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Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

I have no real investment in Mary Poppins as a character or the original 1964 movie, so I was expecting to walk out of Mary Poppins Returns with a shrug, likely finding it middling at worse. I was unprepared for what I endured, and endured is the accurate statement. Mary Poppins Returns is an insane movie and one of the most maddening and painful experiences in a theater I’ve had all year, and no number of spoonfuls of sugar will help this bad medicine go far enough down.

It’s the “Great Slump,” a.k.a. Depression, in London and the Banks children have grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) has three young children of his own and he’s struggling to maintain his job at the bank and be the father they need in the wake of his wife’s death. His sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has moved into help but it’s still not enough. Enter that famous nanny, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who takes it upon herself to watch over the children, help them through the grieving process, and explore the outer reaches of London with some help from some friends, chiefly Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda). The Banks family is in danger of losing their home to the head of the bank (Colin Firth) unless they can find a specific title of shares that will grant them a wealth denied their adult lives.

This movie felt like it was eight hours long and I had no sense of how much time was passing, mostly because of its misshaped structure and general lack of pacing. Mary Poppins Returns feels like it could have been renamed The Tony Awards: The Movie. It’s one unrelated song-and-dance number after another, rarely building from the previous one, and so it feels like an eternal televised awards show that just shuffles from one set piece to the next, never providing a sense of direction or finality. Things just happen in this movie and then different things happen but rarely do they feel consequential. This makes the film feel endless because you have no real concept of progression. It’s just another unrelated song into an unrelated magical realm that doesn’t really seem like it matters, and then we’re off to the next. I think some part of me is still trapped watching Mary Poppins Returns, never allowed to leave.

This would be mitigated if the songs were any good. There are over a dozen and not a single one is memorable. It was mere minutes after leaving the theater that I pressed myself into trying to hum any one of them, and I could not. They instantly vanish from your memory because there are no melodies or interesting production aspects that cause them to stand out. They assault you with their blandness and staid orchestration. They’re a careful recreation of an older sounding, 1950s musical, an antiquated sound that doesn’t have the same traction today. The only way you can remember one of these songs is if you have a traumatic experience forever linked to one of these mediocre, warbling collection of sounds.

There are two astoundingly peculiar songs. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a big ensemble number involving the lamp lighters lead by Miranda. However, the song reference is clearly evocative of the Timothy Leary “trip the light fantastic” comment about LSD. It’s strange to think this is only a coincidence when the lamp lighters are dubbed “learies.” It’s not a good song to begin with and the performance literally involves men on BMX bicycles flying around and doing tricks. How is any of this happening in a reported Disney family film? The Meryl Streep “Turning Turtle” song may be the most excruciating five minutes I’ve sat through for all 2018. It’s just embarrassing to watch and made me honestly think of the children’s movie disaster, The Ooogieloves, where you watch once proud actors debase themselves and their legacies in depressing fashion. That’s the level of dread and mourning I had watching Streep slog through a Bela Lugosi accent and dance upside down. It has to be seen to be believed but you shouldn’t ever have to see this. I have a new appreciation for the La La Land songs.

The continual removal of stakes robs the movie of feeling like anything onscreen genuinely matters. Mary Poppins is a magical creature without clearly defined rules or limits. At any point she might simply have the solution to a problem that she wasn’t sharing. Take for instance the ending (spoilers for the duration of this paragraph, but really, who cares?) where the lamp lighters and the Banks family race to ole Big Ben to literally “turn back time” by adjusting the clock hands. The lamp lighters use their ladders to free climb the face of the clock to the very top, only to be undone by not being able to reach the minute hand at it nears twelve. Then all of a sudden Mary Poppins scoffs to herself and flies up to the clock face to adjust it. If she could do this the whole time why did these very mortal men risk their lives in this exercise? I think Mary Poppins may be a cruel god (more on this later). The concluding dash to ensure the Banks family can keep their home involves not one, not two, but three deus ex machinas, a “Turducken of ex machinas” as my pal Ben Bailey termed it. Ultimately all of their actions do not even matter because the film routinely provides an unknown escape route that invalidates their efforts. It turns out, in the end, they weren’t even going to lose their home thanks to (at my best guess) a magical bird head that is best friends with the head of a bank and who never mentioned this before, the same head of the bank who has just been off in what appears to be an adjacent room for whatever reason and that also knows that Michael Banks has accrued a hefty fortune from a childhood investment, and has never mentioned it as well except in this crucial moment. Why, why does Mary Poppins Returns do this? Why does it present stakes or the illusion of stakes only to sabotage them every time?

Is Mary Poppins really a creature of good or does her need to be loved prove her a fickle god who demands adulation, subservience, and obedience? When Mary Poppins travels from world to world, some live action, some animated, all fanciful, every inhabitant seems to know this woman and love her unconditionally despite her prevalent smarm. The bigger question is do these magical worlds exist independent of Mary Poppins? Is there a pocket universe in existence on the side of a chipped porcelain bowl, or did it only come into existence when Mary Poppins decided it would be a lovely vacation spot? If so, that means she is calling into being a throng of adoring creatures that exist to validate her impulsive whims. She is a selfish god that demands an audience of servants and sycophants, not unlike the Javier Bardem character in Darren Aronofsky’s polarizing polemic, mother!.

The actors acquit themselves fine for their roles. Blunt (A Quiet Place) and Miranda (Moana) will still be charming performers even when given substandard material. Blunt holds your attention with her prissy, schoolmarm persona, balancing the audience’s memories of Julie Andrews without going into parody. Her singing (as also evidenced from 2014’s Into the Woods) is above average and can help make some of the songs more tolerable to listen to. Miranda is a talent bursting with charisma and range, which makes it all the more frustrating to squeeze him into the narrow confines of a cockney scamp. He does get a rapping reprise in “A Cover is Not the Book” with a group of cartoon penguins. The stranger element is that it really feels like Miranda’s character wants to have sex with Mary Poppins. They slot him as a forced romantic option for Mortimer’s underwritten sister, but his eyes are clearly set for the woman who bosses people around and has magic in her fingers. He remembers her when he was a boy chimney sweep and I think he’s been fantasizing about her every day since. Plus, she hasn’t aged in 30 years.

Mary Poppins Returns is a bizarre artifact of a displaced time, taking great pains to recreate a style but without providing a purpose or sense of feeling beyond emulation. I don’t know who this movie is for besides the hardcore fans of the original. There are dancing dolphins, talking dogs, bathtub portals, an upside down house, flying balloons, union protests, Angelina Lansbury or an animatronic lookalike, and there’s lots of songs you will be unable to recall and a story that repeatedly removes any stakes or grounding from beneath itself so that the movie never feels firm or purposeful. There were several points where I just wanted to throw up my hands and ask, “What am I watching?” I still don’t know. Mary Poppins Returns is a movie musical that is nothing short of super-cali-fragil-awful.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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A Quiet Place (2018)

I’m going to write a sentence I’ve never written in my history of writing about film: make sure you get all the gas out of your system before sitting down to watch A Quiet Place in the theater. This intense little thriller relies upon a nearly silent film experience which makes you, in the audience, hyper aware of just about every little noise permeating your surroundings. Munching popcorn, opening candy wrappers, brief coughs, you’ll become highly attuned to the faintest of noises. This is why you, dear reader, should be advised to make sure you have no bodily gasses stored in your system. Unless that’s your plan all along, to break the tension with a well-timed expelling of flatulence, going from screening to screening, finding new purpose with being that guy, eating plates of beans in preparation for the long withholding. With all that being said, A Quiet Place is an ingenious little thriller with near flawless execution.

It’s over a year into a world overrun by monsters that are trained to attack the smallest of sounds. What’s left of humanity has had to adapt to a very quiet way of life. The Abbott family has ironically be given a head start to adapt into this scary new world that prioritizes silence. Lee (John Krasinski, also co-writer and director) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have a daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, so the family has learned to communicate via sign language. The family walks barefoot on paths of sand and resides in a farmhouse on the edge of a rural community. The Abbott clan is still overcoming the loss of their youngest child who, at and innocent and naïve four years old, was taken by the monsters. Now Evelyn is expecting a new child and the Abbotts must stick together if they are going to survive.

A Quiet Place is a brilliantly simple concept that’s exceptionally well developed and executed. Using the very concept of sound itself as the monster, or the prelude to the monster, is so clever and completely relatable. It trains the audience to fear sound itself. It also serves the role of placing the audience in a hyper aware state of continuous dread. Any little sound we deeply dread, and there are so many ways to make sound in this world above a whisper. The emptiness of the aural landscape creates a template to build upon, so that any small noise feels like an alarm to the sense. The gripping sound design brings a sense of the looming dangers as we hear the thundering claps and crashes of the monsters approach. Krasinski also very cleverly communicates the world from Regan’s deaf perspective. When the camera focuses on her, the sound levels drop entirely, and then when another character is onscreen, they rise back up. It’s an extremely effective and smart way to drop the audience into her vulnerable position.

This is a movie that sets up the stakes upfront. A young child dies for doing something stupid but entirely in character for a young child (whom I’m assuming never personally encountered these creatures). A Quiet Place establishes immediately that this new world is unforgiving of mistakes. A distracted mind, a false step, a sudden impulse, and anyone can be gone forever.

Like the similarly themed Don’t Breathe, the fun is setting up the world, the playing space, and the rules, and then watching it all play out. A Quiet Place does a great job of establishing its world and surroundings and once the action hits midway through it doesn’t let up until the end credits. Fortunately, the thrills never get old too because Krasinski and the other screenwriters, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, keep finding new and intelligent challenges to explore. The pieces all add up and the details make this world feel extremely well realized, from the marked squeaky floorboards to the routines if separated to the colored warning lights. The tension is already at a constant simmer from its very effective opening sequence that sets the mood. A simple exposed nail on a stair can be a returning point of tremendous uncertainty time and again. The very presence of a pregnancy with a looming due date feels like a bomb waiting to explode. How in the world will a baby be born in a world that punishes sound? I watched this movie with my hand covering my mouth for a far majority of it. Even the jump scares feel well distributed and earned in this movie. Mostly, it’s a film that makes you twist in that delicious sense of anxiety as you wait. It’s nerve-rattling in the best possible way.

Another aspect of what makes the film so worthwhile that won’t get as many headlines is how well developed it is as a drama about a family overcoming grief and guilt. Each member of the Abbott family feels some level of blame for the tragedy and is punishing his or herself. In a way, the events of the film are about processing that grief and handing over the protection of the family. It’s an unspoken shroud that hangs over the entire family, you can see it on their faces, with the heaviness in their eyes, and in their day-to-day anxiety. The film does a great job through the character of Marcus (Noah Jupe), the middle child, of showcasing how this terrifying new normal would affect and fray one’s psyche. He’s petrified with fear and consumed with the scary burden of having to ascend into the role of protector and provider that his father is trying to groom him for when the inevitable comes. The happy version of “the inevitable” is Evelyn and Lee growing old and feeble. The more realistic version is the two of them at some point being felled by these murderous monsters. When Marcus is given a moment to let his guard down, to not worry about the volume of his voice, it’s a sweet father/son moment of bonding that feels entirely fulfilling as well as insightful about this new, peculiar way of life.

A central conflict is the friction between Regan and her father and their desire to understand and empathize with one another. The film’s biggest emotional moment is the conclusion of this, and it feels so fully earned and poignant that even typing it out now stirs me. It’s the culmination of a well-structured screenplay that has found its moments for character development in a nearly silent movie, so that when declarations are made, even with the monsters and its creepy gimmick, you’ll still feel something. These characters matter and their struggles are universal and emotionally appealing. The acting all around by the young children and Krasinski and Blunt is completely believable and engaging.

For a relatively low-budget thriller, I was surprised how much of the monsters we actually saw onscreen. Krasinski still prefers to keep his monsters on the peripheral or in the background, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the horrifying rest. That’s where I thought the movie would stay, but it does not. There are several close-ups of the creatures at work, a mass of teeth and auditory sensors. Their heads open up like blossoming flowers. I know the designs are CGI and yet they looked very realistic, as realistic as a fanciful monster can, naturally. It had the sheen of practical effects, which is the best compliment. The monsters reminded me of the Cloverfield creatures mixed with the Pitch Black aliens. It’s a spooky design and under Krasinski’s attention the menacing creatures never stop being scary.

Who knew John Krasinski had this in him? The affable actor best known for portraying Jim Halpert on the long-running American version of The Office has directed before, an adaptation of a David Foster Wallace book and an indie family dramedy. He’s never ventured into genre filmmaking before. But then again, neither had fellow funnyman Jordan Peele, who came out of nowhere in 2017 with Get Out and rode that to box-office riches, critical acclaim, and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Maybe more performers we view simply through the lens of comedy have tremendous potential to be genre virtuosos. A Quiet Place is not an outright silent movie but one where silence is most keenly felt. The simple premise is beautifully realized, the characters and their plights are affecting, the details are fully thought through (though newspaper publishing is questionably late into this sound apocalypse), and the structure is smartly placed and paced. If you’re looking for a suspenseful, intense, and invigorating movie, A Quiet Place feels like a work out for the senses.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

It’s been a couple of hours after watching Sherlock Gnomes and I still have alcohol working through my bloodstream (a byproduct of having to watch Sherlock Gnomes) and so I thought why not begin the review writing process and see where this goes. A little pretext first: I had no intention of watching this movie. Every time its trailer came before a movie I was watching, I cringed harder than I ever have. I cannot remember another movie trailer that I would describe as soul-killing as this one, with its emphasis on butt humor and an extended joke about a thong-wearing gnome farting in the mud. To watch this trailer was to look into the empty abyss and have it look back into you. It was this repulsed reaction that entertained my friend Ben Bailey so much that he insisted that we watch Sherlock Gnomes one fateful evening (he paid for my ticket and my suffering). I loaded up at the theater’s bar and the bartender made the easiest upsell he ever did in his life, and I took my tall adult beverage, sat in the theater, and awaited the end, like a man heading toward execution. Then a funny thing happened and Sherlock Gnomes was not the film advertised in its abysmal, life-questioning trailer. It’s still not great, though.

Following the events from the 2011 original, Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden gnomes have relocated to a new home in London. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) are entrusted with the gnome-specific responsibilities of the garden by gnome leadership. I guess it’s about making the place look nice. Anyway, Sherlock Gnomes (voiced by Johnny Depp) and his trusty sidekick Watson (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) are looking into the disappearance of gnomes all over. One unfortunate day, while Gnomeo and Juliet are away from their garden, the rest of the gnomes have been kidnapped. Sherlock Gnomes and the others vow to find them, believing the culprit to be Sherlock’s longtime nemesis, Moriarty (voiced by Jamie Demetriou).

Remarkably, a solid 80 percent of the trailer for Sherlock Gnomes is not in the finished film. The fart Jacuzzi? Gone. The “no ship Sherlock” bit? Gone? The thong-wearing gnome twerking? Gone. This fascinates me. We’ve long been plagued with trailers that ultimately have moments not in the final product, but I’ve never seen a movie, let alone an animated feature, where the clear majority of its trailer does not exist. Animated films take many years in development and are generally costly. If a live-action film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost those days of work. If an animated film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost months if possible years of toil. How does this happen? Was the trailer an intentional ruse meant to advertise a far more juvenile, base, and dispiriting movie? The trailer features several jokes or references that, I assumed, were never intended for the final product because these scenes involve the other gnomes who were kidnapped. That means they were animated and either radically changed the story or these jokes were cynically constructed to produce a misleading trailer to appeal to children with farts. This truly fascinates me and befuddles me, a worthy mystery for Sherlock Gnomes (UPDATE: theory confirmed!).

The actual Sherlock Gnomes film I sat through wasn’t actively painful but it wasn’t particularly engaging or rewarding either, a mediocre children’s movie that will vanish from memory upon the ride home. There were a handful of moments where I rolled my eyes but no joke, no pun, even approached the pain of that trailer. On the flip side, there was perhaps two jokes that drew a mild chuckle and that was it. For the majority of the 86-minute running time, I just sat and took it all in, never really engaging. It was boring yet inoffensive, colorful yet unimaginative, and derivative yet silly enough to be a trifle. The look of the animation as a bit more polished than I was anticipating. The use of lighting and scale is well balanced. The voice acting was acceptable from the star-studded cast and I didn’t feel any great sadness for anyone’s involvement. The lessons and plot twists will be predictable enough for someone over the age of eight, but hey, everybody needs to learn some time. The use of the Elton John song catalogue (he is a primary producer) is the most forced element in the film, elbowing in one song or another, including “original songs” that you won’t even remember. Much like the rest, John’s contributions are mediocre and easily forgotten.

I kept wondering about the strange world building and its implications. This is a clear application of Pixar’s oft-used formula of the secret-life-of, this time with garden gnomes. Except there’s a segment where Sherlock and Juliet go to a club populated with dolls, stuffed animals, and toys of all sorts. So it’s not just garden gnomes that are secretly alive, it’s also children’s toys. Which means this is essentially the same universe as Toy Story. For whatever reason, and maybe it’s a misplaced sense of novelty, we stick with the gnomes. These creatures worry about being smashed, though can they be put back together much like Humpty Dumpty (except he couldn’t be put back together even with the help of all the king’s men and horses, no never mind this references. Also, what good are horses going to do putting together the shattered pieces of an egg-man? Do horses have thumbs to pick up the broken pieces? I feel like this entire aside might be attributable to the alcohol still in my system). If breaking is their biggest fear, why do these gnomes take such unnecessary risks with their safety and well-being? When Gnomeo is tossing Juliet in the air atop a ladder, I worried for her little gnome life. This cavalier attitude prevails amidst the larger gnome community, and my only conclusion is that these creatures are either thrill-seeking junkies or masochists. Then I began thinking of the life of other garden gnomes. I assume most gnome-owners don’t exactly have an entire menagerie of these things, and so the majority of gnome existence must seem awfully isolated and lonely. Their communities must be few and far between. Then I started thinking about transforming past Best Picture-winners into gnome format, and let’s just say that 12 Years a Garden Gnome was not a good idea for anyone.

This is a sequel and combined spin-off for the animated gnomes world, so the holdover characters often feel superfluous. This is clearly more of a Sherlock vehicle and there are even references to the Hound of Baskervilles and The Final Problem, among others. This is trying to establish a Sherlock Gnomes franchise first and foremost. The Gnomeo and Juliet subplot feels rushed and foolishly resolved. Now tasked with running the garden, Juliet feels overwhelmed with pressure and Gnomeo feels like he isn’t getting attention. Rather than support her, or see things from her perspective, he pouts and accuses her of taking him for granted. To conclude this storyline, she actually apologizes, and I shouted, “Apologize for what?” A better rendition of this storyline is realized with Sherlock Gnomes repeatedly being indifferent to Watson’s contributions. When the main theme, character arcs, and plot points involve new characters, you might as well get rid of the holdovers and go all-in on Sherlock Gnomes. Was there a picky audience that would have said, “I will only accept another gnome-related children’s film if it has the tiniest connection to the last gnome-related children’s film”? Also, there’s another garden gnome children’s film on the horizon, Gnome Alone, so stay tuned, gnome aficionados.

The victory is that Sherlock Gnomes is not the seventh-seal-breaking apocalyptic event that its reprehensible, punishing, life-sapping trailer suggested. Hooray for you, Sherlock Gnomes filmmakers. The finished product is still a mostly middling time-waster that feels like a Gnomes relaunch. I fully admit this movie was never intended for someone my age, but I attempted to see its merits for its intended audience. If you have young kids, this is a reasonable 86-minute time waster while you, presumably their parent, can do something better with that time. Go back to that novel you keep pushing off. Have some alone time with yourself or another person. Or simply close your eyes and enjoy the silence. Whatever you do, Sherlock Gnomes is an adequate comic adventure that will afford you time to think.

Nate’s Grade: C

Side note: While looking up images, I came across an entirely gallery of Sherlock Gnomes poster parodies for movies like I, Tonya, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Darkest Hour, The Disaster Artist, The Post, and even Call Me By Your Name and  All the Money in the World. Even All the Money in the World but in gnome form! This is inane!

UPDATE: Thanks to the amazing connectivity of the Internet, someone closely involved with the Sherlock Gnomes production contacted me to inform me that my theory about the trailer discrepancy was correct. Paramount’s marketing team wrote the trailer and insisted the production spend valuable time animating it. The more juvenile jokes were designed, as this source indicated, to put as many butts in the seats opening weekend, and that the marketing department said they knew best, and that was that. The production spent time creating scenes for a trailer they had no intention of ever being in the finished film with scenes that badly characterized what kind of movie it would be. This drove the production team crazy. You can blame Paramount’s marketing department for the soul-killing trailer. Thanks, Sherlock Gnomes source, for reaching out and clearing up that mystery.

The Girl on the Train (2016)

girlontrainposterConsider it Gone Girl lite. The adaptation of the mega best-selling thriller The Girl on the Train seems to be on a runaway collision course with irony-free, amped-up melodrama and sundry “adult” sensuality reminiscent of the 90s boon of erotic thrillers like Jade and Sliver. The book by Paula Hawkins had three strong female lead characters each telling their own miserable worldview of trying to live up to social standards of motherhood and marriage. The movie seems to have shorn most of the focus on character and included every twist and turn, no matter how absurd. Take for instance just how insular this world is: Rachel (Emily Blunt) is the ex-wife to Tom (Justin Theroux) who left her for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who has a nubile nanny Megan (Haley Bennett) who is unhappy with her controlling husband Scott (Luke Evans), who happens to be the couple that Rachel voyeuristically observes and fantasizes domestic bliss. Megan goes missing and Rachel cannot account for her whereabouts because she has become a blackout drunk to kill her self-loathing and sense of internalized failure. The whodunit aspects of this movie can come across as rather hokey and overblown, but lacking the nasty nuance and subversive gender politics of the far superior Gone Girl. Every single person in the film has to come across like a suspect (Megan’s husband, Megan’s therapist, some guy in the road?) and talks in a curiously oblique style. The attempts at sexy lack heat but more than that they lack conviction. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) seems to think he’s directing a Hitchcockian thriller one minute and a tawdry art film the next. The screenplay is also unhelpfully nonlinear, frivolously jumping around in time and point of view and muddling the overall timeline. Anna and Megan are drastically underwritten; Megan is a sex kitten with a dark secret that’s trying too hard to be provocative, and Anna is an even more thankless role as the stand-in for Rachel’s swirling antipathy. The concluding moment of girl power feels unearned, and the answers to the mysteries leave a lot more lingering questions about train platform-sized plot gaps. The best thing this Girl has going for it is Emily Blunt, who delivers a better performance than the film deserves. She’s unrestrained, red-eyed, sloshing, and disturbing as a drunk. She’s wounded and lashing out ferociously at the world, at her self, and it’s fascinating and heartrending to watch. I bet it would be even better to read.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Sicario (2015)

imagesThe word “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, we’re told in a helpful opening text. It’s a term that has greater meaning in the landscape of the war on drugs, a war that has ravaged Mexico and its citizens. Sicario, the film, is grim and gripping and director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t hold back from the brutality of its reality. Sicario is a flat-out tremendous film. It’s the most intense film I’ve sat through since 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, so much so that for long stretches of the 121-minute film I was literally tearing my hair out with delicious anxiety.

Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is a Phoenix FBI Agent called in by her superiors with a very special offer. Matt (Josh Brolin), a government agent whose affiliation is classified, has a task force that he would like Kate to join. She’ll be taking it to the drug cartels by destabilizing their chain of power. Kate accepts the job. Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is a foreign agent in alliance with Matt, and he seems to be deeply knowledgeable of the cartel and their practices. As the chaos swirls and the team gets closer to the cartel bosses, Kate has to reckon with what she is part of.

Let Sicario be a blueprint for how to brilliantly develop suspense sequences in mainstream cinema. I’ve written about it before but the key to suspense and horror is simply characters we care about and the worry of what will happen next. Sicario places our characters in the middle of an ongoing battle and serves them up as the change agent, the proverbial stick rattling the hornet’s nest of deadly cartels. There’s a wonderful sequence when Kate joins up with the team for her first mission. She’s been told she’ll be based in El Paso but in reality she and a team of Army Rangers are venturing across the Mexican border into Juarez. They’re picking up a high-level cartel informant and transporting him back to American soil. The ride into the country sets the stage as the caravan of black SUVs tears through the streets of Jaurez, bracketed by Mexican state police vehicles. We’ve previously been told at what points a likely trap might be staged, and so we wait, taking in the terrain, the distance, the exits, the personnel. We’re already sizing up the Mexican state police cars; is that one on the take? It’s at the end that the scene coalesces into an even stronger whole, as we literally have a climax in traffic. The border entrance is backed up, and so Kate and our team wait, all the while identifying some suspicious armed men in traffic lanes parallel to their vehicles. They’re told they cannot fire until deadly force is used, and so they wait and we wait. It’s a top-notch sequence where you’re nervously waiting for the boil, waiting for the explosion.

lead_960Writer Taylor Sheridan (best known as Deputy Chief Hale on Sons of Anarchy) has taken what could have been an empty Michael Bay-styled drug war thriller and given it a soul. Sheridan’s structure is ingeniously tied into his larger message about the moral futility of the escalating war on drugs. As Kate becomes more immersed into the costs of her new role, of the mounting ethical compromises and legal loopholes, she becomes a background player and Alejandro takes center stage. Rather than simply harden up and sacrifice her ideals for the sake of her mission, Kate holds true to her principles, even if she might be the only one continuing to stick to the rules and a need for oversight. It makes her a far more interesting character and it all comes to a terrific climactic scene that hinges upon two characters at a forceful crossroads, each with diametrically opposed viewpoints. For all the action, Sheridan has found a great way for his story to have a character-based climax that hits harder than simply killing the Worst Bad Guy. As we learn more about the reasons Kate was selected, her literal marginalization in the story makes thematic sense, especially as she’s unwilling to become a “wolf” in a “country of wolves.” Alejandro is that wolf, and in the last act he becomes the film’s focus as the pieces of their destabilization plan fall into place. There’s a scene with Alejandro that is so cold-blooded yet badass that it made my audience gasp. As the bodies drop and blood is shed, Sicario doesn’t lose sight of its characters even to the very end.

Sheridan’s script tackles its subject with a propensity for acknowledging the messy reality. There are no easy solutions and perhaps the best solution is really one that is at odds with conventional legality. The United States is losing the war on drugs, and innocents are suffering in droves. Matt’s cavalier attitude is in response to the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has done little except to enshrine certain violent elements into power. He’s trying to clear a path for Alejandro, but for what aim afterward is ethically questionable. When you’ve got nothing but bad solutions, perhaps the best option is still one that’s a step too far. Sicario tackles the harsh realities of the war on drugs without ever dragging out a soapbox. The messages and debates are suffused in every frame, every taut sequence, even pained expression. It’s a message movie where the morality and the escalating action go hand-in-hand.

With Prisoners and now Sicario, Villeneuve has proven to be one of our finest directors when it comes to making adult movies that get your palms sweaty. The execution of these suspense sequences left me breathless. Villeneuve uses long takes of aerial photography hovering over the topography of Mexico and the American southwest. It has the effect of feeling like you’re surveying an alien planet. Added with the ominous score by Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything), the tension can feel overwhelming at times. The menacing and percussion-heavy score makes it feel like an army is approaching. The movie also looks absolutely beautiful thanks to the cinematography from Roger Deakens. There are several lovely shots lit with the dying rays of sunlight, which I would admire further if my heart weren’t in my throat while watching. Villeneuve also knows when to pump the brakes, letting his film breathe, and letting his actors take center stage. There are several moments of restraint that allow the actors to flourish. From top to bottom, Sicario is a technical marvel that impresses as it continues to horrify.

Blunt as a badass is nothing new after her killer turn in last year’s vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow, but there’s way more to her than being a superhero with a gun. She’s the moral conscience of the movie and you may discover, as she does, how irrelevant such a stance may be in this underground world. She’s trying to make sense of it all, trying to go along with what she thinks is right, or at least making a difference, and swallowing her frustrations. She saves the best for last in a finale scene that pushes her character to the breaking point of her ethics, and Blunt floors you. While Blunt is our entry point into this world, and Brolin is amusing as a cavalier rogue agent, this is very much Del Toro’s movie. Alejandro could easily be the slick movie-cool hitman, a soulless killing-machine, but he’s a haunted man who knows he’s damned and goes about his business with steely resolve. Benicio Del Toro can often be confused with doing little acting because he so naturally underplays his characters, but keep watch and you’ll see a man who inherently knows his character. There are subtle shifts and small reveals that open up Alejandro, who is so hardened that this will be all you get.

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There have been some complaints citing the film’s lack of perspective from the Mexican side of the border, which is fair but also overlooking Sicario’s complexity. With its fear of cartel war violence spilling over into American neighborhoods, it’s not hard to see this film becoming supposed evidence in a xenophobic political campaign. Surely Donald Trump will be talking about Sicario. There is a small degree of representation with a minor character involved in the drug trade. The movie flashes back to him and his family a few times, setting us up to expect he’ll return at a pivotal moment later. He’s a completely unremarkable character and the brief scenes we spend with him made me anxious to get back to Kate and the main story. I didn’t care, and then he did reappear and I was quite surprised to find myself actively caring for this minor character’s well being. In a scenario where it seems like there’s a lack of vulnerability, this character provides it. He’s not a bad person per se as just another cog in a corrupt machine trying to provide for his loved ones. It’s a window into the larger ramifications of Kate and Matt’s actions. The very last bittersweet image doesn’t feel like victory, more like a warning of impending consequences that will befall innocents, and they aren’t Americans.

It’s rare to get a Hollywood thriller that excels at what it does and exceeds lofty expectations, but Sicario is that movie. Here is a thriller that excites, unnerves, provokes thought as well as terrible anxiety that you sweat in buckets over. The general feeling while watching Sicario is one of disquieting dread. The challenging and disturbing reality of the war on drugs blends with the brilliantly executed suspense sequences. The characters don’t get lost midst the clatter of violence, the direction enhances the actors and allows them to better inhabit their engaging characters, and the overall orchestration of all the many moving parts is so polished, so in tune, so electric that Sicario often does more than just entertain, it forces you to react. Leaving my theater was akin to coming down off an adrenaline high and I wanted to tell everyone I knew to see this movie. That’s the power of great cinema and Villeneuve has created a compelling feature that deserves to be soaked up and studied. This is exhilarating moviemaking, folks.

Nate’s Grade: A

Into the Woods (2014)

ITW_1-Sht_v18_Lg-560x829Theater fans, take this review with a Broadway-sized grain of salt because I’m going to admit I’ve never seen Into the Woods prior to its film release. I consider myself a Stephen Sondheim fan, especially with Sweeney Todd. Now with all that established, I found Into the Woods to be a thoroughly uninvolving and middling musical without any memorable tunes and a series of annoying characters that just kept running in comic redundancies. Perhaps it’s my own ignorance to the original 1987 theater production, considering subversive and edgy and not the most natural fit for the Disney brand. Perhaps I’m just not hip enough to Sondheim’s academic use of melody. Or perhaps others out there will share my opinion that Into the Woods is a tuneless bore.

In a fantasy kingdom, a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are trying to conceive a child but having difficulty. A witch (Meryl Streep) reveals that the only way to undo the infertility curse is to gather a series of magical items. The baker ventures into the aforementioned woods, desperate to find these items, often running into the likes of other fairy tale icons like Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Prince Charming (Chris Pine), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk, and the entrapped Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).

INTO THE WOODSIt must have been more relevant back in 1987, but today we are awash in the darker side of fairy tales. Analyzing the implications of “happily ever after” in a more adult and pessimistic way is nothing new. We’re saturated with TV shows and movies that have explored these issues before, revealing the darker truths to some of our favorite fairy tale characters, so it’s hard for a Woods novice to approach the show without a sense of ”been there, done that.” It’s unfair for Sondheim but that’s the reality that greets an adaptation of a musical that’s almost thirty years old. Because of this context, the insights and subversions with the fairy tale characters never feel somewhat pat. The fact that Little Red Riding Hood might be featuring a sexual awakening related to the dangerous Big Bad Wolf is the only striking one that adds dimension to her character. Other “twists” given to the characters are either predictable or just underwhelming. Oh, Prince Charming isn’t so nice and marrying into royalty isn’t the fantasy it’s made out to be? Then there are character betrayals that come out of nowhere, without any proper setup, that feel like the musical is just flailing around in transparent shock value. Just because someone suddenly does something out of character does not mean it was a good plot choice. The guilty party even sings, “I’m in the wrong story,” admitting the identity crises. I wouldn’t have a problem with these wrinkles if they felt better setup or there was more commentary attached. Instead, as delivered in the film, it feels rushed and unearned.

Music is inherently subjective (then again so is film, I mean…), so I’m sure others will vociferously disagree with my stance that Into the Woods is mediocre. True to Sondheim’s works, he establishes character-based melodies that fold and cascade atop one another, weaving in and out. The problem is when none of those melodies captures your attention. These are not humable tunes. To my ears, the songs just collided into one another forming one long string of tonal mélange. The singing is more than adequate by the performers (though Pine’s crooning is a bit subpar) but the songs just flatline. I just took a break from writing and listened through Amazon.com’s soundtrack for the show, sampling every song one again, and they all just blend together. There isn’t one song that burrows its way inside your brain, taking residence beyond the immediate. Then again, if you’re one of the fans of the show who loves these songs then having a fresh coat of Hollywood production will make them sound even better for you, especially with Corden and Blunt and Streep as the top performers.

Another hindrance for me was that I found many of these characters to be insufferably annoying. I found Red Riding Hood and Jack to be irksome and thieves, and so I didn’t feel much sympathy when Jack’s breaking and entering and giant manslaughter lead to dire consequences in the last act. Does not the lady giant deserve her vengeance? Her home was broken into, pilfered for its valuables, a small portion of which would have been sufficient but Jack cannot help his felonious ways, and then the boy killed her husband in a hasty escape attempt. If anything, I would have preferred the lady giant picking her teeth with the plucky lad. I also wanted Little Red to remain in the belly of the wolf (spoiler alert?). Cinderella lost my interest with her wishy-washy behavior. I believe it’s meant to be funny that she keeps returning and running off for three days in a row of princely balls. Another way of looking at that behavior is frustration. The only characters I actively cared about were the Baker and his wife, and the calamitous plotting of the musical’s second half tested even those allegiances.

into-the-woods-07The story gets to be rather redundant as well once the main characters are established and their plight is set in motion. I suppose I can now understand why Into the Woods is one of the most popular stage productions to perform at high schools and colleges: the scarcity of scene changes. Much like other aspects of the film, the setting just blends together and becomes tiresome. My pal Eric Muller remarked, “It’s called Into the Woods and not Into Multiple Sets.” I got sick of the woods. The plotting requires the various characters to keep running into one another again and again. It’s amusing at first but once it keeps going, and going, and going, the repetition loses its charm. You start to feel like the show is as lost as the characters and just going in circles to bide its time.

Acting-wise, I cannot fault the big-screen version. Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) has a great singing voice and has shown great range as an actress in 2014. Streep improves upon her shaky start to musical theater from Mamma Mia. She’s still the great Meryl and seems to be one of the few people having fun. She enlivens every scene she’s in. Pine (Star Trek Into Darkness) is enjoyably self-involved as his caddish prince. Depp (Transcendence) is suitably lascivious though he only has about five minutes on screen. Corden (soon to be the new host of CBS’ Late Late Show in 2015) is the real standout. The man has a self-effacing likeability to him that serves as an anchor for the show. He’s funny and tender but he’s the heart of the story, and the film is at its best with Corden as its center.

If you’re a fan of the original Into the Woods, chances are you’ll likely find enough in this adaptation to enjoy. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) and his crew re definitely fans and you can feel their appreciation for the source material. However, if this is your first exposure to the Broadway show, then you may too find the characters annoying, the commentary underdeveloped and dated, the songs tuneless and unmemorable, and the plotting to be redundant and tedious. The actors do what they can but it was ultimately a losing cause to my ears. I found the film more exhausting than transporting. I’m at a loss how people can work up such passions for a show that feels so thoroughly blah. I await the Sondheim crowd to tar and feather me as an ignorant heathen, but there you have it. Into the Woods is an underwhelming musical that made me want to turn on the radio.

Nate’s Grade: C

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

117411_galI’ve always been one able to separate the art from the artist, so while Tom Cruise may annoy people in real life because he jumped on a couch one summer, that doesn’t halt my enjoyment of the man’s movies. It seems with every new Cruise vehicle that under-performs at the box-office that I must be in the minority. Cruise hasn’t had a hit to his name since 2011’s suitably awesome Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Both Oblivion and Jack Reacher, perfectly solid action movies, failed to make over $100 million domestically, further calling into question the drawing power of Tom Terrific. It seems that his latest, Edge of Tomorrow, is going to suffer a similar fate. This is a shame. As my critical colleague Ben Bailey said in his own review for the film: “Edge of Tomorrow might just be the most critically acclaimed box-office bomb of 2014.”

William Cage (Cruise) is chiefly an Armed Forces PR flak. He goes on TV to push the talking points of the United States military, which is in a heap of trouble. Aliens have landed in central Europe and spread quickly, proving to be nearly unstoppable. There was one soldier who was able to lead a successful counter attack. The “Angel of Verdun” is Rita (Emily Blunt), a soldier Cage proudly chirps only spent a day in her mechanical fighting suit beforehand yet proved to be so deadly. After vaguely threatening a high-ranking official rather than report for a doomed counter assault, Cage is shipped to the frontlines as a deserter. In hours he and a motley crew of ground forces are flown to the beaches of France, where the aliens will slaughter them. In the firefight, Cage is covered with alien blood and gains their special power. The reason the aliens have won every battle, save one, is because they have the power to reset time. They learn from their errors, which is why they always anticipate humanity’s attacks. Now Cage has this power. Every time he dies, the day resets and he starts over, trying once again to survive. The only person who understands him is Rita, who once had the same power. Together, with some extensive training, they may be able to thwart the alien invaders for good.

maxresdefaultEdge of Tomorrow is the ultimate video game movie, and while I would normally mean this in a pejorative sense, it is actually a compliment. With every death, Cage gets to start over, looking for a way to complete the next stage of the next level, learning from his costly mistakes and hoping to get to the boss battle that usually closes the level. From a structure standpoint, it’s a pure video game, albeit an older sidescroller (remember those, kids?). The visuals and mechanical battle suits also further support the video game comparisons. But really, Edge of Tomorrow is Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers but brilliantly executed. There is something deeply satisfying about the Groundhog Day formula, namely getting seemingly endless chances to fix one’s mistakes, to try out new paths. It’s also inherently satisfying as an audience member because you watch your hero fail time and after time but they’re still active, they’re still trying to achieve a goal, or a new goal, and thus when they do succeed it’s even more triumphant and gratifying. We get to learn alongside our protagonist. Also, it allows the narrative to explore new material without going stale. In most stories we have one set path, but in films like this one with a time loop, it’s like we get to see all the wheels-within-wheels, the stories just offscreen happening simultaneously. It opens up the world in more interesting and playful ways, providing more payoffs than just one set narrative destination. We get assorted answers to our “what if”’s. Plus we get more screen time with Bill Paxton (2 Guns) as a comically hardass master sergeant. Edge of Tomorrow mines all these areas expertly. This is a movie that embraces the possibility of its sci-fi premise. It’s constantly clever, fast-paced, lively, and expects its audience to keep up with the pace.

It’s great to see director Doug Liman flex his action-thriller abilities again, ineffective or dormant since 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The man has an innate ability to orchestrate action without losing sight of character. The beach invasion sequences have plenty going on, enough so that you won’t be bored after multiple trips, and unlike last summer’s disappointing Elysium, this is one movie that knows how to make proper use of a mech suit. These suits don’t look that impressive but they pack some mighty firepower. It’s rather cool when Cage, after a litany of failed trips, has the beats of combat to memory, knowing to shoot in this direction at the right second. It’s like watching a man harness the omniscient power of God (“I said I was a god. Not THE God.”). Under Liman’s guidance, the action is big and exciting and fun, more so than any other Hollywood action movie I’ve seen this year (The Raid 2 is still in a class its own).

The action sequences and special effects are all relatively good, but it’s just the sheer fun of the movie that makes it special for a summer would-be blockbuster. It’s like you get multiple movies smattered together but the eye is always forward to the goal, taking out the alien brain/host. The structure is almost foolproof: by the end of Act 1 he gets the time-tripping powers, and by the end of Act 2, he loses them and the heroics to close the movie have to count for real. I wish the final boss battle didn’t happen to take place in the bowels of a famous landmark/destination, but I suppose Liman and company needed a change of pace from all the beach activity. While the movie covers plenty of ground repeatedly it never feels old or directionless; while it has its share of sticky exposition and silly plot mechanics, it never overwhelms the story or the entertainment factor. The basics of who the aliens are, how they attack, what their magic blood does, what the rules are for utilizing said alien time-repeating power, you would imagine that they would be too silly or bog things down, but they don’t. Except for the very end (the concluding two minutes), the movie plays within its own system of rules. That also means no unrealistic romantic entanglement. Sure we expect movie stars to fall for one another, especially in peril, but for Rita, every day is the first day she’s ever met Cage. He develops feelings for her but she credibly keeps thoughts of romance at bay.

emily-blunt-edge-tomorrow-pic3rfIt’s also a mordantly mirthful movie. Cage can only reset when he dies; if he is just wounded and passes out, he’ll lose his special reset power. So every insurmountable roadblock, wrong choice, or crippling injury must be met with one conclusion, namely Cage being snuffed out. Rita carries out most of the executions in the second half, with a blasé sense of routine duty, like a plumber fixing a clog. It doesn’t really get old and Liman utilizes montage well to give the comedy an extra punch. It lightens a movie more or less centered on human annihilation and mortality. And for the legions of Tom Cruise haters, there’s got to be some degree of entertainment value in watching the man die again and again and again and, well you get the point.

Cruise ably shows again that he is more than capable of carrying an action film (he’s over 50 now too). The man still has enough energy and physical stamina of an action hero in his 30s, and his charisma is still there in spades. It’s also interesting to watch Cruise play a cowardly character. I should have expected it considering that Cage’s arc has to start somewhere before he becomes the super soldier. However, the movie would never have been as good if Cruise didn’t have a strong leading lady, and the surprisingly buff Blunt (Looper) is an excellent match for her costar. She’s tough and can beat the snot out of you. Just her very walk exudes confidence and determination (is it too late for her to be Wonder Woman in the next Superman film?). Having walked in Cage’s shoes before with the time-replay power, she has an extra weariness to her, a certain devil-may-care attitude, especially in battle. The two actors make a winning team and Cage’s recruitment of Rita is another mission with another worthy payoff.

The original title was All You Need is Kill, based on a Japanese graphic novel, and I can’t help but think how much of a better, striking title that is to describe this movie. It’s a wonderfully entertaining movie, with its action spectacle tempered with an intelligence rare for a summer blockbuster that doesn’t have Christopher Nolan’s name attached as director. Here is a playful sci-fi movie that doesn’t downplay its sci-fi, doesn’t dumb down its plot, and explores the richness of its world one dead Cruise at a time. It’s clever and satisfying and brings all the visual fireworks you’d demand. It’s a rotten shame that Edge of Tomorrow appears destined for the cinematic scrapheap. We need more movies like this one. Reverse the tide people and see this movie on the big screen while you can. It’s everything we want in a summer blockbuster fully realized.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Your Sister’s Sister (2012)

1793Lynn Shelton is quickly becoming one of my favorite indie film artists. Her writing and directorial offerings are somewhat relegated to the fly-on-the-wall hipster “mumblecore” category, but what separates Shelton is her narrative momentum, her laser-like focus with character, and her sense that a movie needs to build to something significant. With 2009’s Humpday, it was two dudes who might have sex as a test of their masculinity (you really need to see the movie for the full context). With Your Sister’s Sister, it’s the full ramifications of a bunch of delicious relationship secrets getting out there. Everyone in the film has something to hide and something to lose, and watching it all play out with humor and sweetness and honesty that is rare in movies.

Jack (Mark Duplass) is still coming to terms with the death of his older brother. His best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt), who was his brother’s girlfriend at the time of his passing, offers a suggestion. She arranges some alone time for the guy to clear his head. He bikes out to her family cabin but is surprised to find a guest already there, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris’ older sister. Hannah and Jack break the ice by bonding over their personal loss: his brother and her ending a seven-year relationship with her girlfriend. Over a long night of drinking, the two decide to impulsively have sex. The next morning is even more awkward when Iris shows up at the cabin, planning to finally reveal her own feelings for Jack. What follows may be one of the few character-based sitcom plots I’ve witnessed.

80259_galMuch like Shelton’s previous movie, the greatest strength of the film is how beautifully naturalistic it all feels while still telling an engaging story. The film has a relaxed vibe that washes over you, allowing you to immerse yourself in what feels like a real group of friends. There’s a tremendous naturalistic ease the film exudes, with the actors so familiar with one another that they truly feel like family. When I have well developed characters, and actors who seem so knowledgeable of their character’s tics and flaws and secrets and smallest details, I could honestly listen to them talk for hours. I don’t want to mistakenly give the impression that this movie is a dull yakfest where the participants are in love with the sound of their own exceptional voices. Each scene in this movie advances the plot further, twisting the screws, complicating matters, and brimming with delightful awkwardness and tension. With 2009’s Humpday, I wrote: “What I really appreciated about Humpday is that every moment feels genuine and every scene has a point. I was amazed that Shelton and her small unit of actors had made it so that every conversation had purpose; there is so little fat to this screenplay. Each scene reveals something new about a character or pushes the narrative forward toward its uncomfortable climax, and each moment never breaks the reality of the story.” And the same can be said for Your Sister’s Sister as well.

While the premise is a bit of a sitcom novelty with some farcical developments thrown in, the depth of the characters and the fantastic acting help to make sure that Your Sister’s Sister is nothing but graceful and beguiling. And the escalating conflicts, personal revelations and complicated feelings, always find a way to come across as organic to the story. That’s another amazing part of the film, that even with all the sexual hijinks that it still manages to feel grounded and surprisingly relatable. These are interesting, complicated, flawed, and spectacular characters, and watching them interact, profess their love through small actions and big declarations, seeing their heartfelt camaraderie, and watch them navigate their troubled lives to find some semblance of a happy ending is a joy to watch. This is a potent little movie, fully realized, poignant, funny, and genuine.

The film was shot over the course of 12 days and Shelton has said that much of the dialogue was improvised, working off her outline. Improvisation is a dangerous tact when dealing with a dialogue-driven film, such as this one. Just because it’s coming off the top of your head doesn’t mean it’s going to sound good. Not everyone is gifted with the ability to improv dialogue that is true to character, revealing, advances the story, as well as just being entertaining. Luckily, Your Sister’s Sister is the exception.

If Your Sister’s Sister does have a weakness, it’s the third act that seems to stall out without giving us much in development before tidying the broken relationships up again. The film’s comedic structure could feel, in lesser hands, like a generic sitcom. It is to Shelton and her actors’ credit that the twists and turns still manage to feel as believable as possible. The third act hits when all the secrets come out, pushing the characters away. Rather than (minor spoilers) ramping things up, we merely endure an extended wordless sequence of images of Jack biking around and the sisters burying the hatchet. Then it’s time for our big happy romantic declaration that tidies everything up, and we’re done. While satisfying on an emotional level given our empathy for the trio, the third act does seem very thin for an otherwise lean and well-structured story. It feels like perhaps Shelton only had enough plot for two acts.

RT_YourSistersSisterThe main trio is a rather engaging ensemble that convincingly plays a besotted group of friends and family. Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed) has gotten considerably more attention since starring in Shelton’s last movie; the man and his schlubby, smirky charm are ubiquitous. He has a way of being edgy without pushy and nonplussed and flummoxed without going overboard. Duplass has a natural fit for comedy but the man can really excel with the meatier drama bits as well, displaying the painful yearning of a man caught between his desire and the need to move on. He’s a winning and likeable presence that can still be endearing even when he’s flailing around or making others uncomfortable.

DeWitt (The Watch) was a late addition to the cast, replacing Rachel Weisv (The Bourne Legacy) when scheduling conflicts got the best of her. She deserves extra kudos for how good she is considering the miniscule prep time she had compared with her costars. DeWitt is amusing in how cagey and sardonic she can be, and her chemistry with Blunt (Looper) is outstanding. I greatly enjoyed the subtle nuances between them, the way their body language and gestures added extra layers to their relationship, the familiar communication and sisterly code, and just the smallest details that felt well thought out. The relationships in Your Sister’s Sister feel sweetly genuine, and with the benefit of great actors, it lays the groundwork for characters we care about.

Three people sharing time in a cabin might not seem like an exciting setup for a movie, unless, of course, there’s some supernatural presence murdering them in grisly fashion. However, when you lock away three great actors who know their characters inside out, a smart script that allows them the space to develop but pushes the movie forward scene-by-scene, and direction that feels seamless with the storytelling, then you have something special, and that something special is Your Sister’s Sister. While I think Shelton’s previous film had more at play concerning male relationships and sexual politics, this one, with a more straightforward, farcical plotline, is still plenty entertaining and with strong character work (the ending does leave one very large question unanswered). This is charming, sweet, unassuming little indie film that will provide a solid dose of smiles and laughs.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012)

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen will likely not be outdone in 2012 for strangest title of a mainstream film release. It is indeed about the crazy idea of brining salmon to an emerging system of rivers in a Middle Eastern country. You’d expect some cultural conflicts and even some can-do uplift by the end. What I wasn’t expecting was a hokey romantic comedy to take hold of the movie. Ewan McGregor plays a repressed fish expert who partners up with Emily Blunt, whose company represents a wealthy Yemen sheik with a cockamamie dream. I felt that the sheer magnitude of project, transforming an environment, the triumph of the human spirit and cooperation, would be compelling enough. But this trifle of a romance demands the greater attention. There’s a contrived plot point where Blunt’s boyfriend of three weeks is presumed dead in Afghanistan. Guess who comes back later? This entire storyline hinges around the fact that she was only with the guy for three weeks; even she admits, “I never got to know him better.” The coupling feels extra tacky because McGregor is married too. Sure his marriage appears to be in a rut, but does that excuse his behavior? The political satire of the British government also feels pretty tin-eared and forced, like they’re compensating with volume for wit. Then there are the corny moments like McGregor foiling an assassination attempt on the sheik with a fly fishing rod. Yes, he whips it around the attacker’s arm like Zorro. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a nice enough little film, at least it would have been had it ever been allowed to jettison the yoke of a lackluster romantic comedy.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Looper (2012)

I became a Rian Johnson disciple the second that 2006’s Brick ended. I was floored by the originality, the artistic vision, the intelligence, and the creative voice. This was a unique filmmaker and I instantly knew this writer/director would be a man worth following. His follow-up, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was three fourths of a great movie, but a bit of an overdose on whimsy. Then I read that Johnson was next going to try his hand at time travel, and I could not contain my excitement. One of my favorite film genres and one of my favorite up-and-coming indie filmmakers together. I was expecting Johnson to do for time travel what he did with film noir (Brick) and the con movie (Brothers Bloom). How could Looper disappoint? Well, sadly, the movie found a way. It feels like Johnson smashed two halves of two different movies together, one good and one not so good.

In 2072, time travel is invented but instantly made illegal. The only people who have access to time travel are the mob. They have a surplus of dead bodies that need to disappear, so the mob sends them back 30 years. In 2042, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed as a looper. He kills the guys the mob sends back in time and then disposes of the bodies. He’s paid well, and he and his fellow loopers live it up as privileged members of the Kansas City social sphere. Abe (Jeff Daniels) runs the show in town; he’s a mob guy from the future. There’s a catch to all the looper riches. The mob also wants to protect them in the future, so they send back the looper’s future self to be executed. It’s called closing the loop. And if you don’t kill your future self, bad things will definitely happen, just ask Seth (Paul Dano), a looper hacked apart to lure his future self back.

The day comes where Joe is tasked with executing his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis). Old Joe escapes and goes on the run. Younger Joe is now under extreme pressure to kill his guy, or else the mob might just find him and start slicing body appendages. Old Joe is looking for the Rainmaker, who in 30 years will become a criminal tyrant responsible for much death. But in 2042, he’s only a child. Old Joe’s mission is to kill the child before he becomes the Rainmaker, and before he murders Old Joe’s eventual wife. While fleeing the mob, Joe takes refuge on a farm outside of the city. Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) warily take in Joe but they’re also hiding a secret, that Cid has powerful telekinetic powers that can be put to great damage.

The film’s premise is compelling and allows for plenty of mind-bending possibilities, and Johnson has a fresh take on the sci-fi genre. Hunting down your future self is a grabber of a concept and I loved the scenes where Joe and Old Joe would sit down and converse. There’s the natural tension of Joe’s mission to eliminate his future self, but there’s also a flurry of ideas, ones that make the film better developed. Old Joe has an edge in foreknowledge but Joe has his own edge. He can change Old Joe’s memories by choosing different actions. He swears if he ever sees a picture of Old Joe’s wife that he’ll do everything in his path to alter fate, to make it so he never finds her. As a result, Old Joe is hobbled by headaches and fuzzy memories because the order of events is no longer concrete. “This time travel stuff fries my brain like an egg,” Old Joe admits. That, my friends, is a fascinating struggle for dominance and a refreshing take on time travel. Then you throw in the mob chasing after both Joes and you got an extra sense of urgency. Looper is playfully heady but easy enough to follow. It’s a thriller that doesn’t get bogged down in time travel logistics but it doesn’t pander to its audience either. If it did, I’m fairly certain Joe (addict, criminal, selfish) and Old Joe (eventual child slayer) would have taken turns to be more likeable. For a solid hour, Looper is alive with narrative jujitsu, a nice balance of action, drama, dark humor, intelligent plotting, stylish direction, the occasional startling visual, and strong acting from Gordon-Levitt and Willis.

And then the Looper becomes a completely different movie. Once the action shifts to Sara’s farm is where this movie completely unravels. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. The first half was so intriguing, intellectually stimulating, and thrilling, and then I got stuck on a farm and the movie turned into a lame version of Children of the Damned. I didn’t come for a telekinetic kid movie; I came for a time travel movie. The second half of this movie is practically wall-to-wall telekinetic kid stuff. The action slows down to a crawl and the flurry of ideas turns to a trickle as we introduce Strong Single Mom and Weird Son. I may have a cold heart but I didn’t care about these characters. I found the romance forced and Sara to be poorly developed. I found the kid annoying, and when he got mad and made his stupid mad face, it irritated me. Mostly I was irritated that the promise of the first half of the film had stalled out, and that this was where the movie was choosing to spend its dwindling time. It’s like the movie has been swallowed inside out by this stupid telekinetic subplot. The climax is fine but why did we have to travel through Dumb Farm Rest Stop to get there? Is it so that Joe can learn to be a better person? I didn’t buy that growth, especially with a kid as annoying and obviously dangerous as Cid. I suppose one night of sex with Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) could do the trick.

Besides the whole farm deal, there are other nagging questions I have that devalue Looper in my eyes.

1) So in the future the mob is the only entity with access to time travel, but all they use it for is to dispose of bodies? That’s it? Biff Tanner used a sports almanac from the future to become king of the world. Are you telling me an organization that has historically profited from gambling would make no use of foreknowledge for personal gain?

2) Why would the mob have the loopers kill their older versions of themselves? This seems like a natural conflict of interest that could readily be avoided. Instead of having that particular looper kill his future self, thus closing the loop, why not assign that future version to a different looper? That way you don’t have to run the risk of the past looper letting his future self go. Or you could just never tell them what happened. For that matter, why does the mob have to send the guys back alive? Could they not simply just kill them and send the dead bodies 30 years back in time? This seems like an easier solution that also minimizes risk.

3) If you’ve just uncovered the power of time travel, why are you even bothering to send back your dead bodies 30 years into the past? Why not send your dead bodies back BILLIONS of years where the Earth is still forming, hot, and uninhabitable? I find this to be a better solution (I also wrote this solution in my own time travel screenplay, so there’s that too). Why can’t the mob feed dead bodies to dinosaurs? I’d love to see that.

4) You have a mob guy from the future, and you do nothing with that? Abe has one wisecrack about being from the future, and it’s a good one, but otherwise this guy could have just been from the present. The movie does nothing with the juicy element of a mob boss from the future. Maybe he doesn’t do as he’s told and arranges for his own rule. Or maybe he utilizes a sports almanac and makes some prescient bets, huh?

5) The movie takes place almost entirely around the confines of Kansas City. I find it hard to believe that a criminal organization would be sending all its bodies to Kansas City. Perhaps the mob also sends people across space and time, otherwise this means that we’re only following the future evil masterwork of the Kansas City mob.

6) I suppose you have to ask at what point do you really start to nitpick the whole butterfly effect of cause and effect paradoxes. With all time travel movies, there’s going to be some degree of suspension of disbelief, because changing one action can have wide-ranging consequences. However, with Looper there are several instances that gave me pause. Firstly, there’s the central idea of killing the Rainmaker as a child, which would negate the killing of the loopers, which would negate Old Joe seeking out the Rainmaker to kill. I’ll look beyond that. So Old Seth, in the film’s most horrifying sequence, starts noticing his fingers are disappearing, then his nose, and then his legs, etc. The mob is torturing young Seth to lure back the missing target. It’s an amazing visual sequence, but are you telling me that cutting off young Seth’s body parts would not have altered his future to a greater degree? I’m fairly certain when you start removing fingers and legs that Old Seth’s timeline would have been dramatically altered and he would cease to exist or follow the exact path to wind up in the past again. For that matter, why even bother luring the older Seth back? Could they not just take care of him by killing young Seth? What are they going to do with young Seth? If they’re just going to kill him then they should have just done that to begin with.

Johnson has plenty of thought-provoking questions he’d like to address within the bounds of a sci-fi action thriller. Would you kill a child if that kid were going to grow up and be a monster? Is redemption possible after doing horrible things? Could you kill your future version of yourself? Would you sacrifice everything to prevent future misery? These are legitimate questions and Looper deserves credit for spending time to ponder them, but I just wish Johnson could have gone back in time and chosen a different path.

Coming off of the stupendous Brick and the perfectly enjoyable Brothers Bloom, my expectations for Johnson’s third film were astronomical, especially given this crafty man’s take on time travel. I love the premise, love the actors involved, and love the ideas toyed around with, but the movie completely falls apart at the halfway mark. The pacing gets slack, the story becomes forced, and Looper transforms into a different, unwelcome movie. I can’t help but feel disappointed, partly from my expectations but also from the knowledge that Johnson could do better. The story just isn’t as well developed as it carries on, and the telekinetic subplot feels like a dull leftover from another movie. After an invigorating first half, Looper crumbles under the weight of a weak subplot that consumes the movie. There’s a good amount of thrills and intellectual stimulation aboard, but it’s all concentrated in the first half of the movie. I can’t recommend one half of a movie. I’ll still eagerly anticipate Johnson’s next project, but Looper is a sci-fi thriller that unravels at an alarming rate, turning a possibly great movie into a mediocre one.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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