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Cyrano (2021)

I did not expect the new Cyrano to be a musical at all, though it is a reprisal of a 2018 stage musical by Erica Schmidt. This fact made the movie even more entertaining and surprising, separating it from the pack of Cyrano de Bergerac adaptations (there is a 1970s Cyrano musical with Christopher Plummer in a Tony Award-winning role). This is an old story and this new version still taps into the potent recesses of unrequited love, social scorn, and the farcical angle that transitions into tragedy. You still understand why audiences from multiple generations come back to this story to laugh and cry anew (it began as a play in 1897 by Edmond Rostand). However, when modern filmmakers are tackling these tried-and-true stories of old, I expect, or at least hope for, something new to justify this latest cinematic addition.  It could be an elevated point of view given short shrift before, allowing us new eyes into an old tale. There are plenty of earlier versions that haven’t been as considerate to minority positions. It could be updating or transposing the story to a different setting. It can be simply making it weird. Director Joe Wright’s 2012 Anna Karenina adaptation was an attempt to do something different, with the strange concept that it was taking place on a theatrical stage. I guess because the elites felt so obsessively observed? It didn’t really work, but I admire Wright’s game efforts in trying something different with an oft-told tale. With Cyrano, the story translates well into the realm of a screen musical, and one where Wright wants to work within that unique toolbox, letting the audience get caught in the sweep of the movie magic.

Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf but one of the smartest men alive in 1640 France. He’s unafraid of jousting with pompous actors, pompous aristocratic dandies, and even assassins (their pomposity is up for debate). His true challenge is telling Roxanne (Haley Bennett) that he loves her. This is made even more difficult when Roxanne falls head over heels for Christian (Kevin Harrison Jr.). She seeks out her good friend Cyrano’s help to inquire about the boy’s feelings being reciprocal. Christian does indeed fancy Roxanne except he’s unable to articulate his thoughts. Cyrano agrees to serve as the carrier of his words and write his feelings for him in order to better woo Roxanne. Letter by letter, flowing with poetic verse, Roxanne falls in love with Cyrano’s soul, thinking it belongs to Christian. This is made even more complicated by a fiendish fop, De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), who expects Roxanne to marry him and give herself over to him, body and soul.

The other thing you need to know is that Cyrano is a deeply un-hip musical, and its square-ness is also part of its offbeat charm. This is not 2017’s crowd-pleasing The Greatest Showman. These songs are not manufactured to be pop ditties fit for radio airplay. These are songs written and composed by the members of the band The National, an alt rock band better known for their soulful dirges (the lead singer performed the mournful end credits cover of “The Rains of Castamere” for that infamous Game of Thrones episode). The songs of Cyrano by Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger are not going to be the ones you clap your hands to and sing along in the car with your friends. There are no catchy anthems here, no inspirational melodies to rise to triumphant fist-pumping crescendos. These are songs that are methodical, mournful, and, at points, atonal, like twisting the words and sounds to fit an unnatural shape. However, this is the same appeal of songs by The National, how they make uniquely composed tunes that challenge and break free of standard melody conventions. For some, they will find the songs of Cyrano to be slow and low in energy, too self-serious to the point of parody. But for people willing to take the lyrics and songs on the terms presented, there is a smoldering sense of splendor to them, something unexpected, just like the character of Cyrano. Beauty found in unexpected places.

There is one song in particular that disarmed me with how affecting it was. “Wherever I Fall” isn’t even a song sung by any of the main characters. It’s the refrain of a bunch of otherwise nameless and faceless soldiers, the ones who know they will not survive a suicide march into enemy fire during the Franco-Spanish War. This is the song for the fallen and it’s heart-breaking. We take turns with each man writing one last letter and offering instructions to the carrier, which take on the form of last rites. Each man reflects on their life and their cherished loved ones that will read their letter after their inevitable demise. The entire construction of the song is heavy with emotional weight, but I was surprised how much it got to me. I was tearing up for men who weren’t even featured as characters before, or at least served as extras in other scenes that didn’t draw my attention. Bonus points for making the first soldier Glen Hansard (Once). “Someone to Say” has a sweet and lyrical melody that comes in and out as a bountiful motif, and it’s the romantic tug for our lovers. “Every Letter” and “I Need More” have a thrumming intensity of strings and heartbeat-like percussion that reminded me of the soaring 1990s/early 2000s singer-songwriters like Tori Amos and Dido. As I adjusted to its somber wavelength, the music grew on me. It’s music for a rainy day made into an old-fashioned musical that isn’t trying to score points for being edgy.

Dinklage (I Care a Lot) is an excellent choice for Cyrano. While he might be the weakest singing voice of the cast, Dinklage is definitely the most accomplished actor and proves it again. His character’s inner struggle and true feelings consuming him is wonderfully portrayed by Dinklage. He has his big outbursts, where he inflicts his wit like a sharp-edged weapon, and others where it’s the total of years of frustration from being sidelined and overlooked and discounted, but it’s the quieter moments where Dinklage retreats behind his sad puppy eyes that got me the most. Bennett (The Girl on the Train) has a spark to her that reminds you why Cyrano would fall in love from a distance. Her light at the beginning of the movie threatens to be snuffed out by bad men, and it feels like a real loss. Bennett and Dinklage are also reprising their roles from the stage musical, so their natural chemistry and comfort with the roles improves the experience. Mendelsohn (Captain Marvel) is a pro at playing those officious, lecherous, pathetic roles, and once again he’s on target. His creepy rendition of “What I Deserve” sounds like the skin-crawling mantra for male chauvinism writ large. It might even make you retch.

Wright’s (Darkest Hour, Hanna) direction makes fine use of the big screen space, and his penchant for long takes and sweeping camera movements for verisimilitude enhance the viewing experience by allowing us to better immerse in the world and appreciate the talents of the professionals. It’s a musical that lets you enjoy it being a movie musical, and its editing is judicious without being disorienting. The movie doesn’t feel like its trapped by its stage-bound origins. The lush setting of Italy and its pristine estates adds an extra layer of enjoyment that makes the movie more transporting.

Cyrano is a sneaky movie, one that seems old and new, serious and impish, square and traditional while still making its own stamp on classic literature. Much of your enjoyment factor will likely rest upon your assessment of the music and songs, which is a fair critical point for a musical. I found them to be romantic and gloomy and so achingly serious that I found it to be adorable. The music worked for me, as a moderate fan of The National, but if you cannot click with the songs or accept that everyone is not going to be a trained singer, then your enjoyment level will certainly dip. I found this movie to be a modestly pleasant surprise that won me over by its depressing finale.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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+

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

magnificent-seven-poster-2016Obviously the new Magnificent Seven remake was never going to be as good a Western as the 1960 original, or as good an action movie as its source material, Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai. Once you accept that, the question becomes whether simply being an enjoyable Western action movie qualifies as a success given its storied pedigree. If you can’t do better than the original, why bother making it as my friend Ben Bailey would question. The answer is of course blunt (money) but the conundrum is how does one improve on classic film masterpieces? I think the new Magnificent Seven found its footing by accepting its unquestioned ceiling and instead going down a different path, instilling the essence of what made the older films so superb, and just trying to be the best B-student it can be with its new set of guidelines for broad entertainment.

The dusty town of Rose Creek falls under attack by ruthless industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who wants the land for his mining company. He installs loyal toadies as lawmen for the town and to ensure any troublemakers are put to “justice.” Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) wishes to avenge her fallen husband and recruits a famous outlaw, Chisolm (Denzel Washington). He agrees to help and rustles up a powerful posse of gunslingers to defend the town from Bogue and his cruel forces.

There’s a reason this story still works as well as it does and that’s because the structure is ready-made for payoffs and audience satisfaction if the director and actors are capable. Act One establishes the threat and our two main roguish heroes, and then Act Two starts off with the gathering of the team, routinely one of the greatest sequences in screenwriting, and then the Act Two midpoint involves toppling the corrupt thugs controlling the town, and Act Three is the culmination between the forces of anti-hero good versus evil over the ultimate battle for the town. It’s an against-all-odds underdog tale with good but possibly doomed forces against a villain used to steamrolling through vulnerable citizens. I don’t care whom you are, that story structure worked then and it still works now. Fuqua and company don’t break a winning formula and know what strengths they have and how best to maximize them for top entertainment value.

magnificent-seven-2016-castThe biggest asset is this glorious cast, headlined by Washington and Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy). There isn’t admittedly much to these characters from a development standpoint. They’re given back-stories, though some of them are fairly airy and provide a bare minimum of effort. Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) in particular just kind of shows up and everybody shrugs and says, “Why not?” more or less. Also, while on this subject, it’s a bit contrived that when the bad side has their own villainous Native American that the script has to conspire for the only two Native Americans to face-off, especially when we’ve been given no history or connection between them prior to this climactic showdown. Back to the main cast, Washington settles into his suave badass persona we’ve come to expect from the man. He even fades into the background at times, ceding space for the other characters to have their moments. Make no mistake, though, because Washington’s character is a strong central anchor for this movie and even on autopilot this actor still produces attitude with style and gravitas. There’s also the simple pleasure of just watching Washington in a Western. The man was made for this setting of taciturn badasses. The brightest star of the picture is Pratt, expertly cast as a charming rogue with a big personality. What the characters lack in development they make up for in colorful personalities, which is acceptable in a genre that rewards memorably outsized figures of entertainment. Pratt is a fun rascal with a penchant for sarcasm and playing around with his prey. Every minute Pratt commanded the screen was a minute that captured my full attention.

The rest of the cast is solid and make the most of their screen time, putting in memorable supporting performances to compliment the stars. Vincent D’Onofrio (Jurassic World) is basically like a human equivalent of a bear or yeti. He’s this massive and animalistic creature and I appreciated D’Onofrio’s gusto in embracing the peculiarities. In a film of great casting and memorable characters, he nearly steals the movie. Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) has one of the more credible character arcs in the film as well as the best name (Goodnight Robicheaux). He’s haunted by a lifetime accumulation of killing. His flinty co-star Byung-hun Lee (RED 2) is the strong silent type and the two of them have a nice gunslinger chemistry, nicely contrasting but still a believable brotherhood in arms. Bennett (Hardcore Henry) is going to break out in a big way in 2016. She has a very arresting face (it’s her eyes) and an instant screen presence, which is hard to do with these guys soaking up much of the oxygen. She also gets to prove her mettle and not be treated as a romantic object, so hooray. My one concern with Bennett was that the costume designer had let her down, as it seemed the top of her gown was dangerously close to slipping off her shoulders at several key points. I understand this is designed to squeeze in a slight surge of sensuality for what is very much a PG-13 action flick but it became distracting with its obviousness. Bennett deserved better, though she might be another figure of T&A with her role in The Girl on the Train. We shall see (maybe much). The only sore spot is the villain, a wasted Sarsgaard (Black Mass) who never quite lives up to a diabolical nature worthy of the attention of our colorful cadre of anti-heroes. He’s a bully but he doesn’t seem formidable enough or that interesting.

magnificentsevenFuqua (The Equalizer) hasn’t been the most consistent stager of action with his up-and-down career but he puts out all the stops with The Magnificent Seven to great effect. The action sequences are robust and shot with great attention to geography and escalation. I knew exactly what the stakes were with each sequence and gun battle, and I knew the different people and their placement and the goals. With a crew of seven and counting, it can be difficult to adequately find room for each of the fighters to be well utilized and have at least a moment that matters (just look at what happened with Suicide Squad). The second half of Act Two is our team plotting how to compensate for the overwhelming forces coming down their way, and the plotting produces plenty of opportunities as the audience watches the setups and waits for the payoff jamboree. There are little payoffs, big payoffs, crowd-pleasing payoffs, character arc pleasing payoffs; it’s an action movie that knows the climax should be the best part, and it doesn’t disappoint. The town may be in rubble and strewn with corpses by film’s end, but you’ll be happy and content from the wealth of tense and smartly directed action. Helping things along, Fuqua’s Wild West photography is often strikingly beautiful with its use of natural light.

The Magnificent Seven makes up for its lack of originality and rich characters in colorful personality and the sheer scope and intensity of its action. It can’t contend with John Sturgis and Akira Kurosawa, but what modern movie can? I don’t fault the movie for failing to live up to the standards of two classics in two different genres. I instead credit the movie for knowing its strengths and knowing how best to develop and deliver them for maximum mass appeal enjoyment. The cast is wonderfully selected and given fun characters to dig into, and the onscreen camaraderie of our seven might not rise to the level of magnificence but it’s pretty good by all accounts. That’s a rather keen summary of the movie writ large; with modestly recalculated expectations, the movie may not be magnificent but it’s plenty good and plenty entertaining. Washington and Pratt are stars making full use of their broad star appeal. The action sequences are well staged and peppered with payoffs, and it’s worth congratulating the team on having several parallel lines of action and keeping all of the shifting particulars understandable for its audience. The Magnificent Seven is about as good as I expected any remake to be, and while it doesn’t rise to those storied heights it does achieve its goals with vigor and style.

Nate’s Grade: B

Hardcore Henry (2016)

Hardcore_(2015_film)Hardcore Henry is an action movie told entirely through the eyes of its silent protagonist. Some critics and fans are calling it the future of movies. Director and co-writer Ilya Naishuller strapped a team of stuntmen with facial camera masks and filmed entirely on GoPro Hero 3 cameras taking in every punch, kick, and jump. It’s an ambitious filmmaking gamble that dares to be something different, but is it worth the effort?

Henry wakes up in a science lab. Estelle (Haley Bennett) informs him/us that she is Henry’s wife and is upgrading him with a bionic arm and leg. Unfortunately, his voice hasn’t been implemented yet. Akan (Danilla Kozlovsky), a menacing albino with telekinetic powers, breaks into the lab and kills everyone but not before abducting Estelle. Henry is battered and left for dead. His only assistance comes from Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a mysterious and helpful man who tries to direct Henry toward his mission of saving Estelle and thwarting Akan.

The draw of this movie is its propulsive and immersive visual playground, putting the viewer in the mind of its title hero as he narrowly escapes scrapes, scales buildings of dizzying heights, and kills a whole lot of bad guys with brutal efficiency. Its POV experience makes the hardcore violence all the more immersive, though after a while I was wishing we could change things up (more on this below). I must applaud director Naishuller and his crew of limber stuntmen for the sheer creative ingenuity of their stunts and action. With a relatively small budget ($10 million, or roughly the budget spent on bagels on the last Transformers flick), the ambition behind this movie can be startling, and the development of some of its more bonkers action sequences can provide a sky-high jolt of adrenaline like few movies match. The action is also very violent, with heads being blown off, limbs being snapped, bodies bent in two, eyes gouged and used to rip heads in half (this one still confuses me from a mechanical front), and near relentless bloodshed that sometimes even requires our hero to wipe it from his face. For those hungry for near non-stop action shaped to be the equivalent of a living first-person shooter game, Hardcore Henry might do enough to strap in and deliver the goods.

hardcore-henry-STX-EntertainmentI have a confession dear reader: I experienced a fierce bout of motion sickness from this movie unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in a theater. I’m usually rather immune to shaky camera movements and found footage movies. I remember reading about people getting sick and throwing up during screenings of The Blair Witch Project not because of its content but simply from its handheld camerawork. I have never had an issue up until now. After 20 minutes of Henry, I had to sit much further back in my theater. The continuous whipping camerawork caused me a great wave of nausea. I even had to leave the theater for five minutes in the middle of the movie just to re-calibrate my brain. I would warn people about sitting too close to the screen but ideally this movie’s proper place is really your home television. You can choose to take my review with some degree of skepticism thanks to this admission, but no movie ever got to me and forced me out of the theater from motion sickness before. Henry now has that dubious honor.

The gimmick does start to lose its novelty and I wanted to break free from the claustrophobic first-person perspective as well as its paper-thin story. I started thinking there were as many restrictions to the first-person perspective as benefits. It really hampers the hand-to-hand combat choreography, which often just feels like flashes and blurs, herky-jerky editing that doesn’t immerse so much as obscure. This seems to be more of an issue for the first half than the second, which relies more heavily on small arms battles. Chase scenes aren’t added by bobbing up and down from the first-person perspective. You just aren’t able to focus on the object or person of pursuit. I also don’t understand why the entire movie relies upon a fish-eye lens either, which isn’t exactly a normal part of human vision. Its distorted images, subtle but accumulative, added to my overall motion sickness. However, the worst aspect of Hardcore Henry is easily its story or what amounts to its story. This is a movie that looks like a video game and feels like a video game, except somebody else is playing it. The very opening plays out like a video game introduction cut scene, establishing the damsel in distress and the chief villain. From there it’s a series of levels and checkpoints and tips from allies and weapon upgrades and boss battles and interchangeable bad guys. The various Jimmy incarnations pop along to guide you and dole out exposition as required, and there’s even an escort mission involving keeping the real Jimmy alive while his avatars fight off the onslaught of goons. There are several scenes of the villain randomly popping up to deliver exposition, usually on a screen that suddenly comes to life. The eventual plot twists should also be rather predictable. If there is ever a video game version of this movie it should simply be a straight port of the Henry’s plot and thrifty execution.

This chosen plot structure would be less irksome if the movie provided a story or characters to follow. There’s a reason the protagonist is a mute. He is not a person but an indestructible killing machine running on a cheat code. He lacks larger goals other than flee, kill, and save the girl. Estelle is a one-note damsel in distress, a pretty face that we don’t feel a sense of history with. The villain is as completely replaceable as our hero. He’s a telekinetic albino and your guess is as good as mine about anything else. He has no personality beyond one single mode of menacing. He’s a villain that is completely defined by his outer appearance and special abilities. Simply put, he is a super lame villain, which makes the final showdown between Akan and Henry a very limited payoff. I still don’t understand how exactly Henry was able to defeat Akan and his telekinetic powers. It’s like Henry just arbitrarily overcomes them for no discernible reason, as if Henry grabbed some kind of invisible power-up. There’s no really clear reason why just about anything happens for most of the movie. It’s a chase movie where Henry has to outrun or out-murder his faceless enemies while getting objectives from Jimmy, who is easily the movie’s lone entertaining character. For the first half, you keep watching new and different incarnations of Jimmy invariably find you as if drawn by some cosmic magnet. Copley is effortlessly amusing as he goes full tilt Peter Sellers, playing the different characters with comic absurdity and droll black humor (my favorite was World War I Jimmy). There’s a genuine musical number that had me giggling. After a string of nadir-redefining miscalculated performances, it’s nice to be able to say that Copley delivers a fun and entertaining performance for the right reasons. Of course he also has the most screen time by far, so that’s probably also a clear factor. This is a movie that has prioritized the immersive action experience, but after the novelty wore off I was left with listless characters and a poorly articulated story stretched thin from breathless, bloody action set piece to set piece. It was less a movie and more a 90-minute viral video.

hardcore_henryHardcore Henry is a kinetic, propulsive, adrenaline-fueled immersive experience that ultimately is a bit too immersive and narratively flimsy. This isn’t a movie. There aren’t any characters to care about and the story is really the thinnest of tissue to connect from one action sequence (or game level) to the next, stopping at points for free-flowing exposition, weapons upgrade, or a checkpoint. It’s less a fully functioning movie and more of a visual experience, and whether that experience will ultimately justify its gimmick will depend on your threshold for the first-person POV and its scarce story. Here’s what I don’t understand about people saying Hardcore Henry is the future of movies. It’s an immersive experience but movies are already a medium that we can get lost in and transported, no first-person perspective necessary for our empathy to kick in. The recent cinematic action highs, like Snowpiercer and The Raid 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road and Edge of Tomorrow, all delivered exuberant thrills without having to strictly see through their protagonist’s eyeballs. Action moviemaking is more than a you-are-there visceral immediacy; it’s about building new worlds and blowing them up in fantastic ways. I did not feel pushed to the margins of any of those aforementioned film titles. I was completely absorbed and marveled at their ability to entertain and build payoffs. The idea is that Hardcore Henry is all payoff but if you want to wax philosophical, it’s more like an action movie’s pornographic cousin, cutting out the “boring bits” like developing characters that we care about, establishing setups, creating organic complications, and wrapping it all together in the blanket of a story that provides greater audience satisfaction. Those movies are more than just a stuntman’s sizzle reel; they’re movies. Hardcore Henry is only an experience, and it was an experience I wanted to turn off.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Music and Lyrics (2007)

As bland and flavorless as the 1980s pop pap it hopes to skewer. For die-hard fans of the romantic comedy genre, there may be some minor level of enjoyment, but for the rest of us (those without ovaries) Music and Lyrics is predictable to the end and Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore don’t elicit any semblance of chemistry. The songwriting is noticeably a cut above thanks to Fountain of Wayne’s bassist Adam Schlesinger writing them, but even the participation of one of my favorite bands can’t make Music and Lyrics worth seeing. The Duran Duran-esque music video that opens the film is a hoot and it all goes downhill from there, especially if you find it difficult to accept long durations of the cutesy baby act of Barrymore.

Nate’s Grade: C

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