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Shazam! (2019)

It seems like the secret to the success of the DC movie universe is making fun, lower stakes adventures with the characters the public has the least knowledge about. Shazam actually begun as a “Captain Marvel,” and now comes on the heels of the MCU’s Captain Marvel. We follow Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenage orphan trying to find his missing mother. He stumbles into a wizard’s realm and is given a special power whereupon he turns into a square-jawed, broad-shouldered superhero (Zachary Levi) by saying “Shazam.” What follows is like a superhero version of Big and it’s goofy, charming, and reminiscent of an 80s Amblin movie, where children’s movies were allowed to be a little creepy and weird. The movie is light, cheerful, and heartfelt with its doling out of family messages to go along with the slapstick and personal growth. It’s very much envisioned from a young boy’s fantasy perspective of being a super-powered adult, where the first things to be done include buying beer, going to a “gentleman’s club,” in between testing out bullet invulnerability and flight. Levi (TV’s Chuck) is excellent at playing an adult version of a kid. I was initially dismissive of his casting but he’s perfect for this part. There’s a satisfying sense of discovery for Shazam and his excitable foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer) that doesn’t get old. The movie is more concerned with how the superpowers are affecting Billy’s relationships and sense of self than any larger, planet-destroying danger. The film even sets up its villain (Mark Strong) by giving him a decent back-story and opening the movie to explain his crummy family. It’s not a three-dimensional villain by any means but the attention given to make him something more is appreciated. The other foster kids in Billy’s new family are more archetypes but amusing, and their involvement in the final act raises the joy level of the finale. Shazam! is a movie where people are genuinely excited to be superheroes or associated with them, and that gleeful, buoyant revelry is downright infectious.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Serenity (2019)

Serenity might have the most bizarre plot twist of any film this year, or maybe even the last few years. For the sake of you, dear reader, I’ll not spoil it, but it’s hard to talk about this neo-noir crime thriller without revealing its larger grand design. I have no real idea what writer/director Steven Knight, a talented wordsmith who has written Eastern Promises, Locke, and Peaky Blinders, was going for with this murky genre mishmash. Matthew McConaughey plays Dill, a local fisherman who for the first 18 minutes of the movie is obsessed with a hard-to-catch tuna like it’s Moby Dick. Literally, this is the key plot for 18 minutes. Then his old flame (Anne Hathaway) comes to town and looking for Dill to help her kill her abusive husband, Frank (Jason Clarke). Now we’re on fertile noir ground, and then one hour in the film throws a curve ball that nobody will see coming, and it spends another 45 minutes dealing with those repercussions. Some of this added knowledge leads to creepy exchanges where Dill is peeling back the veneer of his sleepy island town residents, but really it’s a confusing and unnecessary twist that leads to strange thematic implications and tonal oddities that may lead to unintentional laughter. The sentimental ending conclusion, born out of murder both real and imaginary, feels like it was ripped out of Field of Dreams and forcibly grafted on. So much of the drama is about following what is expected of us, and there are more than a few passing, though intriguing, Truman Show-esque moments that reward further examination, but these are put on hold to slay the abusive husband/step dad through the power of an elusive fish. I don’t know what to make out of Serenity. The acting is fairly solid, the photography is stylish, and Knight knows how to spin a mystery, but to what end exactly? It feels like a passionate albeit misguided student film trying to say New Things about old tropes. In the end, it’s a fish tale that is better off being thrown back. See, I can do fish things too.

Nate’s Grade: C

Babel (2006)/ Blood Diamond (2006)

The world is a global community. It is increasingly difficult to shut out unpleasant news just because it happens to an unfortunate few we’ll never know. Hollywood has reminded us through the years that our actions do have sound repercussions, including our indifference. Babel is Mexican-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s examination on the fragility of human relationships in the world. Blood Diamond wishes to shine the spotlight on America’s love of diamonds fanning the flames of genocide in Africa. Both movies wish to convince the public that they matter, and not just in box-office, though that would be appreciated. Both of these films have good intentions but the results are sloppy and leaden.

In typical Inarritu fashion, the different storylines of Babel converge, blend, criss-cross, and crash together. The timeline isn’t as disruptive as it was in 21 Grams, so that is a welcome relief. The storylines offer wide-eyed views into different worlds and cultures. A Morocco goat herder purchases a riffle for his sons to protect the herd. The two brothers turn sharp-shooting into a competition, with the one betting the other he cannot hit a bus far in the distance. On that bus is Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), a married couple at odds with each other. Suddenly a shot whizzes through the window and into Susan’s neck. Richard panics and struggles with his options being far removed from advanced medical care and being unable to speak with the natives.

The incident becomes the shot heard round the world. The U.S. government is quick to suggest a terrorist link (who didn’t see that one coming?) but caught up in red tape to rescue the couple. Their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), cannot find someone to watch the kids so she can attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) agrees to drive her and the kids south of the border where the blonde moffetts can learn things like how to kill a chicken. Things take a sour note when reentering the United States at a border crossing manned by suspicious patrolmen.

And half a world away, a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) deals in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide by flashing her vagina at boys and throwing herself at older men. Therapy might also be a workable alternative.

The strong ensemble acting is what kept me watching. Babel is filled with many talented actors that each get a turn to look pained, incredulous, and helpless. This is a movie primarily built around sadness and misfortune, and actors jump at those chances. Exhibit A: Brad Pitt. I’ve always thought his serious acting credentials get cast aside because of his good looks (the man even played a Greek god), but he’s into his 40s now and weathering some grown-up gray and wrinkles that, I don’t know how, add a mature sexiness to the man, much like George Clooney. Pitt was serviceable in Babel but failed to impress. He gets to pace a lot and look haggard but he still seems like a distant character. The whole American tourist storyline cannot outrun the sense of pointlessness it seems to be circling. The greatest moments of acting come from the extreme anxiety of Barraza and the dissatisfied yearning of Kikuchi. I expect both women to get nominated for many awards.

The most frustrating aspect of Babel is how little it matters. It’s hard to connect with the characters. And in the end, nothing all that tragic happens to reach anything profound. Most characters leave their shadowy places and only a small number are changed for the worst, mostly the victims of some very bad decision making. But when the movie concludes there is only one dead body and one displaced person. That’s it, and Babel doesn’t even hang on to let us feel that pain. It just skips from story to story never settling in and never evoking any human emotion except for that of morbid curiosity. These people are victims of fate and not much else. Babel is a letdown of a letdown.

The Japanese schoolgirl storyline has no place in this film. The other three storylines all have a pertinent relationship, but the only thing that ties the schoolgirl into this web of international kerfuffle is that her father once owned the gun in question. Wow. It might have made better drama, and more sense, had this riffle had some significance, like it was the weapon of choice for her suicidal mother. Nope, it’s just another object with no more bearing to this family than a stapler. I think the deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl is a terrific character and intensely intriguing, especially as she battles the trials of teenage life and feeling like even more of an outcast than usual, but this story needs its own separate movie. It has no business being here and, like much of Babel, adds little understanding or significance. So much of the movie isn’t even told to the audience, like character back-stories and written catharsis, so any distraction feels like a waste of time for a 140-minute movie.

The ending is symptomatic of the film in general; it just kind of peters out and thinks its message has been well-received. What message? What the hell is Babel saying? Stop, look, and listen? The world stage is at such a precarious time and is, for better or worse, unified; someone else’s problem has ripples that will become our problem. Isolationism is dead. But Babel squanders any attempts at a deeper message by playing it safe; never pushing further than the scene descriptions it has confined itself to. The title refers to the Biblical story where God punished man’s arrogance by creating multiple languages. Most of the conflicts revolve around communication issues, but they really only seem like a small portion of the story. When Amelia takes the kids to Mexico, there really aren’t any communication problems. When the car is stopped by the Border Patrol there aren’t any slip-ups in communication, but Santiago freaks out and bolts. The central idea of Babel, lost communication, never really feels properly executed except with the Japanese schoolgirl, who, like I said, doesn’t even belong here.

When Babel does have something political to dwell upon it is usually very lazy. Law enforcement treats illegal immigrants like crap. The U.S. government is more interested in punishing perceived threats than medically helping those in need. American tourists are boorish and see dusty places like Morocco as a place to be alone, despite all the impoverished people shuffling about. Give me a break. There’s nothing within Babel that makes it worth more than one viewing. Once you know the outcome for characters than the film ceases to have a point. This is a true surprise and disappointment from the team that had so much emotional vitality and open humanity with Amores Perros and 21 Grams. I guess a lot must have gotten lot in translation.

On the flip side, while Babel is a mildly interesting movie desperately needing a message, Blood Diamond is a message in desperate need of an interesting movie. The message rings loud and clear in the film?s opening moments: conflict diamonds are bad. They account for 15 percent of all diamond sales and help finance genocide, civil war, and child brainwashing in Africa. The diamond industry says they cannot decipher which diamonds are which, but come on, they know. They use their market share to control world prices, thus creating a windfall for African rebels. They come up with more diamonds, and the diamond industry purchases them to take them off the market. Got it. But now what?

The short answer is, “‘Just say no’ to conflict diamonds, that is.” The long answer is one very trite movie that wears its liberal idealism on its sleeve with a bit too much fondness. Africa has become the cause celebre of recent films, but have any of them really made a difference? Did The Constant Gardener make us think twice about why drugs are so cheap (because Africans are exploited)? Did Syriana make us think twice why oil was comparatively cheap for Americans (because Africans AND Middle Easterners are exploited)? I doubt it. I may sound a pinch too cynical but I believe that the Unites States of America just generally doesn’t care as long as prices stay nice and low. I applaud filmmakers for attempting to open eyes and change hearts and minds, especially for many thought-provoking and worthy causes. But if you’re going to sponsor a message movie than you need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Blood Diamond will make you gag, that’s how heavy the message is. It displays a depressing showcase of Africa recycling violence, but it always manages to stay on point. The movie is supposed to be concerned with the well being of Africa, but yet it hangs its attention on a pair of white people. Danny (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a South African diamond smuggler who gets the classic Hollywood redemption arc, courtesy of Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) an enslaved mine-worker that has found a pink diamond the size of a bird egg. Danny and Solomon form a reluctant partnership to get recover the diamond, rescue Solomon’s lost son, and get everyone out of the raging gunfire. But the film is focused on Danny’s arc as he goes from scoundrel to savior, with all those black faces in the background just becoming that — background. The film’s climax involves Danny running through a mining camp looking to rescue Solomon’s lost son. However, Danny shoots and kills all the other kids holding weapons as he dances in between explosions. You cannot root for that as a moral audience member, can you? Danny may save one child but he’ll blow away all the rest, and to the pounding score of Hollywood glory. If this was meant to seem meditative than God help us all.

Jennifer Connelly plays a photo journalist that?s a self-described action junkie. She says she just can’t go through her day sipping lattes and reading Ziggy in the funny papers, not with knowing how cruel the world is to one another. Did she just become aware of this? The world has always had people getting treated poorly and will forever. Her character is an outlet to the Western world, a lens that can capture and broadcast the horrors of Africa which she flippantly predicts will be a minute on CNN “between sports and weather.” She’s your prototypical bleeding heart and the not-so-subtle outlet for the righteous indignation of the filmmakers. There’s nothing to her character except a camera for proof, an unyielding moral compass, and a pair of breasts for Danny to improbably snuggle up to.

The message of Blood Diamond is what we’re reminded of time and again, including tidbits to clue us in on how it all began (where did Africa learn some brutality? Why white colonists of course). The movie is built as an action vehicle, but it’s an action vehicle going in the wrong direction. The bursts of action are frequent but never anything well imagined or exciting. Usually the film follows two, or more, characters talking and then they’re interrupted by bouts of gunfire. Danny starts uttering “GO!” and “MOVE!” every other breath and they escape. This formula is repeated for the rest of the movie. It hampers getting to know and feel for the characters and sure as hell doesn’t amount to a lot of interesting action. There’s the main problem: we can’t feel for the characters because the movie doesn’t spend enough time with them, and yet we can’t get excited because the movie doesn’t spend enough time to build effective suspense. Blood Diamond finds its way into a balancing act it is hopelessly ill-prepared for.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) is used to fashioning mass-friendly entertainment with cultural issues bubbling to the surface. Perhaps, though, he should have taken a cue from Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War. That film had an easily identifiable message (guns can be bad) but found ways to engage an audience. It had a lot of political ire and troubling statistics to dish, but Niccol knew that an audience must be entertained first and foremost. He found inventive camera angles, stirring monologues, and fascinating true-life anecdotes about arms trading. The main character wasn’t likeable but you just wanted a longer peek into this world behind the curtain. Blood Diamond lacks the biting insights that made Lord of War powerful and enjoyable. Even Lord of War handled the subject of turning children into a blood-thirsty army better. Zwick seems adrift and too close to his message to care about sharpening a good movie.

The movie has a handful of odd moments. In our introduction to Danny he is negotiating a weapons deal. He speaks to the head of a militia in a highly accented speech and subtitles pop up on the screen. Naturally, you would assume the language currently being spoken is not English. Danny is actually just impersonating an African’s English speaking voice. If you listen to what they’re saying they speak English the entire time. And the line, “In America, it’s bling-bling, but over here it’s bling-bang?” No. A thousand times no.

DiCaprio is muscling his way into a riveting and meaty actor of prominence. His accent is near flawless, just like his Bah-stun accent was in The Departed. He gives more simmer to his role than deserved. Hounsou is a great actor but his most emotive scenes involve a lot of yelling that just seems like yelling. A lot of high-volume yelling doesn’t work when the character is so flimsy. Both of these actors are victims of playing characters with little else to them besides the title of Victim and Victimizer. Connelly and DiCaprio have no chemistry to them, not that the film’s neutered sensuality and agitated story help much. It’s as if Blood Diamond expects that by smashing the two characters together long enough their romance will be plausible. It isn’t. The romance is a distraction at best and eye-rolling at worst.

Babel and Blood Diamond are both pieces of misguided Oscar-bait. Innaritu and his writer for three films, Guillermo Arriaga, have said to have clashed since Babel‘s release and may no longer work again together in the near future. I welcome this trial separation because their film collaborations seem to be dulling. Babel has all the technical skills evident in 21 Grams and Amores Perros, but nothing substantial or contemplative. Conversely, Blood Diamond is a message movie posing as an action flick. It can’t succeed with poorly constructed action sequences and archetypal characters posing as openings for outrage and shameful finger-wagging. The movie is crushed to death by a message. Blood Diamond is a message movie that’s so weighted down it never gets very far. Both films are marginally interesting but nothing transcendent or demanding. Hollywood has its heart in the right place. They just need to make better movies.

Nate’s Grades:

Babel: B-

Blood Diamond: C

The Island (2005)

To many film critics, director Michael Bay is the devil. He’s the man behind such ADD-edited hits like Armageddon, both Bad Boys, and Pearl Harbor. Each film was more or less savaged by critics and each film was a hit. Bay has always said he makes popcorn movies for audiences and never listens to the critics. That would probably be a good thing since they don’t exactly have a lot of nice things to say about Bay and especially his editing techniques. But how would someone like Bay, who dreams about blowing stuff up with every night’s sleep, handle material a little more subtlety than, say, corpses filled with drugs being thrown at oncoming traffic (see: Bad Boys II or better yet, don’t)? The Island is Bay’s first film without uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and it’s also Bay’s first encounter with science fiction. Can he make The Island into another popcorn miracle or will his blockbuster tendencies get the better of him?

In the year 2020, the Earth has been contaminated by pollution. The survivors live in a series of isolated towers and are monitored, given strict diets and jobs, and even matching white jump suits. There is an upside to this life; every so often there is a lottery where the winning inhabitant gets a trip to The Island, the last uncontaminated spot on Earth. They’ll spend the rest of their days living it up in paradise, or so they think.

Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) has been at the facility for three years. He has questions for the good doctor Merrick (Sean Bean, your go-to guy for villains when you can’t afford Al Pacino), the man in charge of the place. Lincoln questions his purpose and wonders why he keeps having recurring nightmares with images he can’t place. He’s also been having a very close friendship with Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), though they?re not allowed intimate contact and the living quarters are separated by gender. One day Lincoln finds a butterfly on a different level of the facility and investigates the higher levels. In a few minutes time, Lincoln discovers the truth about the facility: it’s a station harvesting clones to keep rich people going when they need an organ or two. There is no Island but there is an operating room that you won’t return from. Lincoln escapes back into the facility’s population but springs into action when he learns Jordan has been selected to go to The Island. He fights the facility’s staff, grabs his girl, and the two are off to learn the truth of their world and to live.

McGregor is on autopilot with this one but still manages to have some fun, especially when he’s playing two different versions of himself (“What’s with all the biting?”). Johansson looks more beautiful than ever but does little more than stare vacantly. It doesn’t help that a majority of the dialogue after the half-way mark consists of one-word shouts like, “Go!” and “Move!” and of course, “Lincoln!” The best actor by far in The Island is Michael Clarke Duncan who plays a clone who wakes up on the operating table. His mad rush of screaming, tears, confusion, horror, and betrayal may be some of the finest two minutes of acting from the year. Duncan’s cries will hit you square in the gut.

The fish out of water scenario does provide some fun moments of humor, like Lincoln being confused by the phrase “taking a dump.” The Island also asks how people who have never known sexuality deal with their expressions of sexuality (plus it doesn’t even come close to viewer discomfort of something like The Blue Lagoon). The always welcomed Steve Buscemi provides the biggest laughs in the movie as the wise-cracking outsider who helps the runaway clones.

It’s comforting to know that in the future product placement will be as large as ever. I?m normally not too offended by product placement in ads, but The Island seems like it’s contorting to show company names. In one scene, Jordan gazes at an image of herself in a perfume ad, and it’s a real ad Scarlett Johansson did. This got me thinking, what if The Island‘s villains were really today’s actual flesh-and-blood movie stars that wanted fresh parts. The real McGregor and Johansson would become the bad guys. Unfortunately, it seems a little too meta to pull off for a Bay film.

The Island is an intriguing sci-fi movie that doesn’t know what to do once it gets to the surface. As soon and our clones go on their Logan’s run, the movie devolves into a series of bloated, mediocre chase scenes. If the first half is Bay at his potential best, the second half is Bay at his lazy, expected self. The chase scenes aren’t too lively and, except for a late subplot involving McGregor playing dual roles, The Island wilts as soon as it turns into an action movie. There doesn’t seem to be enough plot for this overlong 140 minute movie. Bay’s requisite chaotic grandeur and spectacle has a ho-hum feeling and dulls the viewer right when they should be racing with excitement. Bay’s done this all before and better, and that’s why the first half is so exciting a change for him. It’s thoughtful, tense, interesting, well plotted and visually fun, and then we regrettably hit the second half and it all goes downhill from there.

The movie limps to its over-extended climax and saps all the potential from the opening. The Island really is two disjointed movies slapped together. The first hour is a classic science fiction setup and we are given morsels of information like bread crumbs, which heighten the tension. The second half is an unimaginative, plodding thrill ride that never seems to take off. Sure, the first half may be derivative of a hundred other sci-fi films (most notably Parts: The Clonus Horror) but the second half is derivative of a thousand other action movies. I’ll take smart sci-fi over dumb action most days, even during the bombast of summer. It feels like The Island began as a scary sci-fi film and in order to make it to the big screen the studio had to piggyback a lifeless action movie on top of it. The Island‘s action sequences feel like Bay fell asleep at the wheel.

It may seem like I’m being over cruel about The Island, but the reason I lambaste the second half is because I was so thoroughly entertained by the first half. For many The Island will be enough to quench their summer thirst, but for me it only showed flashes of life in the first half. Once all the explosions, noise, and flying debris kicked in, The Island transforms into any other dumb action movie. Such promise, such vision, all quickly flushed down an embryonic feeding tube. Even if someone prefers the noisy second half they would still take issue with the first half, calling it slow and boring. Fans of Bad Boys II and Logan’s Run don’t exactly mix well. How can a movie possibly work this way?

Bay may be a master maestro of explosions and gunfire, but The Island flat lines when it transitions from thoughtful, eerie sci-fi parable to rote action flick. This feels like two very different movies slapped together, and most audiences are going to like one half stronger than the other so the film won’t work. The action sequences feel unimaginative and all of the film’s potential gets stranded by its about-face in tone. We’ve seen all of these things before, and that’s what’s most regrettable about where The Island leaves you after flashing an iota of glossy potential. Bay may not be the devil but he’s certainly losing his edge, and The Island would have been all the better for it.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Gladiator (2000)

Director Ridley Scott has given the world of cinema some of its most unforgettable visual experiences. But can Scott breath new life into a genre whose heyday was when a badly dubbed Steve Reeves oiled his chest and wrestled loincloth-clad extras in the 1950s?

The year is roughly 180 AD and Rome is just finishing up its long-standing assault on anything that moves in the European continent. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) merely wants to retire back to his loving family and get away from the doom and war that has plagued his life. This is made all the more difficult when the ailing Emperor bypasses his treacherous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and decides to crown Maximus as the Defender of Rome. Because of this Commodus rises to power through bloody circumstances and has Maximus assigned to execution and his family crucified. You’d think crucifixion would be so passé by now. Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery and bought by a dirt-run gladiator training school. As he advances up the chain and learns the tricks of the primal sport he seeks but vengeance for his fallen family.

Gladiator is an absorbing and sweeping spectacle of carnage and first-rate entertainment. The action is swift and ruthlessly visceral. The first movie in a long time to literally have me poised on the edge of my seat. The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp.

What Gladiator doesn’t sacrifice to the muscle of effects and action is storytelling. Are you listening George Lucas? Gladiator may unleash the beast when the rousing action is loose, but this is coupled with compelling drama and complex characters. Phoenix may at first seem like a snotty brat with an unhealthy eye for his sister (Connie Nielsen), but the further Gladiator continues the more you see in his eyes the troubled youth who just wants the love of his father that was never bestowed to him. Maximus is a devoted family man who regularly kisses clay statues of his family while away, and must ceremoniously dust himself with the earth before any battle.

The acting matches every sword blow and chariot race toe-for-toe. Russell Crowe marks a first-rate staple of heroism. Every calculating glare he exhibits shows the compassion and ferocity of this warrior. He becomes a rare breed – an action hero who can think and actually act. Oliver Reed, in what sadly was his last role, turns in a splendid and charismatic turn as the head of the gladiator school of Fine Arts and Carnage. Mysteriously everyone carries a British accent closer to them then a toga two sizes too small. Even Crowe who is nicknamed “The Spaniard” speaks like he walked out of Masterpiece Theater.

The effects and visuals are a sumptuous feast. The aerial shots of Rome and the Coliseum are simply breath taking. Gladiator rivals American Beauty for the most rose petals used in a movie, except in this one they don’t shoot out of Mena Suvari’s breasts.

Ridley Scott’s track record may be hit or miss but Gladiator is definitely one sorely not to be missed.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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