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Bullet Train (2022)/ The Princess (2022)

Bullet Train and The Princess are two recent releases that could serve as a double feature for all they have in common. Both movies prioritize fun above all else, both of them feature stylized violence and bloodshed, both of them have a perverse sense of humor, and both of them feature young actress Joey King (The Kissing Booth, Wish Upon), coincidentally playing the listed roles of Prince and The Princess. What more do you need for this combo? If you are a fan of Bullet Train, you’ll likely be a fan of The Princess, and vice versa, because both of them are exactly as advertised. They’re wild, whimsically violent, but succeed with nimble action construction, bizarre and engaging characters, and high energy that sparks fun escapist entertainment.
Bullet Train is set almost entirely on a speeding bullet train in Tokyo, and we follow a group of hired killers, mercenaries, and generally nasty people all sharing one very fast locomotive. “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt) is a reformed hitman who only takes snatch-and-grab gigs as he’s trying to better himself with therapy and meditation. He’s meant to grab a briefcase of money and get off the train. Naturally, things don’t go as smoothly as planned. Onboard the train are “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Hill) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have the briefcase in their possession along with the prodigal son (Logan Lerman) of a scary Yakuza boss known as “The White Death.” Also on board is Kimura (Andrew Koji) seeking to find the person responsible for pushing his child off a rooftop, Prince (Joey King) using her diminutive stature to trick unsuspecting men, the Wolf (Bad Bunny) seeking out the person responsible for the death of his bride, and several other masked killers looking to up the ante. Characters will clash, many will die, and “The White Death” will be appeased by the end, coming to collect a blood debt from all.

Bullet Train was, blissfully, everything I was needing it to be. It’s a universe familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino and especially Guy Ritchie, with colorful and threatening characters with large personalities and quirks colliding in unexpected and violent ways. I’ve seen so many Tarantino knock-offs, and Tarantino knock-off knock-offs, so I appreciate when someone is able to understand what it takes to succeed on this unique playing field. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street: 1978) knows how to sharpen the kind of off-the-cuff banter that makes these movies excel, with space given for the characters to make a sizable impression. There needs to be time to get to know them, their quirks and faults, and then send them all running at one another at cross-purposes, interacting in fun ways that lend to one character screwing something up for another. There’s about a dozen characters dropped upon us, and just about everyone gets a flashback or introduction set piece, sometimes more, sometimes extensions of previous flashbacks, sometimes extensions from alternate perspectives. Part of the fun is just seeing how the different characters relate to one another, so there is a period of time where the mask has to eventually drop, and the reveal needs to be worthwhile. It’s a lot, and Bullet Train gleefully trades in excess upon excess all in the name of chasing after a good time, and if you connect on its zany and breezy wavelength of reckless violence and dark humor, then you shall be happy for the ride.
The movie is constantly reshuffling and transforming, allowing it to hyperextend into whatever shape it necessitates before contorting back to its next phase. This malleability makes the movie far more responsive, sometimes overlapping, and it provides an extra level of energy. It’s reminiscent of Snatch, my favorite of the Ricthie cockney crime capers, where the story zigged and zagged through linear time, providing answers to different stacked questions. I won’t say the characters are as distinct as Snatch, but Olkewicz takes his time to introduce each with relish. Pitt may be the marketable star of the movie, at least as far as advertising is concerned, but it’s really much more of an ensemble, and one anchored by Lemon and Tangerine. Their droll, snappy banter really cements their long-term relationship almost like a screwball romance. They end up becoming, strangely, the heart of the movie, if one were to suggest a movie with an entire wedding party vomiting their guts to death had a beating heart. Their exact connection and genuine affection for one another, even when they’re driving one another mad, is one of the film’s many surprises as it zooms ahead. There are fun cameos, and some unexpected abrupt deaths, but Bullet Train works because of the entertainment of the kooky killer characters. I enjoyed that one character’s obsession, namely likening people to Thomas the Tank Engine avatars, has a personal connection but actually leads to some ironic turns. Not every set-up has the best payoff (Chekov’s toilet snake comes to shockingly little) or resolution (why wasn’t the snooping conductor thrown back in or given a revelation?) but with so many characters criss-crossing, so many goofy asides and cul-de-sacs, and so much bloody mayhem, there’s a steady stream of fun, satisfying payoffs and retribution until the mid-credits sequence.

To me, the water bottle symbolizes Bullet Train at its best and worst. After two hours of multiple characters and their out-of-order flashbacks shuffling for dominance, we get an inanimate object with its own flashback. It’s a goofy and superfluous addition, as the water bottle has served as a plot device but has served its ultimate plot purpose already, so seeing its entire history offers no new information that the audience didn’t already have. However, what it does is show the movie from the perspective of this bottle, and many sequences are reframed from the bottle’s rigid point of view. It made me think about how after they got their shot setups, someone on staff would then call out, “Okay, we need the water bottle POV shot now,” and they would film that. I appreciate the effort for something this fleeting and silly. They didn’t need to put in this flashback or this level of attention to an object that ultimately just gets thrown at a guy’s head. However, it’s the misdirect, the ridiculous inclusion on top of the others, and the ramping of energy that made me smile, even as little else came out of it. I appreciated the showmanship. For me, this is emblematic of the movie as a whole, an overload of style and energy just for the fleeting hell of it.
Under the direction of David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2), the action is as fun and energetic as the colorful characters. Leitch has become one of the best modern directors of action movies. The hand-to-hand combat is refreshing and makes use of close quarter combat demands. I enjoyed that the two participants in a fight are trying to sneak in quick moves without getting caught by an older lady who demands quiet in the quiet train car. I enjoyed the zany flashback where Tangerine and Lemon recount to the camera and dispute the number of men killed on a previous job. With a character cursed with bad luck, it provides opportunities to have fun with accidents and bad timing, which Leitch works into different action set-ups and setbacks. Even when the movie literally goes off the rails and becomes a big cartoon, Leitch finds ways to marry the big tone in such a manner that the ridiculous doesn’t prove off-putting. When characters are swinging samurai swords in slow-mo, while a Japanese version of “Holding Out For a Hero” is pumping on the soundtrack, I just sat back and soaked up the deliciously disposable fun times.

The plot of The Princess is as straightforward as Bullet Train is knotty. The Princess (Joey King) of a fantasy kingdom is chained at the very top of a castle tower. Her captor, Julius (Dominic Cooper), has imprisoned her family and plans to wed the princess and become king. The princess, however, has other plans. Thanks to her martial arts and weapon training, she breaks free and becomes a one-woman wrecking crew as she descends the tower floors to freedom.
I was genuinely surprised at how well developed and exciting the action sequences were. The Princess shares more in common with The Raid than anything by the Grimms. The script by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton follows the model of a video game; every new floor is a literal new level with a new boss or new objective to be achieved to advance to the next level. The simplicity of the premise is refreshing, and the movie doesn’t waste any time ramping things up. Blood is shed within the first few minutes and it doesn’t let up. What I really appreciated was how well constructed each new action set piece was. There’s variety and specification that challenges our heroine, who is powerful but still not all-powerful and bereft of vulnerability. Each new encounter forces our protagonist to think through a different application of skills. There’s a situation that involves overpowering a larger and stronger man, a situation trying to wound a fully armored man, a situation battling two men, then even more, a situation with men charging into the battle and having to escape to a safer environment, a situation where she has to swing along the outside of the castle to enter a different room, a situation involving stealth, and many others, but each requires something different and thus each proves to flesh out our main character and her capabilities and problem-solving acumen. It’s always a pleasure to watch smart people overcome challenges in fun and smart ways, and The Princess has this formula down. I was worried the movie might get repetitive with its video game level design, but each new challenge is an opportunity to dazzle and enlighten us about our John Wick-esque fighter.

That’s probably the best comparison, the John Wick franchise, because it’s a series of movies that is defined by the thrills of its fight choreography and action set pieces. That’s it. The world has some interesting flourishes but the draw is the fight scenes and the pleasure of watching professionals operating at such a high level and with demonstrations that allow us to better immerse and appreciate the artistry of the fighting. And it’s good here. The impressive choreography has a really nice A-to-B propulsion, with each move connecting to the next to tell its own story of countermoves and adjustment. I really appreciated how the specific geography of each location is incorporated into the action, whether that be as a hindrance or an assistance to the fighting. It makes the sequences more meaningful and better developed. It’s also a movie that understands that if you give your villains specialized weapons, they better use them in fun or nasty ways. If all you’re looking for is imaginative, bloody, and brutal fighting, The Princess delivers it all. Credit also to King for throwing herself completely into the role. She effortlessly executes complicated fight moves and swordplay during long takes. You can tell she’s having a blast being a badass. Think of The Princess like a feminist version of The Raid or an upside-down version of Dredd (“Instead of fighting up, this character fights her way… down.”).

The Princess could have made more social statements but its very conceit is a feminist reworking of outdated fantasy tropes, so I don’t mind that it’s a streamlined action movie with a blunt yet obvious point. The familiar story tells us that these damsels in distress are the maidens in need of rescuing (“Sorry, our princess is in another castle” and the like), so just having the princess be her own champion is a simple yet satisfying subversion. This is an action movie and less one on politics; however, it’s a movie that cannot help from being political because it’s upsetting the expected social norms, that women are docile and weaker and at the whims of men. The Princess isn’t breaking new ground here. There have been plenty of movies that re-contextualized the feminine roles of old legends and folk tales and made them more capable and strong and fierce. That doesn’t mean there’s any less enjoyment watching our princess take down one leering man after another. It’s the appeal of the underdog who makes men pay dearly for underestimating her. These repeated interactions and bloody comeuppance speak about as well as necessary for this kind of movie. I doubt things would have radically improved if one of the characters broke into a treatise on the misapplication of gender roles. It’s a woman beating the stuffing out of creepy and lascivious misogynists. For this movie, that’s more than enough to keep me watching.

Where The Princess starts to lose itself is once it shifts into its final act and abandons its formula. I can understand wanting to shake things up so the viewer doesn’t get lulled into complacency, but because the sequences were, beforehand, varied, my interest was not lagging. During this final stretch, the titular princess leads a squad to take down the baddies, and the movie becomes any other number of similar fantasy action movies. The enjoyable fight choreography is still present, but it feels like a rush to clear everything in comparison to the methodical floor-by-floor clearing from before. I wish the filmmakers had merely held steady with their plot rather than throwing things out and relying upon a grand team-up revolutionary raid. There’s also a sudden shift that throws out the rationale for keeping the princess alive. The bad guy just shrugs and says, “Forget it, I’ll find a replacement,” and it feels too arbitrary of an escalation. If he could do this, why was he so insistent for the first hour that she not be killed? It’s not a bad ending or one that ruins the movie but it’s definitely a downshift from the action excitement highs from before.

The Princess and Bullet Train are both frantic, over-the-top, cartoonishly violent, while still understanding how to effectively sell their escapist mayhem. We need to be dazzled by the action sequences and have them be meaningful (check), we need weird and interesting characters that we want to root for or watch bumble onscreen (check), we need payoffs that feel rewarding (check), we need an onslaught of style and attitude (check), and we need, above all else, fun and surprises (check). Neither of these movies is going to qualify as one of the best movies of the year. That’s just not the kind of experience either is shooting for. However, they may be some of the best fun you have with movies for 2022, and in a world in short order of fun, that’s plenty.

Nate’s Grade’s:

Bullet Train: B

The Princess: B

Warcraft (2016)

Warcraft_Teaser_PosterIt’s been a long five years since we last saw a movie directed under the name Duncan Jones. He’s not just the son of David Bowie (R.I.P.) but also a talented and nimble director of science fiction thrillers with a rewarding intelligence and visual acumen. Moon and Source Code are two strong entries for anybody’s resume. After flirting with Hollywood franchises for a while, Jones latched onto a personal project, spearheading a Warcraft film adaptation based upon the popular online multi-player role-playing game that boasts over 12 million subscribers. Jones has gone on record saying he is a Warcraft player himself. He co-wrote the script and embarked on a long development process working with heavy use of special effects and actors in motion capture to bring to life the otherworldly fantasy races. It’s been a tumultuous road for the expensive final product, and Warcraft, as a movie, is proof that some concepts are best left to your home computer.

The orc race is in need of a new home because their old world is dying. Their leader, a wizard named Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), uses magic to open a portal to the peaceful world of Azeroth. The orcs invade and plunder although one orc, Daruton (Tony Kebbel), is wary of the motives of his leaders. He’s looking for stability rather than constant conquering. He finds an unlikely ally with Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a human warrior serving King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) and his sister, Lady Taria (Ruth Negga). The humans seek help from their own wizard, the Guardian Medvih (Ben Foster). Someone must be collaborating with the orcs to allow the inter-dimensional portal to open. Medvih’s apprentice, the mage Khadgar (Ben Schentzer), teams up with Lothar to investigate and find a way to thwart the oncoming orc invaders.

warcraft-2016-image-gallery-ogrim-robert-kazinskyUnless you are a fan well versed in the lore and characters of the popular online game, Warcraft will leave you sputtering to construct cohesion from what seems like a lot of incidents without explanation, connective tissue, and a compelling reason to engage with this fantasy trope mess. It felt like every third page of the screenplay was ripped out of the shooting script; things merely just happen without proper setup and development. All of a sudden this character will be evil, or that character will have some prized piece of knowledge, or these two characters will be a romantic item. Things just happen in this movie and they are far too rarely given the context necessary to matter. This is less a story than a collection of ideas scattered onscreen. Take for instance our protagonists, or what you would assume are the protagonists, a pair of capable warriors trying to prevent mass causalities on both sides of the human/orc war. Except the orc character never really translates as an effective parallel to his human counterpart. You would naturally think they would be equal in significance as they try and steer their two warring sides to making less destructive decisions. I can’t tell you anything about the worlds we’re spirited to and from. We got elves and dwarves and mages and wizards and portals and dark magic and good magic and guns that feel entirely out of place in this universe and all sorts of names we’re expected to keep up with. There is little that leaves an impact, and after a while the movie ends up becoming the metaphorical equivalent of cartoon characters that run in place while the interchangeable backgrounds alternate behind them. Besides the fact that sometimes a guy wears a crown to help you realize he’s king, or a guy flashes a ball of energy in his hand, you’re left on your own to interpret the characters and why they are meaningful. The plot is simple, orcs versus humans and bad warmongering leaders at fault, but it’s the deluge of underdeveloped characters, subplots, and world building that make what was once simple hard to understand. I couldn’t tell you why anything was happening. There is no way the casual moviegoer will be able to keep up with the speed that Warcraft hurls information at them without careful setup and meaning. You need an instruction guide to make this stuff accessible.

Fantasy is a naturally transporting genre of storytelling but unless you actually develop and explain the worlds, the inhabitants, and perhaps some of the cultures, you’re destined to feel like a stranger bumbling through a most foreign and unfriendly place. Warcraft does a terrible job of making its worlds feel lived in, never mind accessible. Every new location should tell us more about the world and its characters, their interactions and conflicts, differences and similarities. This is just bad storytelling, people. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where any of these locations are because they don’t impact the plot. The only story is about the conflict between the orcs and humans, but this could happen anywhere. There are some “important” characters on both sides of this battle but good luck trying to engage with any of these characters. The human characters are bland. I didn’t care about anyone and gave up trying. Cooper and Negga are both considerably more entertaining and effectively utilized on AMC’s Preacher. It takes an hour just for Warcraft to finally establish the relationships between its various stock characters.

It’s the orc characters that showcase the most humanity, and credit goes more to the special effects artists and motion capture actors than the screenwriting. I appreciate how the movie devotes time to both sides of the conflict and finds figures of honor, and its best representation is Durotan. Kebbell seems like an actor who really feels a sense of freedom with mo-cap performances (he was excellent as the simian villain Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). I initially thought the creature design of the orc, what with their hulking underbites, was going to be hard to render emotive performances, but there were glimmers where you could witness the shadings of the actors beneath the underbites. It’s an impressive technical feat considering the obstacles that all parties had to overcome. Sadly, this only further exposes just how shoddy the storytelling is considering the technology was capable. Darotan is a loving husband and father who is leery of his leaders intentions, but this too is just a means to serve the ultimate ends of the plot. There isn’t a thoughtful moral anti-war argument to be had here. As a whole, the orcs are a rather personality-free race of creatures. Sure they talk a big game and have some curious decorative flourishes (tusk piercings!), but to this Warcraft layman, they come across like any other barbarian group. Early on I was mentally thinking of the Klingons from Star Trek and then I concluded that this was an inappropriate comparison because Klingons have memorable personality and culture.

garona-PP-header-3The actor who gets my greatest sympathy is Paula Patton (Baggage Claim) as the half-orc/half-human outcast, Garona. First of all, given the immense physicality of the orcs, I imagine any form of fornication with a human would prove highly fatal. It would be like an elephant mating with a labradoodle. Trapped between the two groups, Patton is painted green and given a lesser underbite that is reminiscent of snake fangs. When realized on an actual person, as opposed to a creation from the realm of computer effects, it’s not terribly convincing. Patton tries her best to speak all her gobbledygook lines of dialogue but the reverse vampire fangs make it awfully difficult for her to properly enunciate. She looks too ridiculous to be an effective character, and the fact that she is pushed into a romance with a human without any sense of setup beyond the universal law that pretty people should be together with pretty people is deflating. Why does the only female character of significance have to be shoved into a romantic subplot? Your poor poor jaw muscles, Paula Patton. At least you didn’t have to wear a metal bikini. Yet.

With all of this stated, Warcraft is not a horrible movie, and credit for that should go to Jones as a director. In the same token, Jones is also the co-writer so I guess he also deserves blame for the storytelling shortcomings. Jones very smartly limits his camera movements. Character will move within the frame but usually the camera point is fixed, which allows the focus to be more attuned to what exists within the frame. This is especially helpful during battles and with the multitude of CGI elements. This stylistic choice allows the film to be more visually immersive. The fighting sequences do get a tad repetitive as one guy with a sword or club runs at another guy. I saw Warcraft in 3D at my screening and I might actually recommend people see it this way, which is something I hardly ever do. It’s not that the 3D elements will compare to the experiences of modern standard-bearers like Life of Pi or Gravity, but it’s a pleasurable experience and the presentation of the visuals is crisp. I was worried about the usual effect of the glasses darkening the onscreen image and this was not the case at all. From a purely visual standpoint, Warcraft is worth watching at least once. The special effects vary between photo-realism and extended video game cut scene, but overall the visuals are colorful and fun and easy to discern. When the action heats up, you’ll be able to cleanly follow what is happening to whom. If only this same clean precision had been applied to the half-baked screenplay.

I will admit I have never played a single minute of the Warcraft game. I am not familiar with any of the worlds, characters, or races beyond what I have watched from other more popular fantasy films and series. I am not coming at this movie from the perspective of a fan who has been eagerly awaiting the holy grail of video game movies. If you’re willing to look past its flaws, mainly its bereft characterization and haphazard plotting, then I’m sure there is a forgivable and sporadically entertaining movie here. As a man who has reviewed over 20 films directed by notorious video game adapter Uwe Boll, this is no unbridled suckfest. However, it’s still too limited for its own good. The visuals can be immersive but the story is certainly not, and there are numerous points where the movie just actively forgets that an audience requires servicing. You need to introduce us to the characters, allow us to get a sense of who they are, their internal and external battles, their relationships with one another, their significance to the plot, and relevant history and culture as it relates to the larger story. In a rush to visit all the different game settings, the movie’s screenplay zips along when it should be building its narrative. At times it feels like a travelogue with very exotic locals. Warcraft is a repository of incidents and events, almost as if it were awaiting a user to plug in and control the storyline and provide the meaning. It’s no unmitigated disaster but I don’t believe this was worth the five-year price for Jones.

Nate’s Grade: C

An Education (2009)

In 1961 Britain, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old schoolgirl plowing away at her education. She?s on track to enroll at Oxford “reading English” and her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour) have overscheduled the girl with hobbies and clubs to help build her academic portfolio. Then one rainy night she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a thirty something man who offers to give her and her cello a ride. This enchanting man keeps coming back around to see Jenny, sweeping her off her feet. He invites her to go to concert recitals with his older friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), trips to the country, and even a fabulous getaway to Paris. “You have no idea how boring my life was before you,” she confesses to David. But David is coy about how he can pay for such extravagances. Jenny’s grades begin to suffer and it looks like she may miss out on being able to enroll at Oxford. She has to make a decision whether to continue seeing David or going back to her primary school education.

An Education is a handsomely recreated period drama that manages to be very funny, very engaging, and very well acted. It’s also rather insightful and does an exquisite job of conveying that strange wonderful heartsick of love, maybe better than any movie since My Summer of Love. You can practically just drink in all of Jenny’s excitement. Jenny isn’t a silly girl prone to naivety. She’s a smart and clever girl, and not just because other characters say so or we see her stellar test grades destined for prime placement on the fridge. You witness her intelligence in how she interacts through different social circles. Since the movie is entirely Jenny?s story, we need to be convinced that she’s smart in order to believe her willingness to be duped. She has reservations about David’s habits but doesn’t want to risk going back to a dull life of books and family dinners. She has to be a smart, vibrant girl anxious to keep a good thing going, willing to ignore certain warning signs that otherwise might cause her pause. Even Jenny’s parents get caught up in the seduction, swooning over David and his upper class connections and comforts.

The teen-girl-with-older-male aspect might make us squirm, but in the realm of 1961 Britain, it’s acceptable. Jenny and David don?t need to hide their affair in dank hotel rooms and avoid any suspicious eyes. We don’t get any agonizing inner turmoil over dating a teenage girl, mostly because it’s from Jenny’s perspective and that everybody else seems okay with it all. This acceptance means that the drama for An Education can focus on something less seamy. That doesn’t mean that everybody approves. While Jenny’s friends think she hit the jackpot, and hang from her every word about her amazing sophisticated boyfriend, her literature teacher (Olivia Williams) sees through David?s whirlwind of charms. This isn’t the tale of some girl being drawn into the dark side, turning into an unsavory, rebellious teenager flouting the law and good manners. Jenny is not that kind of gal.

Mulligan is fantastic and delivers such a sumptuous performance that you feel like a human being is coming alive before your eyes. She lights up with the dawning realization that a charming and worldly man is courting her, and you feel every moments of her swirling delight and awe. Mulligan even goes so far as to get even the small details right, like the way Jenny opens her eyes to peak during a kiss to make sure it’s all not just some passing dream, or the way she has to look away at times and break eye-contact because she’s just so happy, with those twinkling eyes and a mouth curling like a cherry stem. She’s bashfully coquettish in her physical attraction to David, though in my praise it also sounds like I, too, have fallen for the girl. Much ink has been spilled declaring Mulligan as a rising Audrey Hepburn figure, mostly because she sports that famous short bob of a haircut that many girls had in 1961. To me, Mulligan gives a stronger impression as being the luminescent little sister to Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Match Point). Mulligan is a fresh young actress that delivers a performance of stirring vulnerability. It’s a breakout performance that will likely mean that Hollywood will come calling when they need the worrisome girlfriend role for the next factory-produced mass-market entertainment (she’s finished filming the Wall Street sequel, so perhaps we’re already there).

Adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy) from a memoir by Lynn Barber, An Education follows the coming-of-age track well with enough swipes at class-consciousness. But man, I was really surprised how funny this movie is. An Education is routinely crackling with a fine comic wit, and Jenny and her father have the best repartee. Molina is an unsung actor and he dutifully carries out the role of “uptight neurotic father” with more than a stiff upper lip; the man puts his all in the role. While he can come across as hysterical at times, Molina is paternal with a capital P. It’s refreshing just to listen to smart people banter at an intelligent level.

The movie’s theme ponders the significance of education. There’s the broader view of education, learning throughout one’s life from new and enriching experiences. She gets to learn a bit more of the way of the world, and Jenny feels that she can learn more and have fun with David than sitting through lectures and slogging through homework. She values what David has to teach her above what she can find in a textbook. Jenny’s father stresses the virtues of learning and thinking but once Jenny has a chance to marry an upper class, cultured male then education no longer matters. She is now set for life through David. All that learning to become a dutiful housewife in a lovely, gilded cage. Is that the real desired end to personal growth: to snag a husband? The school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson in practically a cameo) doesn’t serve as a great ambassador to higher learning: she stresses the lonely hardships, internal dedication, and she herself is openly anti-Semitic, proving that an intelligent mind is not the same as being open-minded. To her, Jenny is jeopardizing her lone chance at a respectable life.

Jenny rejects the traditional route of education and chooses to pursue a life with David, that is, until the third act complications beckon. Jenny finds out about David’s secret rather too easily, I’m afraid (secret letters should never be hidden the glove compartment). While the end revelations are somewhat expected, what is unexpected is that every character pretty much escapes consequences by the end of the film. No one is really held accountable for his or her decisions. Pretty much everyone is exactly where he or she left off just with a tad more street smarts. It’s the equivalent of learning not to trust every person after getting ripped off.

Despite all the hesitation, and the age difference, An Education is an actual romantic movie. It’s a coming-of-age charmer with all the preen and gloss of an awards caliber film. You feel the delight in the sheer possibility of life for Jenny. The story unfolds at a deliberate pace and allows the audience to feel every point of anxiety and bubbling excitement for Jenny. Mulligan gives a star-making performance and practically glows with happiness during the movie’s key moments, making us love her even more. The plot may be conventional but the movie manages to be charming without much in the way of surprises. Still, An Education is a breezy, elegant, and clever movie that flies by, even if its biggest point of learning is that age-old chestnut that something too good to be true must be.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Duchess (2008)

I think I understand the real appeal of costume dramas. No matter what else happens, the costume drama must seem smarter. You have actors, primarily British, waltzing in elaborate costuming in realistic historical settings, each offering demure statements and looking for love and acceptance in a time of chaste expression. You could place Saw 18 in that setting and it would automatically seem smarter. I think the ye olde setting for costume dramas automatically gives these films more plot leeway, but not every film actually proves that it should have earned that leeway. Saul Dibb’s handsomely mounted period drama The Duchess offers little beyond the superficial enjoyment of well-crafted costumes.

In 1770s England, young Georgina (Keira Knightley) has been betrothed to the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). The newly minted 17-year-old Duchess of Devonshire is whisked away to live in a giant manor. The Duke is rather cold and seems uneasy with human interaction; he shows the most affection for his dogs. He expects Georgina to primarily bear him a son. Several daughters later, the Duke is engaged in affairs and siring illegitimate children. Georgina has become a star of the social sphere, and it is here that she befriends Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), a woman who is trying to regain her children from her ex-husband. Things get even more complicated when the Duke takes a liking of Bess, and the two become an unofficial union. Georgina has had her only friend taken away and turned into a co-wife. The only solace for the Duchess is in her flirtatious relationship with a politician, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Georgina feels like a prisoner in her own home and yet she cannot desert her children. What’s an oppressed woman to do in 18th century England? That answer should be sadly obvious.

The Duchess breaks no new ground and, in fact, treads water for the majority of its second half. Georgina was an independent spirit in a time that frowned upon breaking from conformity and tradition. As a woman, she was the victim of a double standard that allowed her husband to sleep with whomever he desired but she could not find physical comfort outside her loveless marriage. Marriage was widely viewed as a means to an end for male progeny, not the culmination of romantic love. Women were pressured into delivering male heirs, despite the fact that men are the ones who determine gender. Typically marriages were family arrangements for class and land ownership, so true passion was procured through marital affairs. I get it because I’ve read Jane Austen novels and seen dozens of period movies that have made the same stilted points. The Duchess presents Georgina as a feminist before her time and then a patriarchal society crushes her spirit. During the second half, when aristocratic life keeps producing heavy obstacles for Georgina, the movie just piles it on. I was left questioning what the point of all this corseted drama actually was.

After a while with my downtime I determined whom this movie is really for – hat enthusiasts. This is a Big Hat movie that puts other hat movies to shame. There are gigantic floppy hats, hats that look like fruit displays, hats that look like eighteen-layer cakes, hats that look like they have their own hat, hats with feathers zigging and zagging in every direction, and hats that look like they are consuming their host’s heads. If you work in the haberdashery industry or have an above average interest in hats and hat-related products, then run, don’t walk to The Duchess. You will be enraptured by the orgy of towering hats that jostle for screen time. Rarely are women seen without hats, so you truly will get your hat money’s worth over the course of the film’s two hours. If there were a specific Oscar category for Hat and Hat-like Accoutrement then The Duchess would dominate. I expect it will get nominated for Costumes, and really that seems like half the point in making these powdered wig period dramas.

I think the other point of The Duchess is to channel the modern story of Princess Diana, who is actually a distant relative of Georgina. The two seem to lead somewhat similar lives since they both married young, both had their husbands prefer the mistresses, both were fashion trend setters, both were beloved by the public, and after death both had their husbands remarry the mistresses. The tagline for the film is, “There were three people in her marriage,” a paraphrased quote that Princess Di said in an interview. The Di parallels seem to be all that the filmmakers intended to do with Georgina as a character; she is the least interesting person in her marriage. The Duke and Bess are far more complex and intriguing figures. I’m sure the Georgina biography that serves as the movie’s source is rich in Georgina characterization and personal detail, but all the movie cares about is establishing her as a marital martyr. There is more to this character but she just endures disappointment and punishment; I cannot fully engage with a character when their only personal attribute is suffering. The movie fails to present any notable reason why this woman of history deserves having a feature film.

Knightley seems to spend half her film life in corsets. I’m still undecided upon whether she possesses innate acting ability; to me she too often comes across as a pin-up with great cheekbones. That said her eyebrows do a great bit of acting in The Duchess. She has the habit of cocking one ever so slightly and imbuing a scene with a hint of sexual allure or mystique. They’re pretty thick eyebrows too. Knightley does acquit herself well with the material and I doubt this will be the last time I see her in a tremendous silk gown and a humongous hairdo. The most interesting actor is Fiennes because his character is so reserved and awkward in his own skin, so much must be said through the use of gestures, body language, and the perfect execution of line delivery. His character seems just as ill in his setting as Georgina. Atwell is given the most complex character to play. To say that Bess has conflicted loyalties is an understatement. She betrays Georgina but romancing the Duke can ensure that she sees her children once again. Bess should have been the centerpiece of the movie because, as presented, she is far more interesting with more dramatic conflicts and turmoil other than being wronged.

The Duchess is no more and no less than every other costumer period piece you’ve seen before. It starts well but then falls into boring and repetitious plotting (Georgina wants something, she’s denied, she wants something, she’s denied; rather, rinse, repeat, end). The Duchess will delight those in search of yet another unrequited period romance, but I feel that moviegoers should expect more from their entertainment that mechanically fulfilling the period-y checklist. The technical merits like the production art and the costumes, especially the hats, are first rate. There’s little feeling beneath all the fabulous fussing about. It’s too bad the actual drama couldn’t at least be as interesting as the hats.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Mamma Mia! (2008)

Mamma mia here we go again. This movie is going to be a middle-aged woman’s dream come true. It boasts a cast whose median age is in the mid 50s, one former yet still dashing James Bond, lots of good vibration getaway vibes, songs by a pop group whose heyday was over 30 years ago, and a heaping helping of girl power. In short, Mamma Mia will entertain the same mixture that made Sex and the City a monster hit, notably middle-aged women, teen girls, and gay males. I’ve seen the stage show and enjoyed it, as have millions of others around the world, but the movie fails to capitalize on reaching a broader audience. Mamma Mia is content to serve the faithful and delivers a less than satisfactory product. The world of cinema is not the best place for this material.

Raised all her life on a Greek island in a Mediterranean paradise, Sophie (Big Love‘s Amanda Seyfried) is getting married. Her disapproving mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), runs a hotel and has raised her daughter by herself. Then one day Sophie goes through her mother’s diary and discovers she has three possible fathers, Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), or Sam (Pierce Brosnan). She invites all three to the island to vet her real father. In agitated response, Sophie invites her old gal pals Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) to help her during this paternity crisis. Over time old loves will be rekindled, new love will bloom, and there will be a lot of singing.

Let Mamma Mia stand as a future testament as to why you do not generally let someone helm a film when they have no film experience whatsoever. The creative talent behind the hit Broadway musical refused to grant anyone in Hollywood the rights to their worldwide sensation. So the stage director, Phyllinda Lloyd, is now also the film’s director, and oh my goodness was not the right choice. Her film inexperience shows with every second. The movie just doesn’t look right from beginning to end. There’s a noticeable “off” sensation due to Lloyd poorly shooting her scenes, editing her scenes, and directing her actors. I kept wanting, through sheer force of will, to nudge the camera angles, to change the composition a tad to make them more visually appealing, because Lloyd shoots the movie in bland static angles with minimal coverage. Mamma Mia looks so amateurish and fussily so, like Lloyd is purposefully thumbing her nose at the art of cinema. Lloyd also doesn’t bother to place any choreography in her scenes, and her actors just sort of spin and sway to the music like they were dancing in front of a bedroom mirror. It’s remarkable that a movie with so much riding on it looks so shoddy.

Presented in the reality of a stage, Mamma Mia is a shallow but fairly fun time. The movie version transports the musical into an actual Greek locale, which, to knock Lloyd yet again, she makes no real use out of (she mostly shoots her actors against rock faces and under harsh, glaring sunlight). What works on stage, when presented under the pretenses of the real world, comes across as incredibly cheesy and goofy beyond all relief (get a load of the high-stepping snorkerlers). The song and dance numbers, the character interactions, the sitcom generic plot (ripped off from 1968’s Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell), they all start to transform into camp and beg for mockery. All of a sudden the entire island turns into a Greek chorus and provides backup during the impromptu singing. It’s strange and comes so late that it never feels properly established. The characterization is pretty slim, and once the movie establishes its characters it pushes the petal to the floor. The plot whizzes by in a whirlwind of one Abba song after another, with minimal breaks in between just to change setting and barely elbow the characters forward. I don’t think the actors had any chance to breathe in between the song numbers because I know I could barely exhale before another song assaulted my senses with forced giddiness.

But here’s the odd thing. The film is so silly and played to constant high-energy capacity that after a while Mamma Mia begins to wear you down. You may begin to smile, you may begin to clap, but you’ll be guaranteed to start humming the incredibly infectious tunes. Mamma Mia is essentially an Abba jukebox with a third-rate story strung along for the ride. As a story, it leaves much to be desired, but as a musical experience it makes you realize how glorious those Abba songs are. They’re like perfect pop bundles that somehow make you feel better even if the lyrics are more bittersweet than you realize at the time. The 18 Abba songs showcased, along with a few others during a weird curtain call sing-a-long, will certainly lift your spirits just as long as you concentrate more on the music than on the often-forced context.

The actors are better than the material, clearly. Streep is her generation’s finest actress but she tries too hard to convince you of the great girl-power fun she’s having. The singing, on the other hand, is all over the map. Streep and Seyfried have the strongest voices of the bunch, which is good considering they also have the most musical numbers to sing and twirl to. Neither has a particularly sensational voice but then again they certainly distance themselves from their pitiful peers. Most of the other actors just have droning vocals but Brosnan, oh boy, I have to congratulate the man for having the courage he does. You feel embarrassed for the guy; I mean this is James Bond here. I found myself turning away whenever he opened his mouth, not wanting to look the man in the eye. Every time he started singing my theater crowd of Mamma Mia faithful began snickering and giggling. I almost feel so bad that I should send the guy a card saying, “Sorry about the singing, but hey, you’ll always have the paycheck.”

The real audience for a Mamma Mia movie is the fans of the Mamma Mia theatrical show, and the movie is tailored to their interests. The big screen version isn’t interested in converting new fans, hence the amateurish direction and disregard for reaching out for broader appeal. Mamma Mia the movie is pretty much a less zippy and ten times goofier version of the stage show except with bad singing. If that sounds like a fun evening out, then by all means enjoy. This is a mess of a movie and not a terribly good movie at that, and yet the power of those Abba songs will inject enough goodwill that you will forgive some of the movie’s transgressions. Some. Pierce Brosnan’s singing is something that cannot be forgiven nor forgotten.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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