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Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

I have no real investment in Mary Poppins as a character or the original 1964 movie, so I was expecting to walk out of Mary Poppins Returns with a shrug, likely finding it middling at worse. I was unprepared for what I endured, and endured is the accurate statement. Mary Poppins Returns is an insane movie and one of the most maddening and painful experiences in a theater I’ve had all year, and no number of spoonfuls of sugar will help this bad medicine go far enough down.

It’s the “Great Slump,” a.k.a. Depression, in London and the Banks children have grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) has three young children of his own and he’s struggling to maintain his job at the bank and be the father they need in the wake of his wife’s death. His sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has moved into help but it’s still not enough. Enter that famous nanny, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who takes it upon herself to watch over the children, help them through the grieving process, and explore the outer reaches of London with some help from some friends, chiefly Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda). The Banks family is in danger of losing their home to the head of the bank (Colin Firth) unless they can find a specific title of shares that will grant them a wealth denied their adult lives.

This movie felt like it was eight hours long and I had no sense of how much time was passing, mostly because of its misshaped structure and general lack of pacing. Mary Poppins Returns feels like it could have been renamed The Tony Awards: The Movie. It’s one unrelated song-and-dance number after another, rarely building from the previous one, and so it feels like an eternal televised awards show that just shuffles from one set piece to the next, never providing a sense of direction or finality. Things just happen in this movie and then different things happen but rarely do they feel consequential. This makes the film feel endless because you have no real concept of progression. It’s just another unrelated song into an unrelated magical realm that doesn’t really seem like it matters, and then we’re off to the next. I think some part of me is still trapped watching Mary Poppins Returns, never allowed to leave.

This would be mitigated if the songs were any good. There are over a dozen and not a single one is memorable. It was mere minutes after leaving the theater that I pressed myself into trying to hum any one of them, and I could not. They instantly vanish from your memory because there are no melodies or interesting production aspects that cause them to stand out. They assault you with their blandness and staid orchestration. They’re a careful recreation of an older sounding, 1950s musical, an antiquated sound that doesn’t have the same traction today. The only way you can remember one of these songs is if you have a traumatic experience forever linked to one of these mediocre, warbling collection of sounds.

There are two astoundingly peculiar songs. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a big ensemble number involving the lamp lighters lead by Miranda. However, the song reference is clearly evocative of the Timothy Leary “trip the light fantastic” comment about LSD. It’s strange to think this is only a coincidence when the lamp lighters are dubbed “learies.” It’s not a good song to begin with and the performance literally involves men on BMX bicycles flying around and doing tricks. How is any of this happening in a reported Disney family film? The Meryl Streep “Turning Turtle” song may be the most excruciating five minutes I’ve sat through for all 2018. It’s just embarrassing to watch and made me honestly think of the children’s movie disaster, The Ooogieloves, where you watch once proud actors debase themselves and their legacies in depressing fashion. That’s the level of dread and mourning I had watching Streep slog through a Bela Lugosi accent and dance upside down. It has to be seen to be believed but you shouldn’t ever have to see this. I have a new appreciation for the La La Land songs.

The continual removal of stakes robs the movie of feeling like anything onscreen genuinely matters. Mary Poppins is a magical creature without clearly defined rules or limits. At any point she might simply have the solution to a problem that she wasn’t sharing. Take for instance the ending (spoilers for the duration of this paragraph, but really, who cares?) where the lamp lighters and the Banks family race to ole Big Ben to literally “turn back time” by adjusting the clock hands. The lamp lighters use their ladders to free climb the face of the clock to the very top, only to be undone by not being able to reach the minute hand at it nears twelve. Then all of a sudden Mary Poppins scoffs to herself and flies up to the clock face to adjust it. If she could do this the whole time why did these very mortal men risk their lives in this exercise? I think Mary Poppins may be a cruel god (more on this later). The concluding dash to ensure the Banks family can keep their home involves not one, not two, but three deus ex machinas, a “Turducken of ex machinas” as my pal Ben Bailey termed it. Ultimately all of their actions do not even matter because the film routinely provides an unknown escape route that invalidates their efforts. It turns out, in the end, they weren’t even going to lose their home thanks to (at my best guess) a magical bird head that is best friends with the head of a bank and who never mentioned this before, the same head of the bank who has just been off in what appears to be an adjacent room for whatever reason and that also knows that Michael Banks has accrued a hefty fortune from a childhood investment, and has never mentioned it as well except in this crucial moment. Why, why does Mary Poppins Returns do this? Why does it present stakes or the illusion of stakes only to sabotage them every time?

Is Mary Poppins really a creature of good or does her need to be loved prove her a fickle god who demands adulation, subservience, and obedience? When Mary Poppins travels from world to world, some live action, some animated, all fanciful, every inhabitant seems to know this woman and love her unconditionally despite her prevalent smarm. The bigger question is do these magical worlds exist independent of Mary Poppins? Is there a pocket universe in existence on the side of a chipped porcelain bowl, or did it only come into existence when Mary Poppins decided it would be a lovely vacation spot? If so, that means she is calling into being a throng of adoring creatures that exist to validate her impulsive whims. She is a selfish god that demands an audience of servants and sycophants, not unlike the Javier Bardem character in Darren Aronofsky’s polarizing polemic, mother!.

The actors acquit themselves fine for their roles. Blunt (A Quiet Place) and Miranda (Moana) will still be charming performers even when given substandard material. Blunt holds your attention with her prissy, schoolmarm persona, balancing the audience’s memories of Julie Andrews without going into parody. Her singing (as also evidenced from 2014’s Into the Woods) is above average and can help make some of the songs more tolerable to listen to. Miranda is a talent bursting with charisma and range, which makes it all the more frustrating to squeeze him into the narrow confines of a cockney scamp. He does get a rapping reprise in “A Cover is Not the Book” with a group of cartoon penguins. The stranger element is that it really feels like Miranda’s character wants to have sex with Mary Poppins. They slot him as a forced romantic option for Mortimer’s underwritten sister, but his eyes are clearly set for the woman who bosses people around and has magic in her fingers. He remembers her when he was a boy chimney sweep and I think he’s been fantasizing about her every day since. Plus, she hasn’t aged in 30 years.

Mary Poppins Returns is a bizarre artifact of a displaced time, taking great pains to recreate a style but without providing a purpose or sense of feeling beyond emulation. I don’t know who this movie is for besides the hardcore fans of the original. There are dancing dolphins, talking dogs, bathtub portals, an upside down house, flying balloons, union protests, Angelina Lansbury or an animatronic lookalike, and there’s lots of songs you will be unable to recall and a story that repeatedly removes any stakes or grounding from beneath itself so that the movie never feels firm or purposeful. There were several points where I just wanted to throw up my hands and ask, “What am I watching?” I still don’t know. Mary Poppins Returns is a movie musical that is nothing short of super-cali-fragil-awful.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I’ve written before that director Matthew Vaughn is the best big screen filmmaker when it comes to making the most of studio money. This is the man who made Daniel Craig Bond, rejuvenated the dormant X-Men franchise, and gifted Fox a twenty-first century James Bond of its own. The first Kingsman movie was one of the best films of 2015 and was bursting with attitude, style, and perverse entertainment. It was my favorite James Bond movie that was never a Bond movie. Success demanded a sequel, and now Kingsman: The Golden Circle is upon us and proof that Vaughn may be mortal after all.

Eggsy (Taron Eagleton) is living a charmed life now that he’s earned his place within the ultra-secret, ultra-powerful Kingsman spy organization. In between battling villains and the riffraff, Eggsy tries to maintain some semblance of a normal life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), who, yeah, happens to be the princess of Sweden. Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug baron in the vein of Martha Stewart. She’s tired of lurking in seclusion in the jungles of Cambodia and wants the credit she deserves as the most successful businesswoman. She locates the homes of the remaining Kingsman and blows them up, leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong). Poppy takes aim at the war on drugs. She infects her own product with a deadly agent and holds the world hostage. Unless global leaders decriminalize drugs, millions of infected people will die. In the meantime, Eggsy and Merlin travel to Kentucky to seek out help from their American brethren, the Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry), a clandestine spy organization that also doubles as a gargantuan bourbon distillery.

With Vaughn back at the helm I expected the best, and while Kingsman: The Golden Circle has plenty to like there is noticeably less to love. Being a sequel means that what once felt fresh will now lose some measure of its appeal and charm, and Vaughn and company do falter at times under the pressure to live up to what they established with their rip-roaring spy caper of an original. The brilliant structure of the first movie (mentorship, spy camp competition, class conflict themes) cannot be readily duplicated. There are interesting story elements here but Golden Circle doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, including with the titular Golden Circle. The villains never really feel that threatening. Poppy’s scheme is great and the 1950s diner iconography of her home is an eye-catching lair worthy of a demented Bond villain. It’s just that it feels like we never get a villain worthy of their wicked scheme. Where did she get all of this tech? Her henchmen are lackluster and a lackey with a cybernetic arm (Edward Holcroft) is no competition for Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) and her slashing blade legs. When the bad guys don’t feel like much of a challenge, it deflates the stakes and enjoyment factor of the big finale. It’s a series of ideas that need to be pushed further, refined, revised, and better developed. The first film was packed with surprises and payoffs both big and small, and the sequel feels lacking in payoffs of any kind.

The Statesmen are more a pit stop than integral plot element. You would think a majority of the film would be the international clash between Yanks and Brits, supplying some of that class friction that energized the first film. With the exception of Pedro Pascal (Narcos), you could eliminate them from the movie with minimal damage to the story. Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) has gotten large placement in the advertisement but he is literally put on ice for a majority of the movie. The exaggerated cartoon nature of the Statesmen feels like Vaughn’s goof on American hyper machismo, but they stay at that same cartoon level throughout. They feel like parody figures, and Vaughn sidelines their involvement. The spy missions are a letdown. There’s an enemy compound atop a mountain in Italy, and all they do is walk inside, immediately grab the thing they need, and immediately run away. It all adds up to a two-hour-plus movie that’s still consistently enjoyable but also consistently unmemorable.

There are things in The Golden Circle that feel like they’re here just because of fan response rather than narrative necessity. The biggest offender is the return of Harry (Colin Firth). He served his purpose bringing Eggsy into the clandestine yet dapper world of the Kingsman, modeling as a father figure, and dying to push our protagonist onward. Bringing him back to life doesn’t serve the story except to bring back a character we genuinely liked. In this sequel, his return and subsequent amnesia doesn’t force Eggsy to retrain his former mentor. Instead he’s mostly a tag-along as another character to shoot the bad guys. Harry simply shouldn’t be here, and resurrecting him takes away from the shock of his death and the weight of his loss. They even recreate the “manners maketh man” bar fight, except the inclusion is so contrived that I thought it was all some kind of Statesman plan to ease Harry back into fighting shape. Nope. Another aspect that feels forced is Eggsy’s relationship with the princess of Sweden. This feels like an apology for the crass joke from the first movie that upset people’s delicate sensibilities (apparently this was worse than a montage of people’s heads exploding). The relationship feels forced and every time the movie cuts back to his troubles with Tilde, they feel small and annoying. It’s like Vaughn is trying to salvage a risqué joke by turning them into a committed couple. Then again the “mucus membrane” moment in Golden Circle (you’ll know it when you see it) seems like a renewed attempt at being transgressive.

The action set pieces have their moments but like everything else there are few that stand out or will stand the test of time. The film starts off strong with a brutal fistfight inside a speeding car. Even with the cramped quarters, it feels easy to follow, creatively inventive, and exciting. As the fight continues, the sequence loses its creative verve and becomes indistinguishable from any other silly Bond car chase. The big finale where the remaining Kingsman storm Poppy’s jungle compound has some cool moments, like Eggsy taking cover behind a giant rolling donut. Regrettably, the action sequences lack the snap and imagination that have defined Vaughn’s films, proving to be yet another underdeveloped aspect. The hand-to-hand fight choreography is still strong and stylish. The final fight between Eggsy and the metallically armed henchman has the fluidity, vision, and fun that were missing from the other scuffles. I’ll credit Vaughn with finding ways to make a lasso and whip look badass and integrating it elegantly with fight choreography (no easy task, right, season five of Game of Thrones?). I kept patiently waiting for any sequence that grabbed my attention like the insane church massacre.

There are two elements in The Golden Circle that rise to the level of entertainment of the first film, and one of those is literally Elton John. It starts off as a cameo with John being kidnapped and forced to perform for Poppy’s private audience. Then he just keeps appearing. He passes over from cameo to downright supporting actor, and just when you think you’ve had enough and that Vaughn has overindulged his Elton John fandom, here comes a climactic solution that is inspired and completely justifies the repeated John appearances. I howled with laughter and wanted to clap in appreciation. It was the best setup-payoff combo in the entire film. The other creative highpoint is a treacherous left turn into the politics of the war on drugs. Poppy argues how legal consumables like alcohol and sugar are far more deadly and addictive. I’ve heard all those arguments before about the hypocritical nature of the war on drugs from every armchair philosopher. Where the film really surprised me was when it gave voice to a nasty perspective I’ve heard in response to the rising opioid crisis in America. Some view drug addicts more as criminals needing to be punished rather than victims needing a helping hand and treatment. When Poppy makes her demands, there are government representatives that openly cheer her ploy, believing they can wipe out the junkie scum. This unsympathetic yet eerily resonant response felt like Vaughn and company finding organic ways to raise the stakes and bring in more sinister forces.

The movie never addresses one holdover from the original Kingsman that I think deserves at least a passing mention, and that’s the fact that every government leader or head of state in Western democracy had their head explode. That kind of public service vacuum would sow plenty of chaos and controversy, especially when people discovered that their elected leaders were complicit with the plan to kill the world’s remaining population. I feel like this was such a huge event that it at least deserves a cursory mention of some sort.

With the glut of disappointing and alternatively maddening action cinema this year, I’ll still gladly take Vaughn’s reheated leftovers. Kingsman: The Golden Circle feels like it’s succumbing to the bombastic spy hijinks it was satirizing before, losing some semblance of its identity and wit to crank out an acceptable though unmemorable sequel. It lacks the sense of danger and genre reinvention that powered the first film. Vaughn’s signature style is still present and there are fun and intriguing story elements available; however, the development is what’s missing. The cool stuff is there but Golden Circle just doesn’t know what to do with it, and so we gallop to the finale feeling a mild dissatisfaction. Apparently the studio execs at Fox want Vaughn to get started on a third Kingsman as soon as possible. I just hope he hasn’t lost his interest in the franchise he birthed. It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Bridget Jones’ Baby (2016)

bjb-adv1sheet-rgb-1-57ab705f117b2-1Coming 12 years after the last Bridget Jones outing, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how warm my feelings still were for this plucky, feisty heroine. Now in her mid/late 40s, Bridget is contemplating a life never becoming a mother when, surprise, she gets very pregnant and has two possible fathers: billionaire love guru Jack (Patrick Dempsey) or her newly available on-again off-again beau, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). It’s a frothy plot contrivance but the screenwriters (including author Helen Fielding and co-star Emma Thompson) are able to produce fun comic scenarios that fully embrace the premise and its soapy conflicts. Bridget has two pretty appealing options, and when both men finally discover the possibility of the other, it becomes an entertaining game of one-upsmanship. The requisite romantic comedy elements don’t forget to be funny too, including an ending rush to the hospital that achieves some inspired slapstick. The film is swiftly paced and filled with zingers, and I just sat back for the two-plus hours and enjoyed the company of these silly yet realistic human beings. I enjoyed the adult humor and conversations that rarely get as much development in this genre. With all her self-sabotaging ways, you come to realize how much of a prize Miss Bridget is, and Zellweger slips right back into the role like no time has passed. However, plenty will grumble about Zellweger’s much-publicized plastic surgery, or the fact that she didn’t pack on the pounds for this picture, but I don’t see why any of that greatly matters in the interpretation of this character. The personality of Bridget is more than the alignment of her facial features. For fans of the series, Bridget Jones’ Baby is a welcomed return to form from 2004’s Edge of Reason and an extra dose of enjoyable fan service, tying up its tidy happy ending with a bow. Here’s something to chew over: my father had no prior knowledge of the Bridget Jones series, decided to see this movie, and enjoyed it thusly. Give Bridget Jones and her baby daddy drama a chance and you too may be surprised.

Nate’s Grade: B

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

indexDirector Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service is my favorite James Bond movie. It’s everything you’d want in a spy thriller while charting its own edgy direction. It’s a combination of Bond and My Fair Lady, and I never knew how brilliant that combination could be until Vaughn got his hands on the graphic novel source material. Newcomer Taron Egerton lays on plenty of star-making charm as a spy-in-training under the guidance of a dapper gentleman brawler Colin Firth. The spy hijinks are fun and stylish but what Vaughn does just about better than any other big-budget filmmaker is pack his movie with payoffs small and large so that the end result is a dizzying rush of audience satisfaction. The action sequences are exhilarating, in particular a frenzied church massacre made to appear as a single take. I never would have thought of the tweedy Firth as an action hero, but he sure plays the part well. There’s also an awesome villainous henchwoman who has blades for legs, and the film makes fine use of this unique killing apparatus. Kingsman explodes with attitude, wit, dark surprises, and knowing nods to its genre forbearers. Vaughn is a filmmaker that has become a trusted brand. He has an innate ability to fully utilize the studio money at his disposal to create daringly entertaining movies that walk to their own stylish beat. This is a cocksure adrenaline shot of entertainment that left me begging for more.

Nate’s Grade: A

Devil’s Knot (2014)

DVL00056INTH_DEVIL'S-KNOT.inddIn 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys went out late one night to ride their bikes. They were never seen alive again. The ensuing media circus that erupted lead to the conviction of three teenagers (The West Memphis Three) who many believed were innocent of these heinous crimes. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. It was the basis of three stirring, powerful, galvanizing documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, two men credited with saving the West Memphis Three. Now after their release from prison, here comes Devil’s Knot, the first fictional film about the notorious case, Hollywood’s first crack at well-tread material. Is there anything new to be found?

Director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe) and his screenwriters do a credible job of distilling the complicated case against the West Memphis Three to its basics, relying on a modulated tone that shies away from the sensationalism that dominated the case back in 1993. With the benefit of time and hindsight, it’s easy for the movie to point out the erroneous thinking of the prosecution, the jump to conclusions, and the Satanic panic engulfing the community of Arkansas. We’re told by a police officer that they knew this “Satanic cult stuff” would hit town; they’ve just been waiting for the day. To its credit, the movie does a fine job of calmly and objectively pointing out the deficiencies in the police and prosecution’s case against the West Memphis Three. We’re told that from the twelve hours of interrogation with Jessie Misskelley, only 40-some minutes was recorded. The obvious mistakes in his confession, as well as the police coaching and coaxing him to their desired response, is made readily apparent. There’s “witness” Vicki Hutchernson (Mireille Enos of the oft-canceled The Killing) who says she say chief suspect Damien in a Satanic ritual, but the film cuts back from the imaginary to Vicki watching a movie on TV, the real source of her descriptive flourishes. Egoyan’s direction has a calm, objective overview that is reverent and respectful of the dead and the bereaved. It’s rarely boring and the facts of this case are such that any retelling would be somewhat compelling.

-1So that brings me to the ultimate question: why even make a fictional movie about this subject? Four lengthy documentaries have covered the intricacies of the legal story, the breakdown in justice, and the personal toll on all sides of the crime. The only thing a fictional movie provides is: 1) the fun/distracting game of seeing relatively famous actors play the real-life people we’ve previously seen, and, 2) as an option for people who hate documentaries. If you’re one of those people who dislikes documentaries and doesn’t view them as “real movies,” then Devil’s Knot is for you, you dismissive filmgoer. Otherwise, literally everything was handled better in the Paradise Lost films. With the West Memphis Three thankfully out of prison, the omnipresent sense of urgency from the documentaries is now absent, replaced with a Monday morning quarterback sensibility pointing out all the obvious bias, judicial hypocrisy, and flaws of the case. And as anyone who has plowed through the powerful and addicting documentaries knows, there are plenty of flaws to point out for harsh scrutiny and incredulity. Movies have a long history of showing us an example of judicial injustice, and this is a prime example. However, Egoyan has put the emphasis of his movie on two outsiders rather than people in the center of this case. The West Memphis Three themselves are barely supporting actors in their own movie. I suppose the filmmakers may have wanted to present a different angle to the case since the Paradise Lost films showed the accused up close and personal. The construction of this plot just doesn’t work under the perspectives of Pam (Reese Witherspoon) and Ron (Colin Firth).

Ron serves as a pro-bono adviser to the defense, but that doesn’t mean he has the same access inside and outside the court. He can gather evidence on his own but really this guy is meant to be a fly-on-the-wall for the planning and frustration of all the legal roadblocks thrown at the defense. Is an added body in the room necessary? Could not one of the defense attorneys have provided the same purpose? Instead, he gets to grumble in the court and out about all the legal shenanigans going on to railroad innocent boys. He is essentially spelling it out to an audience. Pam has even less narrative purpose in the film. Her perspective makes sense early on as the mother of one of the murdered young children. Her panic, her worst nightmare come to life, it all makes for the stuff of major drama, which is why you’d imagine Witherspoon was drawn to the part. But once the case against the West Memphis Three gets going, Pam transforms into our Chief Reaction Shot Provider. Whenever a curious moment happens in court, we cut back to Pam and Witherspoon cocking her head in dawning curiosity and uncertainty. It’s as if she is meant to symbolically represent the entire community that was so fervent in their beliefs that these boys were guilty… until they heard the shaky case and the questionable experts put on the stand. So Pam and Ron end up becoming signals to the audience on how to feel and what to think. The movie doesn’t have enough faith in its audience to keep up with the minutia of the trail, or even the lawyers’ arguments, reducing a complex legal trial down to two nonessential characters nodding or shaking their heads.

DEVILS-KNOT_STILL_33-620x400I’ll admit that I had some interest watching the actors inhabit the roles, and there are scads of people involved in this story. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) does a valiant job showcasing the head-scratching decisions of the trail judge, David Burnett, and his slimy dismissive nature. Stephen Moyer (TV’s True Blood) is particularly infuriating as John Fogleman, chief prosecuting attorney. Seth Meriwether (Trouble with the Curve) looks eerily like his character, the young and accused Jason Baldwin, and he nails his moral convictions and gentle nature. Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) gets to do his troubled youth thing he does so well. Kevin Durand is an actor I normally enjoy but even he can’t do justice to John Mark Byers, step-father to one of the slain boys, and easily the most memorable figure in the Paradise Lost films; the man is so theatrical and larger-than-life, and yet Devil’s Knot treats him like a featured extra, with many of his speaking scenes off camera. There isn’t a bad actor in the extremely large cast, though Firth’s Southern accent isn’t the most refined. If the movie lacks much reason for existing, at least the bevy of good actors respectfully bringing new life to these people, good, bad, and many somewhere in between, is the one credible quality to this movie.

What to make of Devil’s Knot, an example of a decent, modulated, and well acted movie that ultimately has no reason to exist in the wake of three excellent documentaries (Paradise Lost) and one other pretty good one (West of Memphis). The ground has been covered. However, that doesn’t mean that a well-told story can’t be told again, with a different angle, with a different approach, but Devil’s Knot hinges on two characters serving as metaphorical barometers to teach the audience what to think and how to feel. Then there’s the matter that the trail covers the entire 114-minute running time. There’s so much more that happens after the initial trial, so much that the last two minutes of this movie are almost a nonstop barrage of text updating the audience on many of the post-trial developments, including the West Memphis Three being released from prison in 2011. The movie feels too limited; there is so much more depth here, to the details of the case, to the personalities and human drama, to the story after the trial. Egoyan and his cast and crew have made a respectful fictional version of these sensational events, but the problem is that they don’t do enough to justify their own film’s existence. Unless you have an irrational hatred for documentaries, just watch those instead.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Billed as one of the most dense films of the holiday season, I was startled to discover that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not nearly as puzzling as people have protested. The adaptation of John le Carre’s famous novel follows retired British spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) performing a clandestine investigation to flesh out a mole in the highest level of the agency. Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), condensed form a 7-hour BBC miniseries, and stuffed with a wealth of terrific Brits, the movie is tricky, clever, and rather brainy, ultimately coming to the conclusion that these little communities of intelligence knew little. The movie has a rich array of characters and teases out back-story in flashbacks, meaning the film hops around time wise and will also take turns with different perspectives. It demands your attention but, honestly, I found it easy enough to follow. But in the end, what does all that narrative trickery and obfuscation get you? It’s a fairly dispassionate film about dispassionate people played out in a dispassionate manner. For some this will be hailed as a virtue, communicating the duty-first sacrifices and compartmentalization of these secret spies. For me, that just sounds like a cop out. Beyond the mystery, it’s hard to get involved in the movie. The reveal of the mole is anti-climactic, though the resolution, set to the tones of Julio Iglesias, is aces. The meticulous production design is stellar, including an agency meeting room that looks like it was wallpapered with checkerboards. The details of the ins and outs of the agency are absorbing. I’m debating whether I should watch the movie again, looking for nuance I must have missed. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an espionage thriller with a bit too many stiff upper lips.

Nate’s Grade: B

The King’s Speech (2010)

Public speaking is a nerve-racking position. Nobody wants to seem like a fool but it can be hard to do anything else when all eyes fall upon you with expectation. There was a poll a few years ago that asked Americans what their top fears were, and death came in second to public speaking. The Grim Reaper should feel relieved. Now imagine that you’re the leader of a country during a time of duress and you have a speech impediment. That’s the grueling circumstances for King George VI (affectionately known as “Bertie” to family), leader of Britain on the eve of World War II. The King’s Speech tells the inspirational true story of one of the most powerful men in the world finding his own voice.

Before becoming king of his country, Bertie (Colin Firth) was the Duke of York and a man suffering from a debilitating stutter. When stressed, it was difficult for Bertie to even read a statement. This speech impediment is made all the more troublesome now that the world has entered into the radio age; kings and presidents are now expected to speak to their peoples, no longer content to just be a striking figurehead. Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), future Queen Mother, seeks out different speech therapists but the traditional methods are getting her husband nowhere. Then she comes across Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a self-taught speech therapist who worked with shell-shocked WWI soldiers in his native Australia. His methods are unorthodox but he’s the first to begin to get results with Bertie. The demands of his position get even greater when Bertie’s father, George V (Michael Gambon), dies in 1936 and Bertie’s older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne. Now Bertie is expected to lead his nation, that is, if he can string two sentences together in public.

The King’s Speech is really the heartwarming story of the unlikely friendship between a king and a quirky Australian commoner. Their warm, humane friendship allows for several scenes of great humor and great drama. Watching the irreverent Lionel bounce off the proper and isolated Bertie supplies plenty of comedy. It’s essentially an odd couple comedy mixed with a true-life historical drama. There’s great pleasure in watching the chilly relationship between classes thaw, the men grow closer together, and Lionel’s unconventional tactics make progress. Each time Bertie discovers a new practice that removes his stutter, whether it is speaking while listening to music or speaking in the cadence of a song. This is a film that follows the English tradition of understatement even given the dramatic setting, principle characters, and a speech impediment. The characters don’t go around blurting their feelings, leaving the actors room to explore oodles of subtext. There’s a signature scene where Lionel coaxes Bertie into opening up by promising to allow him to paint a child’s model airplane (a treat for a man of title never allowed such toys). As he paints away, Bertie reveals a damaging truth about a neglectful childhood nanny. The truth is so painful that Bertie is forced to reveal it through the cadence of song, which somehow makes the revelation more sad and tragic. Their ongoing relationship is deeply satisfying and emotionally rewarding.

You won’t see a better-acted movie all year, thanks to Firth and Rush. More than following a checklist of gimmicks, Firth inhabits his character from the inside out. He feels like a living, breathing, somewhat broken person instead of a collection of ailments. Firth doesn’t overdo his stutter and treats the character, and the ailment, with a deep sense of compassion. Firth gives what is likely the greatest acting performance by any male in 2010. He is magnificent, commanding, and empathetic in every scene. Likewise, Rush doesn’t overpower as a personality foil. His character manages to be irreverent but without being flippant; he finds a reverent irreverence, if you will. Lionel is treating the future King of England, and the gravity of this stately relationship is not lost on him. Both men hide an inner melancholy, perhaps one of the things that ultimately bonds them together. Rush is flush with vigor and merriment, truly delightful to watch. This is his finest onscreen performance since he won his Oscar in 1996 for Shine.

The enormity of the king’s duties is given due care. You feel the weight of the crown that awaits Bertie and empathize with his quaking hesitation. Ever since childhood, his family looked down on Bertie. His father felt a stern tone would best aid the young stammerer, and his older brother would often belittle Bertie with cruel taunts. You see flashes of this unhealthy dynamic when Edward cuts down his little brother after their father passes.

Bertie was seen as unimportant. Edward was the one set up for the throne. And yet Edward is the one who shirks his responsibilities in the name of love (a twice-divorced American woman). Edward refuses to become the leader of his people if the ancient rules forbid him from marrying a divorced woman. Bertie cannot buckle under the tremendous pressure and expectations that wait. Even when the rather passive Bertie lashes out, you feel like his anger is a moment of achievement. King George VI also had to deal with the fact that his brother is still alive and well and an alternative to the throne if Bertie is deemed incapable. Firth makes it easy to feel the remarkable pressure of being a leader not born or elected, merely expected. And even if an audience is clueless about British monarchy history and the rules of royal succession, The King’s Speech is easy to follow and comprehend for a daft American like myself.

Truth be told, The King’s Speech is a little stagy, a little square, and a little too fastidious for its own good. Hooper and crew are too content with making a pleasant moviegoing experience that the film lacks any slight form of edge. It’s all just a little too safe, a little too staid. While rated R, this movie could easily be a PG-13 family film, maybe even a PG one, sans the two sequences where Bertie unleashes a torrent of profanities in frustration (he discovers that he does not stutter while swearing). I feel like a curmudgeon for dinging a movie for being, essentially, too nice and gentle, but it clips the ambition of the movie when crowd-pleaser is the zenith of accomplishment. The fateful speech to the nation, on the eve of war with Germany, is even given an extra oomph thanks to the background music of Beethoven. A larger story of triumph seems reduced to the Oscar favorite storyline of Man Overcoming Physical Adversity. The direction by Hooper has some curious tics to it, like sequences of two people talking where they will never share the frame despite sitting side by side. I assume Hooper is trying to communicate some form of emotional distance or wariness, or perhaps it’s just a nod that different actors had unworkable schedules and could not be filmed together. Hooper is a talented director, as anyone who saw the massive undertaking of the masterful HBO miniseries John Adams can attest. However, like John Adams, Hooper is prone to TV-movie staging. His direction limits the cinematic power of the film. It looks like any ordinary episode of Masterpiece Theater.

The King’s Speech is pretty much everything you’d wish for in a movie groomed for awards consideration. This is prime Oscar bait. You may tear up at points, you’ll probably smile in many places, and your spirit will definitely rise. Plus it features some of the finest acting you’ll witness all year. And yet it’s that conscious need to please, to uplift, that can occasionally distract you from the many charms that The King’s Speech offers. The fact that the story is predictable is not a detriment, but the fact that the film doesn’t push harder, dig deeper, or expect more from its audience is a missed opportunity. The material is so rich, but a terrifically acted, smartly written film isn’t a bad consolation. Especially when that film happens to be one of the most rousing and rewarding theatrical experiences of the year.

Nate’s Grade: A-

A Single Man (2009)

Tom Ford is a rare human being. He seems to be good at everything. The prominent fashion designer has never been averse to risk. He left work in America to toil for Gucci, a faltering European luxury brand. He became the creative director from 1994-2004, eventually leaving to form his own company. And after decades of success in the world of fashion, Ford decided to make the jump into movies. From fashion mogul to film director, nobody else has done it, let alone done it with such acclaim right out of the gate. A Single Man has been met with rich praise and Ford has been touted as a natural filmmaker. Perhaps Ford’s odyssey into moving pictures will inspire others to drop their needle and thread and pick up a camera instead. Who wants to see a Project Runway/Project Greenlight crossover?

In the early 1960s, George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a 50-year-old English professor still recovering from the loss of his love. Jim (Matthew Goode) and George had been together for over 16 years, that is, until Jim died in a car accident one rainy night. George has never fully recovered since that awful night. He doesn’t intend to waste any more time waiting for a reunion; at the end of the day, he will kill himself. He lays out his suit, empties his safety deposit box, and writes letters to his remaining friends and family. This will be George Falconer’s last day in Los Angeles, but perhaps in the meantime he’ll discover more reasons to give life another chance.

Ford comes from the world of high fashion and here he proves that he should be taken seriously as a filmmaker. He has a sumptuous eye for visuals. A Single Man looks great in every scene. The costumes and period details are impeccable and may even give the historical consultants from Mad Men some due pause. The cinematography by Eduard Grau can become irritating because the colors go from drab to vibrant, reflecting the main character’s changing moods (lifted spirits = brighter colors!). At first it’s a neat visual gimmick but as it persists it becomes a crude blinking light, inelegantly summing up what the movie feels it cannot communicate. At times it just feels like piling on. I don’t need the color to drain from the screen to understand that George is sad.

Ford’s adaptation skills, on the other hand, could use some more polish. He and David Scearce spent years adapting the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood. They even added the whole suicide angle, which becomes their narrative crutch. There is a refreshingly funny sequence where George tries to act out his suicide position and goes from the shower to his bed, finally deciding upon shooting himself inside a zipped sleeping bag to cover the ensuing mess. This little five-minute stretch is like an oasis of humor in the super serious desert that is the rest of the film. The second half of the film is dominated by a will-he-or-won’t-he flirtation with a good-looking lithe college student (Nicholas Hoult, the boy all grown up from About a Boy). The kid shows definite interest. The romantic angle syncs up with George’s lost love and proves to be a welcomed distraction to George’s dejection. However, their connection is extremely thin, with Hoult making flirty eyes and inquisitively tilting his head for an hour. The romantic story exists as a means of making sure the narrative can mend George’s broken heart.

The story meanders for too long with a few revealing flashbacks, but honestly how hard is it to wring pathos from a suicidal man? How hard is it to write a middle-aged man taking stock of his life, getting his affairs in order, and saying his fuzzy goodbyes to people who don?t realize the significance. Everything gains magnitude under that prism; every pause, every inhalation, every wistful glance becomes riddled with deeper subtextual meaning, or so we are lead to believe. Every moment can unlock a new memory or secret, like when he sniffs a stranger’s dog and recalls his former beloved pet he shared with Jim. Under this guide, it is hard to tell whether the movie is doing any actual dramatic lifting. So much is supposed to be interpreted in the blankness, which the audience is entrusted to craft meaning to the character’s nostalgic pit stops. “Oh, he must be taking in the scent of the ocean one last time,” or, “Oh, he must be thinking about… something. But he’s gotta definitely be thinking about something. Something deep.” Can you see how this might get tedious after a while?

A Single Man could have afforded more peaks into George’s background and less of Julianne Moore. She plays an old boozy Brit friend of his from back in the day. Her moments onscreen, while limited, are a chore to get through because Moore just consumes her characters sadness. She gets drunk on the one emotion she’s been hired to play. She’s certainly not embarrassing herself like in 2006’s Freedomland, but this isn’t a performance for her illustrious highlight reel. I don’t care if she does get nominated for a supporting actress Oscar, as seems all but certain; I expect more from Moore.

Firth is the whole movie so it’s a relief that he turns in the performance of his career. He gives a complex portrayal that doesn’t nicely fit into the typical Firth cinematic creature: priggish, clever, dry, ultimately a good guy. Here you can practically see the gears in his head processing the last moments of life. The extent he can convey with his eyes or simply the corners of his mouth are exquisite. He provides so much of what the narrative does not. He’s a sad creature mired in one long day of existential grief, but I need more from this character than what Ford affords.

George Falconer gives a dandy speech about the fear of the minority, almost outing himself to his college class, but for a flick about an older gay male passing through life to be an invisible member of society, Ford adopts a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to narrative. He buttons up his characters emotions. Understatement is lovely when there’s enough to work with. That’s the issue with A Single Man. Ford hasn’t given himself enough to work with, instead forcing the audience to make up the work by inserting meaning into every furtive brow and pained expression. This is a meditation on a life in passing, told through a series of small vignettes. I need more than a melancholy man listening to the clock strike seconds off his soon-to-be-ended life. If I wanted to watch that movie I’d check out the latest Gus van Sant art house masturbations.

Nate’s Grade: B-

A Christmas Carol (2009)

I still am at a loss over the appeal of the motion-capture system that director Robert Zemeckis fancies as of late. The creative mind that gave us classics Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? has embraced a technology that straddles the middle between live-action and outright animation. Motion-capture attaches electronic nodes to actors and digitizes their movements and facial features to later be conceptualized by computer wizards. And to this I say… so what? It seems like a whole slew of unnecessary work that adds little else than a vague starting point. Why not let the animators start from scratch? Why hamstrung creative professionals because Cary Elwes was feeling like making a certain gesture as “Portly Gentlemen #1?” I just don’t get it. To me, the motion-capture system is stranded in some artistic netherworld where it isn’t live-action and it isn’t animation. Zemeckis has cranked out his third mo-cap baby this decade, a retelling of Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas Carol. Why Zemeckis thought an old holiday chestnut would work best in this format, I’ll never know.

Cold-hearted Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is set to be visited by three spirits on a very magical Christmas Eve. The old man goes through Christmas past, present, and future to reevaluate his life and the true meaning of “peace on earth and good will toward men.” You know the drill, folks.

I like A Christmas Carol. I do. So do plenty of nice people. There’s a reason this oft-told tale still manages to resonate with generation after generation and that?s because it’s a good story. Of course it’s also an extremely familiar story to just about anyone outside of a womb at the moment. I expected Zemeckis and his crew to use their technology to jazz up the old story and give it a fresh new life on the big screen. Despite a handful of excursions flying through ye olde London, the extra slathering of special effects doesn’t enliven this holiday tale. I remember having great fun with Zemeckis’ previous motion-capture movie, 2007’s Beowulf (which does not play nearly as well in 2-D). That movie played around with the 3-D environment to great effect and made you feel apart of the experience. In contrast, A Christmas Carol does shockingly little with its depth of field, rarely placing distance between the foreground and the background. It’s a fairly lackluster 3-D experience. Maybe I wasn’t relaxing my eyes the right way, though I did notice how conscious I was of trying to elevate the 3-D experience myself. My disappointment is magnified by the fact that Zemeckis has been a pioneer for the 3-D playbook that Hollywood has now dubbed as the savior of the theater going experience.

I wonder if Disney execs imposed limitations on the use of the 3-D immersion, not wanting to scare children by making them feel like they’re in the middle of a ghost story (there are some spooky moments already). The whole draw of motion-capture, and animation, is to transport an audience untethered by the limits of traditional practical filmmaking. This newest incarnation of A Christmas Carol fails to justify its existence. Why should I pay to see the most familiar story of modern day if there isn’t any new offering? At least The Muppet Christmas Carol gave me something different. And it had Muppets.

When I was younger in the mid 90s I was a huge fan of Carrey’s rubber-faced antics. I quoted Ace Ventura verbatim with my fellow seventh graders in 1995. So I understand the attraction of having him play multiple parts, but why exactly in a Dickens story? It’s not a comedy unless it’s adapted into one, and Zemeckis hews very close to Dickens and mostly recites the tale word-for-word. Scrooge isn’t funny, the ghosts aren’t funny, so why hire a renowned comedian to portray them all? This is a straight-laced adaptation and as such not the best use for Carrey’s talents. Is the move any better because Carey played all three ghosts? Is the movie any better because Gary Oldman gets to play Bob Cratchett and voice Tiny Tim? Is the movie any better because Elwes is credited for five inconsequential roles? Celebrity vocal casting is rarely effective in animation and so it seems the same in motion-capture.

The technology has improved from the dead-eyed zombie children days of Polar Express, but it still seems like little more than less refined animation to my eyes. The movements are more fluid but the color palate is subdued into amber hues and candlelit locales. It doesn’t exactly use all the technological tools in the toolbox. It’s like a five-star chef toasting a Pop Tart: a waste of potential. I didn’t care for the skewed proportions on people either. Scrooge has a wiry frame with long spidery limbs and a triangular torso, and his character design kept reminding me of Jack Skellington. It’s too otherworldly considering nobody else comes across as a garish caricature in design form. The character designs for the three spirits are also fairly underwhelming. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a wispy flame. The Ghost of Christmas Future is nothing but a shadow. Is there a connection here? Otherwise, a shadow is pretty lame for the one ghost that can get really inventive and scary. Really, a shadow? I can do that myself without the aid of computers. And was it Carrey’s shadow to make it officially motion-capture? Because God forbid no other shadow could do or give the same performance of being draped over shapes.

I actually had to vehemently fight the urge to nap during A Christmas Carol. Maybe it was my poor sleep from the night before, maybe it was the fact that the 3-D glasses make everything darker (they still manage to hurt my eyes after prolonged use), but it was likely due to the fact that Zemeckis added a coat of polish to a holiday classic but declined to find purpose for doing so. Does this story get better with zooms through London, or Scrooge being shrunk and chased by demonic horses? It all seems like folly to me, like somebody’s idea to goose literary classics. Can you imagine Jane Eyre being shrunk and climbing through the walls of her Victorian era home? It all seems like an annoying distraction. Zemeckis? A Christmas Carol is exactly what you’d expect, which means you’d be just as well to flip through the TV channels and find any number of Christmas Carol versions. The Muppet Christmas Carol might even be on. Give that one a try instead. It even has some nice songs. And it’s got Muppets.

Nate’s Grade: C

Then She Found Me (2008)

Actress Helen Hunt’s directorial debut is an altogether pleasant film experience without achieving anything memorable or truly accomplished. It’s a simple story of a 40-something grade school teacher (Hunt) torn between her man-boy husband (Matthew Broderick) and a student’s hot father (Colin Firth, who seems to be a middle-aged woman’s dream come true). The extra plotline where Hunt discovers the identity of her biological mother (Bette Midler) never truly seems to coalesce with the romantic foibles. Then She Found Me has a noticeably wry tone, like that of a world-weary adult that’s been-there-done-that. That specific and welcomed tone helps keep the viewer alert and mostly satisfied from beginning to end. It isn’t a warm or sappy movie despite some sitcom-level plot complications. The acting is fairly amusing, though somewhat one-note (the foursome of actors rarely break from the one-sentence descriptions of their characters). The most shocking aspect of the flick is how weathered and gaunt Hunt looks, which is a refreshing and realistic turn for the actress. Hunt is competent behind the camera but doesn’t prove much else when it comes to directorial skills. Then She Found Me is a mildly affecting movie that passes the time well. Stick around to catch acclaimed author Salman Rushdie as Hunt’s OB-GYN.

Nate’s Grade: B

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