There’s a rule of thumb I’ve come to find in Hollywood, something so certain you could set your watch to it. No, not the Emmys nominating Frasier for everything. I’m talking about man-owl Larry King, who seems to dabble in the land of film reviews. Kindly readers beware, if you see an ad for a film and it has Larry King’s salivating blurb in it, run away. Run away like the plague, like Pamplona. Just run. The only films I can remember off hand (though this theory has come true every time) are 15 Minutes and Wind Talkers. And now there is the horrifically titled sub-sub movie K-19: The Widowmaker.
K-19 should not be confused with K-9, the Jim Belushi teams up with a dog to fight crime film. No this one takes place in the early 60s in the thicket of the Cold War. An opening title sequence tells us Russia has enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world two times, but the United States has enough to blow up the world six times over. Whoo! U-S-A! The maker of widows is itself a docked submarine in the Russian navy in preparation for combat. Before it even leaves the shore it is said to be cursed, having five men die already from its widow maker-y hands. Liam Neeson is the captain of K-19 and well respected and beloved by his crew. However, Neeson is willing to put the lives of his men ahead of the agenda of the state, so the Communist government places Harrison Ford on the sub and gives him the reigns of command. Ford is a rigorous taskmaster who puts his men through countless drills and does not exactly see eye-to-eye with the more empathetic Neeson.
The story’s real turn comes about midway in, when after successfully launching a test missile above the arctic ice the nuclear core of the sub springs a leak. If something is not done to slow down the heating core the men could be vaporized in a mushroom cloud. Except that patrolling the waters nearby is a Unites States destroyer and thus would be destroyed as well, surely igniting the start of World War III. Crew members take shifts to enter the radioactive core area to try and do what they can. The situation gets even direr when the men come out looking like something from a George Romero film.
K-19‘s biggest fault is fictionalizing what would have been an interesting hour block on The History Channel. The Neeson and Ford characters feel like two sides of a debate, not exactly characters. The whole movie has been Americanized with heroic proportions. Instead of compelling drama we’re left adrift with what the studio wants as a summer movie with material that should no way be associated with it. I mean, the horribly dishonest marketing campaign actually has a crew member shout “Torpedo headed straight for us!” then shows a torpedo surging ahead. There was never a torpedo in the entire movie or a scene where they were being attacked! Somewhere in this ho-hum story is an exciting tale of the courage these men were forced into as well as the strain of not being able to tell their friends or family about anything that happened.
Submarine movies have so many limitations to them thats it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there’ll be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.
Director Kathryn Bigalow (Strange Days) manages to give it the ole college try with the long camera movements inside and the close-ups of men glaring at one another. Although technically able, Bigalow doesn’t do anything to transcend the limitations she has to work with. And while she meets her mark as a director, it is neither spectacular nor worthwhile.
Ford has a horrible Russian accent he likes to flirt around with through the film. I don’t exactly know if people are supposed to like his character, being rigid and pragmatic at the expense of human life. Neeson, on the other hand, is quite capable and shines in his role. The rest of the crew alternates between Russian accents to even some Australian ones I heard.
K-19: The Widowmaker tells us that this story could not be told until the fall of communism, except at the end it shows a clip of the Berlin Wall coming down and the crew then gathering to finally remember their fallen comrades. Some people just don’t have their dates right, and some people just don’t know how to take an interesting unknown slice of history and tell it well. Damn you Larry King.
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I just think submarine thrillers aren’t for me. I won’t argue there aren’t good movies based almost entirely in the tight quarters of subs, like Das Boot or Crimson Tide, but I think most of them just blur together into a wash of genre cliches. As I so presciently wrote in 2002 for my review of the submarine drama, K-19: The Widowmaker: “Submarine movies have so many limitations to them that’s it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there will be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.” I’ve grown even more bored by these sub-genre staples. In some ways, submarine movies are a precursor to the Hollywood fascination of the contained thriller, the limited location setting that acts as a pressure cooker of conflict. However, the setting isn’t as important and the people and the conflicts that reside inside those cramped quarters. For Crimson Tide, the reason that movie really worked is because of the feud between its stars, each man fighting for dominance and gaining allies and plotting mutinous moves in the name of security. You could have told that same story in a military base on land and it would succeed. The problem with K-19 is that the true story is more interesting than a rehash of submarine cliches.
Here is a forgotten chapter in history of heroism and sacrifice, and the fact that it’s from a Russian perspective during the height of the Cold War makes it unique, at least as such in an American marketplace. The movie also feels so out of time thanks to the last decade of Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin. But for a time in the early 2000s, Russia opened up its naval shipyards to Hollywood to tell a very Hollywood version of their own history they had, for decades, insisted be kept only as secret. The crew aboard the K-19 avoided an escalation that would have likely triggered World War III. They were victims of their country’s arms race, building Russia’s first nuclear submarine to compete with the Americans but not building it to ship-shape shape, a point Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) cites during an electrical malfunction. For those well-versed in USSR history, or having seen the truly excellent HBO mini-series Chernobyl, this shoddy workmanship is hardly uncommon when the government insists on results through fear and dire repercussions, and so the state meets its quota, though perhaps only on paper to satisfy a bureaucrat who doesn’t want to be shot by his own government. This is one reason why the real story of these men was withheld for 30 years, as it would cheapen the image of the Soviet state during a time where any mistake is viewed as weakness. I would have preferred a movie that opened up more of the men on this submarine, that really dealt with their hopes and fears more in a more personal and intimate way rather than just hand-waving “Cold War destruction” as it’s catch-all for drama and stakes. Let’s also really dwell on the sacrifices of these men taking turns to venture into a highly irradiated nuclear core to stop it from exploding. Let’s let these men feel like people rather than as indistinguishable and plentiful sacrificial offerings.
This could better be accomplished by removing the core of the script by playwright-turned-screenwriter Christopher Kyle (The Way of Water, Alexander), namely the fight for control of the sub between the old captain (Neeson) and the new captain, Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). The mutiny subplot even becomes the focus of the third act, even after the development with the broken reactor, as if settling this command squabble was more entertaining to an audience. Vostrikov is willing to risk the lives of the men for the goals of the state; Plenin is not. It’s an easy setup to root for one man and hiss at another, but their glorified personality clash doesn’t have near the crackle of Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide. The fact that a mutinous conspiracy can outflank the danger of a nuclear accident will only work if the characters are that compelling, and woe they are not. We’re given some fleeting information about their backstories, with Vostrikov’s father having once been a hero of “the Revolution” but ultimately ended up in a gulag like so many one-time heroes for the Soviet state. There just isn’t enough here to really care. We side with Neeson because he’s more loyal to his crew, but this is also benefited with the hindsight that we know this real incident did not trigger a real war. When either actor begins their hard-line posturing, it feels like watching two older dads argue in a parking lot. Both of the actors suffer from their catastrophically bad Russian accents. If I was director Kathryn Bigelow, I would have just given up and said, “All right, forget accents. Everyone just speaks in their native tongue and we’ll just shrug it off.”
A more interesting tangent, at least for me as a film critic, is my opening salvo savaging the film tastes of the late Larry King (1933-2021) and the topic of “blurb whores,” critics who are so easily amused that their excitable, adjective-ready blurbs in the advertisement for a movie can be a bad sign of the movie’s ultimate quality. A website (eFilmCritic) used to track the most egregious examples of “film critics” offering their “takes” on movies in a scathing series called Critic Watch. Neither the series nor the website seem to be active any longer, but I remember every year checking in and taking stock and shaking my head in incredulous disdain. These were usually populated by the same names like Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, Shawn Edwards from the local Kansas City news station, Jeffrey Lyons and then eventually his son Ben Lyons, Pete Hammond for Maxim, and the most curious case was that of Earl Dittman from Wireless, the publication being like one of those little insert pamphlets for oblivious satellite TV subscribers.
Dittman was the king of blurbs on questionable movies, and his verbal ejaculate over Robots might be the best indication. He said of the 2005 animated film, “…Even more spectacular, computer-animated film than The Incredibles … In fact, the term ‘brilliant’ fails to accurately describe how wondrously witty and innovative Robot [sic] really is … If you thought the superheroes of The Incredibles and the ocean-dwellers of Finding Nemo were humorous, you haven’t heard nothing yet. The side-splitting humor of the mechanical beings in Robots is worthy of a capital ‘H’ … Forget The Incredibles, Robots is one heck of a funny animated comedy … Robots is a hilariously awesome and breathlessly inventive work of entertaining animated brilliance… You can’t afford to miss a single frame of this amazing, unforgettable animated classic.” Wow. He gave TEN different paragraph-length blurbs over Robots to the studio, an okay animated movie at best, and surely not one “more spectacular” than The Incredibles. I can even recall seeing a TV ad for Robots that was nothing but wall-to-wall Dittman quotes. With the man’s hyperbolic, effusive praise for even the crappiest of films, like calling Shark Boy and Lava Girl a “masterpiece” and Hostage as “more electrifying than Die Hard” (what????), there was a theory that the elusive Dittman didn’t even exist. Sony had been ridiculed when it was revealed in 2002 that “David Manning” was a fake critic they had created to positive blurb their movies (The Animal: “The producing team of Big Daddy has delivered another winner!”). Sony even had to pay out a modest settlement in a class action suit to any filmgoer having felt duped to see four movies. And then somebody proved Dittman was real, a freelance writer from Houston, and just a guy who seemed to love all movies and wasn’t that interesting. I don’t think he’s blurbed again since 2007. May he enjoy his retirement.
All of this is my way of saying K-19: The Widowmaker is a submarine movie where submarine movie stuff happens. If you can’t get enough of the likes of U-571 and Greyhound, then that would probably be all you would ask for in your nautical storytelling. Everyone attached has done better, though the old age makeup during an epilogue set in 1989 was eerie about what an older Harrison Ford would look like, so well done, makeup team. My review from 2002 rings so true twenty years later that I’ve had to resort to thinking what else can be added in discussion. That’s always nice, to recognize my critical self from twenty years hence was right on the money. K-19 is long, misshapen in its structure and attention, and bogged down with cliches. My initial grade still stands.
Re-View Grade: C
It’s confession time, dear reader. I do not love Blade Runner. In fact I find it to be overrated and then some. I’ll freely admit that it’s been an extremely influential science fiction work and its noir-soaked depiction of a cyber punk future has been the starting point for cinematic storytelling in that vein for decades. It’s got merits but I find the real merits to be its amazing use of production design, special effects, and the establishment of an overall atmosphere. It has some big ideas, yes, but it doesn’t know what to do with them, neglecting them for a slapdash story with some so-so acting. Rutger Hauer’s soulful yet doomed replicant should have been our central perspective. I wish I enjoyed the film more but I cannot attach myself without nagging reservation, and that’s not even accounting Ridley Scott’s numerous re-edits and the harebrained idea to imply that Harrison Ford was really a replicant after all even though that runs counter to the logic and themes of the film and Scott had to splice in unused unicorn footage from a movie he shot years later, thus proving this new twist ending was never part of anyone’s original story conceit. Anyway, what I’m saying is that the 1982 Blade Runner was not going to be an impossible hurdle to clear as far as I was concerned. The sequel 35 years in the making, Blade Runner 2049, is a better and more accomplished film experience and film story than the original, and it’s also one of the best, most visionary movies of the year.
Set in 2049, replicants have been shuttered and replaced with a new breed of android slave labor controlled by the enigmatic Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). He’s after a very special kind of replicant, one that will lead to even greater success, allowing mankind to reach further out into the stars. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner who finds himself looking for this same special kind of replicant. He must find it before Niander does and K’s journey of self takes him right to the doorstep of retired blade runner, Deckard (Ford).
Apologies for the frustratingly vague plot synopsis above, but I’m trying to keep things as relatively spoiler-free as possible because I think that will improve the overall viewing experience. In an age where trailers and TV advertisements tell us everything about a movie in a zealous attempt to get our butts in seats, I was genuinely surprised at significant plot beats the 2049 advertising had successfully and deliberately kept under wraps. There are intriguing plot turns and character moments that I want to leave the reader to discover on their own. It will be worth the wait.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) has created a filmgoing experience that immerses you in feeling. Every set, every little corner, every minor character goes toward enriching this world and making it feel real, like we’re just dropping in for a visit. He builds off the iconography from Scott in the first film and creates a future that is hypnotic and eerily beautiful, aided by the greatest living cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Seriously, if Deakins finally doesn’t win his long overdue Oscar for this, then the Academy is just never going to favor him. The visual landscapes of this movie are jaw dropping and the use of lighting is gorgeous. There’s a late sequence set in an irradiated Las Vegas where an orange fog hovers over the empty landscape of earthly pleasures. There’s a hiding sequence that takes place in a casino showroom, with holographic dancers and even Elvis fritzing in and out, static movements and bursts of sound that make for a dream-like encounter. Another wonderful hypnotic sequence is a threesome between K, a prostitute, and a virtual intelligence (V.I.) named Joi (Ana de Armas). Reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Her, the sequence has one woman literally folded over another as hands caress, mouths kiss, and the whole sequence has an alluring disconnect during the acts of physical intimacy. This is a gorgeous movie to simply take in and appreciate the sumptuous visual brilliance. Villeneuve has quickly become one of the best big screen visual artists we have today.
What separates 2049 and makes it better than the original is that here is a film that takes big ideas and knows what to do with them. This is an intelligent film that finds time to develop its ideas and to linger with them. This is a long movie (2 hours 43 minutes, the longest film so far of 2017) and one that many will decry as boring. That’s because Villeneuve and screenwriters Michael Green (Alien: Covenant) and Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner) commit to allowing the movie time to breathe, and scenes can take on an elegant life of their own becoming something of stunning power. Take for instance a scene where K visits the woman in charge of creating the false memories for replicants. Because of an autoimmune disorder, her life is behind glass, but she gets to create her own world to thrive in, and we watch her fine-tune the memory of a child’s birthday party while K asks her questions over her work. He has questions over the validity of memories, and this opens up a deep discussion over the concept of self, authenticity, and ownership over memory, all while still being character-based. It’s lovely. It’s like somebody saw the potential of the original Blade Runner and added the missing poetry.
2049 is driven by a central mystery but it’s also an exciting action movie. The sequences are few and far between but when they do happen they too luxuriate in the extra ordinary. The way the replicants are able to move again brings up that visual disconnect that can be so pleasing. A replicant-on-replicant fight is like a sci-fi superhero brawl. Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks is our chief antagonist, Niander’s muscle on the outside. She might not have the languid magnetism of Daryl Hannah or playful philosophy of Hauer but she more than makes for a memorable and impressive physical force. The action and chase sequences are minimal, but when they do pop up Villeneuve doesn’t put the rest of the movie on pause. The characters are still important, the story is still important, and Deakins’ visual arrangements are still vastly important. 2049 is a movie at its best when it’s still and meditative, savoring the moment, but it can also quicken your pulse when called.
Gosling (La La Land) is uniquely suited for this character, another in the legacy of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. His taciturn nature is essential to his character. This is a man going from day to day. His only emotional attachment is to Joi, the V.I. projection, and even that relationship is called into question knowing she is a product meant to serve. This relationship is given a healthy dose of ambiguity so that an audience never fully knows whether Joi genuinely cares or is just following the dictates of her programming. Gosling provides a quiet yet impactful turn as a man searching for answers. In the opening scene, Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2) plays an older replicant that K must “retire.” Bautista says the difference between them is one of faith, as he has seen a miracle, and this allows him to believe in something greater. This opening interaction lays the foundation for K’s character arc, as he searches for his own faith. It’s not necessarily a spiritual faith per se but definitely a belief in a renewed hope.
Another aspect lovingly recreated is the trance-inducing synth score from Vangelis, this time cranked up all the way to eleven by composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Walfisch (It). It comes in like waves, blaring loudly to the point that you swear you can hear the theater’s speakers rattling. It’s omnipresent and oppressive and it’s so freaking loud. I challenge anybody to fall asleep in the theater and actually stay asleep.
Blade Runner 2049 is one of those rare sequels that not only justify its existence but also improve upon its predecessor (again, not the biggest fan of Scott’s movie). It’s reverent to the older film and its film legacy while still charting a path all its own that it can stand upon. It takes a far more interesting narrative perspective to jump forward, possibly serving as a corrective to the original. I was fully engaged from the start as it challenged and entertained me to its concluding image of snowfall (oh no, spoilers!). This is a long movie but your patience pays off and then some. This is a deeper dive into the themes of author Phillip K. Dick and a better development of them. See it on as big a screen as possible, make sure to get your bathroom visits out of the way before it starts, and prepare for your eardrums to bleed from Zimmer’s blaring tones. Villeneuve has created a thoughtful, mature, exciting, and absorbing work of art that will stand the test of time. It won’t be as monumentally influential as the original Blade Runner but it is the better movie, and right now, in 2017, that’s a much more important factor for me as a viewer.
Nate’s Grade: A
May 19,1999 is a day that lives in infamy for legions of Star Wars fans. The day hoped died. I remember trying to convince myself that The Phantom Menace was good but a second viewing confirmed my earlier fears. These movies were not going to be the same as the original trilogy, and George Lucas confirmed that with each successive release. I’ve had debates with teenagers who swear that the prequels are better films. They aren’t. This isn’t a matter of opinion; this is fact. After Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, you could sense that Lucas was burned out and had no desire to further awaken the ire of the fandom. Then in 2012 he surprised everyone by selling the Star Wars empire, along with other properties like Indiana Jones, to Disney for four billion dollars. Immediately Disney let it be known that they wanted to get new Star Wars movies into production ASAP. They tapped J.J. Abrams to spearhead the first steps in a new direction. No other movie has felt the weight of hype and expectation like Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Fans don’t want to be hurt once more by someone they loved. For millions of fans that grew up on the original trilogy, The Force Awakens will be the Star Wars movie they have long been waiting for. It erases the bad feelings of the prequels and re-calibrates the franchise. However, it is also flawed and seems too indebted to nostalgia. It’s certainly good but I cannot put away my nagging reservations (far, far less than what I felt with the prequels).
Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the First Order has risen in place of the evil Empire. The First Order is lead by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and aspiring sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). They’re searching for the droid BB-8 and its owner, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The droid has a map that leads to the whereabouts of the last known Jedi – Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil). A Stormtrooper who adopts the name of Finn (John Boyega) runs away from his mission and joins forces with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger waiting for her family to return to her world. The duo finds BB-8 and seeks to return the droid to the Resistance. They run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and a few other familiar faces on their journey to the Resistance base and to escape the reach of the First Order.
Abrams has captured the essential magic of what made the original trilogy so enjoyable and timeless. The prequels carried the burden of setting up characters we had come to love, and so as we watched younger versions of them or characters integral to their development, it was hard to ignore just how little we cared. It didn’t feel like Lucas himself cared that much, more content to direct his green screens than his actors. The special effects had improved but for much of the three prequels it felt like watching disinterested actors recite poorly written lines while they run around fake environments with no semblance of reality. The details that Lucas emphasized were ones that were unnecessary, like treaties and trade tariffs and the notorious midichlorians, which made the force into a blood disorder. The prequels harmed the legacy of the franchise. It takes only seconds for you to feel like you’re in better hands when you read the opening text crawl. No trade disputes. No galactic senate. It sets up its central chase and the important players in three brief paragraphs. And then we’re off and the movie rarely lets up.
We pass the torch to a new generation of characters and it’s here that Force Awakens is able to leave the large shadow of the original trilogy. The characters are great. Finn gives the viewer an entry point into a world we’ve never explored onscreen in any real depth, the life of a Stormtrooper, the cannon fodder of the series. He has moral crises and goes AWOL from the duties he has been raised to do. He doesn’t want to be a mindless killing-machine and forges his own destiny. Watching him embrace a sense of individuality is entertaining. He’s charming and excitable but also fearful of what may catch up to him. Then there’s the hero’s journey with Rey, a plucky heroine who comes of age over the course of the movie’s 135 minutes. Ridley has the presence and poise reminiscent of Keira Knightley, and the screen just adores her. It also helps when her character is easy to root for. Boyega (Attack the Block) and Ridley are terrific and even better paired together. They have a great chemistry and much of the humor is born from the characters rather than lame visual gags like in the prequels. It’s fun to hear characters verbally spar with actual good dialogue. Driver was the first actor hired and it’s easy to see why. If you’ve been watching the man on HBO’s Girls, you’ll know that he has a magnetic presence that separates him from the herd. He plays a villain that so badly wants to follow in Vader’s footsteps but the thing that holds him back is the “temptation of the light.” In one moment, a badass and imposing villain with super force powers had now also become an interesting character wrestling with his influences. Isaac (Ex Machina) is suave and cocksure as an ace pilot. His affection for the other characters is touching, particularly the robot BB-8. This little guy is going to be the toy that every child on Earth demands for the holidays. BB-8 is adorable from its first moment on screen and made me forget about R2D2. The big worry with Force Awakens was that its new characters would be compelling on their own. After one movie I’m looking forward to more adventures with the new kids on the block.
Abrams has restored the sense of fun and awe that resonated from the original trilogy and the biggest compliment is that Episode VII feels like a Star Wars movie (more on which below). The action sequences are quick and filled with great visuals and shot arrangements. For those worried about Abrams’ penchant for lens flairs in the Star Trek reboots, they are completely absent in Force Awakens (Fun fact: for Star Trek Into Darkness, computer effects had to go in and take out lens flairs because Abrams later admitted he had gone a bit overboard). There are some beautifully orchestrated shots and sequences all around here. The first 40-minutes is the best part of the movie, before the older stars come back for their due. The rest of the film is enjoyable, no doubt, but I was more pleased with the original material. The technical expertise has never been higher. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a joy with watching characters interact with a real world of practical effects. Watching the characters run around real environments and real sets rather than immense green screens just makes it feel more real and vital. I enjoyed how worn and weathered the technology in this world comes across. The special effects are judiciously utilized and are excellent as anticipated. It’s easy to sense the reverence that Abrams and others have for the series as well as their determination to not repeat the mistakes of the prequels. The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many. Abrams has gone back to what works with these movies and recreated the playbook. It’s a movie that will satisfy the hardcore fans and reawaken their love for the series.
And yet it almost feels like Force Awakens is a swing too far in the other direction, an overcorrection to the prequels that turns a reboot into a loving homage that approaches facsimile. I was amazed at just how closely Episode VII follows the plot beats of A New Hope (mild spoilers to follow – for real, if you don’t want to be spoiled in the slightest, and I’m no monster and won’t dare include anything that would substantially deter your viewing, skip to the spoiler safe area). Here goes: once again we start with an escape from an evil starfleet ship, only to land on a desert planet. The hunt is for a droid with valuable information. Our dispirit band of characters collect on the desert planet and flee, only to be eventually pulled back to the evil base of operations, which once again is a giant floating orb that specializes in planet destruction and this orb seems to have the same pesky design flaw that plagued Death Star 1.0 and 2.0. How does this one design flaw still exist? Are there not backups and redundancies? It would be like Titanic 3.0 going down by hitting another iceberg. There are more parallels involving the characters and personal revelations that mirror Episode IV but I won’t go into detail on those (end of spoilers). Suffice to say, it felt like I was watching a cover act remind me how much I enjoyed the first Star Wars release. Perhaps Abrams felt his rabid audience needed to go backwards before going forward, pay homage to what had been built by practically reliving its plot in a galaxy not so long ago as it once was (it still is likely the same distance: far far away). It’s a movie that cannot escape the nostalgia of its predecessors, and so it indulges it instead. In deferring to fan demands, Force Awakens has moments that waver into the dangerous territory of fan service. This will harm its overall staying power once the glow wears off from audiences overcome with relief.
Thankfully, the new main characters are compelling and I’ll be happy to follow their continuing adventures with Episodes VIII and IX and who knows. Abrams and company have set up the next generation of fan favorites that have the chance to grow out of the sizable shadow of the original cast. However, not all elements are given that same nurturing care. The Force Awakens is so briskly paced that it rarely has time to establish the new history of its universe. We get character relationships and reunions but I couldn’t help but feel that the larger plot they inhabited felt rushed. The First Order seems rather vague and their rise to power needed at least some explanation. Instead we’re dropped right into a timeline with an Empire knockoff. It’s just easy fascism placeholder. Why are the Republic and the Resistance two separate entities? The villains with the exception of Kylo Ren are pretty one-note and also callbacks to the bad guy types from Episode IV. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is in the movie for a lousy three minutes. I’m also not a fan of either of the two motion-capture performances courtesy of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and mo-cap pioneer Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). I hated Nyong’o’s character and her performance. The character design for both of these creatures is rather weak and weirdly unimaginative. There’s also a habit of characters being naturals at things that would ordinarily require expertise. The worlds we visit and the creatures we encounter are all a bit too similar to earlier sources and distinctly unmemorable. We don’t learn much via our locations and geography and so it feels a tad interchangeable and meaningless, which is a shame.
The Force Awakens is a mostly exciting return to the rich world of Star Wars with characters we care about, old and new, lively action that feels substantial and real, and a sense of fun that isn’t at the expense of your full brainpower. Abrams had two missions: 1) eliminate the disappointment over the prequels, and 2) set up new characters and stories for future installments. Both have been accomplished. Abrams may have been the perfect candidate to restart the Star Wars series as he has a history of making films as loving homage to his cinematic influences. Super 8 was Abrams’ homage to Spielberg, and Episode VII is very much homage to Episode IV. The well-trod story allows for the series to reset comfortably while setting up its new characters to take a greater storytelling burden from here on out. I hope future installments give us more development to make the worlds and the history matter just as much as Rey, Finn, Kylo, Poe, and BB-8. This may be an unpopular opinion but I feel that Abrams’ rollicking 2009 Star Trek reboot is a better Star Wars movie than The Force Awakens. Abrams and company prove you can make a new and good Star Wars movie. Now my own new hope is that writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) will be able to steer the franchise into a fresher direction with Episode VIII. In the meantime, fans can sleep well once again.
Nate’s Grade: B+
What happens when you mix the films of Douglas Sirk with a heavy dose of magic realism? The results might just look like The Age of Adaline, a throwback with a science fiction twist that’s surprisingly appealing and intelligently developed. The titular Adaline (Blake Lively) has a freak accident in the early twentieth century that stops the aging process. The premise and the trailer had me scoffing about how hokey it all seemed, and yet I found myself retracting most of my prejudicial broadsides. While focused primarily on the topic of romantic love, the movie credibly explores Adaline’s hardships and how she must keep reinventing and moving to a new home so often, lest people suspect. She’s purposely stopping herself from making deeper human connections. She’s afraid of being abducted and experimented on but she’s also afraid of her cursed condition harming those she cares about. Her daughter (Ellen Burstyn, now playing two consecutive daughters older then their parent) poses as Adaline’s “grandmother.” They have conversations dealing with end-of-life care. The film doesn’t duck the more grueling aspects of immortality and it provides a degree of substance to go along with the more fleeting fairy tale aspects of the plot. It’s the third act where the movie gets even better, when Adaline unexpectedly reunites with an old boyfriend played by the unexpectedly great Harrison Ford. He’s convinced he’s seen her face before. It’s driving him mad, and even though it’s decades hence, he still has yet to fully get over Adaline. Lively gives her best performance since 2010’s The Town. She has a beautiful melancholy that she carries with the character that doesn’t overplay the tragic elements. It’s clearly a melodrama, but it’s far more measured and tame that the larger elements feel grounded and sincere. Not everything works, including the superfluous narration from a future historian and the all-too-neat ending. There are probably more interesting stories that can be told with this premise since much of it is Adaline hiding from the world, and the specific focus on her romantic entanglements feels a little myopic for the material. And yet, I found myself engaged and wanting to see what happened next, appreciating the earnestness and the focus on the consequences of choices made and choices avoided. If you have to choose one Age of movie this summer, maybe try Adaline instead of Ultron.
Nate’s Grade: B
A lot has changed in the nine years since the raucous, instantly quotable, and deeply silly hit comedy, Anchorman. Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, and Paul Rudd have all become big stars (sorry Dave Koechner), producer Judd Apatow has become a comedy empire unto himself, and director Adam McKay has gone on to helm several other hit Ferrell collaborations. As much as I loved Anchorman, and I unabashedly do, I was nervous about a sequel capturing the same magic. While Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues cannot be as good as its predecessor; my worries were mainly unfounded because this is still the funniest movie of the year. Simply put, if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll find enough to enjoy, possibly even love, with this latest chapter. The laughs-to-minute ratio is pretty high, as long as you don’t mind some scenic detours. The plot is much looser this time with several competing storylines that come in and out of focus. There are segments that could have been cut completely, like Ron’s bout with blindness, but I laughed enough that I never minded. But that ending 15 minutes is where the filmmakers drop any pretension of reality and double down on absurdity. It’s no surprise that those last crazy 15 minutes were my favorite. The cast is universally strong together, working off one another’s comedic styles so effortlessly, but the plot is very much a kitchen sink approach. I’m happy that Ferrell and McKay, co-writers again (though it’s hard to credit a collaborative improv), didn’t feel the need to recycle many jokes from the first film, reliving their old hits for fans hungry for instant nostalgia. Anchorman 2 is the same brilliantly broad comedy and absurdist dada experiment every loyal fan was hoping for. Give the gift of Ron Burgandy this holiday season and stay classy, America.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Staid and square, a bit like its lead, 42 is a biopic on Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, and while it’s reverential to a fault, it could have used more life. As a character, Robinson is simply not terribly interesting because he’s being trapped within a limited prism of inaction. Robinson the man could be fascinating, but Robinson the character of this movie is a bit of a bore. That’s why the film is just as much about Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), a far more colorful character that gets to chomp cigars and lecture people with countless speeches accompanied by heroic piano cues. 42 is crammed to the gills with messages but they’re so transparent and overdone, occasionally ham-fisted, where every important thought is spelled out and underlined and repeated for the audience. The corny sentimentality clashes with the danger and hostility Robinson bravely faced. We got stuff like a little kid praying to God that Robinson hits a homer to “show what we can do,” a white guy trots up to Robinson and he seems dangerous… only to want to wish him well, and then there’s all the white players learning lessons of tolerance, treating Robinson as if he’s some prop for their own self-actualization. The greatest acting in the movie, a bit that may take your breath away, is from Alan Tudyk who plays a competing team manager. He is like a racist Foghorn Leghorn and he just… keeps… going. This sequence is the film’s best because it feels earned, complete, and lastly emotionally resonant. 42 is an acceptable biopic, effectively triumphant where it counts, but it feels too dated, too safe, and overburdened with doling out a slew of messages rather than telling an engaging and difficult story.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Honestly I know more about Ender’s Game thanks to the swirling rabble about boycotting the film thanks to author Orson Scott Card’s homophobic personal views. I didn’t even know this book existed until I heard about the movie. With my cloud of ignorance, as well as some lingering worries that the director of X-Men Origins: Wolverine was at the helm of this expensive would-be franchise, I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining I found the movie. It’s set in a future where children are culled and trained to be super soldiers against an alien race that has been in seclusion after a failed invasion of Earth. The emphasis is on strategy and manipulating your opponent, which leads to many military training sequences. At one point I wondered, “Is this whole story going to be training sequences and zero-gravity laser tag?” It’s not, thankfully, but even those sequences are fun. Writer/director Gavin Hood does an excellent job of fleshing out this world while giving enough time in between the games to also flesh out his ragtag group of characters. There’s something inherently satisfying to watching a team come together, and the film has plenty of small payoffs. The visuals are astounding to soak up. The zero gravity fun, backlit by the stars, is dazzling. The acting is strong across the board, with special appreciation that Harrison Ford has a good role that he’s actually well suited for. The pacing does start to slag toward the third act, mostly because the plot feels like an escalating series of games, until it’s not. There’s a measured degree of ethical ambiguity and contemplation to the film that’s admirable. Whether you plan on boycotting Ender’s Game or not, it’s a successful, thrilling, and visually engaging sci-fi flick that deserves to be seen at some point.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Never as good as a film should be given the talent involved, nor as bad as its detractors might have you believe, Cowboys & Aliens is an entertaining genre mash-up that’s about 60 percent Western, 30 percent alien thriller, and 10 percent naked Olivia Wilde, which is too small a percentage in my opinion. For a solid hour, the movie follows the rhythms of classic Westerns and Daniel Craig has a face vividly made for the Western canvas. The sci-fi elements feel well integrated in small doses, however, when the movie goes all-out intergalactic gun slinging is when the narrative gets swallowed whole by the crude blockbuster nature of this beast. The plot is pretty standard Man with a Dark Past stuff, and can we put a moratorium on people suffering amnesia and choosing to be better people? The characters never really feel real but they feel believably stock for their genre. For a PG-13 movie, the violence can get pretty gruesome, especially in its gooey disembodiment of the alien invaders. You almost feel sorry for these nefarious gold-hoarding (yes, you read that right, the aliens are after our gold – Glen Beck was right!) creatures. The action sequences are a notch above average, the emphasis on practical effects is appreciated, and the movie takes some darkly comic turns, which kept me amused even when the movie’s IQ was dropping at a precipitous rate for the last act. Cowboys & Aliens never pretends to be anything more, or smarter, than its blunt title.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I lived in New Haven, Connecticut for a year while then-partner was earning her Master’s degree at Yale. We hated it. New Haven is a college town that doesn’t know it’s a college town, so everything closes at 10 PM, there are no student prices for anything, and the people there more or less sucked. We were happy to depart from the Nutmeg State. Then the week after we were going to leave was when Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and the production team for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were coming to town. They were going to film a motorcycle chase along Chapel Street (where I walked to work every day) and all along the Yale campus. Finally, a reason to stay in New Haven presents itself and it has to happen after we escape. It’s not often one of the most anticipated movies comes to your doorstep.
I could have been an extra in the motorcycle chase, which set in 1957, could have used a long-haired Beatnik type (played by yours truly) for an exaggerated reaction shot. I could have been sipping on an espresso and then Indiana Jones could have zoomed by on the bike snatching by hot beverage, leaving a long-haired Beatnik type (me again) to mug shamelessly for the camera. It would have worked. Alas, it was not to be, though it certainly would have made this ages-in-development sequel more enjoyable on my part.
It’s been a long time since part-time archeology professor and full-time treasure hunter Henry “Indiana” Jones (Ford) beat the Nazis. The world has gotten a lot more complicated thanks to the Cold War, the atomic bomb, and the fact that Jones is now well into his 60s. It’s been 19 years since his last adventure but the man with the bullwhip and the dusty fedora still has a knack for intrigue. Soviet KGB agents have captured Indy and his friend Mac (Ray Winstone) and taken them to the Area 51 warehouse. They’re seeking a recovered artifact of alien origins that can wield tremendous power, as they always do. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is the head KGB agent and likes to threaten her enemies with a riding crop (perhaps she earns some extra money on the side punishing bad, bad comrades). Indiana Jones manages to escape and is pursued by the Soviets and blacklisted by his government due to his perceived involvement with Russia.
Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) seeks out the help of Dr. Jones. Mutt is a greaser on a motorcycle that might be a chip off the old block. His parents are in trouble. The stepfather that raised him (John Hurt), an old archeology buddy of Indy’s, has traveled to South America and found a legendary crystal skull. The bizarre artifact would lead the way to the mythical golden city and crazy amounts of Mayan supernatural power. Unfortunately, the skull has also made him as batty as a bat and Spalko is going to kill him. Indy and Mutt fly down to South America to save the crazy old man. Oh, and Mutt’s mother is also in danger, and she would be none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who has plenty of romantic history with a certain swash-buckler afraid of snakes.
Seeing Ford back in action just feels right. His character has grown into a bit of a curmudgeon but he’s working the same territory Bruce Willis did last year in the long gestated Die Hard sequel. He’s an old man serving some justice to all these young punks that won’t get off his lawn. The film acknowledges his age and mostly uses it as a means for comedy (he cracks that a life of adventure isn’t “as easy as it used to be”). Ford looks more alert than he has in years.
Blanchett is one of our finest actresses on the planet but she has serious trouble maintaining her Ruskie accent; she alternates between Russian and British the whole movie. Her dominatrix-styled villainess is certainly interesting, and man does she have great posture, but the film doesn’t really know what to do with the Soviet bad guys. They become more or less Nazi stand-ins and seem to repeat the same ambitions that the Nazis carried out in two or the three previous films. Allen has aged magnificently and is a welcome return. She and Ford have terrific screwball comedy chemistry and pick up right where they left off in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. LaBeouf does a solid job even though he doesn’t have any meat to his character after his Marlon Brando-like introduction in leather jacket and motorcycle. Instead, Spielberg continuously winks at the audience about Mutt’s obvious familial line. It wouldn’t be a Spielberg movie without some family dynamic.
I’m pleased to reunite with Indiana Jones, I like the new characters, and I even like Mutt, but the story the characters are saddled with is lousy. This is the script that Ford, Spielberg, and co-creator/producer George Lucas all agreed upon? I’m not one of those people that have an issue with aliens being the primary movers and shakers in the plot (in informal talks with friends, many are upset that little green men are the stars). The first three Indy films dealt with a religious supernatural power and now this new installment covers a space alien supernatural power, so that doesn’t concern me. What bothered me is that Crystal Skull is a murky mash-up of [i]Temple of Doom[/i] and Stargate. Once the primary characters reach their hidden temple the movie takes a nosedive. Spielberg almost crafts an anti-intellectual message, where finding out the reality behind the magic ruins the soul. The exact story behind the Crystal Skull is frustrating in how oblique it is, and Spielberg doesn’t want to offer any clarity. I’m at a loss to explain exactly why anything happened in the concluding 20 minutes, least of all how an alien race must have a very different definition of the word “gift.”
Never before has the action in an Indiana Jones film come across as so campy. This is likely the most disappointing part of Crystal Skull: the action is too tongue-in-cheek. There were moments where I thought the film was one step away from Army of Darkness. Spielberg is enough of a brilliant tactician to know how to setup and build satisfying and stylish action, which normally involves organic complications and letting the audience fully grasp what’s happening. This means no rapid-fire edits and plenty of long, high angle shots to get the big picture. And when he’s in his groove, there are few that can top Spielberg when it comes to an action sequence. There are points in Crystal Skull where the action is rollicking and joyously packed with excitement and wonder. The opening sequence inside Area 51 starts the film off with a bang, the motorcycle chase through Yale is well choreographed, and a car chase in the jungle is fantastic in the amount of back-and-forth scuffles and emerging obstacles. It’s by far the film’s high point and then there was one point where Mutt was swinging from vine to vine like freaking Tarzan and he enlisted the help of monkeys. It took me completely out of what had been a rip-roaring action sequence. Then there’s the moment where Marion drives everyone off a cliff and onto a tree that bends to drop them safely before smacking back like a rubber band. I’m not asking for complete believability in an action caper but I’d prefer it not become an embarrassing Looney Tunes cartoon. Crystal Skull is filled with little moments that will completely yank you out of the movie.
The action sequences feel too pat for the material the film wants to cover. Even that great jungle car chase could have been boosted with some extra ingenuity. The scene opens with the Soviets driving a vehicle that is slicing the forest to splinters and clearing a path for the caravan of cars to follow. Now I know the Spielberg of 1981 would never have introduced such an interesting machine in a unique setting without using it later. The Spielberg of 2008 is different because this nifty blade mobile isn’t even seen again after its initial introduction to establish how a car chase in a jungle could be possible. The action relies too heavily on distracting CGI that takes the action sequences on annoying, over-the-top detours. Just because computers can make it happen doesn’t mean it’s always a good avenue to go down. In short, the CGI is undercooked and over used.
I also need to speak frankly about the CGI — it is terrible. However, when I watched Crystal Skull my party got a tad lost on the way to the theater so the only seats left were the third row from the screen. I spent the entire movie with my neck craned up. Perhaps if I saw the film in a position it was more intended to be seen the special effects would come across as more professionally polished, but from my neck-cramping position they looked pitifully amateurish for a major summer blockbuster with Spielberg and Lucas’s names attached. The effects work is shockingly shoddy, but the practical production design is amazing. Unfortunately, this does not balance out in the film’s favor.
I’m coming across as harsh but I only get this way when my expectations are raised because of a pattern of quality. The three prior Indiana Jones films were lively, imaginative, and deeply charming and satisfying adventures that leaned toward the exaggerated but still managed to thrill without feeling dumb. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the few perfect movies in existence, in my opinion, and set the standard for all action/adventure movies to follow. It’s unfair to expect the same sensation watching a sequel 19 years after its predecessor, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does manage to hone in on the same spirit that made the other Indy films such high-flying thrill rides. If you set your brain to a low frequency, enter the theater with lowered expectations, and already know that at one point Mutt will swing from vine to vine like freaking Tarzan, then Crystal Skull will provide the necessary popcorn entertainment you’d seek in a summer blockbuster. It is possible to think Crystal Skull ranks up with its predecessors but that requires so much contortion that I wouldn’t know how to arrive at that opinion. I suppose we should all resort to the consolation that even with E.T. taking over the plot, this thing could have been a lot worse. Just remember that if an alien offers you a “gift” to run in the other direction.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I’ve seen commercials for Firewall, a new techno-thriller, attached to various TV programs. What’s peculiar is that the commercials are all centered on what Harrison Ford’s character drives in the film. The announcer even says, “See the new Chrysler in … Firewall.” The weird part is that I’ve seen more commercials pimping the movie’s car than the movie itself, like the film is an afterthought to the product placement. With such an inconsistent, stupid, cookie-cutter Hollywood thriller that Firewall is, I’d expect nothing less.
Jack Stanfield (Ford) is a bank security expert living in Seattle. He’s got a loving wife Beth (Virginia Madsen), a teenage daughter and young son, and his bank is about to merge with a larger conglomerate. Before it does, though, Jack takes a meeting with Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) who has a very important business proposition. Jack will waltz into the bank he’s been working at for 20 years and wire $100 million dollars to Cox’s offshore bank account. If Jack fails, the men currently holding his family hostage in Jack’s home will kill them. To secure their safety, Jack must work different sides, infiltrating his own bank and breaking his own system, all the while trying not to get caught and trying to save his family.
The film is so cookie-cutter and filled with obvious and/or useless plot details. In the opening minutes we’re introduced to a remote controlled car that disrupts video frequencies. Of course we know this will come into play later. The opening minutes of Firewall set up all the film’s subplots that will be tidily tied up but only after being ignored. So little of this film feels fleshed out. Firewall seems to think that just having its villain be British is enough. Beth is an architect and designed the family home they’re now held hostage in. Surely this plot point will have greater significance than a toy car. Nope, nothing ever happens as a result of this extraneous detail.
Ford looks so bored and he does little to hide it. Once again he’s that reticent hero called into action in the name of his family. He really isn’t given much to do and his action sequences are short bursts that involve a lot of him falling down, even when he’s besting a bad guy. A perfect example of how bad the writing is, and how lame they’ve made Ford’s character, is an exchange between Jack and Henry (Robert Patrick) shortly after Ford has liquidated his company of millions. Henry confronts him and says, “You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying here!” And Jack says, like a whiny kid told to eat his vegetables, “No I’mmmm NOT!” Firewall, this is your hero.
The antagonists are another example of how poorly written Firewall is. The villains are incredibly inept on all levels. Their entire plan is kaput from minute one because they didn’t bother to check that the bank was merging and changing its security access panels. Bill basically points to Jack and says, “You come up with a plan now.” The villains need the hero to come up with their scheme, how rich. The bad guys come across like they just took night classes in How to Take Hostages and Extort Money 101. Somewhere Bill must have skipped a few classes because he makes some boneheaded decisions. He kills one of his own men for getting tricked by Jack during surveillance. I suppose he?s trying to make an example but why, if you’re holding people hostage, would you decrease your numbers from five to four? Now you have one less person to get things in line. Bill also must have missed a psychological review to screen out that old Hollywood favorite, the one reluctant kidnapper who’s nice. Did Bill put this thing together through an ad in a newspaper?
Then there’s the dog. Why on earth did the bad guys take the dog with them when they moved the family? It just so happens that the dog has a GPS tracking device on its collar. It’s a plot contrivance so Jack can find his family, but it makes no sense. These big bad men will kill one of their own but take the dog along too? Bill and the gang didn’t have to kill the dog but taking him doesn’t add up. It’s like a serial killer alphabetizing your CD collection.
The whole hostage situation is laughable. Bill’s thugs turn a hostage situation into a bed and breakfast, implausibly letting the family roam around the house, watch TV, do whatever really. Bill even makes pancakes for Jack’s kids, that bastard. The most threatening Bill ever gets is when he offers a peanut butter cookie to Jack’s peanut-allergy kid. Dastardly and, oh yeah, the kid didn’t have to choose to eat what the bad guy gave him! This is the worst hostage siege ever. It is insultingly ridiculous. Madsen is annoying as she tries shaming her captors, proclaiming motherly advice. Firewall‘s chances of thrills are spoiled by inept bad guys and the family being in laughably staged peril.
The heist itself is given such lip-service that it almost becomes incidental. It plays for a total of maybe five minutes onscreen and lacks any thrills. Why should there be thrills if Jack came up with it? There no reversals, no setbacks, no complications, no nothing. Firewall needed to be run through a typewriter a few more times, work out a punchier screenplay that actually turns the heist into something tense.
Firewall should have played more like a cat and mouse game, with Jack and Bill battling for supremacy. Instead, Firewall feels emblematic of every other stupidly plotted thriller Hollywood feels it can feed to a mass audience because it slaps a star in it. This is shamefully mediocre, stupid, and, above all else, rather boring. Firewall is your typical disposable Hollywood thriller-of-the-week, just with more tech jargon that Ford looks pained to even speak. If you replaced Ford and Bettany with, say Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Corbin Bernsen, you’d have a movie fit to air late night on TV when the only people awake would be insomniacs. Finally, then, Firewall would have found its rightful audience.
Nate’s Grade: C-