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Rocketman (2019)

It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?

Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.

I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.

The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.

The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?

There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.

The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.

The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.

With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?

Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Fantastic Four (2015)

Few movies have had such a prominent stink of negativity attached to them as Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, a movie that is already being considered amongst the worst superhero movies of all time. Director Josh Trank (Chronicle) was given the freedom to go darker, emphasize more science fiction, and select a cast of respected actors rather than bankable names. Then came rumors of aloof and secluded behavior on set from Trank. Then came rumors that Fox and producer/co-writer Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) effectively shuttered Trank from his own movie, reshooting 40-minutes of a 90-minute film to salvage the wayward production (get ready for plenty of stuff in trailers not to be in the finished film). Not quite the room-clearing disaster of rampant speculation, the new Fantastic Four is a superhero movie that never really gets started and has constant battles with tone, characterization, and plot. It seems like the real villains of the movie are the Fox executives who signed off on the “gritty, gloomy” rendition and then interfered when they got too scared, managing to undercut the original vision, muddy an already messy film, and make things even worse. The behind-the-scenes drama is easily more interesting than anything that happens in this movie.

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a science genius recruited by Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Reed invented a makeshift teleporting device as a young child with the help of his friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). At Dr. Storm’s lab, Reed works with Storm’s children, Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a morose computer programmer, Victor Von Doom (Tony Kebbell). The group transports to another dimension but is attacked by a strange green energy cloud. Victor is left behind. The surviving foursome exhibits unique abilities. Reed can stretch his body. Sue can turn invisible and create force fields. Johnny can fly and set his body on fire. Poor Ben is a hulking rock monster. Reed promises to find a way to reverse what happened to them, but the re-emergence of Dr. Doom puts the fate of the entire world at risk.

The-Fantastic-Four-2015-The-Thing-Jamie-BellIt should be of little surprise that Fantastic Four feels like two different movies awkwardly and inarticulately smashed together. For the first hour, the movie follows the path of our heroes and their contraction of their powers. Rather than the gee-whiz fun of getting superpowers, the characters view themselves as freaks, their bodies turned against them, and their colleagues deeply afraid of them. It’s a far moodier antidote to the vicarious thrills of gaining special abilities. There are some effective sequences that channel David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Scanners, and it’s these brief moments where you feel Trank’s vision connect the most. Doom walking down a hallway and making heads explode, in a PG-13 way, is horrifying and cool. The problem for Trank, and the movie as a whole, is that this first hour still isn’t a very good movie. It takes far too long for these characters to get blasted by green space goo and become supers. The setup is so protracted and needless. Did we need to see how these characters came together? Did we need to see their childhoods? It’s not essential to see the team come together when we can already start from that point. In a sense, it reminded me of how needless I felt Pixar’s Monsters University was; did we need to see how these colleagues became friends? Despite this action-free opening half, the screenplay could have fleshed out the four main characters to justify the added time, but it’s hard for the movie to justify much.

These are some of the most boring and underdeveloped characters in recent comic book lore. If these versions of the Fantastic Four existed in the 1960s, they wouldn’t have made it to issue number two. Reed is smart. Sue is smart too but also standoffish (and adopted). Johnny likes fast cars. Ben is tough and loyal. Victor is a pessimist who called dibs on flirting with Sue. That is really about it, folks. Ben disappears for most of the film, called in to make the trans-dimensional jump because Reed feels like Ben deserves to be there since he helped create an early prototype with Reed. Actually, let’s talk about that scene. It’s a high school science fair yet the only other displays we see are clearly for much younger children, and yet Dr. Storm is visiting an all-ages school science fair to groom talent? That seems weird. Why does Dr. Storm not make the same offer to Ben, who helped Reed design and build his early teleporting machine? Regardless, Reed leaves his childhood pal behind with Ben’s abusive family. That’s because he’s a good friend. Then, once the horrible transformations occur and Ben gets the worst of it, Reed runs out on him again. Sure it’s in the pursuit of finding a cure, but who’s to say he couldn’t do that in the already constructed government super science lab? Sue doesn’t even go on the first trans-dimensional voyage; it’s just a boy’s club. Sue spends more time in this movie staring at computer screens and looking intently than any action. It’s probably for the best, though, because the scenes of her flying around in a bubble made me think of Glinda the Good Witch. I’m not a Kate Mara fan. I’ve found the majority of her performances to be stilted, but even I can admit she’s given nothing to do here but move her eyes from the left to the right and inform Miles Teller about Portishead, a band that’s only 20-plus years old. It’s sad but the most interesting part of Johnny is that a black actor, a point that caused certain more irritable fans to foam at the mouth at the adaptation, is playing him. If these super heroes aren’t going to be super until halfway through the movie, they better be interesting characters. They are not even close.

Fantastic-Four-2015-Reboot-Early-ReviewsIt’s with the return of Dr. Doom that the Fantastic Four makes its inept transition into the second movie, the one reshot by the producers and the studio. In an implausibly fast amount of time we’re given our villain of the movie and he sets off to open a black hole to destroy Earth because… we’re self-destructive? So humanity is self-destructive so Doom is going to destroy humanity? I would also like to know exactly how Doom survived for over a year in the alternate dimension when it clearly looks like there is nothing of substance for miles, unless green goop is edible. Did he just lose the need to go to the bathroom? Doom’s powers are rather nebulous, which makes it even less interesting when the Fantastic Four decides to, get this, work together to beat the bad guy. For a movie that hasn’t had one action sequence until its final act, now our characters must band together to stop Doom and his giant flashing blue light black hole thingy. The special effects are pretty undistinguished and hard to read at times. I’d also like to remark how hideously this other dimension looks. It’s all rocky crags and dark clouds; it’s like a less successful timeshare for the residents of Mordor. It doesn’t quite look like the paradise that Doom describes it as (the brochure lied to us!). This jumbled conclusion feels so ham-fisted and rushed, a villain and a typical world-destroying fate that must be thwarted at the last minute. Things just sort of happen rather than storylines finding payoffs, and then it’s all sort of over and the resolution echoes the very end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, even with the credits cutting off the vocal iteration of the title heroes. It’s so transparently different in tone, sloppy in development and execution, and so quickly introduced and resolved, that the whole conclusion comes across as forcibly laughable.

At the end of watching the dire Fantastic Four reboot, I felt more sympathy for Josh Trank. He still deserves blame for helping to conceive and develop such a misshapen story and squander his actors. After three duds and whatever you want to call the 1994 Roger Corman adaptation, it feels like maybe this franchise is just cursed. Maybe these characters are too dated and their powers are too silly. Then again we know that these characters can work in the format of a movie because a good Fantastic Four movie already exists, and it’s called The Incredibles. It doesn’t seem like anyone is going to come away completely clean from this misfire and financial flop, especially now that Trank and executives are engaging in a P.R. blame game. Fox was hoping for a rekindled franchise. Now they may be hoping to work out a deal for Marvel to buy back the rights to the characters. I would have been interested to see the full vision of what Trank was going for, especially since the one scene that feels most adamant is the best sequence in an admittedly mediocre superhero film. At least the movie would feel cohesive. It probably wouldn’t be good but at least it would be committed to trying something different. Instead, the movie tries to be different from the superhero blockbusters populating the landscape and then, at the last minute, tries to follow their lead and become one of them, becoming its own misshapen and poorly developed blob. It’s not the worst superhero movie in history (that honor still has to belong to the atomic bomb of taste, Batman & Robin), but even achieving sustained mediocrity is too much to expect.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Snowpiercer (2014)

snowpiercer-posterI have seen Snowpiercer twice and it’s still a hard movie to describe. It’s the English-language debut of Korean filmmaker Joon-hoo Bong, notable for The Host (the good one) and Mother. It’s based upon a French graphic novel only printed in France and South Korea. It’s an international production, filmed in the Czech Republic, and populated with recognizable actors like Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, and Captain America himself, Chris Evans. It’s a dark dystopian allegory about class warfare, it’s a stunning sci-fi action movie, it’s a parable about humanity, it’s a stylish thriller that puts most of Hollywood to shame; it’s many things, chief among them, an incredible movie that demands to be seen on the big screen when able.

To combat global warming, world leaders disperse a chemical to lower temperatures, and oh boy does it work, inadvertently causing a new Ice Age that kills almost all life on the planet. Almost, because a few hundred got aboard the train owned and operated by Wilford (Harris), a rich and secretive industrialist. He built a train that can circle the globe, running on a perpetual motion motor. The last of humanity is housed on Wilfrod’s train. After seventeen years aboard, the class system has become rather rigid. The important and wealthy are at the front of the train, and the poor are crammed in the back, given gelatinous protein blocks to eat, and kept in line by armed guards. Curtis (Evans) is plotting a revolt, biding his time, consulting with the wise Gilliam (Hurt), an aging leader missing several limbs. Together, they storm ahead, capturing effete Wilford spokesman Mason (Swinton) as a hostage, rescuing an engineer (Kang-ho Song) with a drug addiction who will help them open the train cars, fighting car by car to take control of the train. Naturally, those in power fight back in force to maintain the uneven status quo.

snowpiercer-main-review-e1375509690609Short of the adrenaline-soaked Raid 2, there hasn’t been a better action movie this year than Snowpiercer. It starts slow, drawing the audience in, setting up its initial burst as a prison break of sorts where the tail section passengers have to figure out a way past the guards and several security doors open for only a few seconds. When the break does happen, in a clever fashion, you feel the full rush of the new opportunity thanks to the movie properly setting up the stakes and obstacles. Each new car presents a new world and a new obstacle. There’s one car where Curtis and his revolutionaries are met with fifty ski-mask wearing grunts with axes. This is the standout action sequence because of how it keeps changing. At first its brawn versus brawn, complete with swinging axes. Then the fighting stops briefly and all the grunts put on night vision goggles. The train enters a long tunnel, condemning Curtis and company to the dark. The grunts then go to town, spearing and slashing the hapless passengers blindly swinging in the dark. I won’t spoil the solution to this scenario but it too is properly set up and leads to some extremely satisfying action imagery, the kind of stuff that pops in a trailer. There’s an entirely different sequence later that also stands out. As the train goes into a long curve in the track, certain train cars are visible from others. Our chief heavy, listed as Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov), sees Curtis in the car ahead and starts firing. Eventually Curtis and Franco blast small holes in the protective glass and wait, wait for their moment, for their shot. It’s a tense neo-Western standoff moment, and another delightful addition. The accumulative action has a surprising degree of variety and development.

Snowpiercer is a stirring action movie that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, but it does an equally impressive job of building its world and adding dimension to its storytelling. Reportedly, Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes out of the 126-minute film, but I’m puzzled as to where those edits would come. Every scene in this movie drives the film forward or imparts crucial pieces of information or metaphor that will play out later. Even something as comical as stopping for sushi in the aquarium car (balancing the ecosystem) has greater meaning and subtext when you look back at the film as a whole. Joon-hoo Bong and his co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) have given serious consideration to how this world operates and what life would be like when all of humanity is confined to one long train. The past is revealed incrementally, gingerly allowing the audience to become consumed with this odd dystopian landscape, our fascination brewing with each new puzzle piece being added. I was enthralled with the rich details, the cruel methods of keeping those in the tail section in line, the regular head counts, the protein block bars and what they truly are made of, the annual celebration of passing a certain bridge marking their own New Year, and especially the deification of Wilford. The characters worship the engine, and why not since it is the source of life for them, or as the chirpy schoolteacher (Alison Pill) sings: “What happens if the engine fails? We all freeze and die!” The later reveals are the best, giving full explanation why tail section children are important and, particularly, why Curtis is so ashamed at having two good arms. That monologue by Evans, looking back on the earliest and most cruelly chaotic days on the train, is a whopper. I truly hope that aspiring actors will use it during future auditions. It will make an impression.

snowpiercer-tilda-swinton1Its dark sense of humor and political and philosophical subtext provide an even richer texture to this strange, bleak world. The political commentary isn’t exactly subtle, I’ll admit, but it’s exceedingly better executed and integrated into its plot than, say, last year’s Elysium. The class-consciousness provides a greater depth to the proceedings, providing a new spin on the have/have nots that’s just as relevant today. It’s not just tacked on, either. The political commentary is intertwined with the mechanics of the plot, as we’re witnessing class warfare against inequality, how barbarous acts can be co-opted for personal gain. When Curtis and his small company finally reach Wilford and the engine, it’s a moment akin to visiting the Wizard in Oz, the man behind the curtain they’ve heard so much about. There’s a great degree of incredulous humor from Wilford’s vaulted perspective, but the longer you listen, the more you start to follow his twisted logic and why exactly the status quo must be upheld despite the bloody consequences. Then there’s the macabre humor, which can be bracing at points, none more so than the school car sequence with Alison Pill (TV’s The Newsroom). Also doing plenty of comedic heavy lifting is Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive, We Need to Talk About Kevin) with such an odd authority figure character. With a mouthful of fake teeth, some owlish glasses, and a peculiar speech pattern, it feels like she stepped out of a Terry Gilliam movie, and we’re all the better for it. Often she’s the only source of humor in what is otherwise a dreary story about the strong preying upon the weak.

Stylish, intelligent, rewarding in surprising ways while still being thoroughly entertaining, with tremendous technical attributes such as production design, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi flick that borrows from many but creates its own unique and enthralling landscape. Rare is the movie going experience where you sit at the edge of your seat, completely taken in by the creativity of the artists at work, transported to somewhere new and exciting, and you dread the approaching end credits. Snowpiercer is an experience that’s hard to describe beyond an unrelenting checklist of positive, glowing adjectives. Simply put, it’s movies like this that make going to the movies special.

Nate’s Grade: A

Nymphomaniac volumes I & II (2014)

113648_galWhen Danish film director Lars von Trier said he wanted his next movie to be “porn” he wasn’t kidding. The controversial filmmaker wanted to explore the world of a woman addicted to sex, following her history of varied experiences over the course of two movies/volumes. Actors lined up for the notoriously demanding filmmaker. During the sex scenes, computer effects magic married the actors’ faces and upper bodies with the lower parts of porn stars. Upper half, Charlotte Gainsbourg, lower half, some pornographic double, all spliced together into one onscreen human being. Think about that little special effects ground-breaker, putting Hollywood faces into hardcore sex scenes. Knowing von Trier’s pessimistic tendencies, and his penchant for heaping abuse upon his female leads to the point of uncomfortable exploitation, you may rightly cringe about the prospect of a von Trier “erotic” movie. That’s the funny thing about Nymphomaniac; it’s all about sex, sometimes graphically so, but it’s never erotic. It’s an intriguing, sometimes maddening look at human sexuality and our inhibitions and frailties, until a horrible ending spoils it. In the end, von Trier just couldn’t help himself.

The story boils down to this: Joe (Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as the younger version) is found beaten and unconscious in an alley. The kindly, monk-like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, brings her back to his home, and tends to her wounds. Joe says she brought all of her pain upon herself. Seligman finds this hard to believe. She uncorks a lengthy series of tales about her sexual awakening and desires.

112010_galIn many ways, Lars von Trier is the best and worst candidate to present a four-hour opus on the life and times of an avowed nymphomaniac. The man approaches the idea of sex addiction in practically the most clinical way possible while still being cinematic. You can practically envision Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier, countering Joe’s sense of shame with a broader, scientific perspective. Really, this is the tale of a woman spilling her guts about all her dirty little secrets and a man nodding along, asking questions, and dismissing her self-loathing with his reason and empathy. It’s sort of like being inside a therapist’s office. I can’t say whether or not I find all the analogous asides to be interesting or simply insufferable pretension. While Joe is detailing her behavior, Seligman will stop her and provide further context, often bringing in such subjects as fly fishing, the mating habits of fish, the Fibonacci sequence, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical music. It’s almost absurd how encouraging Seligman is, dismissing every action of Joe’s sordid past through an example. After a while, it almost becomes a humorous game all its own, as we know Seligman will use every story as a stepping off point to some weird outside connection. Every item in Seligman’s bare bedroom inspires a story from Joe, which leads to a suspicion that she is something of a salacious Keyser Soze, piecing together her story on the spot; some of the coincidences with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) seems just a bit too much. Seligman’s enlightened and intellectual asides force the audience to consider deeper meaning with Joe’s actions. Is she irredeemable, does she have control over what she’s doing, is she doing anything even bad? Over the four hours of psychological examination, the doctor is out. Nymphomaniac, especially in Volume Two, is the best film yet on sex addiction. It doesn’t demonize the behavior, it doesn’t treat it as sensationalistic, and it doesn’t overtly judge its lead characters and the choices they make, nor does it spare them the devastating consequences.

The graphic nature of the film is getting all the headlines but Nymphomaniac treats its heroine as an addict trying to get a hold of herself. We begin with young Joe innocently discovering her sexuality, especially discovering the pull she can have over an almost endless parade of weak-willed men who will follow her every whim. If that was the only plot, then there would be little separating von Trier’s film from any late-night cable erotic series (“Oh, let me tell you the time I met this man and we did this…” –Repeat). Over the two movies, we get a stronger sense of how utterly trapped she is by her urges, by her addiction. When she’s dealing with the undignified death of her father, Joe finds whatever solace she can with a willing bedmate. She places herself in precarious situations chasing after that orgiastic high, which disappears at the conclusion of Volume One. The cliffhanger separating the two volumes is that Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure, which is rather problematic for a nymphomaniac. And so in Volume Two, Joe desperately searches for a means to get her groove back, at one point abandoning her own child so that she can pursue her kink. Joe goes to counseling, joins a sex addict group (she bristles at the term and prefers “nymphomaniac”), and tries to detox, at one point removing everything vaguely sexual from her apartment, including anything knob-shaped.

nymphomaniacThe film is structured as a series of vignettes and anecdotes, broken up with von Trier’s tried-and-true onscreen chapter system. As expected for a film based around anecdotes, some stories are more interesting or revealing or simply entertaining than others. The stories are a little more whimsical in Volume One but by the time we get to Volume Two, they become more punishing and sad. It’s one thing to bet your promiscuous gal pal who will have sex with the most people on one train ride home, or on a prank to stick a restaurants dining utensil up your vagina, but it’s another when an adult woman, night after night, leaves her toddler at home so she MAY have the opportunity to have her behind whipped. The young Joe stories are easier to shake off as youthful experimentation and thrill seeking, which Seligman rationalizes as well. However, they set up just exactly the path that the adult Joe was destined for. The tales in Volume Two have to ratchet up the stakes, given Joe’s absent mojo, so what was once titillating can become downright disturbing. von Trier’s four hours offer plenty of feel-bad feel-good opportunities along the human sexuality sphere. Adult Joe thinks introducing a language barrier could be enticing, so she asks an African immigrant if he’ll have sex with her. He agrees, but brings his brother along. The two men bicker in a different language, while Joe sits there, head slumped against her hand, comically waiting for these two naked men, their penises wagging in the foreground of the camera, to get to business. It’s quite a funny and ludicrous turn of events.

One story in Volume One stands out for its raw emotional power. Joe has a whole schedule of lovers visiting her door. Well one such older man wanted to have Joe all to himself but her price was high: he had to leave his wife, “Mrs. H.” Surprise, he does, and Joe is already uncertain if this new arrangement is what she wanted; her offer was better in the theoretical sense that he would never cross that line. Well the misses (played with chomping disgust by Uma Thurman) comes for a visit and she brings her kids along. She wants her children to see what their daddy traded them away for. At first, the wife acts civil with some stinging passive-aggression, but the uncomfortable incident is dragged out, and the emotions reach a fever pitch, with crying all around. It’s so uncomfortable, so potent, and so memorable, forcing Joe, and the audience, to think of the ripples of consequences from simple sexual dalliances. While Joe is having her fun, unbeknownst to her, there are far-ranging consequences that she, and by extension the audience, choose to ignore because all those pesky details would get in the way of our fun.

The most troublesome storyline is also one of the longest, with Joe having her backside swatted by a no-nonsense sadist played by Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge). This guy insists there will be no penetration and his rules are to be followed strictly. It starts out intriguing to get a sense of who this guy is and what his practices will be. Joe has to sit with other women between the hours of 2-4 AM, and maybe she’ll get picked. Night after night, she goes through this setup, so desperate to feel the spark of desire again. This situation feels like it goes on forever. There is no easy climax. Rather it sets up the darker turn for Joe’s character, as she gives up being a mother and a wife. To make ends meet she becomes a debt collector, using her knowledge of men, particularly heir weaknesses, to coax them back into paying. There’s one disarming moment when she takes great pity on a pedophile that will surprise you, and it’s the only incident that causes Seligman to disapprove. Her boss (Willem Dafoe) advises her to think of an eventual replacement she can groom, and his method is singling out a young girl with no support, becoming her world, and slowly manipulating her to do your every wish. In a von Trier film, that is what a retirement 401k package looks like. This whole storyline, including her young mark (Mia Goth) romantically falling for her would-be maternal figure, just feels misplaced, like von Trier doesn’t know how to bring his four-hour opus to a close.

Prelude-to-a-Wholesome-EveningThat’s because he doesn’t! This paragraph is going to delve into the conclusion of Nymphomaniac, so be warned that there will be major spoilers being discussed. If you wish to remain pure, skip to the next paragraph. During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. And there’s truth to what he says, namely that the world judges Joe far more harshly for her actions because she happens to be a woman committing them. If a man was performing the same stunts, or left his family, he would not be seen as damningly. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.

It’s a shame because Gainsbourg gives a terrific performance as the older Joe. The actress is no stranger to von Trier and his sadomasochist ways, having also starred in Antichrist and Melancholia. You get a sense of her character’s desperation, the thrills of her youth now gone. She’s also grappling with her own fallibility, the anger that comes from that, her antipathy with others, and the regrets and jealousy that penetrate her hard exterior (no pun intended). She’s trying to act above society, an operator who plays by a different set of rules, but it’s fascinating when the emotions reveal themselves from the sensations. And Gainsbourg puts all of herself into this role, submitting to her character’s many mental and physical tortures. Even if she has a body double pasted in, it’s still representational of her and Joe. Gainsbourg manages to draw us in, not wanting our sympathy but eventually earning it. Martin, as young Joe, gets just as much screen time as Gainsbourg, but there’s a vacancy there to her acting, a certain passivity that makes young Joe feel more like a spectator than a participant in her life. Skarsgard (Thor: the Dark World) is an appealing foil for Joe, almost comical in how accepting he is and how excited he can get with his digressive connections. The only other actor of note in the large ensemble is LaBeouf (Transformers) who affects a strange accent but sticks with it. We’ll see if his self-imposed exile from Hollywood and acting sticks as well.

112003_galI’ve spent this entire review talking about everything else rather than detailing the nature of the graphic sex, the point that earned Nymphomaniac much of its curiosity with the general public. That’s because the explicit nature of the sex is inconsequential. I understand that that may sound odd for a movie literally called Nymphomaniac, but that’s because von Trier’s movie is less interested in the salacious and tawdry acts and more about deconstructing a life lived and the increasingly fraught rationale for her choices. Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, the graphic sex is the headliner, and it is occasionally graphic and unsimulated, with more than a few vaginal close-ups. The sex is incidental, a symptom of the human condition, and von Trier’s less-than-sensational look at such a sensational topic grounds the movie intellectually. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is posing questions, pushing his audience to question our own views on sexuality and concepts of normalcy and what is and isn’t in good taste. We’re prurient creatures lapping up all the dirty details and copious amounts of nudity, but the introspection is what sticks, and it’s an incisive character study that opens up in many beguiling, illuminating, and surprisingly relatable ways…. Until the end. There’s no way to account for Nymphomaniac and just forget the ending. Four hours and for what? I cannot fathom what von Trier was going for rather than a return to his M.O. of humanity resorting to casual cruelty. If you can bear it, Nymphomaniac is a fitfully entertaining film, provocative to the end, and then it all slips away thanks to cinema’s worst practical joker.

Volume 1: B-

Volume 2: C+

The Ending: F

Nate’s Grade Overall: B

The Eagle (2011)

In 140 AD, the Roman Empire has spread its reach across the European continent. Commander Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is stationed in northern Britain. 20 years earlier, Marcus’ father led a legion of Romans into the northern British territory. The natives attacked them and Rome’s golden eagle, a significant idol under the guidance of Marcus Senior, was lost to history. Marcus has endured shame and vowed to redeem his family name. After surviving a nightly attack at the fort, Marcus displays great bravery but is injured. He’s honorably discharged from the Roman military. While he regains his strength, Marcus plans on venturing into the northern British highlands and finding that missing eagle. He teams up with Esca (Jamie Bell), a slave whose life he saved, and the duo goes beyond the wall that separates civilization (Rome) for the wilderness (native Britons).

Too often The Eagle feels like its wings were clipped. With such life and death stakes, the movie feels curiously adrift and prosaic. It never feels like it has any rush to go anywhere. In some regard, that makes the film feel like a product of the Hollywood of old, where a plot was allowed to meander and marinate to build to something worthwhile. But The Eagle is hardly worthwhile. It begins with some amount of excitement but that quickly dissipates with an interminable middle that feels like it’s still going on even as I write this. The plot is far too lean to cover a wide canvas, and the characters are far too shallow and incurious. They say so little, and what they do say means so little. It’s general variations on the idea of honor and sacrifice. They’re just focused on retrieving the prize. Meaningful conversation would just get in the way of things. The character dynamics between Marcus and Esca is stilted and kept at a distance. The class struggle and history of foreign occupation is never really addressed beyond a superficial nod. It’s like being stuck with two boring guys on a long, uninteresting road trip. Director Kevin Macdonald (State of Play, Last King of Scotland) gives the proceedings a docudrama touch thanks to his background in nonfiction films; too often this means he goes on half-baked Terrence Malick-like asides to admire a grain of wheat or some old artifact. The docudrama approach seems to conflict with the relatively old fashioned feel for this film, like Macdonald is trying to do his best to lift up material in want. There’s just so little at the core of this movie.

Tatum (G.I. Joe, Step Up) tries some form of an accent, though I’m not exactly sure what region of the Roman Empire the man is hailing from. He still has an imposing presence that manages to fill in the gaps of his acting ability, much in classic Hollywood tradition. And yet the man seemed more masculine in a Nicholas Sparks movie from last year. Bell (King Kong, Jumper) takes his haunted, submissive character to heart and gives a performance that confuses submission with understatement. He main mode of acting is the power of serious staring. The two actors don’t ever develop any onscreen sense of camaraderie or warmth. Even during the climax, you never feel like these guys have anything more than a civil employer/employee relationship. That’s why the laugh-out-loud, tonally jarring ending seems so out of place. Instead, Marcus and Esca strut through the halls of Rome, music triumphantly rocking out, and says, “What do you want to do now?” like they’re lining up weekly wacky adventures to be had. You’ll be surprised to see actors like Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare, and even A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim littered among the cast. Why are they in this movie when they have such insignificant parts compared to their bland leads?

The colonial perspective also started rubbing me the wrong way. Now colonial tales have long been featured in pop culture. I don’t on the surface have an issue with a storyteller utilizing a massive horde of natives to stand in as an antagonistic force. But sometimes that dynamic creates a skewed rather culturally tactless portrayal. Are the overpowered, conquering empires always blameless? Do the natives, who have been displaced and killed, not have a respectable grievance? Do they not have a right to fight for the lands that have been taken? Too often, the natives are viewed as blunt brutes (just watch the “cowboys and Indian” pictures from the 1950s) and the figures of expansion are viewed as heroic pioneers. The Britons come across as, essentially, the Indians. The filmmakers always want us to side with our hunky hero Marcus and his quest for honor at every turn, but the movie takes great turns to make the natives seem extra villainous. For a while they just come across like another culture. They have community, customs, and the like; it’s just not the dominant culture’s community and customs. And then, in an appalling moment of cheap melodrama, the Briton chief kills a child to send a message to Marcus and his Romans. This material is handled so indelicately that an unsettling undercurrent emerges and gains steady traction.

So what if the Britons stole one gold eagle 20 years ago? “It’s not just a piece of metal. The eagle is Rome,” we are reminded by Marcus. Symbols are great, but a one-man search in a land as large as Scotland seems impractical so many years hence. And then you have to take into account the time passage. It’s been two decades seen this beloved bauble went M.I.A., and damn near anything could have happened to it. It could have been thrown into the ocean. It could have been buried. It could have been smashed to smithereens. It could have been taken to another land. It could have been melted down into smaller, gift-shop sized eagles on sale to the general public. I’m just saying that in the ensuing 20 years anything could have happened to this bird. The fact that one guy can traipse on foot through Scotland and the first group of natives he runs into happen to possess the artifact that went missing 20 years prior is just insulting. First chance and he lucks in? I was eagerly waiting for an ending where Marcus, brimming with pride at having returned the eagle to Rome, is informed by one of the politicians that it’s the wrong eagle (“Here we go again!”).

The Eagle is dressed up to be an old time adventure story, but it’s just too slovenly paced and generically plotted to work. The lead characters are bland, distant, and noble to the point of annoyance. When a character is defined entirely as forward thinking, exceptionally lucky, ethically straight figure of honor, excuse me when I start to yawn. And when all he’s tasked with is finding an old relic that miraculously happens to be with the first freaking group of people he finds, then excuse me for eyeing my watch. The Eagle has some workmanlike action and suspense to it, brief moments of activity over what is in essence two hours of silent walking (it’s like somebody cut out the middle of a Lord of the Rings movie and sold it). The Eagle, both the film and the titular hunk of metal, are simply not worth the effort.

Nate’s Grade: C

Jumper (2008)

The premise for Jumper seems like adolescent wish fulfillment. Who wouldn’t want the ability to instantly get away? Plus, being able to instantly vanish would unleash an inner Lothario in some men, causing them to love the ladies one night and leave them high and dry the next morning. Having the ability to be anywhere at a moment’s notice is quite a powerful gift but could it lead to tremendous vanity? Director Doug Liman doesn’t seem too interested in all the interesting possibilities afford by teleporting teenagers and instead unleashes what feels like an empty prequel to a hopeful sci-fi franchise.

David (Hayden Christensen) is a shy kid at school when he discovers one day that he has the ability to instantly transport himself to another location simply through the power of his mind. David uses this teleporting ability to, naturally, rob banks and build a cushy lifestyle for himself. He can snack on top of the Sphinx’s head, surf along Australian waves, hang off the clock face of Big Ben, and best of all, he never needs to reach for the TV remote again (seriously, David teleports from one couch cushion to another just to snag the not-too-distant remote). David is a jumper and he discovers he is not alone. Griffin (Jamie Bell, the true star of the movie) has the ability as well and enlightens David on the perils of the jumper lifestyle. Paladins have been hunting and killing jumpers for hundreds of years. The Paladins carry staffs that shoot electrified tethers out, hoping to wrap up the jumpers. The electric bolts stop the jumper from being able to concentrate and escape. Roland (Samuel L. Jackson), a head Paladin, explains that “only God should be able to be all places at all times.”

Complicating matters is that David has reconnected with his high school crush Millie (Rachel Bilson). He whisks her off to Rome and they break into the Coliseum together like crazy kids do. He’s vague about where he’s been for 8 years and says he can afford such expensive getaways thanks to his “banking” job. But Roland is circling and plans on getting to him by any means, even if poor Millie gets gutted in the process.

Jumper has some flashes of excitement and a halfway decent premise, but this film is completely hollow on the inside. Liman must have been too entranced with his premise to ask for anything substantive from his slew of screenwriters. The movie has a handful of great images and moments that surely make for a crackerjack trailer, however, there is hardly any attention paid to plot or character or even enticing action. There is one good chase scene between two jumpers going through many stops around the globe; one second they’re running on a beach, the next through downtown Tokyo, and another falling off the Empire State building to landing safely inside a community swimming pool. The pace is a little too break-neck for my taste but the sequence is high on imagination and finally plays with the fun possibilities of teleporters otherwise ignored by the film. That’s the highlight of the movie, right there, and yet even it feels mildly derivative of the sequence in Being John Malkovich where Cameron Diaz chases Catherine Keener through the subconscious bowels of John Malkovich’s memory. This is a movie that asks little of its audience because the filmmakers barely scratched the surface with their material. The execution is a wash and the movie feels like a scattered sightseeing tour told by someone high on crystal meth.

The characters are pretty shallow and powerfully bland, and the romance between David and Millie is entirely contrived and unbelievable. In fact, Millie isn’t a character but a plot contrivance. In the beginning she’s established as the caring girl next door for adoration, then flash ahead years later and upon her first reunion with David she has sex with him because, well, I don’t know, because the plot demands some impromptu sex. Then her purpose is to serve as a broken record of morality; a good hour of Millie’s dialogue is reiterations of the lines “What’s wrong?” “Are you okay?” and “What aren’t you telling me?” It gets really annoying and all she does is keep repeating these queries while David drags her by the hand through Rome. It also hurts that Christensen and Bilson have zero chemistry together. But expectantly, Millie’s final purpose is to be the damsel in distress that requires rescuing. Millie’s lax characterization is emblematic of the film as whole. She and the other characters serve a strict, utilitarian purpose to move the plot forward when it’s called for, but the plot isn’t even that good!

The audience is willing to accept the unbelievable as long as it makes some for of logic on its own terms. People have the ability to teleport, got it. But then the movie throws in the Paladins and gives us little explanation. These grey-coated hunters are some religious order or something and have hunted jumpers since the Middle Ages, though their grasp of technology must have improved. I wanted to know more about these hunters, and “religious fundamentalism” seems like a lazy excuse for motivation. Why do these people go to such great ends to kill jumpers? What is their history? Why do they use tazers instead of guns? If a jumper can’t dodge an electric cord then surely they wouldn’t be able to dodge a bullet. How come the jumpers don’t use guns to easily knock off the Paladins? If this is an ongoing war then how come no one else has caught on to the massive collateral damage of the battles? The jumpers leave trace damage to wherever they appear, so how come no one else seems to have caught on? Just like all the other plot elements, the Paladins are established and then ignored by the filmmakers. I kept finding my mind wandering and I created my own intriguing back-story for the Paladins, one where the insurance companies of the world are sick of losing money to the self-serving jumpers, so they subcontract the Paladins to kill these financial fiends. Right there I just spent more time thinking about how to make this movie interesting than the people responsible for making this movie interesting. The corporate avenging angle is more fun than simply making the villains an age-old religious sect like they were plot leftovers from The Da Vinci Code. This movie needed a whole heaping helping of exposition to provide some minute level of clarity to all the flash and noise.

There are so many plot holes and loose storylines that it seems like the filmmakers had the delusional thought that this movie was the first step in a franchise. Because of this belief, we are treated to every single character being left hanging and there is no resolution or sense of finality. The subplot with David’s mother (Diane Lane) is tacked on with promise of addressing it in the future. Jumper doesn’t so much end as put everyone on hold, including the audience.

Liman delivered on his Hollywood potential with 2002’s Bourne Identity and 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, so Jumper is a pretty crushing letdown for a man with such a great mind for inventive action sequences. Liman is sunk by such a terrible script, but it almost seems like the plot was dictated by Liman’s handful of visual cues he had in his brain. There are some nifty images and a couple of cool moments, but cool moments do not make a 90-minute movie, and Jumper lurches from plot point to plot point with depressing routine. There’s so little imagination with the brief, lackluster action sequences given the sheer possibilities with teleporting.

The acting seems on autopilot. Christensen is too bland for words. I repeat my earlier prediction that Christensen will likely be nothing more than the human equivalent of a vacant, pretty mannequin for his acting career; though I must suggest that everyone see his one piece of acting greatness in 2003’s Shattered Glass. His character in Jumper is pretty much a cipher for the audience to have some vicarious, globe-trotting fun, but David is pretty hard to like and doesn’t give an audience much insight into his character. His monotone delivery buries the cheesy dialogue. And, as a die-hard Ohio State fan, it made it even harder for me to root for an Ann Arbor kid. Bilson is pretty but relies on looks of anxiety and sensuous lip biting to display the depths of her one-note character. Jackson delivers a performance suitably in the Samuel L. Jackson canon of screaming and scowling, this time with a white buzz cut hairdo.

If I were being charitable, I’d say that the absence of a succinct story and sufficient characters is because Jumper feels like the pilot to a franchise. But I’m not being charitable. I expected much better from Doug Liman than 20 minutes of setup and another hour of shiny, flashy diversions with little context. The premise isn’t capitalized at all and for a film about the thrilling possibilities of having the world at your fingertips, this movie sure lacks any sense of whimsy and fun. Jumper tells the audience that it has the power to go anywhere, but all I wanted to do was transport myself into a different theater.

Nate’s Grade: C

King Kong (2005)

Has there been any movie this year that’s had a bigger hype machine than Peter Jackson’s King Kong? Coming after his Lord of the Rings trilogy, about two billion in revenue and a slew of Oscars in tow, Jackson decided to recreate the movie that captured his imagination as a child. It was King Kong that made Jackson want to become a filmmaker, so now he is returning the favor. Universal ponied up a staggering 200 million dollars for a budget and paid Jackson a record 20 million to sit in the director’s chair. Like his Rings series, this Kong clocks in at a gargantuan 3-hour running time. Will audiences share Jackson’s adoration with the story of a woman, a big ape, and a bigger building?

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a filmmaker feeling studio pressure. The suits want to reel him in before he even starts shooting his next picture. Carl scrambles to get his crew and equipment onto a boat before the studio can shut him down. He?s on the prowl for a new lead actress and spots Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a hungry out of work vaudeville actress. He quickly convinces her to be apart of his movie and hurries her aboard, the selling point being that Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) has written the story. Carl practically kidnaps Jack and they all set a course for the mysterious Skull Island, a place only rumored to exist. The ship’s captain and crew are wary but sure enough their vessel washes ashore on an exotic island. But this is no sunny getaway, as the crew is immediately besieged by hostile natives and Ann is taken prisoner and offered as a sacrifice to Kong, a 25-foot gorilla. Jack leads an expedition to retrieve Ann, who begins to bond with her hairy captor (Stockholm syndrome, anybody?). Kong rescues Ann from dangers, be it bug or dinosaur, but flies into a vicious rage when she’s plucked away from him. Carl realizes an even bigger attraction: a giant ape to headline Broadway and line his own pockets. His schemes come true as Kong is knocked out and transported back to New York City. However, no stage is too great for Kong, as he busts free and looks all over for the love of his life, Ann.

The sweet love story gives Jackson’s update a surprising emotional richness. In the 1933 original, Fay Wray never stopped shrieking until the big guy toppled off the Empire State building. She had no emotional connection to her furry captor and his unrequited love. In the 2005 King Kong, the strength of the movie is the relationship between Ann and Kong. Jackson of course stacks the deck of his story to all but guarantee an audience will fall in love with the big brute (he appreciates sunsets, how romantic!). There?s not much choice whether or not to sympathize with Kong, especially those moments where we stare into his soulful eyes welling up with emotion. King Kong has always been a tale of exploitation with man as the true monster. By administering time to fully develop a convincing relationship between beauty and beast, it makes the later scenes of exploitation have a larger sense of tragedy. Immense credit goes to Watts for selling this relationship and spurring our sympathy for Kong, instead of making their bond something for snickers and eye-rolling. Poor Adrien Brody though. It’s pretty bad in a romantic triangle when you’d rather pick a giant primate than Brody.

The performances go a long way to adding to the enjoyment of King Kong. Watts is a luminous actress and a natural beauty. It’s because of her that the second half of the movie has a beating heart and some kicks to the gut. Brody is ho-hum but given little to work with as a, wait for it, second banana. Black works wonders to make his villainous role so charismatic. Denham is a huckster that would step over his dying mother to make a buck, and yet Black’s charming and funny even at his most dastardly and cowardly. I don’t think King Kong would have worked the same with different actors; few could bring the heart and emotion Watts emotes, and few could bring Black’s comic virtuosity that makes it plausible why others would follow his showman character. Colin Hanks (also along side Black in Orange County), as Denham’s assistant, imparts a favorable impression. I’d like to see him paired up with Topher Grace sometime. Give it some consideration, Hollywood.

King Kong is a spectacular vision by one of cinema’s greatest visionaries. Jackson has lavishly recreated the excitement of his youth, bringing the story of Kong into the modern age with studly panache. The film is marvelously beautiful to take in and has plenty of moments that will reawaken the child within you, transporting you to an age when movies truly seemed larger than life. During the epic battle between Kong and the T. Rexes, I knew the exact curiosity and excitement Jackson felt when he saw the 1933 original. The action is intense and rarely lets up once our adventurers reach Skull Island. The special effects are some of the best movies have ever seen. Kong moves with expressive accuracy that goes a long way toward expressing his humanity, whether it is in a sigh or a tantrum. Andy Serkis has yet again brought life to another entirely CGI character. King Kong is well worth the price of admission just to sneak a peek at the Jackson’s limitless imagination.

With Jackson’s beefed-up recreation, he has also brought with him a terrible amount of bloat. This King Kong runs a frightful 3-hours plus, and most viewers will just feel exhausted by the time the lights go back up in their theater. Jackson’s love affair with his material is indisputable but it also seems to cloud his judgment as far as pacing is concerned. Numerous scenes seem to stretch longer than necessary and lose their point of interest, the first hour seems too drawn out and prosaic, and the movie haphazardly mixes in the serious with the soapy (Kong on ice?). Some scenes lose their sense of believability the longer they stretch on, even in a movie filled with giant monsters. Certain subplots have set-up but no follow-through, like all the added attention to Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the ship’s teen that wants to experience danger too. Jackson even makes sure we catch that he’s reading Heart of Darkness. So where does this character go? Nowhere and very slowly at that. The character has no bearing on anything that happens with the plot and is dropped entirely once they leave the island. There’s no point. Did something get cut from the inevitable 8-hour extended edition DVD that will prove how pivotal Jimmy really was? I doubt it.

Some nipping and tucking and a comprehensive editing overhaul would certainly make King Kong a better movie, but it would lose its sense of spectacle. I can’t complain about length too much since Jackson packs such a wallop of entertainment like few others, so while King Kong certainly is a bloated and exhaustive film, it’s also an artistically bloated, exhaustive film. Jackson sure does have reverence for his source material (some lines and scenes are directly lifted), though he may have overlooked the 1933 King Kong‘s 100-minute running time.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is an epic, epically grandiose, epically imaginative, epically action-packed, and epically bloated. The update is a bit exhausting but Jackson packs more entertainment per minute than few others in the film business, even if he has too many minutes to work with. Watts really sells her tender relationship with Kong and gives the film a surprising emotional heft absent from the 1933 original. Because of our emotional investment the film has a greater sense of sadness and tragedy as it plays out. King Kong was the 800-pound gorilla of the movie year and Jackson knows how to deliver a visual epic, even if he tiptoes into self-indulgence. While I can protest the length, pacing, and some subplots that go nowhere or strain credibility, it’s hard to argue that King Kong is the popcorn spectacle of the year. Your bladder may hate you by the end of it but you won’t want to miss a second.

Nate’s Grade: B

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