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Violet & Daisy (2013)

violet-and-daisy-posterIt’s not often that I say this but… what the hell did I just watch? I know it’s a movie called Violet & Daisy, written and directed by Geoffrey Fletcher, the man who won a screenwriting Oscar for adapting Precious. But what is this? It is some meta commentary on film violence? A twisted fairy tale? A dark comedy? Whatever it is, I know for certain that it was not very good or entertaining.

Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are teenagers who also work as hired assassins by their boss, Russ (Danny Trejo). Their next assignment has a personal angle: Michael (James Gandolfini) stole a large sum of money from Russ. The gals hide out in Michael’s apartment only to fall asleep. When they wake up, Michael is sitting there, accepting his fate, begging the girls to complete their job. He’s dying from terminal cancer, estranged from his daughter, and hoping to exit this world on his own terms. Over the course of one long afternoon, the gals run into rival gangs, a trained sniper, police, neighbors, and all sorts of other plot contrivances to delay the death of Michael.

violet__daisyIf you’re like me, with similar expectations when it comes to your moviegoing experiences, you’ll be left scratching your head and fumbling for some kind of rationale why people decided to make a film like Violet & Daisy. It feels instantly dated, relying upon the hook of young teen girls with big guns, you know, the same model that has translated to many a successful video game. More so than that, the aspiration, or at least direct inspiration, appears to be a Tarantino-knock-off. Not ripping off Tarantino, as many did in the mid-to-late 90s, but ripping off a poor Tarantino knock-off, like Two Days in the Valley or, the more adept comparison, The Big Hit. There is so much crap in this movie that exists merely because somebody thought it would look cool. Violet and Daisy open the movie dressed as pizza-delivering nuns (is this a fetish I am unaware of?) and open fire on a gang of criminals. But before their fateful gunfight, you better believe it, they have an innocuous conversation about something small, you know, like Jules and Vincent. Why are they dressed as nuns, let alone nuns delivering pizza? It doesn’t matter. This is a movie that doesn’t exist in a universe minutely close to our own. Everything about this film feels painfully and artificial. You know what previous job Violet and Daisy had? They worked at the “doll hospital,” a literal ward for dolls. The decisions of this movie are driven purely by a stylized self-indulgent whimsy. Once you realize this, and you will, the movie becomes even more of a chore to finish.

Then there’s the bizarre and sometimes uncomfortable infantilization of the female lead characters. These ladies do not act like adults; they don’t even act like teenagers. Even though they’re both over 18 years old, their behavior more closely resembles that of a flighty seven-year-old. Their speaking patterns are often in an annoying and partially creepy baby coo. They play paddy cake after successful hits. They ride tricycles. They chew bubblegum and blow bubbles during hits. They get excited about new Barbie Sunday dresses, and this is their real motivation for taking assassination jobs. Yes, to buy dresses. Then there’s their game, the Internal Bleeding Dance, where they hop up and down on the chests of their dying victims, blood spurting out of their mouths, the girls giggling, as if they were bouncing on a bed at a slumber party. These women aren’t remotely actual characters; they are masturbatory quirky hipster fodder, the ironically detached, sexy baby doll killer approximation. Except there is never any commentary at work. The depiction of Violet and Daisy as petite killers never approaches anything meaningful. They are killers because it’s cool. They talk like lobotomized film noir archetypes because it’s cool. This is quirk run amok, quirk with a gun and no purpose. I’m trying hard to ignore the obvious sexual kink undercurrents of the whole enterprise.

VIOLET-articleLargeEven with all these flaws, perhaps Violet & Daisy could have been morbidly interesting, except that the circuitous plot twiddles its thumbs, padding out a half-baked story. This is a movie that takes its time and seems to go nowhere. Once the girls meet Michael, the plot has to come up with numerously lame excuses to delay Michael’s execution. I kid you not, there are THREE instances where the girls run out of bullets and have to stop and walk back to the hardware store to go buy ammo. This happens. This is a thing that keeps the plot moving. It’s like as soon as the main characters get into a room together, Fletcher has to struggle to come up with reasons why his narrative should still exist. So we get a second group that Michael stole from because this guy has an even bigger death wish. This second group of spurned bad guys is on their way. If Fletcher was going this route, he might as well gone whole-hog imitating Smokin’ Aces and just had numerous crews all fighting over taking out this schlub first. It feels like Fletcher is making up the story as he goes, taking us on relatively pointless nonlinear interludes to pad the running time. The film, like Tarantino, breaks up the story into a series on onscreen chapters, though one of these only lasts like a minute. Then there’s a loopy dream sequence. The narrative is so stagnant that whatever interest you may have had will long be gone. By the time the movie actually does end, at about 80 minutes, it has long felt creatively exhausted, totally gassed. Fletcher throws out all the stops to get across that finish line.

Even though it was filmed way back in 2010, it’s hard to escape the morbid irony of Gandolfini (Enough Said) playing a character discussing his own inevitable death. He’s the best actor in the film, offering a paternal warmth that goes wasted amidst all the stylistic nonsense. Our other two featured players, Bledel (TV’s Gilmore Girls) and Ronan (The Host), have a sprightly chemistry together that works. I just wish all three actors had something to do rather than strike artificial poses and quip.

After enduring The Paperboy, and “enduring” is indeed the correct term, I was certain that the messy, tonally uneven, sometimes garish flights of fancy in Precious were due to director Lee Daniels. After enduring, and again “enduring” is the correct term, Violet & Daisy, I’m starting to think that Fletcher is deserves equal credit. Violet & Daisy is a curious exercise in twee indie hipness, suffused with quirk standing in place for characters, story, meaning, etc. It feels like the development stopped once the core concept of teen girl assassins was concocted. The off-putting childish nature of the adult girls, juxtaposed with the baby doll sexuality of the film, makes for an uncomfortable watch. To call the film bad taste is too easy. Whether this is a bizarre dark comedy, a whacko modern fairy tale, or whatever term you want to apply to justify the artificial excesses and emptiness, Violet & Daisy is a contrived mess that labors to fill out a basic feature running time, often doubling back and delaying. There isn’t a story here, more just an incongruent, irregular style. If you’re content with a knockoff of a Tarantino knockoff, with an extra dose of whimsy, then enjoy Violet & Daisy and you can dance your cares away atop bleeding bodies.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

1902Director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, Oscar winners for 2009’s Best Picture-winner war film The Hurt Locker, were hard at work on their next movie when fate intervened. They were about to start production on a film about a 2001 incident where U.S. Special Forces almost nabbed Osama bin Laden, the notorious mastermind behind 9/11. Then on May 1, 2011, the world learned that Seal Team Six stormed bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan and executed the most wanted man in the world. Bigelow and Boal scrapped all plans and rewrote their movie from scratch. Now they had the ending we’d all demand; isn’t a movie where we get bin Laden way better than one where he narrowly escapes? Zero Dark Thirty (military terminology for well after dark) is the stunning result of Boal’s impressive reporting and condensing, Bigelow’s masterful direction, and a great supporting cast that brings history to vivid life. If you’re like me, you’ll walk out of the theater whistling to yourself, speechless at the spellbinding artistic achievement of the movie. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what essential, invigorating, quality filmmaking is all about.

We may know about Seal Team Six and the lead presented from tracking the courier, but few people know of the CIA analyst at the heart of the manhunt. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young agent stationed in Afghanistan who desires nothing more than to be the one who helps ensure that bin Laden gets killed. We follow her decade-long quest as she chases down leads, interrogates prisoners, and successfully presses the CIA brass for action, resulting in the fateful raid that took out bin Laden.

96597_galYou can tell early on that Zero Dark Thirty is going to be an excellent film. Given the pedigree of is creators, my expectations were enormously high. I rated their previous collaboration as my top film of that year. I knew I was in capable hands when the film opens on September 11, 2001 but skips any visuals. We sit and watch a minute of a blank screen while the sounds of desperate 911 calls become a wall of sound. It’s enough to reassert the stakes while still being restrained. Bigelow’s directorial command is astonishing, pitting you in the thick of the action. There are a lot of moving parts with a movie like this, wheels within wheels, and Bigelow keeps everything moving and focused. It helps that the bigger manhunt is broken up into a series of mini-missions over the ten years. Bigelow and her talented production team have recreated the ends of the world to bring this story to life. That added sheen of verisimilitude gives every moment a sense of magnified power, an electric sense of relevancy. You’ll get goose bumps as they start circling the actual location of bin Laden. Bigelow, who won an Oscar for her virtuoso work on The Hurt Locker, still knows how to play every one of your nerves. There’s a clandestine meet up with a possible turncoat that is stuffed with dread. Every checkpoint, every safety procedure waved, you’ll be biting your nails, the voice in your head clearly saying, “Oh no, this isn’t going to go well.” Zero Dark Thirty is more crime procedural than the action thriller. Even so, Bigelow’s direction is top-notch and brings an intense, churning verve to the film, down to the smallest detail.

The film plays out like an absorbing, hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism, recreating the steps and false turns over the ten-year manhunt for bin Laden. There is a lot of information to process and over 100 speaking roles, and Boal and Bigelow do not stoop to pander to the less intelligent in the audience. You will be expected to catch up or fall behind. It can get confusing at points but Boal does an exceedingly articulate job of narrowing the particulars of the bin Laden case and presenting a clear through line. It’s a story that hops around the globe through a series of mini-missions, from a meet up with a possible al Qaeda spy to locking down a phone number to trace a courier in Pakistan. You see every step, every deal, and every effort that it takes to land the big break, namely tracking down bin Laden’s trusted courier to his Abbottabad compound. Boal even separates his narrative with titled sub-sections like a lengthy piece of journalism. We all know where the story is going to end up, but Boal’s supreme talent is making every step meaningful and tense leading up to that fateful raid May 1, 2011. The level of reportage detail is completely enthralling and will be relatively unknown to most filmgoers. Beyond 9/11 and the London bombings, I confess to being ignorant of the other al Qaeda attacks highlighted throughout. Therefore, not only is Zero Dark Thirty an exciting manhunt, it’s also an educational endeavor for most Americans.

92973_galThe proceeding two hours are an engrossing manhunt, but when Zero Dark Thirty gets to the raid sequence, that is when the movie ascends to a level of cinematic excellence unsurpassed this year at the movies. There is nothing else in 2012 that comes close to matching the 30-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound. My heart was in my throat the whole time. I was physically shaking. I was pinned to my chair. The conclusion, nabbing bin Laden, is one of the most riveting sequences in film I have ever seen. It’s like Bigelow has complete control of your senses, and even though we all know how this story ends, you’ll be glued to the screen, pulse racing, anticipating every step. After the film ended, I told my friend Eric that I felt like I needed to start smoking, thus was how exhilarated I felt leaving the theater (message to kids: don’t smoke, even if you see Zero Dark Thirty). My head was bustling afterwards. All I could think about was the masterful conclusion to a very good movie. The raid sequence is brilliantly recreated and just about portrayed in exacting real time; you feel like you’re right there along with the members of Seal Team Six. For a civilian, it’s fascinating jut to watch the minutiae of what went down, but under Bigelow’s taut direction, it’s the moment every American has been waiting for since September 11, 2001. Bigelow is also careful not to portray the death in any sort of jingoistic, fist-pumping context. She sticks with her docu-drama approach, avoiding sensationalism, and you don’t even see the shot that takes down bin Laden. The film is also very careful not to linger on bin Laden’s dead body or even reveal his face; she doesn’t, as President Obama said, “spike the football.” Bigelow deserves a second Oscar just for her superlative handling of those unparalleled 30 minutes of pure filmmaking bravado. Plus, it’s the best ending of the year at the movies.

Let me address the brewing controversy ensnaring the movie regarding its depiction of torture. Zero Dark Thirty does demonstrate torture but it never glorifies it or presents it as anything less than dehumanizing and morally repugnant. But torture did happen (I’m sorry Dick Cheney… “enhanced interrogations”) and to whitewash this regrettable period of time from the historical record is a disservice to the truth. This country, as well as any other, engages in extreme and detestable measures; we only hope that our leaders have the moral clarity to make these ethical lapses as few and far between as possible. Now, the politicians and bloggers have attacked Bigelow’s movie as tacitly condoning torture, indicting that it was successful in getting that big break. This is not the case. Zero Dark Thirty shows a variety of methods being used, and yes we get a heavy helping of torture and humiliation, but it’s when Maya and others start treating the detainee like a human being again, offering food and conversation, is when the progress is made. The film does not explicitly declare one interrogation method successful, however, I can see where people will draw their own (wrong) conclusion. If anyone wants to read my exact stance on torture, just check out my lengthy review of the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side. In short, torture does not work and Zero Dark Thirty does not purport that it does, though many may conclude otherwise. It seems to me that the critics don’t have enough faith in the audience to accept ambiguity.

2011’s breakout actress, Chastain (The Help), is the focal point of the movie and she delivers. Her character has no life outside of doggedly hunting for bin Laden. She’s completely driven by the goal of killing him, and as such she gets to uncork some dandy angry monologues dressing down her colleagues for their failing dedication. Chastian does a fine job of keeping a veneer around Maya, shrouding her emotions into a mysterious calm, which seems realistic given the nature of the character but also makes it tricky to connect with her emotionally. This movie is not the great character study that The Hurt Locker was, and so Maya gets some rather shrift characterization: she’s a workaholic fighting for credibility. The real star of the movie is the story so all the characters take a back seat to Boal’s journalism. While Chastain is quite good, I have to shrug my shoulders at the various critics groups throwing Best Actress accolades her way (go Jennifer Lawrence).

92974_galThe supporting cast doesn’t have a weak link amongst them, from Kyle Chandler (Super 8) as an outpost boss, Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a CIA superior screaming at the bin Laden team to “find me targets to kill,” Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) as Maya’s closest friend in a hostile land, James Gandolfini (TV’s Sopranos) as CIA director Leon Panetta, Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones’ Stannis Baratheon) as a skeptical NSA head, and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) as a member of Seal Team Six. That’s right America, TV’s Andy Dwyer helps cap bin Laden. But the real standout is Jason Clarke (Lawless) as an interrogator who eventually leaves the field for an office but still makes headway for Maya.

Much like The Hurt Locker, here is a movie that transcends politics and genre. Zero Dark Thirty is a nerve-wracking thriller, it’s an intelligent crime procedural, and it’s an engrossing and powerful work of relevant art. It operates on such a high level of artistic achievement that little else from 2012 even comes close. This thorough, intense, provocative, thought-provoking, morally ambiguous, thrilling, and generally tremendous movie is taken to a whole other level with its concluding act, brilliantly recreating the raid that took down Osama bin Laden, the most cathartic and satisfying ending of the year. You’ll be liable to whistle in awe at how accomplished Zero Dark Thirty is. Of course audiences should not accept every thing they see in the movie as unimpeachable gospel, as dramatic license is needed to help shape a formidable narrative. This is still a movie that desires to entertain and yea does it entertain. I look forward to the American public getting a chance to experience the same riveting theatrical experience that I had with my critical brethren, as well as the sense of catharsis and relief by film’s end. Zero Dark Thirty forgoes sensationalism for modulation, eschews moral righteousness for ambiguity, and expects the audience to keep up with its retinue of information. And you’ll be grateful to be given the chance to tag along. Run out and see this remarkable movie when you have the chance. Movies don’t get much better than this, folks.

Nate’s Grade: A

Killing Them Softly (2012)

1894A funny thing happened while watching Killing Them Softly, the latest film from writer/director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). After an hour, I noticed a couple people stand up and leave, never to return. Then another and another like permission had been communally brokered. I counted ten walkouts at my showing, which was more than I had at Cloud Atlas, a film that I can at least understand the possible exodus. But this? It also got a rare F grade from CinemaScore, joining the ranks of The Devil Inside, Wolf Creek, and The Box. Before you put that much stock in what is essentially a movie going exit poll, Alex Cross was given an A grade from audiences. But why all the venomous hate? I can only theorize that the mainstream audience feels it was sold a bill of goods, a crime thriller with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The audience did not want to go on the lengthy talky detours. They wanted people to get dead. Whatever the reason, Killing Them Softly has killed its audience, who choose not to go softly in their disapproval.

Set amidst the economic meltdown of 2008, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Frankie (Ben Mendelsohn) are two lowlife thugs hired to rob a mob-affiliated card game. The trick is that local gangster Markie (Ray Liotta) had previously paid a group of guys to rob his own card game, fleecing his own customers. In his drunken revelry, Markie admitted as such to his pals. Now the situation is ripe for exploitation. Because any future robberies will have their suspicions pinned firmly on Markie, whether he had anything to do with them or not. As a result, no one is gambling, the public has lost confidence in the markets, and the mob needs to get things back to business. Jackie (Brad Pitt) is called in to make that happen. He’s a professional killer, who prefers to kill at a distance, without all those messy emotions. He has to trace the culprits responsible and give them the reckoning they have coming.

93862_galFrom a plot standpoint, Killing Them Softly is pretty thin. It’s just about the ramifications of two nitwits robbing a card game. This lack of narrative depth will rankle most filmgoers, but I didn’t mind it so much because Dominik uses the crime thriller veneer to examine the sheer ugliness of a criminal lifestyle. This is a pretty character-driven crime flick, and it has to be when there’s a malnourished plot. It takes some lengthy sidesteps, notably with James Gandolfini’s (Zero Dark Thirty) character, Mickey. He’s supposed to be a professional, but the man is a complete wreck. He’s belligerent to those in service positions (waiters, prostitutes), chronically drunk, and weirdly empathetic for his struggling wife, yet seemingly powerless to change his life’s downward slide into self-medicated self-destruction. Mickey is the ghost of Christmas Future, the vision of what this lifestyle does to people who make a living out of it, who actually live into their retirement age. The two young crooks, Frankie and Russell, are idiots yes, but even when they have money their lives are so empty. Russell is so disgusting, sweating profusely, that you can practically taste his stank. Frankie is a little more cognizant of the danger he’s in, and yet the moron doesn’t leave town after his big score. I’d think that’s the first thing you do when you rip off the mob. The day-to-day anxiety of a life of crime is just not worth the effort. You constantly have to look over your shoulder, a life dominated in paranoia, where every stranger or furtive glance could have sinister meaning. Even when you make money, you’re theoretically taking money away from someone else’s profit, and these are the kind of people that don’t take kindly to friendly competition. This is no enviable, glamorous life.

I think Killing Me Softly would be a better, easily more satisfying movie had it eschewed the attempts at extra weight and commentary. It’s no surprise that the scenes that follow a more traditional crime thriller route are the best. There’s palpable tension when Frankie and Russell are in over their heads. The conflict is prevalent and the suspense is nicely stretched out, notably during the card game robbery. Being neophytes, you don’t know what they’re liable to do but you can bet it won’t be smart. This is when the movie is most alive, most engaging, and most entertaining. When it plays it straight, and explores the sliding power plays at stake in a world of cash and guns, it can be a nasty but taut little movie. I’m just sorry that Dominik took a functional crime thriller and gave it an extra sheen of Important Things to Say (”America’s not a country. It’s a business.”). The political parallels never feel more than tacked on attempts to grope for deeper meaning. Oh I get it, I understand the comparison of mob enforcers and corrupt Wall Street execs, hoodlums and crooks in different casual wear, but that doesn’t mean the parallel is that meaningful. It’s on-the-nose and a bit in your face (really, people are watching C-SPAN in dive bars?).

93859_galGiven Domink’s last film, I expected there to be some visual flourishes, though I’m unsure of whether they added much to the proceedings. Dominik sure can make violence entrancing, setting a slow motion slaying in the rain with stirring beauty to ironic Motown music. But he can also make the violence feel brutal, like a beat down on Markie that uses choice sound effects and editing to make you feel the punches. Even the opening seconds feel like an artistic assault to the senses, the loud static of noise interrupted by bursts of Obama’s sound bytes. The extreme camera angles, the visual felicities, the ironic music selections, they all seem to underscore the movie’s subtext-as-text approach.

Pitt (Moneyball) doesn’t come into the movie for the first thirty minutes. You’re welcome to see him, especially since he has such a coolly threatening demeanor, but also because here’s a character that will mix things up. I found myself rooting for the guy, partially because he was an accomplished professional but also because I wanted there to be consequences for idiots doing dumb to powerful enemies. I enjoyed the slow-burn intensity of Pitt when he was turning the screws on the screw-up. Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods) is also enjoyable as a mob shill left to communicate the wishes of his higher-ups. McNairy (Argo) gives a performance that screams desperation, as he realizes the depth of trouble he finds himself into. And even Liotta (Charlie St. Cloud) does a fine job as a lout who misjudges the friends he keeps, discovering the costs of bragging.

In many ways, I feel like Killing Them Softly is akin to last year’s Drive, a more meditative crime thriller with bursts of gruesome yet beatific violence. Likewise, many filmgoers will be sore thinking they were catching straight crime thrillers and been given arty genre ruminations instead. And like my ambivalent feelings toward Drive, I can’t work up that much enthusiasm for Killing Them Softly either. It’s certainly got more ambition than most crime flicks but I’d rather it concentrate on telling a more engaging story. Dominik’s film is a bit too indulgent for its own good, given to visual flourishes and a narrative routinely sidetracked. And yet, I found it fairly interesting at just about every turn, well-acted, and intensely suspenseful and effective at different points. But it doesn’t add up to enough to recommend. The political allegory probably rubbed the walkouts the wrong way as well. The political allegory is too obvious, too pat with its “they’re all crooks” broadside. I wish the movie had abandoned the squalid, nihilistic art house ambitions and just kept things straight. When it has less on its mind, it works best. But for many, Killing Them Softly will be too tedious to see to the bloody end.

Nate’s Grade: B-

In the Loop (2009)

This is one of those movies that are so sharp, so bristling with intelligence, that you practically need to have a remote control glued to your mitt so that you can rewind and catch all the jokes. I turned the subtitles on myself just to make sure I could get everything. This British comedy is a wicked satire of the miscommunication and blunders that lead the U.S. and Britain into declaring war on a Middle Eastern country. There are some topical jabs but so much of the humor comes from the fractious character interaction; there is a real joy to watching these larger-than-life personalities clash over the course of two nations. It’s fascinating and biting and plays out like a more profane version of The West Wing. The cast is fantastic from top to bottom, with special notice going to My Girl‘s Anna Chlumsky all grown up and perfect with comic timing, and Peter Capaldi as the fearsome, fire-breathing British Director of Communications who can split an epithet like nobody’s business. You might expect his head to burst with how apoplectic he can get. This may be the most quotable comedy in years; every line of this screenplay is gold. There are Hollywood comedies that would kill for just one or two of the choice lines here, but In the Loop is chock full of the funny. It’s a machine gun spray of comedy. Something this scathing and this brilliant doesn’t come along every day.

Nate’s Grade: A

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Studio execs are always seen as the bad guys, right? They meddle in the affairs of artists, more concerned about dollar signs and marketing potential than in lasting, authentic artistic achievement. Director Spike Jonze, the most lauded video music director of all time, has gone through five years of trials to bring the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are to the big screen. He’s had his funding cut, he’s been dropped by one studio, and the second studio contemplated starting over from scratch after seeing an early cut of the movie. The studio heads were worried that Jonze’s take was too sullen and too scary for children. They asked for something a tad more uplifting about a boy that runs away to have adventures with giant monsters. Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers (Away We Go) insisted on their vision and stuck it out, and 18 months later, that vision is what made it to theaters. Having now seen Where the Wild Things Are, it pains me to accept that maybe those studio honchos had a point all along. Jonze’s film is eclectic and visually wondrous but this is not a children’s movie; this is a movie about childhood intended for thirty-something adults and film critics. And man, it’s a downer.

Based upon Maurice Sendak’s masterful 1963 book about an unruly child “sent to bed without supper,” we follow Max (Max Records), a nine-year-old on a tear through life. His older sister is growing up and hanging out with older friends, his dad is absent, and his mother (Catherine Keener) is trying to juggle work, kids, and having a life her own. One night she has a man over (Mark Ruffalo, in cameo form) and Max gets upset. His mother isn’t giving him the attention he feels he’s owed. So he acts out, bites his mother, and when she responds with genuine terror, he runs away. He finds a small boat and sails away across the ocean to a mysterious island. It is here that he encounters the titular wild things, giant beasts that act out in very similar ways. Max declares himself the king of the beasts and they accept. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini, a fabulously warm performance) is the happiest to have somebody new to play and listen. There’s also the small goat-creature Alexander (Paul Dano), the eagle Douglas (Chris Cooper), the elusive KW (Lauren Ambrose), and the married monster couple, the pushy Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and the subdued Ira (Forest Whitaker). Together they form an unorthodox family that still falls prey to in fighting and jealousies.

First off, Jonze does a magnificent job of creating the world of the wild things. The cinematography by Lance Acord (Lost in Translation) uses a lot of handheld cameras to trail after Max, communicating the kinetic energy of youth. The movie looks gorgeous but doesn’t resort to a self-conscious gloss. Acord makes the wilderness look inviting and dangerous. The wild things are amazing creatures to watch, brought to startling life by Jim Henson’s creature shop and seamless CGI artistry to provide facial expressions. If these creatures were purely computer generated, they would lose a sense of magic. Watching the furry suits interact with the real world brings so much more enjoyment to the movie. These giant creatures look real and intimidating. I liked the fact that there’s one character, The Bull, who just stands in the background alone, and the other wild thing monsters make a point of not noticing him. He’s the weird disaffected kid on the outside. I also appreciated that the movie doesn’t pander to make the monsters cute and cuddly. They continue to be scary. At one point Carol even chases after Max with the intent to eat him. Jonze and Eggers have made a movie about childhood that doesn’t coddle children. The production design by K.K. Barrett (Marie Antoinette) is nicely imaginative, though it only deals with a handful of stick huts. The fort that the wild things construct is fantastical, like an alien structure but made completely out of twigs.

Jonze and Eggers have made a movie all about the feelings of childhood; however, it seems that almost all of those feelings are negative. Sure Max bounces around with youthful energy, and his imagination goes to exuberant places, but the movie paints a broad picture of how painful and disappointing childhood can be. The movie doesn’t capture the wonder and excitement and possibilities of childhood; it focuses on the somber realities of what it’s like to be misunderstood, lonely, and incapable of changing anything. What about the pleasures of childhood? Even when Max engages in his fantastic creativity it usually leads to destruction and hurt feelings; everyone ends up in a worse place. A great example is in the opening sequence where Max tries to snare his older sister and her friends into a snowball fight. He gets them to play along and then everything is great, until the older kids accidentally take it too far and Max is left embarrassed, hurt, scared, and incredibly angry, which leads to lashing out, which then leads to regret and attempts to rationalize it as not his fault. This pattern is repeated throughout, where Max will get scared or confused and this triggers bouts of physical violence, like literally biting his mother. You might think his time on the island would be an escape, but really all of the monsters are manifestations of Max’s fractured psychology. KW represents his older sister’s approval so deeply longed for; Judith represents his defensiveness; Alexander represents his feelings of marginalization and helplessness; and Carol most closely resembles Max’s id, concerned that his family is falling apart, prone to jealousy and sudden violent outbursts when he doesn’t get his way. It all can make for an interesting psychoanalytical experience but it also can get tiresome. Listening to needy, whiny, morose monsters can be exasperating after awhile when there isn’t anything else resembling a plot. Where the Wild Things Are feels somewhat like Jonze and Eggers are subjecting everyone to their own therapy.

This shaggy, somewhat draggy movie has little else going on, so we watch Max boss around the monsters, commission colossal forts, run around, sleep in a big pile, and more or less try and hold a family together when they are moving in different directions. Things slow down a lot on this island. Max himself is a polarizing figure. Some people find him relatable, his pain and fears, and still others find him to be a wild brat. His behavior seems to go beyond that of a normal child acting out. I’m not going to prescribe the kid Ritalin, but me thinks there may be something else amiss with Max (am I alone in my diagnosis, people?). My wife and our friend Dan Hille both thought Max was an insufferable and unsympathetic brat who learned nothing by the end of the movie. I feel that Max has to have learned something, since his entire time spent on the island was him working out his troubles to gain a little more perspective. Records is a real find as a child actor, and he’s the only human onscreen for like 90 minutes. I thought he carried the movie ably enough and finely displayed the conflicting emotions of being nine years old.

Will you like Where the Wild Things Are? That’s difficult to surmise. It may depend upon whether you can identify with Max; I couldn’t for the most part. This is a much easier movie to admire than to like. There’s very little fun to be had. The movie has an implicit sense of loss and melancholy throughout. Children’s movies don?t need to be all happy endings and feel-good lessons, but then again they don’t also have to be densely Freudian. Childhood isn’t all innocence and rainbows, but it’s also not all rain clouds and emotional meltdowns and feelings of impotence. The movie presents childhood as an unyielding hell. I know other people love Where the Wild Things Are, and I respect that artistry Jonze and his crew brought to this movie, but I doubt I’ll ever watch this movie again in my life. For once, the studio execs had it right.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Surviving Christmas (2004)

Surviving Christmas was originally supposed to be released, get this, a whole year ago for Christmas 2003. Paramount objected to the original release, saying it was too close to the release of their own Ben Affleck action flick, Paycheck (I doubt anything could have helped that turkey). So Dreamworks held onto it for another year and released it around the holidays. Halloween that is. The nation hasn’t even experienced Halloween or Thanksgiving yet, and we’re already getting a Christmas movie in our stocking. Given Affleck’s recent track record (the man hasn’t had a hit movie since 2002’s Sum of All Fears), audiences might not expect more than a lump of coal when his name’s above the title.

Drew (Affleck) is a cynical ad executive trying to figure out his plans for the approaching Christmas season. He gives his girlfriend tickets to Fiji, but she expected an engagement ring, so she dumps him right there claiming he doesn’t know what family life is. Drew finds his old family home now populated by the Valco family. He offers Papa Valco (James Gandolfini) $250,000 for him and his wife (Catherine O’Hara), son, and daughter (Christina Applegate) to be his family for Christmas. Papa Valco accepts. Drew is a stickler for family tradition, and mandates tree shopping, hat wearing, dinner script reading, and sleeping in his old room. The family’s hostility begins to wear down but things get even stickier when Drew falls for the Valco’s daughter, and then his ex-girlfriend shows up wanting to see his family.

The central flaw of the film is Affleck’s character. Drew is a jerk. That’s all there is to it. Somehow Affleck has become the go-to actor for arrogant, work obsessed men that desperately need to see that there’s more to life (Bounce, Jersey Girl, Forces of Nature). I think this is also the second or third time he’s played an ad executive. Surviving Christmas seems to exist in some weird dimension where a jerk shows us the true meaning of Christmas and family togetherness. What’s even worse is that Drew doesn’t change as a character, he doesn’t seem to grow, and the ending actually seems to reward him for his selfish, material, obnoxious ways.

I like Affleck, I really do. I like his work in Kevin Smith’s films, and he can make a good action hero if given the right material (Say a Sum of All Fears, and not so much a Paycheck). The man is charming, he’s eloquent, and he’s self-deprecating and constantly funny. He’s the kind of guy you want to buy a beer. Now, having said all this, Surviving Christmas is Affleck’s worst performance of his career. Affleck can do comedy, and not just in a Greek tragedy kind of way with his life in the tabloids. In Surviving Christmas, Affleck mugs like nothing is sacred. His eyes bug out. He exaggerates near any expression, from his smug grin to his childish fits. For a man who has Gigli, Reindeer Games, and Pearl Harbor to his credit, it’s something when it’s said that Surviving Christmas may be his acting low point.

Gandolfini seems to have been cast to play against type. He’s still got that flinty stare and slow simmer of anger, but he’s generally wasted. He’s the comic foil to Affleck’s jerk, and yet he still doesn’t come across that much better. His monstrous woolly beard is also mildly disturbing. Applegate brings more life to her love interest role than the role deserves. Her romance with Drew seems so spontaneous, especially given her natural hostility to him. The only actor that has any real moments to stretch and shine is O’Hara. A veteran of improv, O’Hara has some of the film?s funnier moments, like when she makes mini marshmallows with a butcher’s knife, or her wild photo shoot Drew arrangers for her.

Surviving Christmas is indeed a chore to sit through. The movie, at its gooey heart, doesn’t know what kind of holiday film it wants to be. A good example is the opening montage of holly jolly Christmas sequences. In between standard, saccharine moments of feeling, there?s an old grandmotherly woman who bakes a tray of gingerbread men, with frosted frowns, and then sticks her head in an oven. Huh? Surviving Christmas tries to have it both ways. It wants to lampoon Christmas sentiment with the occasional touch of dark humor, but then it plays into a feel-good holiday formula complete with sled rides, tree lighting, and hot cocoa. The result is a schizophrenic comedy that doesn’t work being dark or cuddly.

The whole wacky premise of Surviving Christmas screams sitcom, and the conventional proceedings and stock characters that follow guarantee it. The only way this could be more of a sitcom is if they drew a line down the middle of the house, the boss was coming over for dinner unexpectedly, and a pesky cat swallowed someone’s wedding ring. Surviving Christmas‘ relation to a sitcom is the only way I can explain why the film has stale jokes about internet porn (What, there’s porn on the Internet? When did this happen?). There’s even horny old men and wedgie jokes too! This is a movie in desperate need of a laugh track. I kept expecting everyone to turn their heads and go, “Dreeeeeeeeew” and then Affleck shrugs his shoulders, bugs his eyes out, smirks, and the studio audience goes wild.

It probably doesn’t help that Surviving Christmas is credited to over five writers and was directed by the director of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. The comedy rarely hits its marks because it’s so frustratingly tied up in its identity. The film wants to make incest jokes, but then in the same breath it wants us to listen to some syrupy back story explaining why Drew is the lonely, socially challenged jerk he is. The laughs of Surviving Christmas are mostly limited to broad slapstick and the occasional inappropriate remark. The preview audience I watched the film with seemed to be rolling in the aisles while I mostly rolled my eyes.

There will be a section of the public that enjoys Surviving Christmas. Fans of Christmas cheer and broad PG-13 comedies may find laughs amongst the wreckage. Surviving Christmas doesn’t have the gusto to commit to black comedy like Bad Santa (a new Christmas classic), but it also doesn’t build its characters strongly enough for an audience to care about them. They’re all mainly jerks and twits. This is a Christmas movie that doesn’t know what stripes it is. How else to explain it coming out in late October.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

The Coen brothers dark, twisty entry to the world of film noir looks mind-blowing with its black and white lensing. And the story is great too. Billy Bob Thronton plays a barber who gives new definition to the word passive. One day a customer lets him in on an up-and-coming financial project and if Thronton were to provide some dough then surely he would rake it in. As with most film noir, the normal man is thus pulled into the web of intrigue and crime. The ball gets rolling after Thornton blackmails his wife’s tryst (James Gandolfini), who also happens to be her boss and his friend. Things get far more complicated from there and nothing seems to go right as Thornton makes one bad decision after another. The Man Who Wasn’t There is an engaging and smart drama with game bits of comedy strewn at key moments. The Coen brothers are a pair not very easily topped when it comes to excellence in films, and this latest entry is a wonderful addition to their resume.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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