Blog Archives

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino has been playing in the realm of genre filmmaking for much of the last twenty years. He’s made highly artful, Oscar-winning variations on B-movies and grindhouse exploitation pictures. There are some film fans that wished he would return to the time of the 90s where he was telling more personal, grounded stories. His ninth movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is Tarantino returning to the landscape of his youth, the Hollywood back lots and television serials that gave birth to his budding imagination. Tarantino has said this is his most personal film and it’s easy to see as a love letter to his influences. It’s going to be a divisive movie with likely as many moviegoers finding it boring as others find it spellbinding.

In February 1969, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to recapture his past glory as a popular TV star from a decade prior. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stuntman, personal driver, and possibly only real friend. Rick’s next-door neighbor happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star and the wife to famed director Roman Polanski. All three are on a collision course with the Manson family.

The thing you must know before embarking into a theater to see all of the 160 minutes of Tarantino’s latest opus is that it’s the least plot-driven of all his movies, and it’s also in the least hurry. This feels like a hang-out movie through Tarantino’s memories of an older Hollywood that he grew up relishing. It’s very much a loving homage to the people who filled his head with dreams, with specific affection given to the life of an actor. Tarantino is exploring three different points of an actor’s journey through fame; Sharon Tate is the in-bloom star highly in demand, Rick Dalton is the one who has tasted fame but is hanging on as tightly as he can to his past image and wondering if he’s hit has-been status, and then there’s Cliff Booth who was a never-was, a replaceable man happy to be behind the scenes and who has met his lot in life with a Zen-like acceptance. Each character is at a different stage of the rise-and-fall trajectory of Hollywood fame and yet they remain there. This isn’t a movie where Rick starts in the dumps and turns his life around, or even where it goes from worse to worse. Each character kind of remains in a stasis, which will likely drive many people mad. It will feel like nothing of import is happening and that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more a collection of scenes than a whole.

What elevated the film was how much I enjoyed hanging out with these characters. Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even when he’s just noodling around there are pleasures to be had. Tarantino movies have always favored a vignette approach, unwieldy scenes that serve as little mini movies with their own beginnings, middles, and often violently climactic ends. An excellent example of this is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds where the moments are brilliantly staged and developed while also serving to push the larger narrative forward. That’s missing with Hollywood, the sense of momentum with the characters. We’re spending time and getting to know them, watching them through various tasks and adventures over the course of two days on sets, at home, and on a former film set-turned-ranch for a strange commune. If you’re not enjoying the characters, there won’t be as much for you as a viewer, and I accept that. None of the central trio will crack Tarantino’s list for top characters, but each provides a different viewpoint in a different facet of the industry, though Sharon Tate is underutilized (more on that below). It’s a bit of glorified navel-gazing for Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood nostalgia. There are several inserts that simply exist to serve as silly inclusions that seem to be scratching a personal itch for the director, less the story. I was smiling at most and enjoyed the time because it felt like Tarantino’s affection translated from the screen. I enjoyed hanging out with these people as they explored the Hollywood of yesteryear.

DiCaprio hasn’t been in a movie since winning an Oscar for 2015’s The Revenant and he has been missed. His character is in a very vulnerable place as he’s slipping from the radars of producers and casting agents, filling a string of TV guest appearances as heavies to be bested by the new hero. He’s self-loathing, insecure, boastful, and struggling to reconcile what he may have permanently lost. Has he missed his moment? Is his time in the spotlight eclipsed? There’s a new breed of actors emerging, typified by a little girl who chooses to stay in character in between filming. Everything is about status, gaining it or losing it, and Rick is desperate. There’s a terrific stretch where he’s playing another heavy on another TV Western and you get the highs and lows, from him struggling to remember his lines and being ashamed by the embarrassment of his shaky professionalism, to showing off the talent he still has, if only given the right opportunity. DiCaprio is highly entertaining as he sputters and soars.

The real star of the film is Pitt (The Big Short) playing a man who seems at supernatural ease no matter the circumstance. He’s got that unforced swagger of a man content with his life. He enjoys driving Rick around and providing support to his longtime friend and collaborator. He has a shady past where he may or may not have killed his wife on purpose, but regardless apparently he “got away with it.” This sinister back-story doesn’t seem to jibe with the persona we see onscreen, and maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s merely a means to rouse suspicion whether he may become persuaded by the Manson family he visits later in the movie dropping off a hitchhiker he’s encountered all day long. The role of Cliff seems to coast on movie star cool. There is supreme enjoyment just watching Pitt be. Watch him feed his dog to a trained routine, watch him fix a broken TV antenna and show off his ageless abs, and watch him navigate trepidatious new territory even as others are trying to intimidate him. It’s Pitt’s movie as far as I’m concerned. He was the only character I felt nervous about when minimal danger presented itself. There’s something to be said that the best character is the unsung one meant to take the falls for others, the kind of back-breaking work that often goes unnoticed and unheralded to keep the movie illusion alive.

There aren’t that many surprises with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as it moseys at its own loping pace. It reminded me of a Robert Altman movie or even a Richard Linklater film. It’s definitely different from Tarantino’s more genre-fed excursions of the twenty-first century. It’s a softer movie without the undercurrent of malice and looming violence. There is the Manson family and Tarantino knows our knowledge of the Manson family so we’re waiting for their return and that fateful night in August, 1969 like a ticking clock. It wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without an explosion of bloody violence as its climax, and he delivers again, but I was shocked how uproariously funny I found the ending. I laughed throughout but as the movie reached its conclusion I was doubled over with laughter and clapping along. There’s a flashback where Cliff and a young Bruce Lee challenge each other to a fight, and it’s so richly entertaining. The phony film clips are also a consistent hoot, especially when Rick goes to Italy. It’s a funnier movie than advertised and, despite its ending, a far less violent movie than his reputation.

As Tarantino’s memory collection, the level of loving homage can start to eat the narrative, and this is most noticeable with the handling of Sharon Tate. The initial worries that Tarantino would exploit the horrendous Manson murders for his own neo-pop pulp was unfounded. Tate is portrayed with empathy and compassion, and as played by Robbie she nearly glides through the film as if she were an angel gracing the rest of us unfortunate specimens. She has a great moment where she enters a movie theater playing a comedy she is a supporting player in. The camera focuses on Robbie’s (I,Tonya) face as an array of micro expressions flash as she takes in the approving laughter of the crowd. It’s a heartwarming moment. But all of that doesn’t make Tate a character. She’s more a symbol of promise, a young starlet with the world at her fingertips, the beginning phase of fame. Even the Manson clan doesn’t play much significance until the final act. Charles Manson is only witnessed in one fleeting scene. I thought Tarantino was including Tate in order to right a historical wrong and empower a victim into a champion, and that doesn’t quite happen. I won’t say further than that though her narrative significance is anticlimactic. You could have easily cut Sharon Tate completely out of this movie and not affected it much at all. In fact, given the 160-minute running time, that might have been a good idea. The movie never really comes to much of something, whether it’s a statement, whether it’s a definitive end, it just feels like we’ve run out of stories rather than crafted an ending that was fated to arrive given the preceding events.

The Tarantino foot fetish joke has long been an obvious and hacky criticism that I find too many people reach for to seem edgy or clever, so I haven’t mentioned it in other reviews. He does feature feet in his films but they’ve had purpose before, from arguing over the exact implications of a foot rub in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman commanding her big toe to wiggle and break years of entropy in Kill Bill. However, with Hollywood, it feels like Tarantino is now trolling his detractors. There are three separate sequences featuring women’s feet, two of which just casually place them right in the camera lens. At this point in his career, I know he knows this lame critique, and I feel like this is his response. It’s facetious feet displays.

When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, if you’re not digging the vibe, man, then there’s less to latch onto as an audience member. It’s a definite hang-out movie reminiscent of Altman or Linklater where we watch characters go about their lives, providing peaks into a different world. It’s a movie about meandering but I always found it interesting or had faith that was rewarded by Tarantino. It doesn’t just feel like empty nostalgia masquerading as a movie. It’s funnier and more appealing than I thought it would be, and even though it’s 160 minutes it didn’t feel long. The acting by DiCaprio and Pitt is great, as is the general large ensemble featuring lots of familiar faces from Tarantino’s catalogue. I do think the inclusion of Sharon Tate serves more of a symbolic purpose than a narrative purpose and wish the movie had given her more to do or even illuminated her more as a character. However, the buddy film we get between DiCaprio and Pitt is plenty entertaining. It might not be as narratively ambitious or intricate or even as satisfying as Tarantino’s other works, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fable for a Hollywood that may have only existed in Tarantino’s mind, but he’s recreated it with uncompromising affection.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Breaking Dawn: Part Two (2012)

Ignoring the ironic nature of the Breaking Dawn Part 2 poster taglines declaring love to be “forever,” the box-office juggernaut that is the Twilight franchise is coming to an end. Based upon Stephenie Meyer’s outrageously popular series of books, we’ve followed the love life of Bella Swan as she’s experimented with human, vampire, and werewolf. The studio heads decided to take Meyer’s final book and split it into two books. Breaking Dawn Part 1 had a wedding, honeymoon, pregnancy, supernatural birth, and Bella’s death/resurrection. And yet, that movie was still crushingly boring. My hopes were substantially low for Part 2, despite director Bill Condon’s (Dreamgirls) best efforts to jazz up all the awful plotting, characters, and romance. Then a funny thing happened. I started enjoying myself, and then the movie took some chances that I felt were daring considering its rabid fanbase. And then watching Breaking Dawn Part 2 became more than watching the film, it was also the experience of watching the audience. To that end, the movie delivers and I may rue these words but I kinda sorta almost liked enough of it.

Bella Cullen nee Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her husband, immortal vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson), have gone through the wringer. In her waning days as a human, Bella got knocked up during her honeymoon, and her half-human half-vampire baby killed its mama on the way out. Now Bella’s a vampire and a mom (note to self: start writing new script – “Single Mom Vampire”). Her daughter, Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy’s face on a whole lot of other people’s bodies), is rapidly growing. She’s mistaken for a vampire baby, which is a punishment worthy of death. This news gets Aro (Michael Sheen) to rustle up his Volturi forces, a group of vampires with super powers. They’re coming for the Cullens and little Renesmee. The friendly vampires scour the world, gathering “witnesses” to the tyke’s half-vampire status, but really they’re gathering an army to defend themselves. It’s super vamp against super vamp and heads will roll.

I clearly understand that I am in no way the target audience for this franchise and that my reams of pithy words will find little traction in the hearts of the Twi-hard faithful, but I’d like to state that I’ve never been a hater of the movies. Well, let me rephrase that. My thoughts ping-pong from liked okay (Twilight) to hated (New Moon) back to liked okay (Eclipse) back to hated (Breaking Dawn Part 1), and now here we back are to liked okay. Consider it a double-dip recession in quality. I still view the whole franchise as an exercise in pre-teen wish fulfillment, but I’ve already written extensively upon that theory so I won’t bother re-litigating that battle. With all that said, I found myself oddly enjoying myself for sustained durations. It’s just as silly as the other movies but finally we can move on from mopey Bella and her dubious romantic triangle. Finally we don’t have to suffer through two hours of kids making (new) mooneyes at each other (did I just out myself as “old”?). By this I mean finally something ELSE happens rather than the incremental coupling of Bella and Edward. Granted their kid is really more a prop than a character, but at least the story has taken one gigantic leap forward. Finally Stewart can actually smile and, you know, do things of actual consequence!

It’s no secret that the Twilight saga, as its monetary benefactors would like to dub the franchise, has noticeably been better the less time it spends with its female protagonist, Bella. Breaking Dawn Part 2 might just be the least Bella-filled episode yet, a cause of celebration for my brethren who view Ms. Cullen as an infuriating, insufferable, insulting protagonist. At least in this movie she develops a sense of self-identity, though too often that identity falls into the camps of Wife and Mother. With this movie, she’s adjusting to life as a vampire, so we get cutesy scenes of her hunting prey, learning how to fake looking like a puny human, and arm-wrestling the strong cocky vampire guy to, you know, for the strides in girl power. Too little too late, Bella. I find it more than a little funny that Bella’s super power is passive in nature, fitting a passive protagonist that waist for people to give her meaning and tell her what to do. I should stop before another rant unspools as I’ve done on previous Twilight writing occasions. In short: Bella sucks.

We’re introduced to a lot of new characters in this movie and each brings some sliver of backstory to develop. I’m not saying they’re all deserving of attention or interest, but at least these new clans of vampires brought some much-needed life to what has often been a claustrophobic, monotonous love triangle. Opening up Meyer’s world and seeing other vamps with special powers are a fun detour that I wish had taken place sooner. I liked seeing Lee Pace (TV’s Pushing Daisies) as a soldier from back to America’s colonial days. I’m left scratching my head why certain vampire members were added to the ranks when they didn’t even show up for the final showdown. What was the point of having Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) show up and be all skeptical about the group’s chances of winning… and then not have him join? So he was skeptical from the start and then remained so, choosing to sit the finale out. Well I’m sure glad we spent time on him then. Also, the movie falls into the trap of establishing super-powered beings that are too powerful. We get one guy who can control the elements. Not just one or two but freaking all of the elements. He’s like Captain Planet minus that dumb kid with the lame heart power. During the climactic battle, this kid uses his power ONCE. How do you give him a wealth of super powers and then sideline him? There’s also an Amazon vampire who can control people’s vision, namely making them see whatever she wants. How are these two assets not utilized for tactical supremacy?

I had the suspicion that Breaking Dawn Part 2 might be the best film in the series simply by the fact that it’s the one with the most Michael Sheen. God I love this man. His last-minute turn in the appalling New Moon banished the suicidal thoughts swirling in my head. Even when he’s in bad movies, Sheen is usually the best thing about them (see: TRON: Legacy or the Underworld films). Here’s an actor who knows exactly how ridiculous everything about this universe is, and by God he sinks his teeth in. The benefit of added Sheen cannot be overstated. The movie greatly benefits by having a strong outside threat early. Only the third movie, Eclipse, had an external threat from the start, and that gave the film a much-needed sense of urgency. I was with Sheen and the Volturi on this one. They were merely following the laws of vampires meant to protect their own kind. Vampire babies are a no-no since they cannot control their otherworldly urges, so they and their makes must be destroyed. You know you’re in for a darker Twilight when early on we witness a baby getting tossed into a roaring fire. I admit that I have a susceptibility to falling under the sway of magnetic villains. Perhaps this speaks to some character defect of my own. It probably just speaks to the fact that movies often have boring heroes and charismatic villains. Sheen is so hammy and delightful and I just wanted more of him amidst the melee that punctuates the end. The man even looks like he’s about to lead a marching band during the battle and he’s still badass. Such is the awesomeness of Michael Sheen. Of this there can be no question.

But then the Condon and series scribe Melissa Rosenberg do something almost extraordinary given the slavish devotion to the series fans have. They divert from the source material in broad strokes during the climactic vampire brawl. I won’t go into exact details but the preview audience I was with was absolutely losing their collective minds. Women were screaming, cries of “Nooo” rang through the room; all around me was the echo of consternation and shock, women trying to absorb the reality of what they were viewing. Sitting with them, taking in their shrieks and lamentations, the general horror of what might happen next… it was a thing of beauty. I can almost recommend seeing Breaking Dawn Part 2 simply to be part of this experience. However, you’ll have to act quickly and be selective. You’ll need a packed theater filled with vocal Twi-hards, likely an opening weekend evening crowd, the kind that openly cheer shirtless revelries from the male co-stars. And then just sit and wait, knowing that soon all that revelry will turn to shock. I sound so mean-spirited explaining this and that’s not my intention. I didn’t necessarily enjoy the discomfort of the Twi-hards. I enjoyed the bewilderment. It felt like the theater was alive, coursing with the energy of alert uncertainty. Anything could happen, including some very not nice things. To be one tiny drop in an ocean of furious estrogen, well it’s an experience that deserves mentioning. Its strange experiences like this that make me love going to the movies, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a combination of words I’d never thought I would write about any Twilight film.

Also, though my expectations were never that high to begin with, I have to credit Condon with fashioning a fairly exciting action brawl, one that’s surprisingly graphic at spots for a PG-13 movie primarily aimed at young girls. The series has been building up to a massive showdown, and the movie itself has been putting the feuding factions into place, so it’s satisfying that the finale truly feels climactic and delivers some thrills. For the record, Meyer’s book was free of any climactic battle. This movie is chock full of decapitations. I cannot recall another PG-13 film that had this many beheadings. I think you could watch a drama set during the French Revolution and you wouldn’t witness this many people lose their heads. Is there no other ay to kill a vampire? What ever happened to the good old fashioned staking of the heart? These kids these days; all they want to do is decapitate. To dull the grisly spectacle, the beheadings are weirdly bloodless. Condon does a bangup job of setting up plenty of mini-payoffs and duels throughout his busy action centerpiece. Then when it looks like the carnage is at an end, the movie takes a page from the Final Destination playbook, which Twi-hards will probably find relieving. I thought it was a major cop-out but whatever. Let the kids have their happy ending.

Before you get your hopes up too extravagantly, this movie still offers plenty of stupid. I don’t care how you explain it, the imprinting thing is stupid incarnate. I still find it eternally creepy that Jacob couldn’t have the mother so he settles for the daughter. The fact that everyone treats this development so seriously makes me laugh. And oh boy, let’s talk about those Amazon vampires. First off, I find it hilarious that Meyer’s vision of vampire clans from around the world really just boils down to Europe and the Amazon. When they stepped onto screen wearing, and I kid you not, loin clothes and tribal markings, I was flabbergasted. Doesn’t anyone find this depiction to be at least deeply ignorant and culturally insensitive? I’ll stop short of calling it quasi-racist; though attaching “quasi” to anything lets you get away with most declarations (“This movie is quasi-watchable”). But when our big battle over a frozen lake takes place, why are these Amazon characters STILL wearing loincloths in the frozen landscape? Then there’s the annoying fact that Renesmee rapidly grows, meaning that Bella and Edward get to skip out on actually raising a baby. If Meyer intended to punish these kids for having sex in Part 1, then she needs to follow through on her antiquated sexual hang-ups.

As the franchise draws to a close, I’m trying to take stock of the five films and their overall impact (sadly, we all know with the potential riches, a reboot is likely only five years out). The end credits play out like a gauzy yearbook for the franchise, visually highlighting every significant speaking role, including the two different actresses who played villainous Rachel.  The Twilight series has been very good to me as a writer; I’ve produced long-winded reviews with each new entry, and the opening-day people watching has become part of the spectacle I enjoy. That’s really what we’re dealing with here – spectacle. It’s all gooey romantic fantasy nonsense with some pretty bland characters, questionable messages for young girls, and such deadly seriousness. If we were grading on a curve, I’d say Breaking Dawn Part 2 is actually tolerable thanks to nominal character development, less whiny Bella, an influx of new characters, extra Sheen time, a better sense of humor, and a climax that truly feels climactic.

I can’t say the Twilight movies have gotten better as they’ve gone, though Condon has proven to be an apt choice to steer this franchise to a close. He’s given the franchise a bit more life, a bit more blood. I’ll never admit that the love story of Bella and Edward deserved five full-fledged movies, but I recognize the significance Twilight stands in many young girls lives. Fans will eat this stuff up. They’ll certainly enjoy the Bella/Edward sex where she doesn’t end up bruised. For them, it ends in a fitting sendoff, even after the jolts of text deviation morphs into giggled recounts on car rides home. For them, Breaking Dawn Part 2 will be the perfect ending to their beloved series. I can’t imagine anyone indifferent to the series working up that much interest, but I can say with sincerity that Breaking Dawn Part 2 is the best film in the Twilight series and potentially worth seeing for the rollercoaster ride of bewildered fan reactions. Now that the last blood has been drained from this franchise, let’s move on to more important items… like the next Hunger Games movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Breaking Dawn: Part One (2011)

Taking a cue from the blockbuster film franchise of our age, the Harry Potter series, the producers and studio heads decided to split the final Twilight film into two separate movies. Yes, for you cheerless, unfortunate males dragged along to author Stefenie Meyer’s estrogen-drenched soap opera, hoping to be done with Bella Swan and her sparkly vampire boyfriend, well your pain soldiers onward another year. If Breaking Dawn: Part One is any indication, we’re all in for a world of hurt come November 2012.

Wedding bells are ringing for Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her undead boyfriend, noble vampire/undead heartthrob, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Bella’s persistent demand to be turned into a vampire is finely about to come true. She wants to stay human a bit longer, to savor her last days on Earth before sipping blood through a bendy straw. Her always-in-second best bud, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), is worried for Bella’s well being. The wedding is like a fairy tale and Edward sweeps his new bride away to a tiny island off of Rio de Janeiro, where the housekeepers illogically speak Spanish. The couple makes the most of their time alone, and by this I mean they have sex (I refuse to believe this couple would play chess in their newlywed downtime). Edward withholds any second rounds of sex, fearing he’ll seriously harm his bride (he destroyed the bed in mid-copulation). No matter because Bella gets pregnant right out of the gate. We’re told this is impossible, yet her half-human/half-vampire fetus is rapidly growing inside momma’s belly. The baby is also destroying its host, eating away Bella’s body. Edward demands to kill the baby but Bella will have none of it. She’s going to deliver this baby even if it kills her. If it does kill her, then the truce between the werewolves and vampires will be broken, and Jacob’s feistier tribe mates will be knocking down the Cullen doors looking for some tasty vampires to chomp.

Director Bill Condon, he of Dreamgirls fame and an Oscar-winner for 1998’s Gods and Monsters, goes hog-wild with the emotions, fittingly reminiscent of the life-and-death swings of emotional polarity that orient a teenager’s life. Condon plays all of the ridiculous melodrama straight. It successfully channels the feelings of teenage angst and obsession, much like the first Twilight film. This Teutonic exhibit of buzzy hormones is like catnip to the Twilight faithful. Finally, they get what they’ve been waiting for, and Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg delay that gratification even longer. This is the longest wedding I’ve seen on screen since The Godfather. It takes up about 45 minutes of the movie. The protracted walk down the aisle literally takes longer than the rest of the ceremony combined. I can already envision thousands of young girls asking for the “Bella dress” when their time down the aisle comes. At no point does the movie address the fact that the “groom’s side” probably are all absent a heartbeat (“Hmm, extreme paleness? Are you with the bride or the groom? I’m at a loss.”). That’s a missed comedic opportunity. What’s with the wedding guests played by name actors like Maggie Grace (TV’s Lost, Taken)? Did they hire recognizable actors for one-line bit parts? They better have larger roles in the second feature. Under Condon’s direction, the film looks marvelous, and even the long-awaited love scene has some discernible heat to it that will give teen girls “funny” dreams for the next few months. Condon’s also helming the next and final film, so I can at least say it’ll look swell.

This last film was broken into two parts due to the mountains of money the studio would make. It surely wasn’t for some sort of artistic necessity. The plot of BD: Part One is stretched mighty thin. It’s no joke that the wedding and honeymoon takes up half the running time. The baby drama is handled so amateurishly, and the plot ramps up the incubation time so that everything happens too fast for the audience to adjust to how stupid everything truly is. The first half of the movie is free of meaningful conflict. It’s just concerned with payoffs. From everything I’ve read online, and from female friends who have partaken of the series, BD: Part One pretty much covers most of the plot of the 400-page book. What’s left? I would totally give the series a pass if the second movie started with Bella, hair a knotted mess, holding a shrieking baby. Edward sits at the table, drinking. “When are you gonna get a job?” she yells. “When are you gonna stop being a bitch?” he retorts, then gulps down a swig of booze. This domestic downer of an ending would almost make the whole series worth sitting through. Truthfully, as the teaser during the end credits advertises, if Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) has a larger part in BD: Part Two, it automatically becomes, sight unseen, the best movie of the series. Thus is the awe-inspiring power of Michael Sheen.

This has long been a silly franchise filled with poorly veiled messages that seem less empowering to teenage girls than reassuring to their parents. Long a heavy-handed message about abstinence, the characters finally get to have sex, after they’re properly married of course (does God really object more to vampire-human relations or when it occurs?). And you better believe the moment Edward and Bella eventually do the deed is a moment that teen girls, and their mothers, around the nation have been anticipating for three long, hard years. The buildup to the carnal climax is a rapturous release for the audience of Twi-hards; my theater felt like it exploded in pubescent hormones and giggling as soon as the proverbial train entered the station. Speaking of euphemisms, I find it telling that not a single character ever refers to sex as, well, “sex.” They keep dancing around the term, referring to it as indistinct pronouns like “this” or “that” or the slightly more specific “honeymoon activities.” It’s like the characters can’t talk about a mature topic without a case of the giggles. There’s even a scene where Jacob talks about Bella’s forthcoming tangle between the sheets, openly, and with alarm: “You’ll kill her,” he tells Edward. He doesn’t kill her but he does leave bruises all over her body. Bella assures her new husband that he’s not to blame, arguing, “You just couldn’t control yourself.” What kind of irresponsible message is that sending to teenage girls? But after enduring three movies of “save it until marriage,” the message is made even clearer when Bella, after one bout of sex, gets pregnant. Boom. Bella breaks the news by saying, “The wedding was 14 days ago, and my period’s late.” Edward stares dumbfounded and replies, “What does that mean?” Apparently, after graduating from high school 200 times just for kicks, Edward must have been absent every damn time for sexual education (“Condoms go OVER? Oh! This whole time I thought they went UNDER, you know, to hold everything in.”).

It’s here where the movie awkwardly shifts into a relentlessly pro-life message on legs. I’m not against movies presenting messages, but when a movie is as narratively empty and transparently padded as BD: Part 1, then the movie just gets swallowed up by the clumsy message. It doesn’t matter that Bella’s unborn hell spawn is literally killing her, sucking her dry from the inside out, she’s going to have this baby no matter what, even if she dies in the process. Okay, Meyer, we get it. Here’s a question for the world: can anyone really tell that much difference between emaciated Kristen Stewart and her normal self? She always appears a little sickly and hollow-eyed, but maybe that’s just me. The baby is basically the only conflict the movie presents and it happens so late in the film. Thanks to a fast gestation period, the demon fetus is determined not to wait until Part Two to make its grand entrance. Now that Bella is preggers, she’s become instant buddies with Rosalie (Nikki Reed, a long way from Thirteen), and the two of them begin a war against non-gender pronouns (its vs. he/her). The baby conflict would be more interesting if it was a tad more ambiguous, but the fact that it literally is killing Bella, not to mention its monstrous possibilities, and yet she persists to give birth is less characterization and more stubbornness. If Bella’s worried she’ll never have another chance to have a flesh-and-blood daughter, then explore this. Otherwise it makes Bella look blithely cavalier with her own life.

It’s here where Meyer and the Twilight franchise, already deliriously high on teen angst, goes off the charts into weirdo territory (some spoilers will follow). Never mind where the werewolf boys (and a girl) manage to find new clothes after they destroy them after each beastly transformation, we’ve got far weirder moments to process. There’s a vampire C-section via biting. There are giant wolves communicating via growling telepathy and bad CGI. There are Bella’s completely batshit names for her child; if it’s a boy she wants to combine Edward and Jacob’s names because that’s not awkward (“See, son, you’re named after the other guy I could have slept with but decided to just string along instead.”). And if it’s a girl she wants to combine her mother’s name and Edward’s mother’s name forming the atrocious “Reneesmee.” Excuse me? That makes “Apple” seem as traditional as apple pie. No one tells Bella these names are horrific because she’s pregnant, naturally. I imagine all the characters broke out into laughter as soon as Bella left the room to go puke into a bucket. Easily the weirdest and dumbest thing in the history of the Twilight franchise occurs as a contrived deus ex machina and a tidy solution to Jacob’s eternal, annoying pining. Jacob is determined to slay the monster he believes responsible for killing his unrequited love, Bella, but then he looks into those cute little baby eyes and… swears devotion to this newborn babe. He “imprints” on her, which means that they are meant to be together, and thus the werewolf/vampire truce holds. “Of course,” Edward intones, “Imprinting is their number one law. They cannot break it.” Of course! This reminded me of the scene at the end of the second Harry Potter movie where a phoenix comes from nowhere and cries into a wound (“Of course, phoenix tears can heal anything,” Harry informs while I was physically smacking myself in the head). Doesn’t anyone else find this whole plot development creepy? Jacob can’t have the mother, so he’s going to have the baby? And he’s got to wait 18 years if he wants their coupling to be legal on top of that. I think a messed up name is the least of this kid’s worries.

Does she look like a healthy person? This is pre-baby succubus.

It all comes down to the heroine of the franchise, Miss Bella Swan (sorry, Bella Cullen now). I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. To me, Bella isn’t worth the effort. She’s never really been anything close to a fully formed character. Bella Swan has always defined herself by having a boyfriend, and when he was gone it was about pushing her friends away and moping until she finally found a new guy. She has zero self-identity, no center, she is an empty shell, there is no there there. She’s a cipher, meant for the teenage readership to plug themselves into her place. I won’t restate my theory that the Twilight series is glossed-up pre-teen wish fulfillment, but there you have it. Yet there are sneaking moments where Bella seems almost shockingly… human. Her anxious montage of preparation before her first night of sex is relatable and sympathetic (what outfit to wear? Shave the legs? What kinds of makeup?). Too bad this relatable side of her character vanishes all too quickly. Before Bella defined herself by her boyfriend and now she defines herself by her baby. She’s still the same whiny, selfish, morose, and cruelly manipulative Bella, though. She can’t let Jacob alone; she has to continue stringing him along, bringing him into inappropriate personal matters. Jacob’s always been a bit of a control freak who seems to spout quasi-rapist dialogue (the classic “You love me, you just don’t know it yet.”), but the guy’s always gotten a raw deal as far as I’m concerned. Betrothed to a baby is not a worthwhile parting gift. I worry that young, impressionable girls are going to look at Bella as an influential figure. If these same gals want a literary heroine they could truly look up to, they should feast their eyes on Katniss Everdeen, proactive and laudable star of the Hunger Games and forthcoming movie of the same name.

The three actors have been playing the same character notes for so long that they could all just go on autopilot and collect their paychecks. Stewart (Adventureland) is less annoying than she has been in previous films. I’m trying not to take out my disdain of her character on the actress, who I’ve genuinely liked in pre-Twilight projects (even her Joan Jett performance was pretty decent). Pattinson (Water for Elephants) seems to shrink into the background for this movie. There are a lot of long, ponderous, somehow meaningful stares between the two, with the soundtrack trying to communicate emotions that the screenplay has failed to do (a little more variety on the soundtrack next time, fellas? I think I tuned out after the twelfth melancholy piano ballad). Luckily, Pattinson does have something of a screen presence to go with those abs. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Lauthner (Abduction). The young buck, formerly of Shardkboy fame, just cannot act. He has a nostril-heavy manner of expressing emotion that makes you wonder if he’s about to blow your house down. It’s telling that within mere seconds of the film beginning, the guy rips off his shirt, the peak of his acting abilities. I suspect it will not be long before Lautner and his six-pack and sitting at home, unemployed, and indulging in a different six-pack.

Breaking Dawn: Part One is certainly not intended for critics of the book and film series or really any audience member lacking ovaries. But I think that even the most ardent Twi-hards will walk away giggling at the silliness of the overripe melodrama. I try not to be out rightly dismissive of the whole series, but the bad characters, bad plotting, and questionable messages make it hard to continue bending over backwards to find slivers of quality to support. I get the appeal of the series, the fact that Bella Swan is a cipher to exercise frothing teenage wish fulfillment, but that doesn’t excuse the movies from being so bad. This isn’t the painful abomination that was 2009’s New Moon, but it’s come the closest. Only the promise of more Michael Sheen makes me hopeful that BD: Part Two will be better than its predecessors. When you’re talking about an obscenely popular moneymaker, quality becomes secondary to delivering a product that is recognizable to the demands of the screaming fans. BD: Part One is less a payoff than a warning. There is more to come, and if you thought Bella was intolerable before just wait until her vampire growing pains.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Runaways (2010)

This fizzy 1970s glam rock biopic on the teen girl rock group The Runaways is a fairly shallow tale elevated by a handful of strong performances. All but completely ignoring the other members of the famous girl group, the movie focuses on lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). Both actresses slip under the skin of their real-life figures, imbuing the anger, desperation, and sheer nerve of pubescent rock stars being exploited. Watching Stewart’s attitude-filled strut, or how Fanning transforms from any other California girl into a slinking rock goddess igniting a Tokyo stage, is downright exciting to behold. But the chief reason to watch this film is Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) as the group’s flamboyant, lewd manager who put the girls together. Shannon is his typical bug-eyed sensational self, but the profane tirades he unleashes are downright poetic. He gives the movie a desperately needed pulse, and thus when he leaves the screen he also takes most of our interest. The biggest issue The Runaways has is that writer/director Floria Sigismondi doesn’t convince us why any of this matters. We watch the girls get together, play their first gigs, improve musically, and then all of a sudden they’re famous thanks to a magazine headline montage. Then they’re broken up. You neither feel the rise nor the fall, nor do you ever truly get a good feel for any of the characters. The Runaways spends too much time posing and trying to look fierce when it should have spent more attention on a decent script.

Nate’s Grade: C

New Moon (2009)

Admittedly, I am not a fan of the Twilight series. I have never read one of the books but I didn’t hate the first Twilight movie. I thought it kind of worked on its own merits even if it wasn’t for me. However, New Moon is a crushing bore and a mess.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is celebrating her eighteenth birthday with her vampire boyfriend, the 119-year-old Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). She accidentally cuts her finger and the sight of blood sends one of the Cullen vampires crazy with instinct. Edward concludes that his love would be safer without him. He bids her goodbye and promises, “This is the last time you will ever see me,” forgetting that there are two more books to go. Bella is heartbroken and spends months in a stupor. She finds solace with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), her friend of many years. Jacob’s people are indigenous Native Americans to the area, and he holds a secret as well. Turns out that Jacob is a werewolf. Now Bella has to decide between a vampire or a werewolf (does a Frankenstein monster enter the romantic fray later?). Edward mistakenly believes that Bella has died, so he too wants to die and will seek execution at the hands of the illustrious Vultari, the ruling vampire clan in Italy. Bella must decide between her two loves.

I can precisely indicate where everything goes wrong for the abysmal New Moon — the character of Bella Swan. For the majority of this sequel, I didn’t just detest and dislike her I downright hated her. I hated her. I understand her appeal to the millions of Meyer’s literary acolytes, but man does she come across as a self-centered, casually cruel, messed up girl who spends most of her time being whiny, mopey, and sulky. It’s not just that she has a guy interested in her, it’s the absurd notion that every man cannot get enough of this sullen gal. As presented in New Moon, Bella is such a dour and lifeless personality. I cannot see whatsoever why she is worth such effort. This criticism may be tracked all the way to Meyer’s source material, making Bella absent in defining character dynamics expressly so pre-teen readers can insert themselves as the character and swoon over being the object of universal desire. It is insultingly thin wish fulfillment that this girl has every man, vampire, and werewolf fighting over her in the Pacific Northwest. After Edward leaves, she shuts herself out and rejects all her friends. We see in one camera pan that she spends literal months in a stupor. I understand that teenagers think everything is the end of the world, but she and Edward were together for, what, a few months? Then again, heartache is something that knows no exact time frame for healing, so consider this but a quibble. Bella seems to push others away except when she needs a set of ears to whine.

It is post-Edward where Bella becomes insular, self-centered in her pursuit of danger placing herself in stupidly reckless scenarios, and hurtful. Where Bella really infuriated me is her treatment of her lifelong friend, Jacob. Obviously the big guy has a thing for his her and she knows this, which allows Bella to string Jacob along for almost a whole movie. She leads this little doggie along, teasing him with a “Maybe I will be with you, maybe I won’t” dance that becomes irritating and rather loathsome. Jacob is a swell guy who has looked out for Bella from day one, accepted her coupling with a vampire, sworn enemy of werewolves, and he’s been the best listener to all her self-involved drama. Plus this guy is ripped and has hip flexors that could cut glass. And he is there for her and didn’t abandon her like Edward. So Bella toys with her self-described “best friend” until she can hear the word “Edward” and then she can think about nothing else, even after months of complete separation. I understand that Edward has the sexy, brooding, bad boy appeal, where women think they will magically be the key ingredient to change the troubled man for the better. But on the flipside, Jacob thinks he?’ the key ingredient to finally get Bella to commit to a healthy relationship, and he gets screwed. Seriously, what’s the worse thing about dating a werewolf? You may have to take him for more walks. I suppose this makes me sound like I’m on Team Jacob, as the fans call themselves. I’m really on Team Bella Deserves to be Alone.

I don’t want to sound unduly harsh. I don’t necessarily have an inherent dislike for characters that make bad decisions or who are, at their core, unlikable. I could forgive the sins of Bella Swan if she had even a hint of subtext. Bella Swan is a void of personality. I cannot recall if this was the same with Twilight, which I haven’t seen since I watched it on opening day in the theater a year ago.

What also sinks New Moon is how it repeats the same plot from Twilight. Once again Bella feels alone, she finds comfort in a boy that says they can’t be together, this intrigues her and pushes her into action, she’s warned of danger, and then finally she settles in with a pseudo relationship with a supernatural stud who makes blanket promises like “I’ll always protect you,” and, “I’ll never let anything happen to you.” It’s not complex folks; Meyer is just feeding pre-teen girls their fantasy of a male romantic interest. Because of this repetitious plot structure, very little of substance happens during the overlong 130 minutes of New Moon. Bella kinda sorta almost gets involved with a werewolf, there’s some lousy Romeo and Juliet allusions, and thanks to a delightfully hammy Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), we learn a little bit about what makes Bella special to the world of vampires (it’s telling that her “specialty” is her lack of reaction). Beyond that, this is two hours of posturing and some gratuitous beefcake shots of shirtless men. My theater was sold out and packed with the Twilight faithful who swooned when they saw Edward strutting in slow-mo and openly hollering in approval when Jacob first whipped off his shirt. For supernatural creatures, they do more brooding than anything.

Director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy) replaces Catherine Hardwicke to steer the second movie. I actually think Hardwicke had the right sensibilities for this franchise and she brought a youthful, rambunctious spirit that gave the first film a teenage synergy that made the romance feel pulpy. Weitz does away with this and makes the movie feel more ornate and chaste and dull. The execs spent major money to film in Italy for the vampire Volturi clan, but as near as I can tell some sets would have done the trick. Note to filmmakers: if you spend money to film in an exotic location, show it. As far as I can tell, Weitz was hired because of the bump up in special effects for this picture. Gone are goofy vampire baseball sequences and now we have cheesy wolf battle sequences, which come across like a less refined version of the polar bear brawl from Golden Compass. The special effects have improved but that doesn’t mean they?re good.

This isn’t exactly the kind of movie that asks for much from its actors, and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg distills Meyer’s text to the point that the actors pout and yearn. Stewart is an actress I have liked for years since Panic Room, so imagine how I would feel about the Bella character with a less capable actress. Pattinson is absent for almost the entire movie and it’s hard to say that his presence was missed. The best actor of this weird love triangle is Lautner who at least seems to have some fun with his role. He has an amiable spirit that penetrates all the gloom. He’s come a long way from being Shark Boy in 2005?s The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.

The plot is a shadow of the first film, and the main character is annoying and hard to sympathize with, there?s so little of consequence that happens, it?s way too long, and, oh yeah, did I mention how much I disliked Bella Swan? At this point, the Twilight franchise is a juggernaut that cannot be contained (as I write this it’s poised to make over $70 million on opening day) and the Twi-hards will find the movie to be catnip, swooning at the visualized male sex objects. For anyone outside the cult of Twilight, the movie version of New Moon will fail to communicate the appeal of the series. The movie feels bloodless. Twilight is like a tedious soap opera scrubbed clean of teenage hormones. I think I’ll stick with HBO’s True Blood, a more nuanced, adult, sexy, and just plain fun series following vampire-human love. Bella could learn plenty from Sookie Stackhouse.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Coraline (2009)

The beauty of stop-motion animation is that everything is painstakingly handcrafted so that it’s like watching a whole other world. Coraline is a wonder for the eyes and I loved just watching the movement of characters, their facial expressions, which were all done in great fluid motions. I loved that I could see Coraline thinking just through how her eyes were animated. The story, based upon the Neil Gaiman book, is about an alternative world where people have buttons for eyes provides enough eerie intrigue and some creepy imagery to spook younger kids. This is a fantasy film that doesn’t shy away from childhood scares. Coraline has an altogether pleasant feel with its spunky heroine and fine vocal cast (Dakota Fanning did not get on my nerves at all), but what’s most special is just watching the movie come alive; it’s enchanting to watch this world simply exist. There are some terrific displays of imagination in the alternative world, and it all looks even snazzier in 3-D where the world takes on further depth. Director Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas) is the master of this peculiar art and thankfully Coraline follows its own visual style, never stooping to imitating Nightmare (like Corpse Bride). This is a visually stunning movie that may not leave much of an impression once it’s over (predictable story, thin plot, kind of slow ending). Coraline is a feast of artistic talent with something to discover in every awesome second.

Nate’s Grade: A-

War of the Worlds (2005)

Steven Spielberg is America’s favorite director. He’s made films about alien encounters before (hell, it was most of the title of one movie), but Spielberg has never tackled evil aliens. Alien movies either involve cuddly little green men or the kind that want to destroy our planet. The latter is usually more interesting and finally Spielberg takes the trip with War of the Worlds.

Instead of focusing on high-ranking government officials, War of the Worlds concentrates on an everyday man just trying to save his family. Ray (Tom Cruise) is a New Jersey dock worker and a divorced pop. His ex-wife (Miranda Otto) has dropped off the kids (Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin) for the weekend. Ray isn’t exactly father of the year and his sullen kids remind him of this fact. Meanwhile, there seems to be a series of lightning storms hitting the world that then leave an electronic magnetic field that eliminates all the electricity in the area. A storm hovers over New Jersey and lightning strikes not once but over twenty times in the same spot. Ray goes to investigate the site. The ground beneath trembles and caves in. A giant machine with three tentacle-like legs emerges from the earth and starts zapping any humans it can find. Ray escapes, packs up the kids in the only working car in town, and runs, runs, runs, all with the aliens just a step behind ready and waiting for a people zappin’.

There are three things an audience will have to put behind them in order to enjoy what War of the Worlds has to offer.

1) The film has no plot. War of the Worlds spends the first 15 minutes setting up its handful of characters and their misery with each other. After that, it’s nothing but all-out alien attacks. That’s really it. Ray and the kids run to one place and think they’re safe. The aliens come and attack. Ray and the kids escape to a new place. The aliens come and attack. Lather, rinse, repeat. There is little more to War of the Worlds.

2) Spielberg has pretty much forgotten how to make good endings. I think A.I. was the nail in the coffin. Routinely Spielberg films seem to run out of gas or end rather anticlimactically, but A.I. really cemented the glaring fact that Spielberg cannot sit still with an unhappy ending. So, yes, War of the Worlds both ends anticlimactically and with an abrupt happy ending. Of course the H.G. Wells novel ends in the same fashion so there’s less to gripe about, until, that is, until you reach the implausible reunion. Spielberg can’t keep well enough alone and forces the story to be even happier at the cost of logic.

3) Ignore whatever feelings you hold about Tom Cruise. Off-screen, many feel that Cruise is becoming an obnoxious, pampered, self-involved, couch-jumping cretin. No matter what your feelings about Cruise and his self-taught knowledge about the history of psychiatry, that is not who is in War of the Worlds. He is playing a character. I never understood the argument that because you dislike an actor as a person it invalidates all their acting. I’ve read magazines that actually say people are staying away from Cinderella Man because people think Russell Crowe is a grump. In War of the Worlds, Cruise plays a deadbeat dad who finds his paternal instincts during the end of the world. The character isn’t deep and acts as a cipher for the audience to put themselves in the scary story. Plus it’s not like Cruise is a bad actor; he has been nominated for three Oscars.

Since this is a large Hollywood horror film, the acting consists mainly or healthy lungs and frightful, big-eyed expressions. So it seems natural that little Dakota Fanning would play the role of Child in Danger. Cruise somehow finds some points in the story to exhibit good acting. There’s a moment right after Ray and his kids escape to their mother’s home. He tries making them food out of whatever they saved which amounts to little more than condiments and bread. His kids rebuff his offer and he throws the sandwiches against a window and repeats to himself to breathe. In lesser hands this moment would just be some light comedy, but Cruise turns it into an opportunity to see the character’s desperation. Tim Robbins shows up late playing a nutball going through some self-induced cabin fever.

War of the Worlds, at its core, is a post-9/11 horror film on a mass scale. Spielberg plays with our paranoia and anxiety and creates a movie that is fraught with tension and an overriding sense of inevitable annihilation. The aliens are so advanced and so powerful. The deck definitely seems to be stacked against Earth. I felt great amounts of dread throughout the film knowing that the aliens will find you, they will get you, and it’s only a matter of time. And that’s the recipe for a perfectly moody horror film. War of the Worlds is chilling in its depiction of worldly destruction, and yet it becomes even more terrifying by how realistic everything seems as the world falls apart when its under attack. The introduction of huge, human-zapping aliens is expected to be scary, but who knew human beings at their wit?s end could be just as scary? A crowd of people turns into a violent mob fighting for any last bit of space in Ray’s working car. A man sitting on top of the hood is actually ripping away chunks of windshield with his bare, bloody hands.

War of the Worlds really benefits from awesome special effects. As stated before, we live in a jaded age where most special effects have lost feeling special. Computer advancements have also created a more advanced audience able to point out the big screen fakery at a faster pace. If you don’t believe me, look back at some movies from 1995 or so and see if you’re still wowed. War of the Worlds marvelously displays destruction on such an incredible scale. City streets ripped apart, houses blown up, cars flipping through the air, ferries plunged into the water, and it all looks as real as can be. There are moments I know that have to be computer assisted, like seeing miles and miles of stranded vehicles and people on the side, but it looks like they filmed it for real. The only thing that seemed hokey was people being vaporized by alien ray guns and having their clothes remain. I don’t know if Spielberg was going for a veiled Schindler’s List reference or they thought anything more grim could rock their PG-13 rating.

Due to all of this realism, War of the Worlds is not a film to take young children to see. The startling realism and suffocating sense of dread will keep kids up for weeks with nightmares, maybe some adults too. There’s more than a passing reference to 9/11, and that may be a wound too fresh for some. Thousands of people walk the streets as homeless refugees. There are large tack boards with hopeful missing fliers of relatives. One of the most horrifying images consists of a flowing river filled with floating corpses. There’s also a grand set built around the remains of a downed airplane. When Ray is trying to explain the situation at first, his son interjects, “Were they terrorists?” Spielberg calculatingly uses our memories of 9/11 to create a true-to-life horror story that doesn’t feel exploitative. “War” implies some kind of even ground. This is a massacre, and one parents should be wise not to bring youngsters to.

With War of the Worlds, Spielberg has crafted a chilling, realistic, post-9/11 horror movie. The action is big, the destruction is bigger, and the dread is at a near breaking point. Sure the movie is plotless and the ending is anticlimactic and forcibly happy, but War of the Worlds should appeal to those looking for the safe way to witness the end of the world. Spielberg invented the big summer movie and War of the Worlds is a taught return to form. It’s not much more than watching aliens destroy things but for many that will be plenty for a summer movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Man on Fire (2004)

By far, the most entertaining moment of Man on Fire occurs shortly after the movie ends. A message comes on screen more or less saying, “Mexico City is a very special place and we thank them.” Now, after having watched a lengthy 2 hour and 25 minute film that shows Mexico City as a chaotic equal to the Middle East, a city that experiences four kidnappings a day we are told, these ending sentiments feel like a mea culpa. To say a place is great after showing it to be a corrupt war-zone is hilarious. I doubt Mexico City will be using Man on Fire to lure tourism, just like I doubt Germany uses Hogan’s Heroes for its tourism.

The man on fire is Creasy (Denzel Washington), a former soldier with a drinking problem. He’s hired dirt cheap to be the bodyguard for Pita (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of a wealthy Mexican politician (Marc Anthony). Creasy is pragmatic about his job and shirks Pita’s attempts at friendship. Eventually, the precocious tyke gets the better of him and Creasy forgoes his self-loathing for coaching Pita on how to swim better. Creasy has found his recovery in the form of Pita’’s love, but his world is ripped apart when Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is left for dead. When he recovers, he vows merciless vengeance on anyone involved in Pita’’s kidnapping.

Denzel Washington is competent in his role, but there aren’t many films that wouldn’’t be better by having a Denzel Washington performance in it. Fanning has a robotic nature to her delivery. The wacky Christopher Walken is in this movie somewhere, but you would be hard-pressed to find him in the last hour or so. It’’s kind of nutty that Walken of all people plays the voice of reason in a revenge movie.

Director Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Top Gun) has flat-out forgotten or lost interest in telling stories. His direction of Man on Fire is erratic and heavy on stop-the-action-dead visual flourishes. Scott is a slave to visuals, but so many of them are jarringly miscalculated that the audience can never fully immerse themselves in the film. It’’s like a kid fiddling with a new camcorder and wanting to try all the super cool special features (“Whoa, I can make things slower … now grittier stock … now sepia … now I can make a mirror of things … “etc.).

It takes over an hour to get to the key kidnapping plot point. Until then the audience is relegated to watching scenes of Creasy find redemption through the eyes of a child. Denzel and Fanning have a nice mentor camaraderie, but after an hour the audience is impatiently waiting for the inevitable kidnapping that the movie’s foreshadowing has been tripping all over.

When Man on Fire does hit the kidnapping, the ensuing movie gets very messy, and boy does it get ugly. Creasy goes on a grisly killing spree that turns him from a sympathetic loner into a one-man wrecking crew. Vengeance is an easy emotion for an audience to get behind a character, but Man on Fire goes way beyond audience empathy. Are we to cheer when Creasy goes about ruthlessly killing unarmed people and threatening families, pregnant women, and kids? I didn’’t cheer. I was somewhat appalled that the filmmakers expected us to revel in this violence as if it was more than justified. It’’s just ugly, plain and simple. It is also sickeningly sadistic.

The most bizarre thing about Man on Fire is the subtitles. When I think back on this film in the future, that is the one thing that will stand out for me. These aren’t your ordinary stay-at-the-bottom-and-do-as-you’’re-told subtitles. Oh no. These subtitles dance, jump around, float, fade, expand and shrink in size, and do about everything but make balloon animals (or, I should say, subtitle animals). It’’s like a living comic book; however, this is yet another visual trick that draws the audience out of the film. The unusual subtitles call too much attention to themselves, especially when they just pop up for a single word, spoken in English, as if to clue in the audience that this point of information will be vital somehow.

Man on Fire is a sadistic action film that is too full of itself for amusement. By the time that mea culpa comes onscreen it’s almost a relief to laugh again. The hard-driving ugliness of Man on Fire might make you forget how to. Fans of revenge films may find some redeemable qualities, but Man on Fire is one gruesome 145 minutes to squirm through.

Nate’s Grade: C-

%d bloggers like this: