest propaganda masterpiece, Nation’s Pride about the exploits of sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), in Shoshanna’s theater. Finally she can plot her vengeance, except that Landa will be providing security for the special screening. Meanwhile, Aldo and the basterds scheme to meet up with German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who is secretly working with the British as a spy for Operation Kino. The top-secret mission involves attending the movie premier at Shoshanna’s theater and then killing all the high-ranking brass in attendance, thus ending the war.

Those looking for a rip-roaring good time of watching Pitt prance through the countryside dispatching evil Nazis will be disappointed to learn that Inglourious Basterds is, after all, a Tarantino movie. That means there is talking. Lots of talking, but it’s great, glourious talking with deep undercurrents of menace. The movie boils down to about six set pieces and most of that time involves long, drawn out conversations where the tension percolates underneath the surface. The characters play a cat-and-mouse game of deception, and the conversation transforms into a slow fuse waiting to go off. The characters engage in an “I know, and you know I know” bout of play acting, going about their business as if all is calm, when each is waiting for the next move. Tarantino turns dialogue scenes into slow-burning combat, and eventually those lit fuses do finally go off and the scene will erupt in a great splash of violence. Then we are left to assess the situation and collect our bearings, much like the characters if they are fortunate enough to be alive. This is a talky war movie, and Tarantino does fall in love with his dialogue rhythms and allow his characters to overindulge and circle the same plot points more than is needed, like the sequence with von Hammersmark in the bar, but the naysayers looking for an action romp that complain nothing goes on are missing the point. A tremendous amount is going on, you just have to look beneath the surface, lie in wait, and luxuriate in the simmering tension that Tarantino plays like a pro.

Tarantino has an encyclopedic knowledge of film that allows him to blend and deconstruct genres, and Inglourious Basterds feels like an homage not to World War II but war movies in general, with a dash of spaghetti westerns. When the French farmer watches Landa drive up to his home, linked with the great Enrico Morricone’s score, you definitely feel like you’re in a western transported into mid-twentieth century Europe. The conversations feel like high-noon showdowns. Tarantino’s direction feels less stylized and idiosyncratic this time. He still plays around with time and back-story, even recruiting Samuel L. Jackson to be a God-like narrator, but Ingloruious Basterds is mostly a literal and linear pop deconstruction of war movies. When Tarantino deviates sharply from the known historical timeline, it feels within reason given the cracked mirror world he?s created. Tarantino can turn World War II into a campy Warner Brothers cartoon, replete with goofy over-the-top caricatures of Hitler and Goebbles. He can also takes digressions and hard right turns with his story, allowing characters to chew over the finer intricacies of German silent cinema. It’s bloody, messy, but boy is it entertaining as hell.

Any conversation over Inglourious Basterds is inevitably going to gravitate to its fascinating central villain, Hans Landa. German actor Waltz plays the infamous “Jew Hunter” and he is astounding to watch; he enlivens every moment onscreen and won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Landa is an extremely intelligent and polite inquisitor. He comes across almost like a diabolical S.S. version of Colombo: he’s three steps ahead, feigns ignorance, circles his prey, and finally strikes after mentally tearing down the suspect. Waltz is practically giddy in some sequences, enthusiastic for such sick endeavors. He likes to screw with people and make them nervous. And yet, thanks to the wily brilliance and magnetism of Waltz, you develop a perverse appreciation for the man. Despite the horrors he is responsible for, you may actually find yourself liking Landa. He has moments of great cunning, like his deliberate reasons for switching to English with the French farmer or his off-the-cuff destruction of von Hammersmark’s alibi. When he suddenly and fluently launches into his fourth language, it is one of the film’s finest “oh crap” moments. This is a truly memorable character that dominates every scene, and Waltz gives an astounding star-making performance destined to be remembered when it comes time to draw Oscar nominees.

The rest of the actors do well but no one approaches the planet that Waltz resides on. Pitt seems to knowingly be shooting for parody with his performance. His accent is twangy and coats every word in a honeyed glaze; you almost expect him to wink at the camera after each line. He’s still amusing to behold in the rather few instances that Aldo graces the movie. Laurent (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and Kruger (National Treasure) both have intriguing albeit underwritten roles, and both actresses give the best performances in the film after Waltz. Eli Roth (writer/director of Cabin Fever, one of my favorite movie indulgences) looks the part as the commanding “Bear Jew” with his lean physique and Louisville slugger, but I couldn’t tell what he was doing with his accent. Is he supposed to be from New York or Boston? In war movies, there was usually a colorful collection of characters but Inglourious Basterds doesn’t really do much to accentuate its second tier players. The only basterd that leaves an impression is Til Schweiger (Driven, Far Cry), all humorless resolve and flinty stares. And what happened to the basterds in the final act? Where did everybody go? Yes, that really is Mike Myers doing one of his Austin Powers-esque British impressions.

What is truly surprising is that Basterds unflinchingly looks at all the ugly aspects of war. The movie doesn’t neatly categorize the villains and the heroes. Zoller is a German sniper that killed 300 Allied troops and yet he is portrayed as grounded and romantic, a film lover able to chip away at Shoshanna?s steely reserve. To the basterds, they refuse to see past the uniform and armband; there is no difference between a Nazi and a German soldier. They will mutilate both on principal. Tarantino also gives time to examining the collateral damage of war, watching innocents gunned down in the name of duty. Shoshanna’s plot for vengeance involves the horrific deaths of scads of people whose only sin may have been being German in Paris. Operation Kino is described by Landa as a “terrorist plot” and isn’t it, really? But then Aldo disputes that a “Nazi ain’t got no humanity” and that collaborators and bystanders are just as culpable. Aldo and his basterds march through France committing what could sensibly be described as war crimes, and these are the good guys! Even with all the camp and stylized violence, there may be moments where you want to cringe and ask yourself, “Am I supposed to be enjoying this??

There are those that bemoan that Tarantino is wasting away his remarkable talents on such low-rent enterprises. He is too caught up in genre filmmaking, they claim. He needs to go back to his earlier audacious works, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, films of startling intelligence and playfulness. He needs to stop making collages of movies and go back to making real movies, they cry. Ingloruious Basterds will not please these critics. This is a verbose deconstruction of war movies that runs over 150 minutes and mostly involves characters seated and chatting. It will clearly not be for everyone, especially those sold into thinking Basterds was going to be a more graphic version of The Dirty Dozen. This movie is more Cinema Paradiso than The Dirty Dozen. If Tarantino wants to keep making high-gloss genre goofs, that’s fine with me as long as the end results are as creative and entertaining as this movie. Who else is going to make a World War II fantasy with excellent use of David Bowie’s song “Cat People”? No one makes movies like Tarantino. I rest my case.

Nate’s Grade: A

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