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Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

James Cameron has been dreaming about making Alita: Battle Angel for decades. He bought the rights to the 90s manga and has been sitting on the property, having to continuously push it back because of technological demands and the demands of, at last count, a thousand Avatar sequels. Cameron co-wrote the screenplay and handed the directorial duties over to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), a talented visual stylist who has been struggling of late. The marriage looks good and the final 122-minute feature is the closest a live-action film has ever gotten into replicating the look and feel of an anime, for better and worse.

Hundreds of years after the fall of civilization, a lonely scrapper and doctor, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the remains of a cyborg with a still beating heart. He puts her back together with a new body and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). She’s special and learning about the big new world, trying to unlock her memories of the past, and we’re talking way way back into the past. She’s old technology, something that’s quite valuable for the street gangs that strip amputees for parts and for the global corporation whose emissary (Mahershala Ali) needs to reclaim the powerful tech. Alita falls in love, learns about her sense of humanity, and fights lots and lots of robotic villains.

This visual decadence of Battle Angel is the greatest reason to see it, especially on the big screen if able. The future setting is immediately visually engaging, with people walking around with mechanical limbs that look like they were literally cobbled together with whatever junk was lying around. There is a have/have not dichotomy between the huddled masses trying to eek out a living in a garbage city and the floating metropolis above that regularly dumps its trash onto the people below. It’s easy to see the influences of Battle Angel in other media, like Elysium, as well as its own cyberpunk influences, from the likes of Blade Runner to recycling the chief sport of Rollerball. The character design is to die for in this movie, with exceptionally assembled figures that stand out in memorable, dangerous, sometimes junky ways. There are a number of different robotic killers with colorful and unique weapons and personalities, and the larger world invites further scrutiny. There is a bustling post-apocalyptic life here and it’s plastered on a splashy, broad visual canvas with some spectacular special effects. Not all of the effects are at the highest level, from some compositing issues with faces to the big anime eyes (more on that later), but Battle Angel is an expensive movie that puts it all onscreen. The world is fun to watch and the action sequences feel ripped directly from the manga, with larger-than-life creatures fighting in vicious and frenetic ways. Even when the movie feels like it’s losing its momentum there’s always the visuals to enjoy.

The central idea of this post-apocalyptic junk town being populated with deadly bounty hunters who work for a mysterious conspiracy is a great starting point. There is a bevy of killers with different allegiances and different codes, and then you throw in a powerful new addition who doesn’t remember her hidden past and you’ve got a recipe for drama and conflict with some crazy characters. There are even little dark touches that I would have thought would have been clipped in the adaptation process. Battle Angel has so much going for it that it can get a little frustrating when it feels like it’s spending so long to stay in the same place. The plot revelations are fairly predictable but still effective, but the long delays between them are filled with numerous action set pieces that diminish a sense of progression. I liked the Alita character and her relationship with her surrogate human father, but I didn’t think enough of any other relationship she had in the film. I wasn’t that invested in uncovering her past, which was still a bit too vague for me as a non-reader of the source material. At the end of the story, Rodriguez has set up his audience for a continuing saga of strife that feels too incomplete. Alita has learned more about herself (though I’m still confused) and has a goal of vengeance (against a force that is left too vague) and a renewed sense of purpose (built upon a relationship that doesn’t feel that affecting). It’s a curious end point and a questionable decision for a movie this expensive to assume it would secure demand for a presumptive sequel.

Where Battle Angel began losing me was because its title character, Alita, became too overpowered for her own good, eliminating a sense of stakes early on. The battle calculus skewed far too quickly. After the first act, actually from her first fight onward, there is never any doubt whether Alita will triumph. She doesn’t undergo any training or any real learning curve when it comes to her superhuman defense. Right from the get-go she’s doing amazing acts of fight choreography and making it all look easy. She even defeats an enemy when she’s only a one-armed torso. That’s admittedly impressive but another indicator that there is no real threat that can be posed against her. No matter how huge the cyborg, or how many pointy appendages at their disposal, it’s only a matter of time before our little pint-sized warrior is eventually triumphant. There is really only one fight where she’s presented with any slight disadvantage, the aforementioned one-armed torso sequence, but this too is shortly rectified. She goes from having a nigh-invincible body to an even more nigh-invincible body, making her, you guessed it, even more powerful. This reality takes something away from the numerous cyborg-on-cyborg battles, and without greater variance on the scene-to-scene needs, the fights become somewhat stale. Visually they are still impressive with a sense of fun watching the manga pages come to startling life, but without stakes and variance, it’s all the same punches with less power.

Now Battle Angel isn’t the only story to deal with an overwhelmingly powerful protagonist (see: Neo, Superman, just about every character on Dragonball). The solution is usually a specifically applied weakness or, most often, the vulnerability of those closest to the hero. It’s the regular people that can be gotten to, that can be endangered, that approximate the “weakness” for the overpowered protagonist. However, for this to work, you need an emotional connection to the characters in order to feel their potential loss. This cannot work if the characters are stuck in archetypal mode and add little help. That’s the problem with Battle Angel; I didn’t really care about any of the other characters. They had points of interest, a tragic shared back-story, a dream to escape their earthbound poverty, some secrets they don’t want getting out, but it’s never enough to make them feel that much more refined than the secondary background players. The film doesn’t even go the route of really threatening the more vulnerable people in Alita’s life, which is a strange miscalculation. What we’re left with is a very kickass robot woman doing her thing and taking down the big bad cyborgs. It’s entertaining and there’s enough of an interest in bullies being beaten by the underdog, but Alita isn’t really the underdog and so the many action sequences become a tad tedious.

Salazar (The Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gives an expressive performance and enables her superhuman cyborg to find a semblance of her humanity. Because of the character design the degree of performance capture relies much on the micro expressions of Salazar, so if she overdoes it then Alita can lose that tenuous sense of reality. She finds a balance that makes her feel real, at least real enough to exist in this world. Waltz (Downsizing) is enjoyably paternal with a few dark secrets of his own. His rocket-powered pickax thingy falls under my category of something that’s futuristic but not exactly practical. This wouldn’t present much of a problem except his character is an expert at using the parts he can scrounge up to get the job done. Skrein (Deadpool) has found a real career for being sneering villains with oh-so punchable faces, and he succeeds yet again. Ali (Green Book) and Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) deliver enough with so little that you wish the screenplay asked more of them than the occasional in-shadows skulking. It’s interesting to look at this cast, which has four Oscars to their names (possibly another one for Ali), and an additional nominee with Jackie Earl Haley.

Let’s talk about those eyes. The film is based upon a popular manga and anime and James Cameron was determined, from the earliest point, to recreate that stylized big-eyed look famous to Japanese art. It’s one thing on the page and another brought into real life, and the response has been all over the place. Some cite the uncanny valley and cringe while others argue it makes Alita more vulnerable, the eyes being the window to the soul and all. It does set her apart from the crowd, which is supposed to befit her character and where she came from, so to that end it works. It’s not as distracting as I feared and you do grow accustomed to them. However, was any of it necessary? Would we feel any different for Alita if she had more human-sized eyes? I doubt it. The costly effect of a very costly movie ($200 million reported) made me think of a similar quirk with the 2011 Green Lantern film where Ryan Reynolds’ suit was a CGI effect. Rather than simply wearing a costume the filmmakers spent millions applying one in post-production, and in the end what of value did it offer to the experience?

It’s hard for me to watch Alita: Battle Angel and understand why this was a property that James Cameron set aside for almost two decades. What about this makes it special or at least separates it from the pack of imitators? It’s a world with points of interest and characters that could be interesting, though many stop short at the design phase. The live-action version is entertaining and visually sumptuous, but I was finding myself grow tired of the film’s loose stakes, predictable plotting, simplistic themes, and archetypal characterization. The action can be pretty fun but even as Alita lines up more obstacles and more enemies we never feel threatened or concerned. Without a larger sense of danger and plot development the many fights start to grow monotonous. The special effects are wild but they service a story that seems ordinary genre. Alita: Battle Angel ought to please fans of the source material but it short-circuited for my attention.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Isle of Dogs (2018)

The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.

Nate’s Grade: B

Collateral Beauty (2016)/ Manchester by the Sea (2016)

collateral-beauty_posterTrauma and grief are common colors in the palette of screenwriting. Wounded men and women overcoming loss and sorrow allow us all an opportunity to learn and heal through someone else’s personal pain and suffering. It’s the movie theater as therapist’s office with art serving as catalyzing event to help those in need. When 2006’s United 93 was released many critics thought it was too soon for a dramatic recreation of the events of 9/11. First, there’s never a right estimation for how long the world of art should wait to respond to shared tragedy, but I argued that United 93 could function as a facilitator for healing for select moviegoers. It helps to be able to live vicariously through fictional characters on screen, and it makes us smile when they overcome those obstacles and give hope to the rest of us. Two new movies have taken very different paths to explore responses to trauma onscreen. Collateral Beauty is a star-studded affair built from a screenplay that sold for an estimated three million dollars. Manchester by the Sea premiered at the Sundance film Festival and blew away audiences with its understated and unsentimental portrait of loss. One of these movies goes big and miscalculates badly and the other delivers one of the better, more emotionally involving films of the year. I think once you hear the premises it’ll be clear which is which.

In Collateral Beauty, Howard (Will Smith) is an advertising guru still reeling two years later from the unexpected death of his six-year-old daughter. He’s become a hermit who furiously rides his bicycle into traffic to tempt fate. He shuns his old friends and minority partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena). He also writes angry letters to the concepts of Death, Time, and Love to note his general displeasure. Major accounts are lost because of Howard’s seclusion and now it looks like the whole company might go under unless they accept a stock buyout. Howard refuses to sign off on the purchase, which forces his trio of friends to hire struggling actors to play “Death” (Helen Mirren), “Time” (Jacob Latimore), and “Love” (Keria Knightley). These three personified concepts will converse with Howard to provide an unorthodox therapeutic breakthrough. The actors will be paid handsomely and they relish the challenge. If that doesn’t work, they will record his public feuds with the actors, digitally erase the actors, and make it seem like he’s gone crazy with grief. Along the way, Howard gets closer and closer to talking about his loss in a support group run by the saintly Madeleine (Naomie Harris), a woman also suffering the loss of her child. If the universe is all about making connections, Howard is on a collision course with the fates.

Few films have dropped in estimation so precipitously in my mind as Collateral Beauty. To its credit, while you’re watching the movie you don’t notice as many of the misguided manipulations from prolific screenwriter Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, Just Go with It). You’re aware of their presence but they don’t remove you from the movie, that is, until you extend further thought on the full implications. Allow me to simply vocalize in print the Christmas Carol-esque premise of this “feel good” holiday movie.t-collateral-beauty

“A group of wealthy advertising executives scheme to get their grieving mentor and friend declared mentally incompetent so they can sell their company. They hire duplicitous actors to pose as metaphysical concepts, engage with Howard in public, and then they will digitally erase the presence of the actors, making it look like Howard fits the lazy man’s definition of crazy. And these people are the heroes.”

The characters give plenty of rationalizations for why they’re forced to set up their supposed friend, mostly about saving the company and saving jobs. Simon especially needs the money and medical insurance with where he’s headed. Howard is spiraling and they worry that he will take down everyone with him. That’s fine, but why do they resort to the outlandish and ethically dubious practices that they do? The hiring of actors seems like a helpful therapeutic exercise on the surface, unless you stop and think about a grieving man badgered by an antagonistic universe. Howard is already exemplifying mentally unsound behavior so I don’t know why the public spats are required. The digital erasure constitutes explicit fraud and it feels so much grosser. It’s an expensive step to provide visual evidence of a man having a nervous breakdown. They could have simply recorded Howard in his office for a week while he builds elaborate domino structures just to watch them topple (symbolism!). Even the characters call-out one another for this gaslighting trick. On another note, won’t Howard eventually find out? What if some enterprising digital effects editor has a moral crisis and confesses? This is the equivalent of false documents forged to push the rich old lady into the booby hatch so her scheming relatives could abscond with her vast fortune. It’s even more egregious when Collateral Beauty presents these characters as the heroes. Yes they have different degrees of guilt but that is tamped down by their moral relativism justifications. It makes it a little harder to swallow all that outpouring of cloying sentiment later. These murky and misguided manipulations will symbolize much that is wrong with the movie.

I hope the audience is prepared for Smith to be sidelined for much of the movie because Howard is more a supporting character in someone else’s story. Howard is really more a catalyst than a fully developed character. He grieves, he suffers, but his point is how his grief and suffering affect others, which is a strange tact to take. His journey is quite similar to Casey Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea. He must come to terms with loss, accepting the cruelty of that reality in order to move forward and let others in. Moving on doesn’t mean we forget, especially when that trauma is a loved one’s loss, and Howard holds onto that pain for so long as a means to still feel his daughter’s presence. It’s an acceptable character conceit but it flounders in the movie because EVERYONE simply talks at Howard. Smith’s asked to be teary-eyed and mute for most of the picture. Any significant breakthroughs, developments, or even passing of information occurs from others applying meaning to this sad silent man who must not remain sad.

pegasus_large_t_1581_107191149As a result, the movie pumps up the supporting characters and pairs them with one of the actors. “Death” relates with Simon for him to accept his declining health and to allow his family to know. “Time” relates with Claire over her worry that she’s sacrificed starting a family by prioritizing her career (this is another film world where nobody puts serious consideration into adoption). I need to stop and question this particular storyline. Doesn’t it feel a bit tacky and outdated? It’s also, by far, the storyline with the least attention; we literally see Claire glance at a sperm donor brochure and website for a scant few seconds and that’s it. Then there’s “Love” who relates with Whit to try and get him to repair his relationship with his rightfully angry young daughter after Whit cheated and broke up his marriage. “Love” literally just goads Whit to actually try being a parent and accept some responsibility for his failings. That’s it, and she has to use the incentive of a date to convince him to try and be a better father (Whit sloppily hitting on “Love” definitely lays a plausible peak into why exactly he’s divorced). “Death” and Simon play out the best mostly because Mirren is impishly amusing, and also benefits from naturally being Helen Mirren, and Pena’s character is given the most sincerity. He has the most at stake personally and setting things right for his family is taking a toll. Loeb has given each actor something to do, and the talents of the actors are enough that I was distracted from the overall machinations at least until the very end.

For most of its relatively brief running time, Collateral Beauty has kept to its own form of internal logic and avoided blatantly manipulative calculations for heightened drama. Sure Pena’s first instance of movie cough is an obvious telegraph to more astute members of the audience, but it makes some sense since this is less our real world and more the well-sculpted Movie World. Then the final ten minutes play out and the movie doesn’t just skid, it steers into this skid of counterfeit sentiment. I’ll refrain from spoiling both of the major reveals but they both serve to make you rethink everything. It’s not one of those eye-opening twists but more something my pal Eric and I were dreading in our seats, mumbling to ourselves, “Please please don’t.” These final two reveals are completely unnecessary. They disrupt the tenuous reality of the movie and the balance of tones becomes a mess. It also divulges how overly constructed the screenplay really was, designed to lead an audience to these chosen end points that don’t engender catharsis. It’s about pointing out how clever the screenplay was rather than the emotional journey, a movie in service of its twists. Neither twist serves strong narrative purpose other than to be out-of-the-blue surprises.

collateral-beauty-trailerLet’s get to that ungainly and clunky title. It’s a nonsense pairing of words that’s meant to sound profound but is really just confusing and remains so even though the characters repeat this clumsy phrase like eight times. There’s a conversation where it appears in every sentence, as if repetition alone can make this phrase/idea successfully stick. It doesn’t. I think I understand what it means, or at least what Loeb was going for, but I’m not sure. Madeleine talks about making sure to see all the collateral beauty in the universe, but is this merely a more obtuse way of restating Wes Bentley’s floating plastic bag declaration in American Beauty? Is it a more pretentious way of saying to stop and smell the roses? Here’s where I thought it was going with its meaning: “collateral” in this sense means accompanying and instead of accompanying damages we’re focused on the accompanying beauty, therefore a contemplation of the possible unintended helpful ramifications. This was going to make sense for Madeline since she uses her personal tragic experience to reach out and help others heal through their own tragedies. It’s the long ripples of human kindness reaching out far beyond our initial actions. And maybe, juts maybe, Howard and Madeleine would become romantically linked through coping with their similar heartache and find one another. However, the movie’s real ending torpedoes this interpretation. What we’re left with is a clunky pairing of words that still makes little sense by film’s end.

Collateral Beauty is probably the best-looking Hallmark movie you’ll see at the theaters this holiday season. It’s a gauzy and manipulative endeavor packed with movie stars doing their sad and redemptive best before hopefully cheering you up. There’s nothing that can’t be overcome with a good group of friends who only want what’s best for you while they take part in a criminal conspiracy to defraud you of your business stakes. That’s because even the most nefarious of behaviors can be forgiven with the right actor to provide a twinkle of the eye, a little swooning musical score to tell the audience how and when to feel, and the backdrop of lightly swirling snowfall. It’s a universe that refuses to allow Will Smith to stay sad and so it intervenes. Collateral Beauty has its draws, namely its core of great actors who each find some point of emotional grounding to their character’s plight. The finest actor in the movie is Harris (Moonlight) who radiates tremendous empathy and a bittersweet serenity. I’d watch the movie from her perspective. To Loeb’s credit, the movie is more grounded and less fanciful than its premise could have lead. It doesn’t sink to the depths of a Seven Pounds (“Do not touch the jellyfish”). Waterworks are shed all around, hugs are evenly distributed, and I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a lump or two in my throat by film’s end. However, its emotional journey doesn’t feel anywhere as revelatory as Manchester by the Sea.

manchester-1Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is living out an ordinary existence as a Boston apartment complex maintenance man. His routine is rudely interrupted when he receives news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has fallen deathly ill. On the car ride north to Manchester, Joe passes away. Guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is entrusted to Lee much to his shock. “I was just supposed to be the back-up,” he says to himself to little avail. Lee wants to move back to Boston with his new ward but Patrick refuses, pleading that he already has a life in town he enjoys. Lee is itchy to leave because of his painful associations with his hometown, tracing back several years to a fateful night of tragedy he shared with his current ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee takes on the mantle of parent while trying to ignore the trauma he’s doing his very best to ignore with every fiber of his working-class Bostonian being.

The first impression from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s movie is just how achingly authentic it feels. We drop in on the lives of these hardscrabble folks and glean important details as we progress, better forming a clear picture as to why they carry such pain with them as penance. In simplistic terms, it’s a two hour-plus journey to reach a point where the main character can openly cry. It’s also much more than that. It’s an incisive character piece on grief and tragedy, a surprisingly funny movie, and an effortlessly engaging movie that swallows you whole with its familiar rhythms of life. There is no formula here for Lonergan. Each fifteen-minute sequence opens the movie up again for further re-examination, especially a middle passage that is truly devastating. It provides compelling evidence why Lee has decided to become a recluse drifting through life. It’s not that Lee is lonely; he’s actively disengaged from all communities and connections. There are three different potential openings with women who seemed flirty and interested that Lee could have capitalized upon, or at least pursued, but he does not. A woman spills a beer on his shirt and squeezes closer to apologize, pleading to buy him a drink. He coolly looks away, ignoring her, and instead chooses to wait until closing time so he can get into a drunken fight instead. Lee would rather feel pain than momentary pleasure.

manchesterbythesea_trailerThe movie is also a poignant father/son relationship told in waves, with as much humor as emotional breakdowns. Lee is trying to fix the situation the best way he can as if it was another clogged drain. He’s thrust into a parental position that he doesn’t feel fits. It’s not that he’s actively evading responsibility as he does try to accommodate his nephew, even driving him back and forth and covering for one of his two girlfriends to sleep over. Lee cannot work in his hometown because of his own lingering pain and also because nobody will give him a job thanks to the reputation he carries. For a long while it feels like Patrick isn’t even registering the death of his father except for his distress at the thought of his father’s body remaining in a freezer until the ground thaws for a burial. He’s trying to live a normal teenage life filled with activity like band practice, hockey practice, and juggling some alone time with his two girlfriends. He seems like a normal teenager with a normal teenage attitude, and that flies in the face of our expectations. Hedges (Kill the Messenger) provides a nice dose of awkward comedy to keep the movie from drowning in sadness. The burgeoning relationship between Lee and Patrick takes on new familial elements and dynamics and each is feeling out that new role. This movie is more than an elegant bummer.

Lonergan has only directed two movies prior to Manchester, both of them insightful, complex character studies with meaty parts for game actors. 2000’s You Can Count on Me cemented the wide appeal and remarkable talents of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Then his follow-up, the criminally underseen Margaret, ran afoul with producers who wanted to trim its near three-hour running time. It was kept in limbo for five long years until 2011 where it met with a degree of fervent critical fandom, including yours truly. Manchester began as a starring vehicle for producer Matt Damon, but when scheduling conflicts got in the way, the project was reworked with Affleck in the lead and Lonergan told the story his creative impulses desired without studio interference. As a big fan of his previous directorial outings, I’m not surprised by the gripping results. He lets an audience draw conclusions from the impressions and pieces he offers, notably with Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) who he refers to as “not an alcoholic anymore.” There isn’t one big obvious scene but we’re given enough pointed clues about Patrick’s history with his mother and why Lee is adamant that his nephew does not live with his mother. The history of characters and their relationships follow this model, layering in further meaning as we continue at a safe distance in our seats. Things aren’t spelled out as they are allowed to breathe, the furtive connections becoming perceptible in time like a message written in the fog of a window. Lonergan has great affection for his characters and their flaws, insecurities, and struggles. This was evident in Margaret where the title character (vividly played by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin) was a teenager exploding with emotions, opinions, and thoughts and Lonergan celebrated her for this fact. I appreciate Lonergan’s refusal to paint in broad strokes with all of his characters.

This is Affleck’s (The Finest Hours) movie and while good the more extroverted performers around him overshadow him. Affleck can be a gifted actor as evidenced with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He has a quiet intensity and a habit of burrowing inside himself to discover something raw and different. His performance feels like he’s trapped in a PTSD shield that saps the life from him. He’s drifting through his life and waiting to die, simply put. Because of his taciturn nature he doesn’t garner any sizeable monologues to spill out all his feelings. He has to use little moments and the nuances of choosing his words carefully. When he tells Patrick “I can’t beat it” those words are loaded with meaning that he can only convey in subtext. When he stops to process that Randi has gotten pregnant from another man we notice the subtle registration of pain and regret, a twinge of memories he’s trying to hold back. Affleck’s performance is very subdued for most of the movie but it’s in the final act where he cannot maintain his well-manicured bubble of resistance to the outside world. When Lee does start to cry, it will earn every ounce of your sympathy.

Williams (My Week with Marilyn) is more presence than character in the movie, but when she does stay long enough she leaves an emotionally gut-wrenching impression. I understand that “gut-wrenching” is a pejorative term but it’s really one of the more uplifting moments in the movie. That’s because her character’s reunion with Lee isn’t one of enmity but reconciliation, allowing her to make amends and say plenty of things that she’s been holding back for years. It’s an unburdening and once Williams starts it’s hard not to feel the flow of tears coming from your own eyes. She is a one-scene wonder, reminiscent of Viola Daivs in 2008 for Doubt, nominated for Best Supporting Actress and well deserving a win for one brilliantly acted scene. Fitting then that Davis looks to be Williams’ chief competition for Supporting Actress this year. I invested even more in this scene because the power of Randi’s emotional honesty almost pulls Lee out. He’s shaking, his voice cracking, and trying to stick to saying the customary conversational tokens that have gotten him through to this point. He’s avoiding confronting reality but the sheer emotive force of Randi almost pushes him to that genuine breakthrough.

If there is one noticeable drawback to such an exquisitely rendered film, it’s that it follows the narrative structure of real life perhaps a bit too faithfully. Life doesn’t normally follow a three-act structure with clearly defined character arcs and a carefully orchestrated system of measured payoffs. While Manchester by the Sea isn’t exactly an automatic entry in mumblecore paint drying, it’s certainly less indebted to familiar story structure, which does affect the overall motor of the story. You don’t have a strong sense of its overall direction, an end point, and while the pacing isn’t glacial it can start to feel bogged down in those wonderful New England details of everyday mundane life (how many times do we need to see Lee driving?). There are also probably more flashbacks than necessary to flesh out the characters in an implicit manner. If the movie wasn’t 137 minutes I might accuse it of padding its running time. It doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film but you feel a certain loss of structure and payoff. In contrast, Collateral Beauty is entirely reliant upon plot machinations and a formula serving a very Hollywood-styled ending. Sometimes maybe an audience would prefer a little more of a driving force and a little more oomph for an ending. While certainly lacking in just about every factor, I’d say that Collateral Beauty does feel more climactic with its conclusion than Manchester, which sort of rolls to a close that makes you say, “Oh, I guess that’s it then.” Sometimes realism can profit from a judicious nudging. Then again with Manchester it’s more the journey and Collateral Beauty is all about the destination.

manchesterWhile ostensibly being about two men overcoming the loss of someone close to them to function in everyday society once more with meaningful personal relationships, there’s quite a wide divide between Collateral Beauty and Manchester by the Sea. One represents a more calculated and morally dubious reflection of trauma as a theatrical game leading to Big Twists that are meant to leave an audience swooning from the magic of reconciliation. While fairly grounded on its own terms for a far majority of its time, Collateral Beauty can’t help itself and steers into a ditch of bad plotting, made even worse by the fact that it puts so much significance on its preposterous final destination. It manages to cheapen the movie as a whole in retrospect as an elaborate parlor trick that rivaled what the ethically challenged heroes of the tale were perpetrating. On the other side, Manchester by the Sea is a carefully observed and intimate portrait of grief and the consequences of self-destructive detachment from a larger world of compassion. The acting is terrific and lived in, authentic to its core and stuffed with meaningful details that Lonergan leaves to his audience to formulate. However, some of its indie auteur sensibilities do have a somewhat negative impact on the pacing and ultimate conclusive nature of the movie. It’s not that the film is open-ended; it’s just a “life goes on” kind of ending that doesn’t exactly inspire the strongest feelings of satisfaction. Grief will always be a topic that attracts filmmakers and especially actors because of its inescapable drama, stakes, and general relatabilty. I only implore any readers that if you’re trusting filmmakers with two hours of your emotion, make sure they earn that privilege.

Nate’s Grades:

Collateral Beauty: C

Manchester by the Sea: A-

Sausage Party (2016)

sausage_party_ver2Following the “secret life of” Pixar story model, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s hard-R animated movie about anthropomorphic food literally uses just about every possible joke it can from its premise. I was expecting plenty of puns and easy sexual innuendo, but what I wasn’t expecting was a religious parable that actually has substance and some crazy left field directions the movie takes that made me spit out my popcorn. Sausage Party seems like a one-note joke as we follow Frank, a sausage (voiced by Rogen), and his girlfriend Brenda, a hotdog bun (Kristen Wiig) and their food friends over the course of the Fourth of July weekend. The supermarket items have been told that loving gods will take them to a wonderful promised land. The reality is far worse as the humans consume and “murder” the supermarket products. The messy food massacre sequences are some of the cleverest moments in the movie, which too often relies on a lot of easy profanity and vulgarity and broad ethnic stereotypes (it earns points for pointing out its lazy ethnic stereotypes too). However, when it veers into its religious commentary and the plight of the atheist, the movie becomes far more than the sum of its sex jokes. It’s consistently funny with some hard-throated laughs toward the end, especially in the jubilantly demented third act that takes an extreme leap first into violence and then into food-based sexuality. The concluding five minutes might be some of the most insane images put to film I’ve ever seen. The only equivalent I can even think of is the concluding act of Perfume. I credit Rogen, Goldberg and their team for taking a potentially one-joke premise and finding something more interesting and substantial, while still finding plenty opportunities for crass humor when called for and then some. Sausage Party is not a film for everybody but it’s also a film that is hard to forget, although you might feel guilty about munching on your popcorn at some point.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

112446_galWes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.

In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.

115032_galFor Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.

The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.

115052_galThe fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.

The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Nate’s Grade: A

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

It feels good to be a Wes Anderson fan once again. The indie auteur has a very distinctive style that he seems to have little regard in altering. I’ve been critical of Anderson’s idiosyncratic style, comparing it to crafting wonderfully composed, intricate dollhouses minus compelling or relatable characters to inhabit these artfully constructed mini-worlds. Without that necessary element, it’s all just fancy window dressing. Finally, Anderson, with Moonrise Kingdom, has concocted another movie where the characters grab more of your attention than the backgrounds.

Set in 1965 on a small island just off the New England coast, the movie follows the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), both twelve years old. Sam has run away from his summer camp, the Khaki Scouts, led by Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton). Suzy has run away from her parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand). The small island’s one police officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), enlists the help of several Khaki Scouts he deputizes to find the missing duo. It’s revealed through a serried of letters, and flashbacks, that Sam and Suzy have been plotting their escape for over a year. They’re in love, and they’re going to make sure nobody interferes.

What more relatable than young love? Sam and Suzy just want to be together and the rest of the adult world seems intent on keeping them apart. Right away you’re pulling for these kids, rooting for their triumph, and the movie does a fantastic job of replicating the innocence of young love without overly romanticizing a very nervous, awkward time in life. When Sam and Suzy practice kissing, for what is obviously the first time, I defy anyone sitting in the audience not to feel a recognizable pang of insecurity. The experimentation is a tad more realistic than you might expect with the PG-13 rating but still nothing to shatter the youthful innocence of the picture. There is not a tawdry moment in Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a time in life when the knowledge of sex existed without a keen understanding of sensuality, like in Miranda July’s Me, and You, and Everyone We Know. It’s more like fumbling around with what you think is appropriate activity. Still, the fact that the movie features twelve-year-olds in their underwear dancing and mildly experimenting means Moonrise Kingdom might draw a swath of ticket-buyers for the wrong reasons (beware the patron in a raincoat).

The scrupulous attention to detail is the same obsessive quality you come to expect from a Wes Anderson movie. He builds living worlds and his color schemes and shot arrangements add much texture to this idiosyncratic landscape. Unlike Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, these artistic elements work in harmony rather than conflict; Anderson actually seems to care about the people here. Chances are if you’re not a Wes Anderson fan, Moonrise Kingdom will probably not be the movie to win you over. The whimsical, storybook nature of the film actually accentuates the broader themes; bright-eyed exploration, the magic of possibility with love, and an unyielding hope. The movie feels like one of Suzy’s storied adventures come to life but without compromising the relatable character conflicts. The movie does build a nice head of steam thanks to the pursuit of our runaway romantics. There’s also a palpable sense of danger lurking, as the kids risk life and limb and even experience death, albeit a dog (Suzy: “Was he a good dog?” Sam: “Who’s to say?”). It’s a poignant tale of childhood but it doesn’t feel childish, a family film meant for people probably too young for families.

Moonrise Kingdom walks a fine line between whimsical and overly precious. Less skilled filmmakers haven fallen suit to making insufferably twee film productions consumed by their own indulgent sense of preciousness. Moonrise Kingdom is full of the typical Anderson quirk but it doesn’t overpower the narrative or define the characters in such limited personal scopes. There’s plenty of laughs to be had with the film, most in the wry chuckle variety; I was laughing throughout, finding those staple peculiar touches to be the most amusing, from the Scout Master reading a magazine titled “Indian Corn,” to Bob Balaban’s questionably omniscient narrator, to some improvised natural earrings.

The movie is consistently funny but also far sweeter than I would have imagined given the detached, arch nature of Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Again, the kids are precocious and the adults act more like children, but everyone is really hurting and lonely and looking for a means of coping or persevering, with the biggest source of pain being love; the longing, the ache, the uncertainty of when and if it will return. Usually Anderson’s films involve dysfunctional families mending some degree of their brokenness by film’s end and formulating a connection. With Moonrise Kingdom, the plot is on two kids falling in love and their will to endure. I appreciate that Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola (Darjeeling Limited) do not trivialize or look down upon the relationship between Sam and Suzy (“Oh, it’s just puppy love you silly, naïve, waifs.”). To them it feels like everything. The tender approach to young love opens the film up to a broader audience without compromising the director’s unique vision. I’d hardly say the film approaches overt sentimentality. What’s there feels earned and more reserved than what we might expect from burgeoning romance. When the expressions of affection occur, they have greater weight and make a greater impact charming the audience.

The first-time child actors do a credible job with carrying the film. Hayward and Gilman are charming and easy to like, though I wish Anderson had pushed his young actors a tad harder. They seem stiff at times and a little above-it-all in attitude. I applaud the kids for acting somewhat reserved rather than going crazy with their budding hormones. Both characters are also characterized as “emotionally disturbed,” though this seems like another of the film’s damning details about the out-of-touch adults dictating their lives. I just wished we sensed a greater degree of urgency from them about this whole adventure and the possibility of losing one another. They feel a tad blasé, all things considered.

The bigger celebrity names in the cast assume smaller roles, and many of the supporting characters are thinly sketched with personal conflicts mostly kept at a simmer. These are grownups that, at their heart, don’t know what to do with their feelings. Sam and Suzy feel liberated by their feelings. I found Murray’s blustery sense of anger amusing, and Willis does some subtle work to give you a sense how truly lonely his character is to the core, but it’s Jason Schwartzman (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) who steals the show in my book as the fast-talking, mercurial, scheming Cousin Ben who seems to have whatever somebody needs. When he agrees to marry Sam and Suzy and acknowledges that their marriage will not be deemed official under any court whatsoever, you get a sense that Moonrise Kingdom has been missing a propulsive and delightful character like Cousin Ben. I wish he had been inserted earlier, but this is Sam and Suzy’s movie, after all.

It’s not on the same level as Rushmore of The Royal Tenenbaums (my favorite Anderson films), but it’s a film that feels a lot more alive and emotionally resonant. It feels like a return to form for Anderson, remembering that the characters and their drama need to be as engaging as the set design. The turbulent young love of Sam and Suzy is sweet and leads to some tender yet poignant moments that warm the heart without making you overdose on cheap sentiment. The idiosyncratic touches are all there, the ironic humor, and the stellar soundtrack selection (Benjamin Britten’s deconstructive orchestral marches stand out as a thematic core), everything you’d expect from a Wes Anderson movie, except this time you’ll find the characters recognizable, their struggle compelling, and the end rewarding. Moonrise Kingdom isn’t the most substantive film playing in theaters but damned if it isn’t the most alluring, amusing, and affectionate, yet all on its own terms. Who would have guessed that a pair of twelve-year-olds would help us show what real love is in 2012?

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Imagine a world where people could only tell the truth. Sounds scarier than anything in horror movies today.

Mark (Gervais) is trying to romance Anna (Jennifer Garner) but even the waiter tells him she’s out of his league. She tells him upfront that she finds him unattractive and he will never have any hope of having sex with her. She’s more interested in Mark’s snide but handsome co-worker, Brad (Rob Lowe), who she feels is a better genetic match. Mark is about to be fired from his job, writing historical screenplays about the 13th century, and his secretary (Tina Fey) delights in telling him that she loathed every minute they spent together. This is a world without a filter. Until one day Mark goes to take out money from the bank, and something inside his brain switches. His balance is $300 but he asks for $800, and the bank teller apologizes for the computer error and gets Mark his full $800. He explains to his barfly friend Greg (Louis C.K.) that he said something that wasn’t. Nobody understands. “I’m a black Eskimo,” Mark says. Everybody takes him at his word. Mark is the only human on earth who has the ability to tell a lie, which he uses to his great advantage whether it be gambling, getting out of a traffic ticket, or unearthing a “lost” historical chapter about ninjas and aliens that makes for a stirring “non-fiction” film. Mark can’t even explain what he’s done, since the world lacks even a word for “lie.”

Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson concoct some interesting and inspired ideas of what a world bereft of lying would be like. Naturally, advertising would be completely different if people had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; imagine prescription drug ads that only said, “This is a placebo. Your penis won’t ever grow bigger.” The slogan for Coca-Cola is, “It’s very famous,” and the slogan featured for its rival, Pepsi, is, “When you can’t have Coke.” No one has any concept of fiction, of people pretending to play parts, so movies only consist of an older man sitting comfortably and reading a historical account with some minor dramatic inflection. Movies have become book reports. The sign in front of a retirement center says, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People,” and a motel sign reads, “A Cheap Place to Have Intercourse with a Near Stranger.” However, I’m puzzled by how forcefully open every person is. Just because you can only speak the truth doesn’t mean you have to be talking constantly. I understand Gervais’ point about the need for lies to protect people’s feelings, but just because you think someone looks fat doesn’t mean you have to blurt it out. When Mark greets Anna at the door for their date she reveals, “You’re early. I was just masturbating.” It’s funny, sure, but did she feel compelled to link the two statements? It seems in this world, everyone is incapable of keeping their mouths shut.

The premise of the movie is terrific, and I’m honestly shocked no one has thought of it before. But the premise wears a little thin after the first 30 minutes of people speaking with no filter. You begin to expect outrageous comments that will be hurtful and blunt, and because you expect them it takes away the shock value and lessens the humor. But then The Invention of Lying takes a sharp right turn at about minute forty and becomes a radical and subversive and much funnier movie. Mark is comforting his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) who is afraid of leaving existence. She’s afraid of a cold nothingness. So Mark explains to her that there is an afterlife, a world beyond our own, where everybody gets to be around their loved ones in a mansion, and there’s no pain. She closes her eyes and dies in peace with this new knowledge. The doctors and nurses are amazed and beg to know more. Mark has created the idea of religion and God! He’s mobbed by people and camera crews demanding him to explain what he knows. Mark then works up the courage to establish a system of 10 rules to follow, which he tapes onto old pizza boxes. He then addresses his flock and has to explain the complicated minutia of religion, with hilarious questioning from the acolytes. Mark explains that there is a “man in the sky” who watches everything we do and is responsible for everything that happens. “Does that mean the Man in the Sky gave my sister cancer?” someone asks. Mark tries to explain the nature of a loving, all-powerful deity who willingly allows bad things to still happen. “Screw the Man in the Sky,” someone yells, “He’s going to kill us all. We need to fight back!” You try explaining the nature of the unknown to people.

It’s at this point that the movie transforms into a biting satire on belief and belief. I was cackling but I noticed that my theater seemed to get awfully quiet the longer the religious satire went on. I almost spat out my drink when I saw a spinning newspaper headline that said, “Man in the Sky Continues to Give Children AIDS.” It’s offensive but completely within the bounds of religious questioning. Gervais and Robinson aren’t ridiculing religious belief; in fact they seem to prove that it has a definite place of significance within society and can be beneficial psychologically. The satire isn’t savage and still manages to play with the amiable, fable-like nature of the story. Gervais isn’t laying out an argument that believing in an unforeseen deity is stupid. The movie isn’t condescending or hectoring, like Bill Maher’s anti-religion documentary Religulous, but it does take some slyly subversive swipes at the nature of faith and its reliance upon the unproven.

The Invention of Lying suffers from trying to be a romantic comedy. Too much of its conflict is spent on whether the chubby guy can get the pretty girl. The movie gets a tad sentimental for dealing in bitter-truths, and Gervais and Robinson steer the film to the ultimate romantic comedy setting: objecting at a wedding. I wouldn’t have minded the rom-com asides if they didn’t feel like they kept striking the same chord. Mark wants to be in a relationship with Anna. She points out that he’s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. He persists. She points out that he?s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. This goes on and on until the inevitable break at the end. Mark, and especially Gervais, is an appealing guy, self-effacing and witty, even downright cute at turns, but when Anna keeps repeating the same looks-first mantra, it makes her seem increasingly shallow and him seem like a glutton for punishment. Garner is a fabulous comedic actress and packs a lot more emotion into her character than I would have expected given the conceit.

Ricky Gervais is catching fire as of late, and it seems that America is finally waking up to the charms and brilliance of this squat comedian. He created The Office, the standard for squirm-based comedy, and appeared in the underrated supernatural comedy Ghost Town last fall. Gervais shows the necessity of lies in our world, from sparing hurt feelings to making mass-market entertainment. The world needs dishonesty. When The Invention of Lying is on-target, it is a hilarious, almost brilliant, comedy, with its best gags saved for taking on “the Man in the Sky.” It’s too bad then that the entire movie doesn’t live up to these flashes of comedic brilliance. Still, the movie is sweet enough and ends on a satisfying level, even if The Invention of Lying begins as one movie and ends as another. Gervais is an appealing lead, though he doesn’t prove much in the way of a director, and he has some real dramatic acting chops too, nicely put to use during his mother’s deathbed scene. I hope more Americans wake up to this man’s charms. Gervais continues to show audiences the sharp wit that has made him one of the world’s foremost funnymen.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Illusionist (2006)

The Illusionist is a satisfying, well-staged period piece con game. It’s set in 1900 Vienna (though everyone’s accents sound British to me) and revolves around Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a magician that truly dazzles the crowds and leaves his skeptics guessing. He becomes a monstrous hit with tricks like making an orange tree grow from a seed and having butterflies carry handkerchiefs. The city’s Chief Inspector (Paul Giamatti) is a fan but also inquiring on counts of fraud. Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) is planning to marry the beautiful duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel). Little does the prince know that Eisenheim and Sophie were childhood friends forbidden to see each other because of class differences. It’s been 15 years since they last saw one another but they’re making up for lost time. The Prince sets the Inspector to ensnare the lovers and shut down Eisenheim.

The movie has a very interesting character relationship between Eisenheim and the Chief Inspector. They have a friendly, respectful relationship, with the Inspector pleading with Eisenheim not to force his hand. The Inspector enjoys magic and showmanship, but he also knows what backs he has to scratch to keep his title. I found the frustrating friendship and admiration between Eisenheim and the Inspector to be meatier than the forbidden love angle that drives the story. The Illusionist has the air of a historical romance, but it’s really more about these two men and their bond.

Giamatti has a very strong role and plays all the different shades of his well-trodden man who still keeps hold of his ethics when he’s told to look the other way. He’s just as an important a character and Giamatti has completely wiped my memory of Lady in Water (not that he had to atone for it). Norton is easily one of our greatest actors, but in The Illusionist he underplays too much, slightly smiling his way through an altogether stale performance. I know part of his acting requires a reserved knowledge, since he is setting up those around him. I just felt that anyone else could have played the role the same, with or without a teenage goatee. Biel holds her own, which is something I never would have thought possible amongst celebrated Oscar-nominees. Her role is pivotal but small and doesn’t require much speaking, but all things considered she does pleasantly surprise. Maybe there is an actress somewhere in that pinup body.

The Illusionist, like its title practitioner, knows that an audience loves to be fooled, but only for so long. A magician is the perfect profession to showcase a con game, and writer/director Neil Burger crafts an intriguingly enjoyable tale where we do want to know how they did it. Burger knows how to misdirect but also how to stretch a small budget to create a rich dramatic environment. I don’t know if the explain-a-lot-in-a-minute ending does a disservice to the film or not, but I was happy to get some answers even if they were a tad predictable. That’s the whole thing with magic — we want to know but we love being confounded.

This is an extremely well made indie period film. The production design is astute and often times foreboding, like the Prince’s hallway completely filled with deer heads whose antlers form a really creepy canopy. The special effects are used judiciously and have more impact than the mega budget Hollywood summer spectacles. The Illusionist is a nice example of a character driven mystery that seems to be overlooked all too often today. This is an engaging, satisfying, and handsome movie that entertains by hooking into our curiosity to know how the trick is done.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Italian Job (2003)

The Italian Job’ is equal parts dumb and equal parts entertaining, which makes for fine breezy summertainment. The cast is agreeable, the heist is interesting, the action is full of sexy cars and explosions; I call into question how in the world Jerry Bruckheimer’’s name is absent from this. Maybe he’’s too busy with his TV work.

The film opens up on a nifty heist in, of all places, Venice. Grizzled old-timer John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) leads his crew for, say it with me now everyone, one last heist. Charlie (Mark Wahlberg) is his second in command and the heir to the thievery throne. The crew steals a safe full of gold bars by applying explosive paint to specific levels of ceilings, causing the safe to drop two floors into the awaiting arms of our scoundrels. The Venice police believe the safe to be riding off in a boat, driven by the crew’’s getaway man Handsome Rob (the always good to have Jason Statham). But no the real safe has fallen into the canal and Charlie and John are scuba-safe-crackin’’. The crew gets away with their misdeed and toast about their thievery atop a mountainside.

Everything is good. But wait, Steve (Edward Norton) double-crosses his peers and hijacks the gold and kills John. Here’s what I don’t get. Everyone in the crew is shocked, especially an overactive and whiny Wahlberg (and there’’s no worse kind than a whiny Wahlberg). ““How could you do this?”” whines Whiney Wahlberg. Let me think here. Maybe it’s because … YOU’’RE ALL THIEVES, JACKASS! What was that old saying, no honor among thieves or something. To paraphrase ‘Go’, you guys aren’’t exactly in a highly ethical industry. There aren’’t good thieves and bad thieves; this ain’’t no Errol Flynn pic. I would also like to note that everyone in the crew should have known of Steve’s predestined treachery just by the fact that Norton has a mustache. C’’mon, do you need any bigger a sign? Anyway, the van the crew is in drives off a bridge into subzero water. Steve fires some round into the water and believes he’s killed his former crew. They of course are not dead and instead are using the scuba gear to breathe. Of course, it’’s still subzero temperatures but what does that matter?

We then flash to one year later. Dead John’’s not-so-dead daughter, Stella (Theron), conveniently works as a professional safe-cracker to tests security systems. Hmm, I wonder if that will come in handy later. Charlie approaches her with a plan to re-re-re-steal the gold from Steve, the man who, dramatic pause, killed her father. She agrees to help because she wants to see the look on Steve’’s face when he finds his money gone. It’s probably something very similar to many people over 40 I see now that the stock market is full of price-inflated charlatans.

What follows is Charlie reassembling his crew; Seth Green as the geeky tech dude, Handsome Rob, and Mos Def as the demolitions expert. Together they work out a plan that is part elaborate and part ludicrous, but still entertaining. This is where ‘The Italian Job’ gets the rules of heist cinema right: 1) Efficient amount of time must be made to plan the heist so the audience knows the steps and every role of importance. 2) The heist must go off for an extended period of time for the audience to enjoy the payoff of watching all the rehearsal proceedings. 3) The heist has got to be done in an interesting way. 4) Not everything has to go according to plan. The only real action sequences in ‘The Italian Job’ bookend the film, with the opening Venice heists and the later and extended Steve steal. With this said, the end still carries a good sense of payoff for the audience, and watching all of the different elements of the team work together with their own responsibilities builds a sense of attachment to these otherwise undeveloped characters.

I am convinced Mark Wahlberg is a black hole of acting. Sure, he can do Affable Lug fine and dandy as evidenced by ‘Boogie Nights’, but when Wahlberg attempts (and that is the operative word) to emote he looks like his leg is caught in a bear trap. His whole bland handsome understatedness isn’’t fooling me. Theron is a pretty face but I still haven’t seen anything she’s done to convince me she’s anything more. Green is very funny in his geeky role, complaining that he had the original idea for Napster and it was stolen from him by his roommate. Statham and Mos Def round out a likable if slightly one-note crew.

Director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator) has graduated from the world of music videos but still knows how to stage some exciting scenes. The slick ending heist, with the L.A. gridlock, three trucks to chase after, and fleet of patriotic Minis is a great popcorn action set piece all the more appreciated because of the patient setup the movie has given.

In the days of summer, where some people wrongly consider a bloated and pretentious action film to be entertaining, even if they don’t get a lick of it, it’’s especially nice to have something like ‘The Italian Job’ remind us the escapist fun summer flicks can offer. Just don’’t worry if Wahlberg looks to be in pain.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Red Dragon (2002)

The following is a conversation overheard between two studio producers:

“Person #1: So this Hannibal movie made like a ton of green. What else can we do to squeeze out some more money?”

Person #2: “Hey, do you remember a movie called Manhunter based on the first Lector novel?”

Person #1: Nope.

Person #2: That’s fine because nobody else does.

It’’s official folks: Hannibal Lector, America’’s favorite cannibal, is now more comical than scary. See the element that 1991’’s Silence of the Lambs carried with it was a stealthily gripping sense of psychological horror. It hung with you in every closed breath you would take, surrounding you and blanketing your mind. I mean, there aren’t many serial killer movies that win a slew of Oscars. And while the follow-up, last year’’s Hannibal, gleefully bathed in excess at least Ridley Scott’’s sequel was so over-the-top with its Baroque horror that it was entertaining. So what’’s Red Dragon, the latest Lector flick based on Thomas Harris’ first novel like? Well it’’s like the bastard child of Lambs and Hannibal after a drunken one-night-stand neither would be proud of in the pale light of morning.

In an extended prologue we see the capture of the good doctor with a good appetite, Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins, completing his trilogy of the character). FBI Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) seeks his advice on a profile of a serial killer, not knowing that Lector more than fits the bill. A violent struggle ensues that leaves Graham with a long scar across his abdomen and Lector locked away for nine consecutive life sentences.

Turns out there’’s another madman on the loose. The “Tooth Fairy,” dubbed by tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), has butchered two families in their homes and inserted shards of broken mirror into their eyes. The FBI coaxes Graham out of retirement to try and track down the “Tooth Fairy.” But it seems in order to make any significant ground he must seek help from an old advisor –– Hannibal Lector.

The crux of the film follows Graham’’s attempts to figure out the identity of the “Tooth Fairy,” which we learn fairly fast is pretty boy Ralph Fiennes. Seems Fiennes has a cleft palette and years of physical and sexual abuse to toil over. He desires to transform into a mythical Chinese creature known as the Red Dragon. But wait, the lonely Fiennes is befriended by a lovely blind woman (Emily Watson) who identifies having people look differently at her. Can her affections melt the cold heart of a cold-blooded killer? Well, if they did there’d be no other half of this movie.

What Red Dragon feels like is more of a checklist of what we expect to see in a Hannibal movie than anything of creative nourishment. It’’s like a slimmer version of Lambs plot. Once again there’’s an FBI agent who recruits Hannibal for advice on tracking down a serial killer. Once again there’’s a disturbed killer trying to transform himself. Once again Hannibal Lector scares the crap out of anyone at will. Check, check, and check. Creative stagnation? Double check. The most disappointing aspect is the rudimentary feel this whole exercise has. Even though Red Dragon is a prequel it still seems like it’’s begging to meet our expectations of two earlier films.

The first stab at the Red Dragon novel was in 1986 by director Michael Mann (Ali, The Insider) with the thriller Manhunter. William Peterson (before his work at CSI) was a more brooding Graham, Tom Noonan was a spookier “Tooth Fairy,” and the tension was stacked better. There were no comparative expectations.

Norton is the finest actor of his generation but has certain trouble breathing life into Graham. The character is far more straight-laced than what we’’ve been told is an expert at delving into the minds of killers. Graham’s relationship with Lector doesn’’t have any of the complexity, or interest, that Jodie Foster’’s Clarice Starling had. He can even be very flat-footed in his detective work for a specialist. He stares at the home videos of the two slain families for about an hour wondering what the connection is while we in the audience shout it out to him. Let’s go to the videotape Ed!

Anthony Hopkins returns as the devil in the flesh and seems to have another grand old time. Lector worked in Lambs because he was caged up, like a wild animal not meant for four glass walls. You never knew what would happen. He’d get in your head and he would know what to do with your gray matter — not that he didn’’t have a culinary degree in that department with Hannibal. With Red Dragon, Hannibal is just window dressing to another serial killer. He’’s a supporting character in a story that he has nothing to do with. He’’s reduced to comic relief with his sudden attacks of chattering teeth and velvety voice. The amazing supporting cast of actors all do well, especially the beaming Watson who will shine in anything you put her in. Just try.

Ultimately the story of Red Dragon is far from flawless and meanders for quite a while. It would have been a marginally competent movie had it not been trying to replicate Silence of the Lambs so damn hard. So, is this the last you’ll see of Hannibal Lector? No as long as clinging cash registers can still be heard. Cue evil laughter.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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