I knew early on when I was watching the advertisement for writer/director James Grey’s Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) that this was going to be more a quiet, slower, contemplative movie than the ads were making it seem. Hey, I like quiet, slower, contemplative movies, but I like the ones where they give me an entry point, a reason to care, and a story with characters that make me feel compelled to watch what happens next. Ad Astra does not quite rise to that level.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut in a near future with a special mission: to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones). The father left Earth decades ago to search for intelligent life and develop an alternative energy source. His discovery has unleashed a series of destabilizing power surges across Earth. Roy is ordered to travel to the outer reaches of Neptune and discover what has happened to his father and his crew who have stopped communicating. If necessary, he is to use all options to correct the problem, including taking his dear deadbeat dad’s life.
Ad Astra is probably the most realistic portrayal of what space travel cold be like in the near future. It’s a grounded approach that feels very detail-oriented without necessarily losing the audience in the schematic output of all those details. It reminded me a bit of a companion piece with last year’s First Man, where the audience saw all the ingenuity, as well as makeshift dangers, of early space flight. The interiors of these space ships and bases are far closer to resembling the plain days of early NASA than anything fancy and gleaming when it comes to futuristic science fiction. When Roy is walking around a giant tower reaching high into the atmosphere, it feels like you are there with him experiencing the dizzying heights, locked into his human-sized perspective of something so massive and intimidating, and it’s merely man-made. Wait until we get to the heavenly bodies. It’s an aesthetic choice that lends the film an authenticity as well as the amazing solar visuals from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar). The scale of space is really felt as Roy keeps venturing further and further away from home, into the cold darkness of the unknown, towards that missing father and sense of resolution. The visuals and stately special effects are beautiful and given an additional level of ethereal glory from a score by Max Richter (The Leftovers). It’s a lovely movie to sit back and watch, and thanks to its episodic structure, it delivers something new every twenty minutes or less. The movie can feel more than a little tedious as it stretches out into the cosmos. There’s something to be said about a film that has the patience to take in the splendor of the universe, and there’s also something to be said about having a more significant story to pair with those awe-inspiring cosmic panoramas.
My issue with Ad Astra is that everything feels to be locked in at a very general level of substance. The story of a son voyaging to meet his absentee father and come to terms with that relationship is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of a main character living in his famous yet distant father’s shadows is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of exploring life in the universe is fine, except the movies doesn’t do so much with that either. It feels like you’re watching what must have amounted to twenty pages of script spread out over the course of two hours. If it’s going to be a character study, then I need more attention spent deepening Pitt’s character beyond the pretty rote daddy issues on display. If it’s going to be a contemplative exploration of man’s place in the universe, then I need more sides and angles of perspective throughout the movie. There are no real supporting characters in this movie outside of guest appearances (Hey, it’s Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland). The father figure is kept more as looming idea or force of nature than human being. Roy’s wife (a barely there Liv Tyler) is more a recorded visual of regret to remind the audience of Roy’s loss and sacrifice, relating to his pursuit of his father. The entire film feels far too sketched in, archetypal, and generalized to noodle around with weighty ideas and concepts that it doesn’t seem fully committed to exploring in meaningful ways.
The problem with a narrative that’s episodic is that not every episode is as interesting. Each Pitt stop (oh, you bet I’m intending that pun) allows a slightly different tale to emerge, but then it’s over and done and we’re moving onward. With Apocalypse Now, those episodes came together to tell a larger mosaic about the madness of the Vietnam War and the physical and psychological toll it was taking. I was not getting that same kind of cohesion with Ad Astra. The most exciting episode involves a lunar chase and shootout. It’s cleverly executed and makes strong use of the limitations of space, in particular the lack of sound. One second your co-pilot is at the wheel and the next he has a soundless bullet hole through the head. It was an intriguing segment because of the unique realities of staging its genre car chase that open up something familiar into something new. Unfortunately, many of these episodic segments just incrementally push the story along, pairing Roy with a new group of people that we’ll shed in fifteen minutes or so. Don’t get attached to anybody because the only characters that really matter in the universe of Ad Astra are Roy and his father. Every other character is merely a representation of some aspect of their relationship. It makes the smaller episodes feel a bit mundane unless they have something fresh, like that lunar chase. Otherwise, it’s more people we’ll be soon getting rid of doing inconsequential tasks.
Removing the dominant father/son relationship, Ad Astra is a movie about the search for meaning in life. Roy’s father has exclusively put that meaning upon the discovery of intelligent life in the universe. If human beings are all there is, he questions what’s the point of going on? First off, Mr. McBride is only exploring one portion of space and to paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton in Armageddon, there’s a “big-ass” amount of space. If the man fails to detect any signs of intelligent life, that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, it only means it hasn’t been found where one person was looking (the Missing Keys Dilemma). On a philosophical note, even if humanity was all there was in the great wide expanse of space, that doesn’t make our existence any less remarkable. If we happen to be the lone representatives of intelligent life, born from heat and rock and millions of years of trial and error getting it just right, then that’s incredible. There are so many variables going against the existence of life on our tiny bubble of air out in the vast vacuum of space, and just because we lucked in and others have yet does not take away from the appreciation and majesty of humanity’s prized situation. Do we put our meaning outside of ourselves or develop our sense of meaning from within? I cannot say whether Ad Astra is keeping this storyline so vague and generalized so that is can stand-in for spirituality, the idea of looking for proof of a higher intelligence, a God, and finding meaning in a grander design rather than the chaos and luck of chemistry and evolution. Or does Roy’s father represent God and Roy is man confronting an absentee creator? Under that interpretation, the ending might make a little more sense, but again I’m doing the movie’s work for it by projecting meaning.
It’s pretty much a one man show and Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is asked to do a lot without showing much. His character is a reserved man by nature, though that doesn’t stop him from explaining his inner thoughts through intrusive voice over narration, an addition that feels tacked-on after some test screening to better acquaint an audience that was having difficulty staying on board. Pitt is an actor capable of tremendous subtleties through his movie star good looks, and he has moments here where his eyes are telling the story that the movie doesn’t seem interested or committed to tell. If you were going to spend two hours in space with one actor, you could do far worse than someone like Pitt.
Ad Astra is more art film than thriller, more father-son reclamation than sci-fi, and more a drifting homage to Apocalypse Now in Space than something that can stand on its own merits. The expansive cosmic visuals are luxurious on the big screen, the level of detail toward the realities of space travel are appreciated, and Pitt is a sturdy anchor for the project, but what does it all come to? Everything is kept at such a generalized level that the movie feels like it’s skirting the surface and ignoring larger depth. It has a surfeit of directions and choices it can make for greater depth, but we have to keep on trucking, like a ticking clock, entirely constructed to serve one purpose, barreling toward the father/son confrontation and resolution. Except I didn’t care about Roy’s dad because I didn’t feel the impact he had on his son, I didn’t feel the need for some form of closure, the driving force of the movie’s big little universe. And yet we drift onward, like the boat in Apocalypse Now, heading for our destination because we’re told to do so. Ad Astra is an acceptable matinee with some well applied technical craft and a bleak sense of realism but it’s ultimately too empty of an experience to warrant any return trips of value.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two may be the bleakest Young Adult-adaptation ever put to film. It’s a franchise that began with the televised spectacle of children killing children, so it’s never exactly been the cuddliest environment for our emotions. This is a conclusion that is overwhelmingly dark and pushes the boundaries of the mainstream PG-13 ratings. If you’re expecting a happy ending, look elsewhere.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the face of the revolution between the Capitol and the thirteen districts of Panem. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been returned but he is recovering from intense brainwashing from the Capitol. He doesn’t know whether Katniss is a friend or foe. The fight is now being taken directly to the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The cagey leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore), wants Katniss to stay behind with the members of her propaganda team. Katniss sneaks off to the front lines of conflict with her District 12 pal/potential love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The Capitol’s gamemakers have designed a series of fiendish surprises for the rebels on every block. While Katniss and her team are behind the fiercest fighting, she is still a high-profile target sought for prompt elimination.
Mockingjay Part Two doesn’t hold back when it comes to the ugly realities of war, namely the innocent casualties in the pretext of an ends-justify-the-means pragmatism. I was reminded of World War II stories and photographs as Katniss and crew stumble through the bombed-out ruins of Capitol neighborhoods. There’s something eerie in the silence amidst miles of rubble. In Part One we saw similar carnage with Katniss’ home district, incinerated by Snow, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t pretend that only one side of this conflict suffers. It’s not exactly a cutting edge commentary on the atrocities of war but it’s still appreciated. Put simply: plenty of bad things will happen and others will attempt to justify these bad things, and at one point that includes the knowing slaughter of innocent children as a political gambit (for you book readers, the body count remains the same. Sorry if you were hoping for a reprieve for certain characters). The series has explored the nature of trauma and nobody gets out free. When Katniss is making her way to the Capitol, it can be easy to forget all the prior character work animating her decision-making. When a Capitol loyalist points a gun at her head and asks for a reason he shouldn’t kill her, she says, “I don’t have one.” In a sense, that can be looked upon as lazy screenwriting or, and I’ll give the movie the benefit of the doubt here, perhaps acknowledging the realities of entrenched conflict when it comes to class warfare.
The attention to social and political commentary has helped give The Hunger Games a bit more maturity than the rest of its YA ilk who often rely upon simplistic oppressed/oppressor conflicts that naturally fall into authority vs. individuality. I appreciate that the filmmakers have followed author Suzanne Collins’ approach to human conflict, which doesn’t dabble in black and white but a larger series of grays (50 shades of them? I’m sorry). This intelligence has given the franchise a depth that could be easily ignored, either by audiences looking for their next fix or studio execs that demand dumbing things down. Part Two forgoes the political gamesmanship for more traditional action suspense sequences, several of which are quite entertaining. There’s an underground chase with snarly mutants that is terrifically teased out suspense-wise. I do appreciate conversations started on how exactly one moves on from tyranny and how easy it is to follow in the same footsteps in the name of justice. However, if you don’t predict where Katniss’ final arrow is going, then you aren’t paying attention to the lessons on recrimination being underlined by explicit on-the-nose dialogue.
There are a few improvements including finally making Peeta an interesting character. He was the noble, nice guy, the somewhat boring conscience for Katniss, but after being returned from the Capitol’s brainwashing, he’s struggling to identify what is real and what is false. It’s still hard to believe that Coin would allow his inclusion on Katniss’ team making its way to the Capitol that is until you remember that Coin also sees Katniss as a political threat for post-war leadership. The love triangle has long been the least interesting aspect to the entire Hunger Games series and part of this falls upon the character of Peeta, who, removed from the manufactured romantic narrative for the cameras, has struggled to be ore than a weak link. Here he can be a threat at any moment, triggered by whatever daunting stimuli that may make him slip back into psychosis. He becomes a ticking time bomb and something far more risky than a romantic alterative. When Peeta becomes a “bad boy” is when he finally becomes worthy of our attention.
If Mockingjay Part One was all protracted build-up to the climax, then Part Two is all climaxes, and yet given the lugubrious allowances afforded by filling the running time of two separate movies, the movie is oddly anticlimactic as well. We’ve been waiting for the confrontation between Katniss and Snow for three whole movies, and Part Two picks up immediately after where Part One ended, and yet we’re still made to wait. Coin wants Katniss to still be primarily a propaganda tool and stay miles behind the front lines, which causes more of Katniss chaffing against authority like she does. Once she does get to the gates of the Capitol, the movie follows a familiar deadly games setup, this time in a more open terrain but the basics are the same: Katniss and crew have to battle a series of deadly booby-traps to reach their goal and kill the bad guy. In a sense, the plot mechanics are similar to video game stages needing to be cleared. It’s a setup that predictably picks off the more expendable members of Team Katniss One, though I’ll give them credit for spreading out the sacrifices. The losses would hit harder if we actually cared about any of these characters on a personable level. Oh well. I also could have used more screen time for many of the supporting actors, notably Moore, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jenna Malone, Natalie Dormer, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This is the last we’ll ever see of Hoffman on screen, and that fact made me quite melancholy by the end.
With the games long gone and the revolution at hand, The Hunger Games has always had some difficulty figuring out how to fill the space before the inevitable showdown with President Snow. In Part One we were mostly stationed in the bunkers of District 13 while we watched the other districts revolt. Like Katniss, we’ve been itching to get to the front lines, especially after Part One’s more plaintive pacing. Once we get to the action it’s more like mop-up duty, which robs the movie of some sense of satisfaction, which turns into a key theme. With the games we had the veneer of “paying” roles as media manipulation for survival, and with Part One we had the study of propaganda. With Part Two, it’s all dour action. I hope viewers aren’t expecting a fantastic finale between Snow and Katniss and their collective forces because then you shall be disappointed. The filmmakers, hewing very close to the novel, have the conclusion to the revolution play out in more realistic and grounded terms, which add points for realism and relevance, but it does detract from some sense of overall satisfaction.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has guided the franchise with sturdy skill and a keen eye for visual arrangements, but if there’s one significant visual complaint I have it’s that these movies are too damn dark. I’m not talking thematically, as I’ve already explained above, but simply from a light level. These movies are just hard to see. Lawrence seems to favor low-light environments to create an ambivalent mood. That’s fine, but I’d also like to see what’s happening on screen. In the last movie we spent a majority of our time in dank underground bunkers, but Part Two is an outdoors kind of picture, so why is it still so hard to distinguish what’s happening?
With the approaching end of The Hunger Games (until Lionsgate milks more money from its lucrative cash cow) it’s appropriate to take stock of its legacy. No other YA franchise has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist like The Hunger Games, but its ultimate legacy will probably be cementing the once promising young actress Jennifer Lawrence firmly into the upper echelon of Hollywood. In the time since our first foray to Panem, Lawrence has won an Oscar, been nominated for another, and proven to be one of the hottest stars on the planet, the kind of actress that esteemed directors are fighting to work with and studio heads want to tap as their lead. Much like Katniss’ meteoric rise to renown, Lawrence has become her own version of the Girl on Fire. She has been better than the Hunger Games movies for some time, and yet Lawrence hasn’t failed in her primary duty to provide an anchor for the audience. Her gritty, conflicted, and commanding performances in the franchise have been a unifying resource for audiences and a reminder of her considerable talents. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two brings to a close a massively successful film franchise and an important chapter in the ascendancy of Ms. Lawrence. It’s thrilling, bleak, and inhabits most of the hallmarks that have come with the Hunger Games films, though in somewhat less supply to make way for the onslaught of action climaxes. There’s more anticlimax then you’d expect, and I credit the filmmakers for sticking with it even at the detriment of the experience. Mockingjay Part Two does enough to end the franchise on an appropriate if somber note. I’ll see everyone at the proposed theme park (seriously, look it up).
Nate’s Grade: B
The true joy of Horrible Bosses, besides the vicarious premise, is the interaction and camaraderie of a rock-solid cast of comedians. Jason Bateman (Juno), Jason Sudekis (TV’s Saturday Night Live), and Charlie Day (TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) play the three put upon friends who conspire to kill their not so very nice bosses, respectively played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston. The comedy is amusing from start to finish, prone to plenty of guffaws and a few big laughs. The film strikes a delicate tone while being nasty without being too brutish or oft putting. This is not a scorched-earth sort of comedy despite its murderous implications. The guys are more bumbling than threatening, which makes even their criminal pursuits clumsy and endearing. It’s got plenty of surprises and I enjoyed how most of the storylines and players wound up back together. It’s a satisfying movie that veers in some unexpected directions. But the real reason to see Horrible Bosses is just how damn funny the cast is. The snappy screenplay establishes a solid comedic setup and lets the leads bounce off one another to great hilarity. Whether arguing over who would be most raped in prison, the ins and outs of killing on a budget, or the dubious nature of hiring hit men under the “men seeking men” section online, the three leads all bring something different to the comedic table, and watching them interact and play around with the situation is a delight. It’s a buddy comedy with a dash of Arsenic and Old Lace. While the characters are more exaggerated stock types, the comedy, kept at a near breathless pace by director Seth Gordon (King of Kong, Four Christmases), is refreshing, smartly vulgar, and not afraid to get dark. Watching Aniston play against type as a sex-crazed man-eater is enjoyable, but hands down, no one does sadism with the same joy as Spacey. That man could melt a glacier with the intense power of his glare. Horrible Bosses is a relative blast of a comedy, one that maintains a steady output of laughs with some easy targets.
Nate’s Grade: B+
In 140 AD, the Roman Empire has spread its reach across the European continent. Commander Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is stationed in northern Britain. 20 years earlier, Marcus’ father led a legion of Romans into the northern British territory. The natives attacked them and Rome’s golden eagle, a significant idol under the guidance of Marcus Senior, was lost to history. Marcus has endured shame and vowed to redeem his family name. After surviving a nightly attack at the fort, Marcus displays great bravery but is injured. He’s honorably discharged from the Roman military. While he regains his strength, Marcus plans on venturing into the northern British highlands and finding that missing eagle. He teams up with Esca (Jamie Bell), a slave whose life he saved, and the duo goes beyond the wall that separates civilization (Rome) for the wilderness (native Britons).
Too often The Eagle feels like its wings were clipped. With such life and death stakes, the movie feels curiously adrift and prosaic. It never feels like it has any rush to go anywhere. In some regard, that makes the film feel like a product of the Hollywood of old, where a plot was allowed to meander and marinate to build to something worthwhile. But The Eagle is hardly worthwhile. It begins with some amount of excitement but that quickly dissipates with an interminable middle that feels like it’s still going on even as I write this. The plot is far too lean to cover a wide canvas, and the characters are far too shallow and incurious. They say so little, and what they do say means so little. It’s general variations on the idea of honor and sacrifice. They’re just focused on retrieving the prize. Meaningful conversation would just get in the way of things. The character dynamics between Marcus and Esca is stilted and kept at a distance. The class struggle and history of foreign occupation is never really addressed beyond a superficial nod. It’s like being stuck with two boring guys on a long, uninteresting road trip. Director Kevin Macdonald (State of Play, Last King of Scotland) gives the proceedings a docudrama touch thanks to his background in nonfiction films; too often this means he goes on half-baked Terrence Malick-like asides to admire a grain of wheat or some old artifact. The docudrama approach seems to conflict with the relatively old fashioned feel for this film, like Macdonald is trying to do his best to lift up material in want. There’s just so little at the core of this movie.
Tatum (G.I. Joe, Step Up) tries some form of an accent, though I’m not exactly sure what region of the Roman Empire the man is hailing from. He still has an imposing presence that manages to fill in the gaps of his acting ability, much in classic Hollywood tradition. And yet the man seemed more masculine in a Nicholas Sparks movie from last year. Bell (King Kong, Jumper) takes his haunted, submissive character to heart and gives a performance that confuses submission with understatement. He main mode of acting is the power of serious staring. The two actors don’t ever develop any onscreen sense of camaraderie or warmth. Even during the climax, you never feel like these guys have anything more than a civil employer/employee relationship. That’s why the laugh-out-loud, tonally jarring ending seems so out of place. Instead, Marcus and Esca strut through the halls of Rome, music triumphantly rocking out, and says, “What do you want to do now?” like they’re lining up weekly wacky adventures to be had. You’ll be surprised to see actors like Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare, and even A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim littered among the cast. Why are they in this movie when they have such insignificant parts compared to their bland leads?
The colonial perspective also started rubbing me the wrong way. Now colonial tales have long been featured in pop culture. I don’t on the surface have an issue with a storyteller utilizing a massive horde of natives to stand in as an antagonistic force. But sometimes that dynamic creates a skewed rather culturally tactless portrayal. Are the overpowered, conquering empires always blameless? Do the natives, who have been displaced and killed, not have a respectable grievance? Do they not have a right to fight for the lands that have been taken? Too often, the natives are viewed as blunt brutes (just watch the “cowboys and Indian” pictures from the 1950s) and the figures of expansion are viewed as heroic pioneers. The Britons come across as, essentially, the Indians. The filmmakers always want us to side with our hunky hero Marcus and his quest for honor at every turn, but the movie takes great turns to make the natives seem extra villainous. For a while they just come across like another culture. They have community, customs, and the like; it’s just not the dominant culture’s community and customs. And then, in an appalling moment of cheap melodrama, the Briton chief kills a child to send a message to Marcus and his Romans. This material is handled so indelicately that an unsettling undercurrent emerges and gains steady traction.
So what if the Britons stole one gold eagle 20 years ago? “It’s not just a piece of metal. The eagle is Rome,” we are reminded by Marcus. Symbols are great, but a one-man search in a land as large as Scotland seems impractical so many years hence. And then you have to take into account the time passage. It’s been two decades seen this beloved bauble went M.I.A., and damn near anything could have happened to it. It could have been thrown into the ocean. It could have been buried. It could have been smashed to smithereens. It could have been taken to another land. It could have been melted down into smaller, gift-shop sized eagles on sale to the general public. I’m just saying that in the ensuing 20 years anything could have happened to this bird. The fact that one guy can traipse on foot through Scotland and the first group of natives he runs into happen to possess the artifact that went missing 20 years prior is just insulting. First chance and he lucks in? I was eagerly waiting for an ending where Marcus, brimming with pride at having returned the eagle to Rome, is informed by one of the politicians that it’s the wrong eagle (“Here we go again!”).
The Eagle is dressed up to be an old time adventure story, but it’s just too slovenly paced and generically plotted to work. The lead characters are bland, distant, and noble to the point of annoyance. When a character is defined entirely as forward thinking, exceptionally lucky, ethically straight figure of honor, excuse me when I start to yawn. And when all he’s tasked with is finding an old relic that miraculously happens to be with the first freaking group of people he finds, then excuse me for eyeing my watch. The Eagle has some workmanlike action and suspense to it, brief moments of activity over what is in essence two hours of silent walking (it’s like somebody cut out the middle of a Lord of the Rings movie and sold it). The Eagle, both the film and the titular hunk of metal, are simply not worth the effort.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Mechanic is a routine remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson hitman thriller. But when did “mechanic” ever become commonplace slang for “killer”? The film treats this concept like everyday knowledge. Bishop asks, “You know what a mechanic is?” A character responds matter-of-fact: “A hitman.” And the “mechanic” services are advertised via a system that includes a Craigslist style message board. It makes me wonder what the “adult services” section on Craigslist was really all about this whole time.
Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) is the world’s greatest hitman. He meticulously plans his hits, deciding whether to make it look like a suicide or an accident or whether to send a message. He’s the cleanest of the cleaners. Then he gets a very delicate assignment – he’s to take out his mentor, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland, taking a paycheck). Bishop’s boss (Tony Goldwyn) tells him that somebody is going to kill Harry. If it’s Bishop at least he can make it more humane. Bishop takes out his mentor and makes it look like a carjacking. Then Harry’s screw-up of a son, Steve (Ben Foster), appears to get vengeance for his old man. Bishop takes the hotheaded kid under his wing and trains his to be an assassin. Then, naturally, Bishop discovers he was set up and played by his employers, which brings about a larger examination on the cyclical nature of violence. Just kidding. There’s more killings.
To say that The Mechanic is a well-oiled formula picture is probably the kindest thing that can be said. It follows the path of its hitman forbears fairly close. The opening pre-credit sequence is a hit that established the abilities of our deadly lead, Donald Sutherland pops up just long enough to lay down the necessary exposition for the film, and then before we even finish the first reel (20-minute mark) the movie manages to introduce a sexy female (Mini Anden) whose only purpose, in grand action movie tradition, is to have enthusiastic sex with the lead whenever his tank is low. The rest of the movie follows rather lockstep with the various beats of the genre, meaning that Bishop takes on an apprentice, shows him the ropes, they bond by taking out the bad guys, and then of course the final show drops and the truth about Bishop killing Harry is revealed. Along the way, The Mechanic does enough to satisfy genre fans looking for the goods when it comes to thrills.
The best moments are the tag-team hitman efforts of Bishop and Steve. The stuntwork is occasionally impressive like when Bishop and Steve repel down a large hotel building or when a car literally drives all the way inside a bus. There’s a brutal, visceral fight between Steve and his first kill that serves as the film’s highpoint. It was these sequences that made me actually sit back and think, “You know, I think this concept would actually play best as an ongoing TV series.” Think about it: you’d have your target of the week, the planning and execution that always make for satisfying payoffs, and then week-to-week Bishop and Steve would continue their complicated relationship with Bishop’s guilt eating away at him while he tries to keep the truth at arm’s length away from his neophyte partner. To me, that sounds much more dramatically rich while still keeping the body count consistently high.
Of course by hewing so close to the confines of genre, The Mechanic also has very little going on outside of the mini-missions of the hit jobs. Bishop obviously has been misled and setup by his sleazy employers. It’s fairly clear early on that when a guy gets out of a limo in a three-piece suit and tells you that the old man in the wheelchair is the bad guy, red flags should be waving. There doesn’t seem to be a formidable opponent in this fight mostly because Bishop is long described as the best at what he does. So how do you stop the best? You’d think you’d hire other players of comparable skill or offer an incalculable amount of money to kill the guy. But our villain doesn’t do any of this. Five minutes prior to his death, our villain fails to even once threaten Bishop (don’t even pretend like that’s a spoiler). The main conflict is really the complicated connection between Bishop and Steve; however, this relationship is kept at a slow simmer the whole film, even after Steve pieces together the ugly truth. The character development is left mostly at an inferential level. That means that there are long stretches where the characters glare, dispense with macho cool speak, glare with sunglasses, and then fall back on some unique hitman quirk they all have to relax (Bishop listens to classical music on vinyl records because he takes life yet appreciates beauty! IRONY!).
But the ending needs to be further discussed because it leaves a terrible aftertaste. Given the dramatic dynamic at work, you pretty much know that Bishop and Steve will eventually come to a head. Bishop regrets what he’s done and is trying to make amends and find some meager form of redemption by taking Steve under his wing. He’s trying to make amends for the many sins in his life. He’s coming to terms with his life’s choices. So then you would assume (spoilers to follow) that when Steve ultimately seeks his own very deserved sense of vengeance, that the old pro would accept his doomed fate. It makes the most sense. It provides an end for the character’s journey, it provides closure to Steve, and it allows for an ending where people have to pay for their life’s mistakes. It’s not even downbeat because it feels right; it’s the correct ending for this material. It’s also the way the original Mechanic ended. But why end the movie on Statham accepting death? That would shuttle any chances for Mechanic sequels. And so, in a colossal cop-out, our hero narrowly survives and even manages to set up a bomb to take out Steve. While his young partner was emotionally unstable and looking for an outlet for his billowing anger, but the man was warranted in his vengeance. It’s entirely the wrong ending for not just this kind of movie but this movie specifically. It smacks of a pathetic attempt to leave the option open for a would-be franchise. It eliminates the entire idea of consequences mattering.
Statham gives the exact same performance he’s been giving in every movie for a decade plus. You know what you’re getting with a Statham action vehicle, for better or worse. He’s going to get shirtless, he’s going to dispatch the bad guys with relative ease, and never once will an expression flash across his stony face. He even verbalizes guilt while still being completely stone-faced. You don’t really buy any inner turmoil with this guy; he’s too “cool” to have feelings other than anger and vengeance. But then Foster practically redeems the entire movie. The young actor has been delivering intense performances for years now, whether it is an emotionally unstable guy in Alpha Dog, an emotionally unstable guy in Hostage, an emotionally unstable guy in 3:10 to Yuma, or an emotionally unstable guy in The Messenger. Notice a pattern? I’m amazed the reservoir of little tricks Foster finds to make Steve pop. Foster gives a far better performance than the movie deserves.
The Mechanic is a routine action movie that fails to rise above its genre conventions due to a lackluster plot, some vapid character development, and a horrendous ending. Statham does his thing, his shirtless chest gets due prominence, but the movie lets both he and a game Foster down. The kills are rather sloppy leaving behind mountains of evidence and dead bodies, and yet there seem to be no consequences. That makes for a long march to an inevitable conclusion with a few bursts of colorful violence to entertain. But what actually exists on the screen isn’t half bad. It’s fairly unremarkable, straightforward genre pap, but that can be suitable for the right audience and the right frame of mind. I was seeking something brainless to excite me when I caught The Mechanic, and it modestly achieved these modest goals.
Nate’s Grade: C
This may be the most boring film about treasure hunting I’ve seen in a long time. Clearly the filmmakers were intending to strike the comic/romance/adventure balance of Romancing the Stone, but boy does this flick flounder. It progresses but it never builds any sense of momentum; Fool’s Gold works almost entirely in lateral moves so no scene feels any more important than the other. It’s like the film succumbed to Matthew McConaughey’s foggy, stoner spirit and decides to just shrug its shoulders through gunfights and explosions. The characters are grotesquely annoying and yet the supporting characters keep elbowing into what should be a combative romance between Kate Hudson and McConaughey. It’s like the filmmakers thought exotic locations, sunny skies, and extremely tan lead actors would take care of the rest. Nothing in this movie ever crosses over into intentional comedy. The treasure angle is so contrived that it requires extensive sit-downs to just go over the convoluted exposition. Fool’s Gold is an empty-headed errand that takes far too long to go absolutely nowhere. For goodness sake, the movie has a puffy Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo from The Cosby Show) as a dreadlocked Caribbean gangster. You tell me if you think that sounds like a good idea.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Courtney Solomon made one of the worst movies I have ever seen, 2000’s abomination Dungeons and Dragons. It is bad on a rarely seen cataclysmic scale. The shot selections were awkward, the handling of the actors was cringe-worthy, the story lightweight but ridiculously stupid, and the special effects were like something a third grade diorama contest could best. Dungeons and Dragons holds my record, in all the many films I’ve seen, as having the worst line readings of all time. Fortunately, the film is one of those so-bad-it’s-hilarious entries to stop it from being an absolute wash. Now six years later Solomon is back with An American Haunting. Normally his name alone attached to a movie would guarantee my avoidance, but I checked this out for you, dear readers. Let’s just say Solomon has a looooooong way to go before he even reaches the competence of Uwe Boll
In 1818 Tennessee, the Bell family moves into a new residence. John Bell (Donald Sutherland) has cheated an outcast woman on her land loan. This woman, branded a “witch,” curses the Bell family. Things are fine for a while, but then young Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is being attacked by an invisible spirit night after night. Her father and mother, Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek), are powerless to stop the haunting. Before you can ask, “Why don’t they let their daughter sleep in a different room?” they’ve reached out to a preacher and schoolteacher (James D’Arcy) romantically curious with Betsy. No one can stop this haunting and John Bell searches to gain atonement for his sins to spare his family.
So, let’s get this whole thing straight, spoilers be damned. An American Haunting is marketing itself as a film based on the only medically credited murder to a ghost. Never mind how you verify that, just go with it for a second. This couldn’t be any more wrong. We learn at the end (“learn” wouldn’t be the right word since the film requires voice over to explain itself) that Betsy had been raped by her father. But wait, it gets better. Betsy had subconsciously developed a protector spirit to guard off further molestation and to punish her father. So right there the ghost in An American Haunting isn’t even a ghost, just the angry manifestation of an abused girl. There is one death accredited to the ghost, that of John Bell. However, the movie presents his wife poisoning him, not the ghost. So then the murderous ghost is neither. Plus, one has to wonder how shocking John’s loss is if he was willing to kill himself to lift the curse from his family. How believable is a “true account” of a medically documented haunting death when people were blaming demons for things for ages? I mean, there must be written accords from medical professionals of the day attributing the Black Plague to man’s sins. Just because an official said so centuries in the past does not make it medically sound today. If that were true no one would last through puberty without flogging themselves to death (and I did NOT mean it like that). An American Haunting is not true, is not about a ghost, and isn’t about a ghost committing murder.
Writer/director Solomon has made some strides in his filmmaking, but the results are still laughably the same. He’s gotten a better feel for actors and … that’s about it as far as improvement goes. An American Haunting is a creaky old timey ghost story that couldn’t scare a soul. It feels more attune to a 1970s made-for-TV flick. Solomon cribs all his scare tactics from Spook 101, which means lots of stagy jumps and creaky noises. The most annoying decision Solomon makes is that when he wants to convey the point of view of our ghost, he quickly swoops the camera down and up, spinning around the room like a paper airplane. I’m surprised more ghosts don’t get motion sickness if this is how they roll. You’ll either grab your stomach from the camerawork or the story.
Solomon’s story is just painfully uninteresting. Some good actors do their best to liven up a pretty run-of-the-mill haunting tale. An American Haunting is insufferably boring and lame. The first half is also exceedingly repetitive, as we watch the spirit creep into Betsy’s room and beat the daylights out of her. I don’t know how many times Solomon expects us to still be entertained, let alone scared, by just repeating this scene verbatim. Apparently, if a ghost keeps smacking you it won’t wake up the people sleeping right beside you. I always did wonder. An American Haunting is lackluster and boring, but it’s the arbitrary current day scenes that open and close the film that makes it truly awful. A modern-day mommy discovers Richard’s diary of the haunting and sits herself down for a good read. Then once she gets to the end she sends her little daughter off to spend time with her ex-husband/daughter’s father. And then Betsy’s protector spirit pops up in the car, looking very sad as she’s driven away. An American Haunting is trying to make us connect that the modern-day woman’s husband is molesting her daughter, but the movie expects you to make a lot of jumps to get there. I don’t think “spirit pointing” will hold up in the court of law. And truly, if the Betsy protector spirit was really trying to be helpful, shouldn’t it be less vague and just spell it out? These modern segments feel tacked on and needless if the whole of the film is spent on the 19th century ghost story. An American Haunting requires gobs of text at its conclusion to explain that it was, technically, a ghost story by its new and expanded definition.
The only nod I can give Solomon and his tale is that they cover my number one complaint of all haunted house movies: why the hell don’t the people just leave? Your house is haunted with the spirits of the damned, so you’re just going to wait it out? MOVE people. Find another place to live! An American Haunting features a spirit that can travel outside the bounds of its house and attack carriages, no less.
An American Haunting is marketed as a true-life ghost story, the only in our nation’s history where a murder was credited to a spirit. However, this movie doesn’t have the foggiest idea how to scare an audience beyond stagy high school theatrics. It’s not a ghost story, unless you swallow whole the film’s flimsy recanting of what a ghost is, it doesn’t feature a murder by haunting, and it isn’t even true, unless you can additionally swallow ye olde folksy, biased medical accounts. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy this. This movie isn’t so bad that it’s funny; it’s just boring. People as a whole should steer clear from this dull, amateurish fright flick. The only screams you’ll hear during An American Haunting are unintentional laughter.
Nate’s Grade: D
Premise: At the end of the Civil War, Inman (Jude Law, scruffy) deserts the Confederate lines to journey back home to Ada (Nicole Kidman), the love of his life he’s spent a combined 10 minutes with.
Results: Terribly uneven, Cold Mountain‘s drama is shackled by a love story that doesnt register the faintest of heartbeats. Kidman is wildly miscast, as she was in The Human Stain, and her beauty betrays her character. She also can’t really do a Southern accent top save her life (I’m starting to believe the only accent she can do is faux British). Laws ever-changing beard is even more interesting than her prissy character. Renee Zellweger, as a no-nonsense Ma Clampett get-your-hands-dirty type, is a breath of fresh air in an overly stuff film; however, her acting is quite transparent in an, ”Aw sucks, give me one dem Oscars, ya’ll way.”
Nate’s Grade: C
Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.
The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.
Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.
Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.
The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.
Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.
The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.
The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.
Nate’s Grade: B
The story behind Panic goes something like this. The film was dropped by Artisan because they got test screening results back and apparently it wasn’t what they wanted. After this set-back it was going to be dumped to the wasteland of direct-to-cable like so many other troublesome pictures studios feel would not earn a buck if they were bleeding on the side of the road. After some fighting, particularly from critic Roger Ebert, a production house decided to distribute Panic in a very limited release. So what does this cinematic game of musical chairs mean? It means if you have a chance see this film.
Panic is a story about characters first and foremost. William H. Macy plays the son end of a father-son team of hitmen, with Donald Sutherland as the oppressive patriarch. Macy is a man who is never truly happy, almost like it is an impossibility for him at this point in his life. His wife (Tracey Ullman) is flaky and gives into her paranoia of her hubby having an affair with a younger chickadee. Macy meets an attractive and mysterious ingenue (Neve Campbell) while waiting for therapy. He begins on an obsession he can’t explain and fantasizes about her as the escape and ticket to happiness that is outside his reach.
The acting is as rich as the characters. Macy plays low-key but suits the subservient ghost that his character has become. Sutherland is haunting as the controlling father figure and the flashbacks between him and young Macy are disturbing as he plants his seed of control. Even at age six Macy’s character is referring to his father with “sir” tagged to the end of every sentence.
Neve’s character is the most in depth she’s ever been dealt, though her runner-up is a girl constantly chased by men in black robes with knives. Ullman is a nice presence and the audience really can sympathize with her. The child who plays the son of Macy and Ullman is one of the most adorable child actors I have ever seen. He lights up the screen every time he is present.
The story is brisk at a mere hour and a half. It is written and directed by a former writer of ‘Northern Exposure’ and ‘Homicide’ and the attention to characters shows. The film moves not through plot occurrences but through characters acting. When Macy discovers that the final hit he has to do is on his own therapist (John Ritter) his journey is one involving everyone around him in his life. The strains and pulls on this man are encompassing to watch.
Panic is a glimpse at a quiet movie told about the life of a man caught in his father’s grasp. Macy is a man conditioned to saying “he’s sorry” even if it is not deserved. His character is rich and Panic is a strongly acted gem if you can locate it.
Nate’s Grade: B+