All the Money is the World used to star Kevin Spacey as the prolific oil billionaire John Paul Getty, that is until director Ridley Scott elected to reshoot the part, replacing Spacey with Christopher Plummer after Spacey’s unsavory history of sexual assault came to light. In only ten days, Scott changed his movie with only a month to spare before its release. It’s an amazing feat, especially when you consider Plummer is in the film for at least a solid half hour. He’s also the best part as the mercurial, cruel, penny-pinching magnate who refuses to pay his grandson’s ransom even though he’s the richest man who ever lived. In 1973, John Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) was kidnapped by Italian criminals. With the miserly grandfather offering no help, Gail (Michelle Williams) tries to negotiate with the criminals and her father-in-law to secure the release of her son. I didn’t know anything coming into this film, but afterwards I felt like it focused on the wrong characters. The mother stuck in the middle is not the most interesting protagonist here and seems like a go-between for the two more immediate and intriguing stories, the elder Getty and the youngest Getty. Williams (Manchester by the Sea) is acceptable as the strong-willed, put-upon mother, though her mid Atlantic accent made me think I was watching Katherine Hepburn. Mark Wahlberg (Daddy’s Home 2) is completely miscast as a former CIA agent that helps Gail. He succeeds in converting oxygen to carbon dioxide and that’s about it. The central story is interesting enough, though there are points that scream being fictional invented additions, like a last act chase and a kindly mobster who undergoes reverse Stockholm syndrome. John Paul Getty is an interesting character, and Plummer is terrific, though I am quite curious what Spacey’s performance would have been like under octogenarian makeup (Plummer already happens to be in his 80s). All the Money in the World is an interesting enough story with decent acting but I can’t help but entertain my nagging sense that it should have been better even minus Spacey.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Nothing says holiday treat for the whole family like a nearly three-hour movie about rape. Late author Stieg Larsson’s best-selling trilogy made three very successful Swedish films, all released last year in indie theaters. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood optioned The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, benefiting those averse to reading subtitles. At least they hired the right director in David Fincher, a man used to plumbing the depths of human depravity in films like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac. Fincher’s take is pretty dark and hardcore, but once you wash all that perfectionist grime off, I prefer the Swedish film in just about every way.
Crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is smarting from a court case that found him guilty of libel. He’s commissioned by a wealthy businessman Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his granddaughter, Harriet. Henrik strongly believes she was murdered by one of the sinister members of his extended family, a group of shady characters with some allegiance to Nazism. Mikael is assisted by the unorthodox computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a rail-thin Gothic gal clad in tattoos and piercings. Their partnership sometimes gets blurry as they grow closer over the course of the investigation. Together the pair investigates a series of grisly, ritualistic murders related to Harriet’s disappearance, and the closer they get to discover the truth the more dangerous things get.
So the burning question: is Fincher’s take better than the original Swedish version? Well, in some areas yes but in many areas I’d have to say no, that I prefer the lower budget, no-name Swedish version. Obviously a director of Fincher’s caliber is going to significantly raise the quality of a production, and the technical merits of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo are without question. This is a seedy, grimy, prurient, and very dark (in both lighting and thematic material) little movie. There’s always been an eerie beauty to Fincher’s cool aesthetics, and it’s on display here as well. Many of Fincher’s Social Network crew carried right over to Dragon Tattoo, so the editing is crisp, the cinematography sleek, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is a storm of ominous tones. Their plaintive score is actually a fairly unmemorable muddle, never approaching the energy, intricacy, or diversity of their Oscar-winning score for The Social Network. However, the extra polish and the glut of familiar actors takes away from the intrigue of the movie. When something meant to be gritty is too artistically stunning, it detracts from the thematic intent of the story. That sounds like a contrary way to insult Fincher for making his movie look too good, but perhaps that’s the best way of stating the point. Niels Arden Oplev is nowhere near the filmmaker that Fincher is, nor did he have the budget or creative freedom afforded Fincher, but perhaps someone of lesser talents was better suited to best tell this tale. By all means, the American Dragon Tattoo is a more visually alluring film, but Oplev’s film is more fully felt. I recently rewatched the Swedish version again for points of comparison and found myself much more involved in the characters, the story, and the actors, even though I had already seen the movie. Fincher’s version may be the better-looking movie, but surprisingly Oplev’s is just the better movie, period.
The adaptation by Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List) actually hews closer to Larsson’s book than the Swedish film, though Zallian redirects the film into a new ending. But the additions don’t seem to add anything of substance to the narrative (Blomkvist’s teenage daughter; dead cat), and the new ending feels more confused than helpful. Most of all, Zallian’s script devotes less time to the characters of Lisbeth and Blomkvist. I had a better understanding of these characters and their complicated, shifting relationship in the Swedish film. That narrative was much cleaner with helpful, clarifying procedural details and a dose of ambiguity. Simply put, the story just flowed better in the Swedish film. The personal connection Blomkvist had to Harriet (she was his babysitter long ago) has also been severed. Many of the story’s problems are still the same regardless of language or adapter. There is a clear disparity when it comes to audience interest in the two leads. What’s more interesting, a punky, bisexual, computer hacker or a disgraced, somewhat bland journalist? Exactly. Also, the story takes far too long to put our lead characters together, over an hour at that. The murder mystery is filled with murky plot points, pieces that seem like they might be integral but then turn out to be incidental. It takes a good while to process and familiarize oneself with the expository details of the case, but under Zallian’s draft, the mystery is given less room to breath. For a movie clocking in at 150 minutes, things feel untidy and rushed. The resolution feels drawn out to ungodly Lord of the Rings-lengths; I swear there must be a solid 20 minutes after the eventual serial killer is dealt with. It just feels like it goes on forever. Still, the characters are what ultimately makes Dragon Tattoo engaging, and Zallian’s efforts cannot dampen the captivating, curious nature of Lisbeth Salander.
Both Craig and Mara give fine performances but I prefer both Swedish actors to the A-listers. Craig is certainly a better actor than his Swedish counterpart, but the role is a middle-aged journalist and not James Bond, and thus a better fit for the unknown Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist (Mission: impossible: Ghosts Protocol). Blomkvist isn’t supposed to be an ass-kicker. As a result, you don’t feel his terror as he gets in deeper and lands in serious physical jeopardy. Likewise, following in Noomi Rapace’s (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) shoes was going to be a difficult feat for any actress, but Fincher got the girl he wanted, Mara, who tore down Mark Zuckerberg with precision in The Social Network. Mara commits herself completely to the role and undergoes a severe physical transformation (bleached eyebrows, wiry frame, nipple piercings), but she lacks the intensity of Rapace, the spiteful attitude, the recklessness and the resourcefulness. Rapace felt like a caged animal that could explode at any moment; Mara feels more like a lost puppy. I’m being intentionally cavalier with my word choice. Mara is quite good as Lisbeth; it’s just that Mara can’t quite measure up to the preceding tattooed girl. It feels like there’s a lot more going on with the Swedish Salander, whereas the American (still Swedish) Salander is waiting for her cue. It’s like Mara has dressed the part and waits for the character to just click over.
I’m not one for lazy analysis, but I feel like the uncomfortable issue of sexual violence/ voyeurism needs to be addressed, and I find that everything I wrote a year ago in my original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review could readily apply to its Hollywood counterpart. So here goes: “The book’s original title was ‘Men Who Hate Women’ and that seems apt given what occurs on screen. Sure there’s a serial murderer on the loose but that’s par for the course. Even the grisly ritualistic killing stuff. But Lisbeth encounters a lot of malice and hostile male aggression, some of it very sickening. There’s a startlingly extended rape sequence, followed by some sadistic, if justifiable, revenge. It all contributes to an overall tone of queasy misogyny that seems to waver between intentional and unintentional. I’m not sure tone-wise whether the movie ever creeps into unsettling voyeurism at the behest of women in explicit sexual peril, but it certainly is a distraction. It can get pretty hard to watch at times in this disturbing thriller. I hope the eventual sequels don’t follow this same queasy, upsetting tone but I also worry that this may be unfortunately part of the books/movies’ appeal.”
For those new to Lisbeth and Larsson’s sordid saga, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will more than likely play well, a squalid thriller with the nicest coat of gloss you could ever hope for given the material. This is dark, rape-heavy stuff, and an odd adult drama to position as a Christmas release, but the collective appeal of the best-selling books should guarantee so many butts in the seats. It’s likely a safe bet that a high majority of those paying customers are unfamiliar with the Swedish version of the same story, which is a shame because, short of a few technical advances, I believe the Swedish film to be the superior movie. It had better acting, more appropriate casting, a rounder narrative that fleshed out the characters, their relationships, and their histories better, and a better score (sorry Trent, better luck next time). It’s still a movie that registers a “good” on most critical accounts, and Lisbeth Salander is still a fascinating person, a wounded warrior that catches the imagination. I’ll be curious to see if the subtitle-free Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does well enough at the box-office to warrant filming the next two decidedly lesser books. Whatever the case, there will always be the Swedish films and Ms. Rapace’s star-making performance.
Nate’s Grade: B
Burying a parent is one of the most gut-wrenching hardships of life, a passage I have thankfully not had to endure yet in my own life. Writer/director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) turned his own heartbreak into a subdued, life-affirming movie called Beginners. This gentle movie is comic, poignant, and frustratingly limited thanks to a miscalculation in its structure.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is reeling from the loss of his elderly father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). After the death of his wife, in his seventy-fifth year, Hal came out as being gay his whole life. And he decided to have some fun in those last years too, notably with a hunky younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic, remember him, ER fans?). We get several flashbacks with Oliver and his ailing father, who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer soon into his gay reemergence. In the present, Oliver, as a dissatisfied graphic designer, is trying to find his bearings after burying both of his parents. Hal’s dog, a Jack Russell terrier, is mourning as well, refusing to be left alone. As a result, Oliver takes the small dog with him wherever he travels, including social events. He meets Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a friend’s costume party. He’s dressed as Sigmund Freud and she mimes having laryngitis. Anna, a young actress who spends most of her life in hotels, invites him back and the two explore the possibility of a relationship. She’ll be off to another film shoot in a month, but the two become inseparable during the time they have together. Anna learns about Oliver and his complicated relationship with the complicated man he knew as his father. Oliver, and in flashback Hal, are beginners on a road to making sense of their lives.
What eventually holds Beginners back is its clipped structure. The film diverges into two main storylines, father and son (60%) and son with new love (40%). The new love stuff is presented fairly linearly, however, the father/son material is not, consisting of memories that can be triggered by objects or offhand sayings. Like (500) Days of Summer, memories are presented not in a linear fashion but through a connection of theme or tone. Rarely do we recount memories in a chronological fashion, and as such Oliver is beset by deluges of images of his father ailing at various points. But it’s like Mills took that fleeting memory approach to heart because Beginners is a slave to the altar of jump cuts. The editing, and the narrative, is constantly leaping forward; scenes rarely last longer than 30-45 seconds, making the film feel like somebody had their finger mashed against a stubborn fast forward button. As a result, the film feels hurried and unsettled, and this clipped structure mollifies the emotional impact of the movie. It’s because the romance only feels like someone’s remembrance of those burgeoning happy beginnings. The film doesn’t feel like it is in its own present; we’re in 2003 and Oliver will occasionally inform us, in High Fidelity-styled notation, of life at that moment. It feels like the entire enterprise is an assembly of past memories ping-ponging off one another. Another hurdle is that Anna and Oliver’s main conflict concerns their fear of happiness. Each had parents who wed as unhappy people, had unhappy unions, and both are fearful that they too will commit to living unhappy lives. It’s not an impossible feat, to be sure, but it does make it somewhat harder to relate to your characters when the main relationship problem is that they cannot accept happiness. While psychologically interesting in larger scope, due to the structure of Beginners, this conflict for Anna and Oliver seems petty and insufficient. The antsy story structure limits the emotional resonance of the movie. What should be a nourishing meal about the human condition ends up being a tidy snack instead.
Don’t get me wrong, Beginners is still a fairly moving film in its own right. Just the very nature of the story, dealing with the last months of an ailing parent and what to do next, is destined to hit poignant pockets of drama. Plus you have gifted actors doing fine work to wring out those tears. Mills’ tale is semi-autobiographical, which allows for several personal insights that can wound, like direct shots of honesty. Oliver narrates the steps taken after a parent’s death, including the mundane yet painful trivialities needed to convince every bill collector that their client has left the Earth. When Hal is informed that he has a spot of cancer the size of a quarter in his lung, the screen flashes to black as the doctor continues her somber diagnosis. A quarter appears. Then five nickels, finally twenty-five pennies. It’s a small little visual insert, and yet it manages to seem like a believable, personally relatable moment when delivered such thundering news. Something the size of a quarter will be responsible for your father losing his life. Five nickels. Twenty-five pennies. The scenes with father and son, coming to terms with saying goodbye, reflecting on lives lived and lives deferred, is what gives Beginners its beating heart. The clipped present-day romance plays more like a post-script attempt to forge a neat resolution after all that heavy grief.
Plummer gives a performance that is equal parts weighed with the gravity of death and the electricity of life. After his wife’s death, Hal finally has an opportunity to embrace who he has been his whole life. Mills and Plummer are delicate with how they handle the relationship between Hal and his wife (Mary Page Keller in flashback). Neither hated the other, and both did express love, but they were together in a marriage of convenience, both of them hiding who they were from preying eyes (Oliver’s mother hid that she was Jewish). Plummer’s celebration of life, the twinkling realization of accepting who you truly are, is an uplifting path for his character, and thanks to both Mills and Plummer it never feels like he’s dancing on the grave of his long-suffering wife. He’s not celebrating her death; he’s embracing who he is in the twilight of his years. He’s looking for a small amount of kindness and comfort while finally being socially recognized without fear or intimidation. Plummer is delightful during Hal’s happier moments and heart wrenching during the realities of his failing body. Plummer deftly bites into one of those juicy, Oscar-bait roles.
McGregor acts very well even if his character is kept in a very tight box of emotional expression. His character seems to sleepwalk from scene to scene; often little is said and much left to the imagination through pregnant pauses or gestures. McGregor does a fine job of balancing the different timelines of grief his character is experiencing. He’s in comic shock about his father’s newfound immersion in a gay lifestyle, he’s in mourning about the recent loss of his father, he’s in annoyance tinged with guilt about the burdens of taking care of a man that was often absent in his own life, leaving him in the care of his mother, resigned to a life of dutiful despondency, and he’s infatuated with the possibility of romantic love, a cleansing force. It’s a lot for one actor to keep straight and McGregor does an admirable job. Laurent does not fare as well. The Inglourious Basterds‘ actress is forced to rely mostly on wry smiles and her penetrating eyes. She also cocks her head to the side a lot, or a least that’s how I recall. She’s given something of a thanklessly underwritten role but she manages to be adorable from her first moment onscreen, which is her most vital acting accomplishment here. She’s supposed to be that happy ending we want Oliver to have.
Beginners is a moving, charming, and perceptive movie. If only there was more of it. The clipped, hurried jump cut-heavy structure keeps the audience at a certain distance and capping the emotional resonance. The father/son stuff is going to be easier to empathize with, both good times and bad, than two good-looking thirtysomethings afraid of being happy because their parents are screwed up. Ultimately, the film’s pretenses of a budding, quirky romance will take away from the more genuine father/son bonding late in life. You’ll get weepy at turns, maybe even swoon here and there, but the rewards are sadly too momentary, never cohesively assembling into a full-fledged narrative. Beginners has an equal number of hard truths and light moments of whimsy (the subtitled dog is a hoot), but ultimately it’s a movie that makes you wish it had left a better impression when it had the chance.
Nate’s Grade: B-
9 began its life with acclaim. Director Shane Acker won a Student Academy Award and a 2004 Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short for his eleven-minute tale of post-apocalyptic ragdoll people. Blown up to feature length and with a screenplay by Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride), 9 the film is being sold on the name appeal of producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (director of Wanted). It’s being sold to gloomy animation aficionados. I can hear the producers saying, “These guys will see anything that?s dark and different.” I advise everyone to surf YouTube and watch the eleven-minute original short by Acker. You’ll save eight bucks and see the more effective and satisfying version of 9. If you wanted to boil 9 down, it’s like The Brave Little Toaster starring the villainous robots from The Matrix. Sound like a winner?
War machines have killed humans. The only life on our planet is a handful of numbered ragdoll creatures. The main hero, #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), awakes in the home of a dead scientist. The outside world is demolished. He finds other little ragdoll people like him, each numbered 1-8. Together they must try and make sense of this scary new world and survive the roaming robots still on the hunt for… something. #9 accidentally gives life back to the monstrous Machine, who we learn is responsible for the downfall of mankind. Way to go, ragdoll. The Machine is patching together mechanical minions to take over the ashen remains of a post-apocalyptic world absent life. Seriously, I’m at a loss what the big evil Machine hopes to accomplish. Then again, maybe it’s just in need of a hobby.
Even at a scant 79 minutes, 9 the movie still feels stretched and draggy, chiefly because the plot is lousy and the character work stopped at the design stage. I was bored throughout, I didn’t care about any character, and the movie failed to even arouse my curiosity to solve the mysteries of the movie. I didn’t even care if I found out why these ragdoll creatures existed or what had happened to leave the world in chaos. I sat in my chair, completely uninvolved with what was happening onscreen. Part of this is because a majority of the plot involves these tiny characters walking from one point (a church) to another (a factory) over and over again; the plot could be substituted by a linear line connecting Point A and Point B. It’s all so crushingly repetitious. And these are not short distances either, compounded by the fact that it’s little eight-inch ragdolls walking these great expanses of land. I invite every reader to position two fingers on their hand, index and middle, and then proceed to pretend to walk across. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the miniature plot of 9 magnified for your edification. Just imagine weird robots chasing after your fingers and you get the drill. There’s not enough story here to make the jump and fill out a feature film.
The characters have an interesting design, to be sure. Each has different sewn parts but Acker makes the mistake of animation where the design is the full personality of the character. #8 is a big dolt, #1 is an old tyrant, #6 is a loon (voiced by Crispin Glover, naturally), #7 is a lady rag doll warrior complete with some purposeful enhanced womanly hips, and so on. The bland characters don?t ever take a moment to ask more important questions. These creatures have just been given life in a hostile world absent of life, so how about a moment where they ponder something a bit existential (Why am I here? What is life?) before they immediately speak English fluently and assimilate perfectly in a world they were born into moments earlier? The characters are a challenge to feel any empathy for.
The mechanical monsters designs also come across as highly derivative; then again, so does the movie as a whole. The main villain, The Machine, looks exactly like the Sentinels from the Matrix movies. It has a central red glowing eye, a head lined with pistons, lots of twisty tentacles, and even creates shockwaves of electricity that seem to bathe over the mighty creature. I think it even makes a similar noise as the Sentinels. Then there’s also one mechanical minion whose key design feature is a mutilated doll head. Too bad I already saw this exact same design in Toy Story 14 years ago. Here’s the thing: I don’t automatically cry foul whenever a design concept looks familiar, but when things just keep hitting you in the face with familiarity then it develops into a pattern. The overall film feels stitched together by the parts of other, better movies.
At least there’s a saving grace with bad animated films: you have something moderately interesting to watch considering the painstaking work that goes into every frame. That is not the case with the dreary 9. The entire landscape is post-apocalyptic, which means the sets are little more than ash, ruins, and barren remains. There are only so many scattered mechanical remains you can see before it all just starts resembling one vast junkyard. The setting is not 21st century, but more like mid twentieth in some unidentified Eastern European city (a film reel reveals that we’re in communist territory). I’m not saying that it’s impossible to find beauty in destruction, but this movie misses out. Acker and company has created a competently animated movie with a somewhat different look and feel, but there isn’t a single moment of wonder or awe to be had. It lacks an imaginative spark.
This animated tale lacks a sense of wonder, a sense of intrigue, even a sense of scale. The visuals and story are derivative of other sci-fi/fantasy films. In the original short, the characters were silent, causing the viewer to work harder at interpreting body language and context. If the ragdolls are just going to spout lame exposition gunk, they should have stayed silent. Director Rob Marshall’s upcoming big screen musical, Nine, need not worry about being confused with this film. In about two weeks, everyone except those with Hot Topic punch cards will have forgotten this mediocre movie. People who say, “It’s only an animated movie, give it a break,” are deluding themselves. No matter the genre, an audience should expect to be entertained. 9 just makes me hopeful that in the future Acker proves why he was targeted as a talent on the rise.
Nate’s Grade: C
With every new movie Pixar re-establishes itself as the most creatively reliable studio in the business. And every year some critics beat the drum that THIS is the movie that will break free from the animation ghetto and earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination. If anyone out there would like to tell me how The Reader could be a superior film to WALL-E, by all means enlighten me. Pixar has been producing engrossing and complex entertainment, not merely cute cartoons. But if WALL-E failed to score a nomination in a so-so film year, then I doubt that Pixar’s latest, Up, will fly into the winner’s circle.
Carl Frederickson (voiced by Edward Asner) is a cantankerous 78-year-old man who wants nothing more in life than to be left alone. He lives in a house he built with his late wife, Ellie. They met when they were kids and bonded over a shared love of thrill-seeking adventure, like their hero, explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Ellie’s dream is to eventually travel to Paradise Falls in South America, but she never lives to see it. Carl is about to be thrown into a retirement center and have his home demolished, so the geezer hatches an escape plan. The former balloon salesman attaches thousands of balloons to his house and floats away headed for Paradise Falls. Carl is ready to enjoy the quiet when he gets a knock at his front door. He has a stowaway. Russell (Jordan Nagai) is an overweight eight-year-old determined to get his last Wilderness Scout badge, which involves helping the elderly. Together, they journey through the jungles of Venezuela and find remarkable discoveries and constant danger, including the presence of a sinister and still very-much-alive Charles Muntz.
Up is the colorful tale of a dreamer who longs for escape, and you feel the same rush of excitement to be unbound and take off. Naturally, there will be bonding between the grouchy old man and the earnest kid. Up really becomes an altogether different movie once it lands in Venezuela. It transforms into an unconventional adventure story replete with talking dogs and giant birds. I loved the Dug character and was bemused at hearing the scattered thought patterns of man’s best friend (“I have just met you and I love you”). The side characters somewhat steal the show and, at the same time, feel overextended. With that said, I’ll probably end up buying my wife a talking stuffed Dug. The last act soars with about 20 minutes of thoughtful, exciting, well-constructed action weighted by an emotional connection to character. At the same time, Up tackles some major issues and does so without getting mired in sappy sentimentality. Carl is dealing with loss and has hardened against a world he feels indifferent to. Up almost had me in tears within the first 10 minutes during its elegant wordless montage charting the courtship and marital life of Carl and Ellie. It’s a fabulous moment and greatly economical, packing an emotional punch unequaled by the rest of the film.
The visual storytelling is still top of the line entertainment. The animation is superb as usual. The flying house is an explosion of colors and instantly brought a smile to my face. Carl’s character design looks like he was a Lego character that was brought to life. He’s all square and boxy whereas Russell is round to the point of being an Easter egg with legs (is Russell Asian-American or biracial, or is it just a character design that I’m reading too much into?). The South American jungles are lush and filled with inventive creatures. I saw the movie in a conventional theater but the option is out there to catch the movie in Disney 3-D, but I don’t think it will add much to the whole experience.
The central image is lovely and instantly iconic: the house floating through the clouds thanks to thousands of colorful balloons. It’s a beautiful image and a perfect metaphor for the memory of Carl’s deceased wife. They built that house together and lived a full life inside, he refers to the house as “Ellie,” and at one point Carl even ties the floating house to his back, tethering her memory to Earth while simultaneously carrying his grief with him at every step. The idea of a flying house tickles the imagination and yet never once demands more critical examination. We accept that Carl has rigged the house to take flight and never once stop and question the extreme engineering improbabilities. The flying house is just the mode of transportation for the characters to complete their story, but it is not the whole story. Think of it as a more comfortable mode of family flying than a queen-sized mattress that included Angela Lansbury (1971’s curious Nazi-fighting family flick, Bedknobs and Broomsticks). The rest of the movie never quite matches the directness and depth of that visual metaphor.
Up ducks out on making its tale more of a feeling, living movie, something more than striking visuals and some fun set pieces and odd characters with a dash of sentiment. Up establishes its strange story elements but then doesn’t plausibly make much more out of them. The story becomes a somewhat constricted rescue caper to return a Mama bird to her babies and keep her out of the hands of a Bad Man. Charles Muntz is a fairly weak villain. I’ve also got a burning question: if Carl is 78 years old, how old exactly is his childhood hero, Muntz? It’s a bit simplistic and that’s fine, and it’s still an enjoyable conclusion, but the movie doesn’t ascend from the sum of its parts like the finest works of Pixar, like WALL-E and The Incredibles. This one’s just missing some of that Pixar magic. Yeah, there’s the overall arc of Carl overcoming the loss of his wife and softening his hard exterior, but tell me what exactly else happens that matters? The kid makes a friend? It’s about human connection but how exactly is that best served by giant birds and talking dogs flying biplanes? Up also isn’t as visually arresting or creative as previous Pixar flicks, aside from that floating house. As far as Pixar films go, this is about square down the middle (between Monster’s Inc. and Finding Nemo, better than Cars and A Bug’s Life). But even that statement is prefaced by the fact that Pixar’s output is generally head and shoulders above every other studio in technical precision, creative ingenuity, and emotional heft.
Up takes some fancy flights of imagination and has plenty of humor and charm to make it a family-friendly winner. I have some reservations with the movie and its plot, but there’s no question that Pixar knows how to construct a movie that manages to appeal to everyone, even if it involves cranky old men as unlikely action heroes. I feel like perhaps Up is suffering because it has the rotten luck of following the release of WALL-E, a timeless masterpiece that I have since watched probably over 30 times. Up is a warm-hearted and engaging film even if it never reaches the creative and emotional heights of other Pixar masterworks. Still, a “pretty good” Pixar movie has a legitimate shot at being the best movie I see this summer.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The first time I saw the trailer for The Lake House, a time-travel romance that reunites the stars of Speed, I said to myself at its conclusions, “If this lake house drops below 55 miles per hour…” I know, I’m a comedic genius, that much is obvious but what I was really reminded of was a 2002 film called Happy Accidents, a delightful gem of a movie with a similar time-travel romance. In that film you felt like anything could happen with its intricate plotting and off kilter, potentially seriously disturbed characters. Now it seems like Hollywood’s on board. The Lake House is based on an Asian film I’ve never heard of (though, in all honesty, I’ve never heard of 99.99% of them; sorry Asian cinema). This new East-West The Lake House doesn’t come across as that romantic but it’s hard to deny its points of interest.
Kate (Sandra Bullock) has taken a new job in Chicago and is moving out of a giant glass house on stilts that overlooks a lake. She leaves a note for the new resident, Alex (Keanu Reeves), an architect that struggles to fulfill his talent and his father’s (Christopher Plummer) legacy. Alex is confused; to his recollection, no one has lived in this house for years. Kate writes back and slips her notes into the nearby nostalgic mail box. But there’s something magical with this mail box. Kate is living in the year 2006 and Alex is living in the year 2004. Neither understands how it’s possible they’re even communicating by transporting letters through the mailbox. What’s even worse is that they’re falling in love with each other through their correspondence. Talk about your long-distance relationships.
To go along with this kind of movie you really need to take it at face value. Once you start that slippery slope of questioning paradoxes of time travel or the narrative plot holes, you’ll be left in the cold for the remainder of the film. Yes, there are all sorts of logic paradoxes to clog the brain with, like the fact that every time Alex does something thoughtful, like plant a tree by Kate’s building, she won’t notice because she’s never had memories of anything being different. The characters themselves just shrug at the movie’s concept and accept this bizarre predicament. No explanation is given for this short circuit in the time space continuum, and frankly, no explanation is needed. The Lake House is not emphasizing the “why” but more the “what now?”
The Lake House is still a Hollywood romance in most senses. There’s little doubt that a happy ending is just around the corner, but at least the wrinkles and the road map to that point are not altogether predictable. The typical big moments are foreseeable, including that ever popular 11th hour misunderstanding, but The Lake House manages to tickle with surprise in the details of its journey. You don’t so much pull for the leads to get together but just see them tackle this mighty daunting obstacle before them.
The biggest flaw of The Lake House is that you never really believe these sad pretty people are falling in love. There is something indelibly romantic about falling in love with someone just from their words, constructing a potential soul mate with the few puzzle pieces given to you through long correspondence. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in those many pieces of parchment that Alex and Kate pass along that pinpoints why either pen pal would fall for the other. Both seem to have spotty luck with the opposite sex or are at least seeking more from a mate. But if The Lake House is any indication, these people have been chiefly seeking celibacy and verbosity in a mate. They talk about their lives, they talk about their pasts (in Kate’s case is a bit more extended), but it’s not too long before they start swooning and clutching those letters ever so tightly. The audience is left to fathom what invisible combination must have been unlocked that these sad pretty people have fallen for each other. While a lack of sustainable, let alone believable, romance in a romantic drama might be disastrous, at least The Lake House has a conceit strong enough to engage the brain even if it fails to engage the heart.
The time jumps manage to keep the audience on its toes, plus there’s some fun in witnessing Alex and Kate try to locate each other and become bewildered. Director Alejandro Agresti (Valentin) and playwright David Auburn (Proof) play around with different techniques like split-screens and dissolves to present their lovers together. The conversational back-and-forth voice over does present problems; how exactly can they interrupt each other? The Lake House leans a little too hard on faith that we want to see these people end up together. Problem is that Kate and Alex are essentially void of depth; two characters defined more by the clunky subplots around them than their own personalities. Bullock and Reeves don’t help matters much, each perpetuating a vacant pretty android quality, like they’re waiting for a button to be pushed to explain human emotion.
I don’t know about you but if I was writing to someone in the past I’d use my knowledge and tell them to play certain lottery numbers or sports bets (“The Red Sox win what?”). Maybe it’s simply unromantic to start the basis of a relationship on gambling earnings. Then again, maybe it’s just unromantic to start a relationship with Keanu Reeves anyhow.
The Lake House is an old fashioned Hollywood romance but with some intriguing wrinkles and a playful structure. There’s a degree of predictability, the high-wattage stars fail to generate even low-wattage heat, but with the time-slip premise the film cannot be judge as familiar. The unusual situation and obstacles presented are more interesting than the main characters. Their love feels artificial and neither Kate nor Alex is rather deep, involving, or particularly smart (e-mail anyone?). Despite the limited help by the leads, The Lake House is a pleasant, different, if not terribly romantic Hollywood drama. For Hollywood, sometimes “pleasant and different” is enough for an enjoyable evening with the stars and someone special by your side. For everyone else, rent Happy Accidents.
Nate’s Grade: B
Spike Lee is one of the most recognizable names in film. Usually, the edgy, pointedly opinionated director sets his sights on racial strife, human relations, and satire. So what is Lee’s name doing attached to the Hollywood heist flick, Inside Man? For starters, it’s his most commercial film of his career, a sharp, engrossing thriller that doesn’t blunt his distinct voice.
Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has set forth the perfect bank robbery. He and a handful of associates, dressed as painters with their faces obscured, have locked down a bank in downtown Manhattan. They’ve rounded up everyone inside, robbed them of their trusted cell phones, and ordered them to wear identical painter suits and masks. Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is tasked with resolving this standoff, which the media is all too eager to cover in its escalation. What could the crooks be after? Well, bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) is certainly nervous about a key document he has inside a safety deposit box, a document linking him to scratching the backs of Nazis. He pits Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to retrieve the document at any cost, and she has the tenacity to wedge herself between her political contacts and the police. All the characters keep their cards held close and try and outfox the other, while figuring out what exactly is going on inside that bank.
This movie is a born crowd pleaser. The heist and ensuing complications really grab an audience early on. There’s a certain thrill watching Dalton, so cool and clam, plot out his bank robbery like the script is still in hand. The crooks are always one step ahead of the police as well as the audience, and I mean that in the best terms. It’s great fun just wondering how Dalton’s team is going to get out of their many jams, and the results are rarely unsatisfying. Inside Man knows exactly when to tantalize with intrigue, inject humor (“Penalty of code 36DD?”), or tighten the tension. The filmmakers know exactly what button to press and at what time. For a two-hour plus film, Lee keeps the film at a swift pace and smoothly weaves his characters in and out. The draw of Inside Man is watching the tit-for-tat game between Frazier and Dalton, too stone-faced pros trying to outsmart each other. Lee smartly allows his characters and story to take center stage and refrains from goosing a strong genre flick with some annoying, superficial artistic artifice.
Inside Man is a heist that’s refreshingly grounded in reality. Nothing is altogether too out there or complicated to the point where you’d need a score sheet to follow along. Dalton is the movie’s star and Inside Man gives him the center stage to draw us in and keep us guessing. In fact, the flick is so grounded in the plausible that mainstream audiences might be put off by the fact that there isn’t any super twist saved for the end. I think the same audiences Inside Man is so fine-tuned to entertain will discover the lack of a last-second twist as underwhelming. I hope we’re not to the point, as an audience, where we’d rather have an illogical, forced twist ending than something that closes our story with satisfying maturity and finesse. The biggest plot hole you’ll have to swallow with Inside Man is that a businessman would keep a document that linked him to the Nazis. What’s that about? Sentimental value? I’m also still a bit hazy on the motivation of our crooks.
Even though this is a crowd-pleaser, the film is not without its missteps. Inside Man has one of the worst scores I have heard for a movie, ever. Allow me to explain why I feel so brutally, and I do. The score flashes inappropriate mood all throughout the film, robbing many sequences of drama and calling attention to itself. Take for instance a phone conversation between Frazier and Dalton; we cut back and forth between the two and each actor has a different music score. Frazier’s is a jaunty jazz riff, while Dalton’s is the more traditional brooding orchestral number. Because of the schizophrenic musical score this moment becomes funny. The best example of how this score is dreadful is during a scene late where SWAT storms inside the bank. The camera takes their point of view and creeps through the bank lobby, and then you hear a horn (trumpet?) reverberate. It gets louder and then quieter in beats, like a high school brass orchestra just whizzed by in a race car. Then it keeps going but in another direction. At first I was confused, and then I thought, “Did Dalton actually set up a horn section to distract the police?” No, it’s just the awful Inside Man score that totally takes you out of the movie. Scores should enhance the movie, not turn drama into comedy.
Lee also doesn’t help his story by including so many flash-forwards in time. They mostly rob Inside Man of key suspense points. Now we know the bank robbers get away, we know their identities are still unknown, and we know no one died. Luckily, the charisma of the leads and the clever storyline can survive Lee shooting the movie in the foot. The movie also has what feels like the longest denouement since 2003’s Return of the King 20-minute hug fest.
The quality cast definitely gives Inside Man a boost. Washington is on autopilot but is still charming as ever while being intense and intuitive. Foster is like a female version of Mr. Wolf (Pulp Fiction) but full of steely determination. It says something when really talented actors like Willem Defoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor take tiny roles. As it should be, Owen is the standout. He’s so menacing and composed that you not only want Dalton to get away with the bank holdup, you want him to humiliate and embarrass his opponents even more. I?m convinced that in the world of film there’s no cooler actor than Clive Owen at this point. He adds a touch of badass to every role, with the notable exception of Derailed. At this point, I would pay to hear him recite the phone book and walk away going, “Wow, I didn’t know Aaron A. Anderson of 1200 West Avenue sounded so kickass!” Clive Owen is that cool.
Inside Man is a sharp, intelligent, mostly satisfying heist flick with a terrific ensemble. Lee’s most mainstream picture ever is a born crowd-pleaser, despite some missteps here and there (flash forwards, a poor score). The acting all around is top-notch, and the flick works as a tight and mature genre piece, simultaneously covering all its genre bases and playing up the smarts. I hope audiences appreciate the sense of believability with the film and don’t walk away irked that there is no super last-second twist. Inside Man isn’t anything groundbreaking but it knows how to tease an audience and tell a good guessing game of a tale.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’m not a Terrence Malick fan. There, I’ve said it. I think he’s got a great eye for visuals, however, I’ve never been impressed by any of his films. I hated 1998’s The Thin Red Line and its exhausting supply of narrators so much that I wanted to walk out of the theater. The only other movie I felt the same impulse, at the time, was Lost in Space. As you can see, not good company. It’s been a long time since that nightmare so I figured it would only be kind to give Malick another chance. His new film, The New World, looks to deconstruct the mythic relationship between settler John Smith and Native American princess, Pocahontas (perhaps best known for painting with the colors of the wind, or so Disney would have me believe). To my non-surprise, The New World is everything I thought it would be, namely ponderous, pretentious, and quite bad.
It’s 1606, and the world is about to change forever. A cadre of ships bound from England ground ashore on the Virginia coast in search of a settlement and, hopefully, a vibrant colony. The Captain (Christopher Plummer) warns that his men must treat the “naturals” with care; after all, this is their homeland. The Native American inhabitants treat the new settlers with curiosity, poking them, smelling them, and then tolerating their existence … for now. John Smith (Colin Farrell) comes to America in chains, the result of an ill-fated mutiny, but the Captain gives him new life. He commissions Smith to send an envoy deep into the Native American village to seek trading partners. Along the way he is captured and about to be executed when he’s saved by a young girl (Q’Orianka Kilcher), a.k.a. Pocahontas though the name is never spoken once. Smith is allowed to stay with the tribe and he deeply grows fond of Pocahontas. The two are blocked by culture and language, but their feelings persist. Smith is ordered to go back to his people. If they do not leave the land there will be war. The two civilizations are set to butt heads, and the love between Smith and Pocahontas is precariously trapped between.
Let’s get this bit of semantics out of the way. Terrence Malick doesn’t make movies, he makes nature documentaries. He doesn’t so much involve a plot as he does a large open space for his characters to pontificate about the world around them, mostly through whispery voice over. Malick fans will take in his artistic capture of sight and sound, but the rest of us out there will be scratching our heads, that is, when we’re not falling asleep. Seriously, how do you edit something like this? How does Malick know that THIS shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to be slotted here, while this OTHER shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to definitely come later? Malick is a stubborn mystery. He’s less interested in crafting a good movie than he is breaking the rules of what film can be. That’s all well and dandy when you put out an entertaining product. The only way I think The New World could be entertaining is if: 1) you adore long, poetic scenes of nature, or 2) you hate yourself.
It seems needless to talk about the acting. Farrell (Daredevil, Minority Report) seems like a good choice for a hardluck man overwhelmed by his new environment. Kilcher could be a fine actress, she certainly is rather beautiful, but the jury’s still out on her emoting. Plummer is so good that you’ll miss him dearly when he’s gone. Most of the acting revolves around silence and reactions, which is not the most captivating material.
The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Sleepy Hollow, Lemony Snicket) is obviously beautiful, taking great pains to showcase Virginia in a near mythic quality. But a film built around pretty pictures and idling characters can only go so far. Your attention span is so strained you may start doing your checkbook in your head. Oh ye God is The New World’s score terrible. It’s like James Horner collapsed on his keyboard, they recorded it, looped it, and just made it get louder and louder.
It seems like Malick wrote his story on the back of his hand. So very little happens. I’m not as distraught about the immense lack of dialogue, because venturing into a foreign land with foreign people likely doesn’t produce a lot of conversation when no one can understand you. However, the only things we have to push the story forward are some repetitive, junior high-esque poetry disguised as introspective voice over. Pocahontas keeps waving her arms about like she’s directing airplanes, and then she ponders, “Mother, are you there? Are you in the wind?” She even hugs a tree at one point, perhaps thinking it’s her mother. What do you want; she’s the baby of like 100 kids. Malick is so frustrating and pretentious that he will bludgeon to death an audience rather than invite them into his artistic world. He definitely doesn’t make it easy or rewarding.
As far as romance is concerned, the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas is curiously platonic. Both fall hard for the other but nothing ever dares to rock the PG-13 rating. The furthest these crazy kids get in expressing their love is hugging. I realize that Kilcher was only 14 years old when this was shot, but that doesn’t stop Malick from turning her into pseudo-artistic jailbait. When he’s not filming nature he spends an awful long time on Kilcher prancing around; the camera is practically fawning over her. I get it; we’re supposed to feel the spirit of this girl and her connection with the world around her. That’s why John Smith falls for her. But then nothing seems to happen in their puppy love courtship. It’s all too chaste to be epic or even slightly memorable. Then at the start of the third act Farrell leaves and in pops Bale, and the audience is going, “Oh, c’mon, we have to go through all that again?!” Sure enough, The New World starts all over and another man goes through the same courtship steps with Pocahontas. They touch the grass. They share looks. They talk to the wind. They murder my patience. The New World is a love story suffocated by hesitation and Malick’s own disinterest.
The New World is emblematic of why I’ll never be a Terrence Malick fan: it’s long, drifting, unfocused, ponderous over entertaining, and just plain friggin’ boring! If you’re a scenery buff you’ll garner some enjoyment from Malick’s images, but people looking for story, character, and any sort of movement will be lost with this 135-minute rumination on man, nature, and man touching nature …. very…. slowly. If this is all you are going to do then stop making movies and just make nature specials, Malick. The New World is pretentious, dull, and stubborn down to its very last second. It once took Malick 20 years in between movies. I wouldn’t mind if he took another 20-year hiatus.
Nate’s Grade: C
Written and directed by Stephen Gaghen, Syriana is very reminiscent of his Oscar-winning work with Traffic. It’s very dense, complex, and demanding of its audience, which is both its best and worst aspect. I needed a notepad to keep up with the multiple criss-crossing storylines. It’s similar to Traffic in scope and texture, but this film seems a whole lot angrier. Whereas Traffic felt like it was trying to hold a mirror up to society, show us the truth of the failing War on Drugs, this movie feels like a wake-up call as well as a call to arms. Syriana is desperate to shake people out of complacency and show them how the world is running. I love the fact that the “Free Iran” committee in the film that preach Iran’s desire for democracy are not backing the emir’s son that wants to educate his country, install democratic freedoms, put women on equal footing as men because … he wants to open the oil fields to China because they’re offering more money. They are backing the less-enlightened son because he’s willing to give America what it wants: oil. The movie is a mostly potent microcosm about questioning who has our best interests at hand. It’s a bit slow at parts and incredibly rushed at others, and your head will be left spinning trying to keep track of the wealth of information it throws at you. It is thought-provoking even without an emotional connection. This flick reminded me of The Constant Gardener, also a screed against the evils of big business though grounded in an evolving love story. This is a movie I admire more than I can say I enjoyed.
Nate’s Grade: B
Seriously, is there anything more that can be written about modern romantic comedies? If ever there was a genre comparable to horror, it’s these easily digestible, 90-minute love fests. I feel like I’m becoming a romantic comedy connoisseur. And it’s all because of my girlfriend. You see, without her I never would have seen Miss Congeniality 2, let alone in a first-run theater. I wouldn’t have seen Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and that was a very pleasant film. Added to the list is Must Love Dogs, a romantic comedy released right before the dog days of summer.
Sarah (Diane Lane) is a newly divorced 40-something preschool teacher (who looks freaking adorable dressed as a cat). Her very tight-knit family consoles her but also can?t stop from putting all their efforts toward helping Sarah get back on her feet. Sarah’s younger sister scours through her wardrobe and asks, “Where are all your boob shirts?” Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) creates an online profile for Sarah without her knowledge and submits it to an Internet dating website. She ends the profile by saying, “Must love dogs.” This allows for many disastrous dates, including one awkward date with her father (Christopher Plummer), himself on the dating scene. Jack (John Cusack) has just gotten out of a long-term relationship and his heart is fragile. He carves old fashioned wooden boats but struggles to make any sales. His buddy sets up a date with Sarah at a dog park. Jack borrows a dog and things don’t go so smoothly, but he sees something there. They go on additional dates and really feel a connection, even if the dates don’t go according to plan. But Sarah also has Bob (Dermot Mulroney), a hunky single dad to one of her preschool tykes, to choose from. What’s a hot single woman to do?
Must Love Dogs is a grab bag of romantic comedy clichés. You’ll find most everything here, from the sassy sister, the gay best friend (for 21st century advancements, the movie presents a gay couple), people trying to learn to love again after having their hearts broken, precocious children that say unusually adult things, a sing-along to a classic song, and the inevitable moment where one person finally has a late revelation and runs to catch their soon-to-be leaving love.
What hurts Must Love Dogs from its other cookie cutter ilk is how contrived so much of it feels. For the longest time the movie presents both of Sarah’s male options in a positive light, but because we see Cusack’s name above the credits and his face on the poster we know he’s destined to win out. Despite this, the film manufactures an entirely contrived scenario to put a wedge between Sarah and Jack. Bob walks in and, in an attempt to convince Sarah he didn’t bang her younger co-worker, kisses her on the spot. Then they pull apart and we see Jack standing there with Sarah’s drunken brother over his shoulder (how did he get back in the house anyway?). Must Love Dogs is another romantic comedy where the conflicts would be resolved with one levelheaded conversation between all parties.
What does keep Must Love Dogs afloat is how enormously likable and appealing Lane and Cusack are as actors. They’ve both been acting since they were teens (Lane was even on the cover of TIME magazine before she had a training bra), so it’s pleasant to see them mature gracefully but still remain vibrant, charismatic, and very good looking. After her blistering turn as the errant wife in 2002’s Unfaithful (which she should have won the Best actress Oscar for), Lane has found stable footing in romantic comedies dealing with the overlooked stories of a 40-something woman in love. In Must Love Dogs she’s generally strong despite the weak material. She has her funnier moments dealing with reaction. Cusack’s character is like Lloyd Dobbler (from the masterpiece Say Anything) in 15 years, and he manages to put his offbeat/sexy Cusack magic all over the film. With different actors as the leads, Must Love Dogs would be mostly forgettable.
Must Love Dogs also gives ample material to Sarah’s father and his pursuit of a mate of his own. Plummer is excellent as the wry old codger and has some very tender moments with Lane. It’s rare for a mainstream movie, let alone a romantic comedy, to sensibly deal with an elderly man’s own search for love, after losing the love of his life. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals realistically with a 40-something woman and a 60-something man in the dating world, well as realistic as romantic comedies can get (cue the spontaneous sing-along).
In the formulaic world of romantic comedies, Must Love Dogs lands right smack in the middle, feeling equal parts contrived and enlightened. Lane and Cusack still shine as wonderfully charming leads and elevate this standard cookie cutter material. Plummer adds a nice addition in a smart, tender storyline of an old man looking for Mrs. Right. Fans of the romantic comedy genre will have their every expectation granted and feel the standard warm and fuzzies leaving the theater. Must Love Dogs is a typical romantic comedy that?s slightly funny, slightly charming, and slightly frustrating. And maybe that?s the film’s biggest flaw: it’s slight.
Nate’s Grade: C+