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Baby Driver (2017)

Car chases are one of the greatest things in movie history. The visceral sensation, the speed, the urgency, the thrills, the syncopation of edits to carry out the escalating collateral damage and stakes, it all works to seamlessly create one of the pinnacles of the moving pictures. If you’re going to create a musical where car chases are the chief instrument, then you could do no better than having director Edgar Wright as the maestro. Baby Driver is being hailed by critics as a blast of fresh air, an eclectic wild ride of an action movie with style to spare. That’s true. Unfortunately, this is the first movie of Wright’s career where it feels like the gimmick is all there is to be had.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his crews. Baby was in a car accident that killed his parents when he was a child and he was left with tinnitus (a “hum in the drum” as Doc dubs it). To drown out the ringing, he listens to music at all times, including during those high-speed getaway chases. In his downtime, Baby romances Debora (Lily James) a diner waitress eager to hit the road without a map. Pulled into one more job, Baby is paired with a hotheaded group of dangerous criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez) that could threaten his future plans with Debora.

Baby Driver is a gimmick movie, but this isn’t exactly unheard of from Wright. Each of his movies has a strong genre angle that can tip over into gimmicky, so a gimmick by itself is not an indictment. This is, by far, the least substantial film of Wright’s career. Let’s study his previous film, 2013’s The World’s End. Like the other entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), that film has a clear adoration for a certain genre and its styling, in this case alien invasion/pod person sci-fi. It didn’t just emulate the style and expected plot trappings of its genre. It spun them in a new direction while telling an engaging story on the strains of friendship over addiction and stalled maturity. It’s the heaviest and most emotionally grounded film in the trilogy. Every single moment in that movie adds up, every line, every joke, every plot beat, it all connects to form an inter-locked puzzle that would make Christopher Nolan whistle in appreciation. It wasn’t just clever plot machinations of genre parody. It was a layered and heartfelt story. It all mattered. With Baby Driver, what you see is pretty much what you get.

It’s a car chase musical, a novelty that certainly entertains with Wright’s visual inventiveness and ear for music. The film has that alluring quality of wondering what will happen next, especially with its extensive collection of songs on the soundtrack. A trip to get coffee can become a long take perfectly timed so that graffiti and prop placement along street windows lines up with lyric progressions in the song. Some sonic standouts include “Bellbottoms” and Queen’s “Brighton Rock” during the climax. There’s a fun sense of discovery with the movie and each new song presents a new opportunity to see what Wright and his stunt performers do. The car chases are impressively staged and the stuntwork has dynamism to go along with Wright’s high-level energy output. The emphasis on physical production goes a long way to add genuine excitement. This isn’t the ricocheting CGI car chase cartoons of the Fast and Furious franchise. As far as gimmicks go, it’s at least an amusing one. Perhaps I’m just a musical philistine, or more likely my brain just isn’t as accustomed to sound design idiosyncrasies, but I actually wish Wright had done more with his central gimmick. I’m fairly certain I missed half of the connections with the music. If this is the film’s calling card then it needs not be subtle; rub my face in all the clever edits and how the gunshots equal the percussion, etc.

The ceiling imposed upon Baby Driver is because of its characters. Wright and his collaborators have done effective work shading depth to genre characters in the past, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which examined unhealthy usury relationships and entitlement. The characters in Baby Driver are defined by their archetype designations and often behave in unbelievable ways just because the plot necessitates them. The worst offender is Baby’s love interest, Debora. Her initial scenes with Baby are sweet and work on their own, but when she’s ready to abandon her life for a guy she met days ago, Debora comes across like one of those people who write engagement proposals to incarcerated felons. Her decision-making leaps don’t feel plausible. I don’t think she’s acknowledged her lingering co-dependency issues. The problems are magnified when so much of the second half involves Debora being put in harm’s way or needing to be rescued. Then there’s Baby, a kid with a conscience who uses music as an escape figuratively and literally. He’s too bland and uncomplicated for the lead. Baby takes care of a deaf foster father. He surreptitiously records conversations to remix them into Auto-Tune cassettes. Yes that really is as dumb as it sounds especially when those conversations involve criminals. All we know about Baby is he’s nice, he wants out, and he’s good at driving. Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t have the space to do anything but look cool and springy. The supporting characters are assorted hardasses and nincompoops. Foxx (Django Unchained) seems like he’s there always to push contrived conflict.

As a genre movie with above-average execution, Baby Driver is going to be a suitably enjoyable time at the movies for most. Wright couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. However, it doesn’t feel like he tried hard enough with Baby Driver, at least to make a full-fledged movie. It’s an admirable assemblage of music and visuals but after a while it feels like a collection of music videos, albeit with highly impressive stuntwork. The movie suffers from overblown hype because it doesn’t have the characters or story to balance the action. There isn’t much of an attachment to what’s going on beyond the surface-level thrills of Wright’s central gimmick. As a result, you may get restless waiting for the next song selection to kick into high gear to provide another pert distraction. It feels like the gimmick has swallowed the movie whole and Wright was too busy timing his precise edits to notice the absence of appealing, multi-dimensional characters. Baby Driver is a fun movie with plenty of sweet treats for your senses but it’s too devoid of substance to be anything other than a rapidly dissipating sugar rush.

Nate’s Grade: B

White House Down (2013)

white-house-down-poster2Director Roland Emmerich, the maestro of the dumb fun blockbuster, is never going to get the credit he deserves but the man is something of a mad genius when it comes to putting together spectacle-rich, low-calorie but still satisfying summer entertainment. Take White House Down, the second of 2013’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies. It’s really more of a buddy film contained to that famous structure. It’s not a smart blockbuster by any means but it makes up for any and all flaws with its sheer overpowering sense of fun. Stuff gets blown up real good, the action is brisk, and there are satisfying payoffs for story elements that felt like they were, at first glance, merely thrown together. You may walk away surprised at how much you’re enjoying the comedic interplay between Secret Service agent Channing Tatum and president Jamie Foxx. Plus it’s fun to see the president in on the action instead of merely as a hostage, like the earlier Olympus Has Fallen. In direct comparison, I’d have to say White House Down is the better of the two movies, both in payoff and action. It’s nice to have a movie that’s just fun to watch, that goes about its blockbuster business with precision, supplying a few decent twists, and giving us heroes worth rooting for and action sequences that are well developed and that matter no matter how ridiculous. Emmerich movies are blissfully free of self-serious malarkey, though his weakest hit, 2004’s Day After Tomorrow, got a bit preachy. His movies know what they are and know the demands of an audience. What I needed this summer was a movie designed to make me cheer the impossible. White House Down is a romp.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Django Unchained (2012)

1904It’s an understatement that no one makes films like Quentin Tarantino, though after Pulp Fiction it seemed like everyone was trying. The famous writer/director is an audacious filmic DJ, taking samples from all genres and mixing and matching them into a new and elevated form of art; he takes low-grade B-movie concepts and genres and turns them into highly literate A-class films. My only quibble is that, while I heartily enjoy the man’s unique efforts, I don’t know if we’re ever going to see a different Tarantino anymore. Since 1997’s Jackie Brown, he seems intent on re-imagining exploitation films and B-movies and putting his articulate spin on them. I have yet to dislike a Tarantino film (I rate Jackie Brown the lowest but that’s still an A-) and I’ll be first in line for anything the man attaches himself to as writer/director. Django Unchained is Tarantino’s ode to spaghetti Westerns, and it’s every bit as violent and tense and entertaining as you’d hope it to be.

In 1858 Texas, an abolitionist bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and enlists his help in tracking down a team of outlaws. They strike up a mentorship, gunning down outlaws for money. “Kill white folk and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” Django reasons. After a successful season nabbing bad guys and training Django in the ways of shooting, the men come to a crossroads. Django is looking for his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She was torn away from him and sold off to wealthy Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django cook up a scheme to rescue Broomhilda. Schultz will pose as a rich power player wanting to enter the “mandingo fighting” game (think savage gladiatorial combat). Django will play a black slaver, and expert when it comes to picking out prized fighters. With a generous offer, the two get invited to Candie’s family plantation, dubbed Candieland. Standing in the way of their plan is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head of the house. Stephen is deeply suspicious of their guests and ready to expose them for who they truly are.

89366_galI’ve been dragging my feet writing a review of Django Unchained and I’m trying to determine why that is. Just after typing that sentence I spent 30 minutes checking my e-mail. I’m an avid Tarantino fan, so I’m left wondering what my hesitation is about. I certainly enjoyed the film, thoroughly, but perhaps my question is whether I should have enjoyed the film as much as I did given the historical reality of slavery. No movie will ever approach the true horrors of slavery; even the very act of owning another human is a detestable and crushing reality. Of course I’m coming at this movie from the perspective of a white male, so I feel like aspects of my commentary can only be minor. Is the backdrop of slavery too horrific for Tarantino to stage his spin on a revenge-filled Western? Spike Lee seems to think so via his critical public remarks. Tarantino has great glee in reveling in over-the-top movie violence, the kind that audiences (at least mine) cheer for. I guess the questionable angle is marrying the two realities and tones. You don’t want to take away from the brutality of slavery and at the same time you want to tell a compelling revenge-soaked thriller that satisfies with its buckets of blood. I’d say Django Unchained mostly finds the right balance to hit you in the gut one minute and the next have you clapping along.

It seems like the media is pressing every black celebrity for his or her personal thoughts on Django and especially Tarantino’s copious use of the N-word. Tarantino has gotten into hot water before with his penchant for the N-word, notably his own sequence in Pulp Fiction, but the N-word is entirely period appropriate for Django. Let’s face it, a majority of Americans, let alone Southerners, had really one word for slaves, and it wasn’t kind. This is the word that would have been uttered. However, after seeing the film a second time, I can see the complaints about the overwhelming use of the N-word. If you were to turn this into an awful and disrespectful drinking game, you’d probably pass out before DiCaprio even steps onscreen.

Like Inglourious Basterds, this movie is really a series of sit-downs that simmer with tension. The man has gotten so good with establishing the particulars of a scene, what the characters desire, and to push it to its breaking point when it comes to tension. While I don’t think anything approaches the highpoints of Basterds, this is still a movie that luxuriates in beautifully played tension and the danger lurking underneath Tarantino’s finely crafted words. And let’s talk about those wonderful words of Tarantino talk, the kind that seem so effortless to build sensationally interesting characters. The man sure enjoys writing his umpteenth variances on badasses engaging in verbal pissing contests (the literal kind are far less entertaining, at least for me). When you have character this sharply developed with such counter objectives, I could watch them duke it out all day. There are some pacing concerns with the movie, particularly once we get to Candieland, but when I’m engaged this much in a movie, I’d rather it go overboard than scrimp. Tarantino’s signature cool/funny/funny cool dialogue is alive and well. Every scene advances the plot, pushes it toward its bloody conclusion where bodies explode with sprays of red mist. It’s completely over-the-top in the Kill Bill vein, enough to draw snickers and laughter from a crowd, but Tarantino knows how to serve up a satisfying ending even with a body count to rival Hamlet.

89365_galI don’t want to give the wrong impression that Django Unchained is deadly serious given the subject matter and historical context. I don’t think it disrespectfully sanitizes the horrors of slavery, but Tarantino’s brand of humor finds opportune moments to poke through. There’s a sequence with an early version of the KKK, a group of Southerners on horses arguing over whether they need to wear the ill-fitting bags on their head they prepared (plus Jonah Hill cameo). I was laughing so hard I thought people around me were going to shush me. It may well be the funniest thing Tarantino has ever written. There’s also natural humor to be had in the awkward handling of race relations, something that hasn’t exactly been perfectly ironed out to this day. A wealthy plantation owner (Don Johnson) struggles to explain how his slaves should treat Django, presented as a freeman by Schultz. “You want me to treat him like white people?” someone asks. This is followed promptly with a curt, “No.” There’s also plenty of gallows humor to be had with the over-the-top violence that pervades in the finale. It’s all key moments to blow off steam, so to speak, and make the film more bearable.

Django Unchained follows a traditional Western plot; in fact I’d say what we watch is essentially Tarantino’s whacked out spin on The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas is even referenced in the film by name). Our lead character, Django, is in the Clint Eastwood mode of the strong and silent type. Schultz is the one who does all the talking while Django learns and glowers. They make a terrific buddy team and you almost wish that Tarantino had just diverged his story and allowed them to keep doing their bounty business. But Django’s wife needs some saving and that’s where the movie slows down. I wish Broomhilda had been given more character development. She’s pretty much the princess that needs saving, much like the German folk tale we learn is where Broomhilda gets her uncommon name. My sister described Django Unchained as a love story and I think that’s being a little generous (Tarantino did cut much of her torture, physical and sexual, from his script). We certainly feel Django’s desire to rescue her, and we worry about all the plot machinations and masks the characters must wear to accomplish this feat. With that said, the movie still has plenty of sucker punch surprises, much like Basterds, where violence erupts and despicable characters are given arias to illuminate the depths of their depraved worldviews.

I do wish that Tarantino had been a bit more judicious with his editing (the first without longtime editor Sally Menke who died in 2010) and curtailed all his self-indulgent meta film homage nods. We get stuff like Amber Tamblyn (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) in one shot. Why you ask? See her father also stars in the movie in a small role, and he once played a character titled “Son of a Gunfighter.” So in his own credits, Tarantino lists him as “Son of a Gunfighter” and his daughter as, what else, “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.” When all of that contorting is for an end credits gag and one shot in the whole movie, you feel like it was strictly masturbatory. Then there’s the original Django, Franco Nero, asking Foxx how to spell his name. Old Django asking new Django how to spell his name. I guess it’s supposed to be like a cinematic passing of the torch but it’s another moment that feels superfluous in a 165-minute movie. The movie can get a tad exhausting. The final 15 minutes, while still smartly written and boasting some terrific bloody comeuppance, feels like an add-on that wasn’t needed. It does manage to tie some elements back together but at this point the audience is ready for Django to ride off into the sunset, not have another obstacle to overcome in improbable yet badass fashion. At my first viewing, the kid behind me kept complaining to his parents that the movie had failed to end (“This is still going? It’s already been two hours!”). I also understand the fruitless and ironic nature of asking Tarantino to reign in his self-indulgences; that is, after all, what makes him who he is.

As expected from Westerns, the movie is a boy’s show. Foxx (Ray) has a steely screen presence that works very effectively for the character. The man’s quiet confidence and growing insolence play well, as he burrows into a role that boosts his confidence and assertiveness. Foxx’s journey from beleaguered and shell-shocked slave to mighty walking vengeance is definitely a full performance and one that Foxx delivers without any winks to the camera. Waltz (Carnage) will be dinged for playing a character similar to his Oscar-winning role in Basterds, but he’s still joyously entertaining, with that strange speech pattern of his that he plays like a musical instrument. He has a lot to say with plenty of theatrical flourishes, but that’s what makes him so entrancing. Simply put, Waltz and Tarantino are a match made in heaven.

93034_galDiCaprio (Inception) doesn’t appear until over an hour into the film but he’s worth the wait. At my first screening, I thought DiCaprio was good but was unimpressed. Upon a second viewing, I must say my appreciation grew for the man’s performance. Calvin Candie is certainly a vile man and DiCaprio is able to give him such an intriguing brio; he’s not the magnetic source of evil that Waltz was in Basterds, a man able to stay two steps ahead of his prey. Candie is easily taken for a fool. He’s not the smartest guy in the room but he can work up a pretty sizable fury; DiCaprio actually cuts open his hand during a confrontation and remains in character, undeterred. But the best actor in the movie is Jackson (The Avengers). There are far more layers to his head house slave than meets the eyes. It sure seems like he’s really the fist behind the glove. He may put on an act for company, but the man is far more calculating and sinister than anyone else in the film. You know he’s a good villain when the audience cheers the loudest at his demise (don’t act surprised, spoiler-phobes). I wouldn’t be surprised if Waltz, DiCaprio, or even Jackson get nominated for supporting Oscars.

It seems like Tarantino has also stumbled into a hidden lucrative subgenre at the box-office, namely the historical revenge film. Who doesn’t want to see a group historically shafted get some sweet revenge, the bad guys punished, and all with sparkling dialogue? In 2009, Tarantino went on a Nazi scalping spree and got to shoot Hitler in the face. With Django, a brutalized slave becomes the hero of his own story and kills some vile slave owners and traders. It’s essentially a Nat Turner-style rebellion from history, albeit with some harebrained scams and colorful characters. Following this lucrative model, Tarantino could take other maligned minorities and give them cinematic justice. Sadly, there are too many examples to count where Tarantino can take inspiration.

Django Unchained is a bloody, rollicking, talky, messy, exciting, surprising, uncomfortable yet satisfying movie and probably one of the oddest crowd-pleasers in recent memory. I saw it on Christmas day and my theater was a sell out. They loved it, soaking up every minute, laughing at the funny parts and wincing at the gruesome violence. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. It doesn’t whitewash the evils and viciousness of slavery, but at the same time Tarantino knows how to serve an audience and their demands for big characters, big set pieces, and big vengeance. Django is a sturdy Western/blaxploitation film, and whatever other genres Tarantino feels like tossing into his cinematic blender. Whatever you classify it as, Django Unchained is another Tarantino original specialty and his tremendous talent comes through loud and clear, even with a few false endings and self-indulgences at play. It looks great, has a great soundtrack, and presents great acting talent reciting Tarantino’s great words like they were prized possessions. It’s a bit long and a bit overdone, but when you’re enjoying yourself, who wants to leave the party early?

Nate’s Grade: A

Valentine’s Day (2010)

Imagine every romantic comedy cliché and sappy platitude about love stirred together into one giant gelatinous conglomeration of hollow sentiment. That’s Valentine’s Day. Regardless of your thoughts on the holiday, this movie, which aims to celebrate our national day of love, might have the opposite effect. This movie makes He’s Just Not That Into You look like When Harry Met Sally. It?s a fairly large ensemble with plenty of mega-watt stars, but it’s too bad that nobody knows what to do. Jessica Alba’s character literally runs her course an hour into the film and yet she still makes meaningless appearances. This overstuffed Hallmark card has ridiculously safe, candy-coated storylines sanded so that there is no hint of edge or wit (Anne Hathaway is the most ludicrous PG-13 phone sex operator you will ever find). The resolutions of most of these storylines will be predictable to anybody who has ever read a greeting card. Jamie Foxx is supposed to be a bitter TV reporter popping up everywhere reporting about the ills of V-Day. Think he’ll have a change of heart by the film’s end? The cast does offer their small pleasures (there are SIX Oscar nominees/winners in this movie!), except for the kid who has a crush on his teacher (Jennifer Garner). He was insufferably annoying. So was his movie.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Taking a few lessons from the grisly Saw franchise, this revenge thriller follows Clyde (Gerard Butler) track and kill the men responsible for murdering his wife and child. Except that pretty gets resolved in 15 minutes. The rest of the movie is Clyde’s misguided, morally queasy assault on the justice system; the judges, lawyers, police officers that keep a dying system going, letting guilty murderers walk. Clyde is specifically targeting the prosecutor (Jaime Foxx) that made a plea bargain instead of risking his conviction percentage at a trial. This is a violent vision that wants to rewrite our very Constitution, questioning giving accused murders the same considerations as soccer moms. The movie can come across as a conservative, Death Wish-style fantasy against the judicial system and those pesky civil liberties afforded to everyone. While shrouded in the guise of being a bloody thriller, the movie’s idea of moral ambiguity is pretty thin. Its ethical arguments don’t stand a second line of questioning. Sure, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) can put together an exciting and tense sequence, and the film is filled with surprise, and Butler arguably gives his best performance since 300, but while I was entertained I was also offended at being expected to cheer every time Clyde knocked off another innocent citizen.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Kingdom (2007)

Now that summer is but a hazy memory, get ready for a roll out of serious minded movies Hollywood hopes vie for serious award attention. It may be five years into the current war, but the movies are now cranking out Iraq-themed dramas that will dominate the release schedule for the approaching months. Things are about to get heavy and somber. First out of the gate, though, is The Kingdom, a film about the nebulously termed War on Terror set within the confines of an action movie. Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Rundown) knows how to create a stylized movie that feels organic to its genre, and The Kingdom is another example of his growing cinematic pedigree.

In Saudi Arabia, a housing enclosure of American contractors and their families is brutally attacked by terrorists that have infiltrated the Saudi security. Two hundred American lives are lost and FBI agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) is intent on leading a team of experts (Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman) to the soil of the Saudis, otherwise known as The Kingdom. The State Department refuses to authorize an investigation citing the jurisdiction of the Saudis as well as the danger of violent reprisals if agents are within reach of the perpetrators. Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) is assigned to baby-sit the American agents and keep them stuck in red tape during their five days allotted to them. Fluery refuses to take a subservient role and works with Al Ghaazi to get some answers.

The animated opening credit crash course in Saudi history is fun and informative, however, it really doesn’t relate to The Kingdom even though the damn movie is set in that country. Curiously, the movie only makes cursory statements on the wary relationship between the Saudis and the United States, but otherwise this movie could have been dropped in any nondescript Muslim country in the Middle East. If The Kingdom was relocated to, say, Yemen, I doubt the script would need that much fine-tuning; snip some references to royalty here and there. This is a story about the balance between a moderate Middle East regime and radical elements within the country willing to buck Western influence by any destructive means necessary. I’m measurably disappointed that the movie didn’t tackle more about the unique and tenuous Saudi-U.S. relationship, but then I accepted the fact that The Kingdom wasn’t so much about a country but an ideology that knows no borders.

To that end, The Kingdom is one part CSI: Saudi Arabia, one part political thriller, and one part gung-ho Hollywood action extravaganza, and none of the parts seems to work well together as a whole. The film doesn’t work as a cohesive unit and perhaps tries to do too much. Now, this does not mean that any of those parts are not entertaining. The criminal investigating is rather interesting because of all the cultural barriers between the U.S. agents and the Saudi governing system (a miscast Jeremy Piven, as an ambassador, admonishes Janet, in a very Ari Gold way, to “dial down the boobies”). The central mystery of who is responsible is pretty thin and easy to solve, which may be why the film spends so much time finding obstacles to delay our FBI team from getting their hands on the evidence. The political thriller elements are expressed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and yet they feel like thoughtful counterpoints to any rah-rah jingoism that The Kingdom may instill in an American audience. The climax provides plenty of fist-pumping violence but it also ends on a note about the futility of violence as well as the durability of hate. I even appreciated devoting time to interdepartmental jockeying and watching agency heads seeing who will blink first in a public relations-dominated world. The Kingdom doesn’t have a desire to become Syriana 2: No Blood for Oil, but it does possess a greater deal of intelligence and relevance than most of what big budget Hollywood is spewing out (I refuse to believe the FBI would send an agent, with a personal family tie to Israel, into a Muslim country).

Strict action fans, however, are going to have a lot of downtime on their hands. The Kingdom opens with an action sequence and closes with an action sequence, and there’s a wide gap in between those bookends. The final 20 minutes are devoted to a nail-biting ambush and rescue that transforms our FBI agents into improbable action movie warriors. Berg’s restless camera isn’t as well honed as Paul Greengraas (The Bourne Ultimatum), and sometimes you just wish the jittery cameraman would allow you to see what’s going on. I don’t know if the docu-drama emphasis is fully needed, especially when the movie jumps between shots of just two people having a conversation. Berg is a terrific director and the action sequences hit hard; I just hope he doesn’t become trapped trying to fit himself into one style.

In truth, the most intriguing part of The Kingdom is the relationship between Fleury and Al Ghazi. They begin frustrated and fighting for control, but soon, in true buddy cop genre fashion, a mutual respect forms as they search for the bad guys. The script offers helpful examples of good Movie Arabs and bad Movie Arabs, and the audience is able to easily identify the two sides. The interplay between Fleury and Al Ghazi leads to some humorous exchnages as well as some reflective opportunities, like where the men recount their families and declare they do not care why such dastardly acts were done, they just want to inflict some punishment on the rightful parties.

The acting, like the film, is a bit all over the place. Foxx seems to be on autopilot. Foxx has bunkered into his acting troupes; intense, penetrating stare, whispery dialogue recitations, and a cocksure attitude. Cooper is cranky and incredulous older timer along for the ride. Garner does her best with a character that was written for the sole purpose of concocting culture squabbles over the role of the opposite sex. She does unleash a torrent of anger and power in one very hard-core and frighteningly extreme fight scene. Bateman is playing comic relief and does sarcastic quips with great ease, but his character also gets unexpectedly thrown into a very harrowing experience and Bateman makes you feel every drop of his fear. Barhom (Paradise Now) gives a convincing performance of a man torn apart by his moral compass and the path of his country. He feels a sense of duty to protect the innocent but at the same time he is scoffed at by colleagues for helping “them.”

The Kingdom is an action movie with more on its mind than blowing up the enemy real nice like, though that also plays a key component. The pieces don’t fully add up to a whole and the film’s politics are a little tricky to get a bearing on; is this a red state movie, a blue state movie, or something for both audiences? Berg’s ambition is admirable and his film never drags out a soapbox to preach. The Kingdom is a topical movie aimed at planting seeds of debate among a mainstream audience in between their handfuls of popcorn and gulps of soda.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Dreamgirls (2006)

When the smoke cleared after the 2006 Academy Award nominations, there were some media members in disbelief. How could Dreamgirls, an expensive, glitzy musical that many perceived as the front-runner for Best Picture, fail to even get nominated in the Best Picture category? Theories abounded; the mostly white Academy couldn’t acknowledge a movie steeped in black culture, the film fell prey to backlash against a momentous hype machine that rubbed people the wrong way, or even that it was unfairly judged against recent musicals, like 2002’s Best Picture winner Chicago, instead of being judged on its own merits. After having now seen the film, I have an altogether simple explanation: the Academy thought there were better movies and I couldn’t agree more. Here are five reasons why Dreamgirls just didn’t cut it.

1) The film just falls apart after the halfway mark. The focus is on the rise of the all girl group the Dreamettes in the 1960s Detroit music scene. Effie (Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson) is the strong-willed lead singer with big curves and a big voice. She’s pushed out of the way by her band mates so pretty face Deena (Beyonce Knowles) can front and sell records. Effie is our star and she doesn’t take the news well, and explodes in an emotional fury that results in the film’s true showstopper song, “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going.” Trouble is, there’s still an hour of movie left. The second hour of Dreamgirls feels like a plot layover, as our characters don’t do much more than stuff their hands in their pockets and grumble. It’s astonishing how deflating the second hour to this movie is, and the film cannot sustain a viable interest or energy, leaving the audience to tap their toes to songs that already ended an hour prior. It’s a troubling sign when a film peaks at the halfway point and seems to only stall and sputter after.

2) The songs are not that special. Dreamgirls would have been far more entertaining if what we got was some honest, soulful, groove-inducing Motown music. Instead, what we get is the same pop filler that the characters bemoan what commercialism has transformed their music into. None of these ditzy ditties are very memorable and many of them start to just blend together, thanks in part to montage-obsessed editing. The other focus of Dreamgirls is on the rise of Motown, how a very Berry Gordy-like figure, played by Jamie Foxx, patterned black music and made it hit for white listeners. I think this was the most depressing part of the film for me, the fact that I could have done without the music in a musical.

3) The tone lacks clarity and can be grating. For about 80% of the movie when the characters sing it’s on stage as performance. Then two characters sing their displeasure with each other and the audience is like, “What the hell?” I accept the laws that govern musicals, and people spontaneously bursting into song and choreographed hoofing does not bother me, but whatever the choice it needs to be consistent. When the audience is used to seeing the singing contained to the stage, it becomes jarring when it transpires in reality. Director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) cleverly worked around this problem in his screenplay for Chicago by placing all the song-and-dance moments as glimpses into one woman?s musical-obsessed psyche. It seems so careless and easily remedied, so what were they thinking?

4) Dreamgirls is desperate for Oscar attention. At the end of the movie, after an awfully messy run to the finish line, come the end credits, however they aren’t so much as end credits as they are “for your consideration” ads. When the director of photography credit appears you see a man in a camera crane. When the costume designer is credited we see her sketches and the real outfits side-by-side. Some of it is silly, like when the casting director is listed and we see, no kidding, a checkerboard of faces, like the movie is saying, “This is what a casting director does, look.” The sequence is moderately annoying and a little patronizing, but it is a splendid example of the filmmaking ethos. It feels like the over zealous studios thought that by throwing together a bunch of musical staples and covering it with fancy decoration that they could fool audiences into thinking they saw a full-blooded story.

5) You fail to feel for any of the characters. In the rush of production numbers and period detail, the characters all suffer horrendously. The Dreamettes are obviously a take on the Supremes, and Deena is obviously supposed to be Diana Ross; they even recreate iconic Diana Ross pictures with her. By this token, it seems like the filmmakers felt they could slack off on characterization and just banish their actors to the ghettos of genre archetypes. I didn’t feel for anyone, even Effie once she got her walking papers for being essentially fussy, overweight, and sticking with her integrity. She tries to pick up the pieces of her life but even she seems disinterested once the stage lights no longer shine upon her. The characters have about a dewdrop of depth to them and can be summarized each by one sentence. Shallow characters and a less-than-compelling second half doom the movie.

There are enjoyable aspects to Dreamgirls, notably the performances from the supporting players. Eddie Murphy experiences nothing short of a career resurgence playing Jimmy Earl Haley, a groundbreaking soul singer with a fiery stage presence. Murphy puts his all into the performance and is such a live wire that Dreamgirls seems downright downtrodden without him. Former American Idol contestant Hudson has been collecting accolades for her diva-like performance, and while her singing is full of bluster and verve, I cannot say the same for her acting. She gives a solid overall performance but doesn’t try hard to hide her inexperience with acting. I wouldn’t have given Hudson an Oscar, but then I wouldn’t have given Oscars to a lot of the eventual winners (Julia Roberts, your hardware rightly belongs to Ellen Burstyn).

Film critic David Poland was nearly beside himself with Dreamgirls‘ omission from the Best Picture contenders. He argued that had it been nominated it would have won (I’m not sure how that logic works, but I do have a bridge I’d like to sell Poland). Dreamgirls is not bereft of technical charms and entertainment, but to posit this as anything above a mediocre musical is just plain madness. The characters barely leave an impact, the music is the same pop pap it laments, and the movie just simply peaks too soon. There’s nothing daring or innovative with this song and dance revue, and for long periods it feels like a pandering exercise in dress-up and nostalgia. I suppose in the end the Academy just thought there were five better movies than Dreamgirls, and, for once, I agree with them.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Jarhead (2005)

The controversy surrounding Jarhead, a hotly anticipated movie dealing with the 1991 Gulf War, seems rather misplaced. Some argued it would be anti-American, anti-war, anti-Marines, and on the other side of the coin, some even argued that it would be pro-war and pro-aggression. Now the movie seems to be taking flak for not being too political. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) is interested in crafting a movie about the soldiers, a true first-person war. I was actually very pleased, and somewhat relieved, that Jarhead didn’t try to bend over backwards and make any forced parallels to our current Gulf War conundrum. When you’re arguing about whether a movie leans right or left then perhaps the movie stands tall on its own, and Jarhead stands very tall indeed.

Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a “jarhead” the nickname for Marines because of what their heads resemble after their sheering, but it’s also indicative of a vessel, ready to be filled with knowledge. Swofford says he entered the corps because he “got lost on the way to college.” He’s humiliated, beaten, and looking for a way out when Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) offers (more like orders him) to try out for the elite position of Marine snipers. It’s during this new training regiment that Swofford becomes “hooked” on being all he can be. He’s partnered with his barrack buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who serves as Swofford’s moral anchor. The boys get their hopes up when they catch the news that Iraq has invaded Kuwait. They’re shipped out to the action and are finally going to get a taste of combat … or so they think. They spend months in the Saudi desert amongst 114 degree heat and interminable boredom. They drink water, they play football in their gas suits for the cameras, they goof off, but mostly they wait. And wait. And wait. When the war does finally come into being, any action is short-lived: “Four days, four hours, one minute. That was my war.” Swofford, Troy, and his fellow Marines are aching for some kind of combat, any kind of violence that they’re physically and mentally breaking down in the monotony.

Even the safety nets in previous war films, like the chickadee at home waiting for you, are ripped away in Jarhead. Usually the life at home is a source of release for movie soldiers, but in Jarhead it’s just one more source of mounting anxiety. The men have a Wall of Shame with pictures of ex-wives and girlfriends who have left them or cheated on them.

The acting on display is tremendous. Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tomorrow[) gives a sensational performance that should turn him into a bona fide, A-list leading man. All at once he can display fraternal bravado, closeted fear, confusion, and dulled horror. His show stopping moment is when he’s amidst a mental breakdown and turns a rifle on a comrade and then on himself, pleading that a shot be taken. The scene is a powder keg of intensity and Gyllenhaal is utterly captivating, startling, and horrifying with every teeth-grinding second. What?’ even better is that his performance doesn’t stop when the camera isn’t centered on his beautiful baby-eyes. He draws stronger performances out of those around him, and he does it quietly with confidence. He masks his fear and does so in fascinating, layered ways. Performances like this are what Oscars are for. And for any Jake fans out there, yes he does show a good bit of flesh in the film.

Foxx (Ray) breathes fiery life into what otherwise could have been a stock character, the tough love drill sergeant. He’s given much more screen time than I had ever thought and makes the most of it. Sarsgaard (Garden State) is a steely, dependable shoulder of support in the film, and his own big breakdown scene is amazing to witness. He?s so close to a kill but is overruled by the military brass, and Sarsgaard just lets everything go. It’s incredible. Chris Cooper (Adaptation) and even Dennis Haysbert, 24‘s president Palmer himself, have brief but very memorable small turns.

The cinematography by Roger Deakins (replacing Mendes previous Oscar-winning collaborator, the late great Conrad Hall) is gorgeous and uses light and shadow in remarkable ways to convey the turmoil of the soldiers and the other-worldliness of the desert. There are scenes amongst the lit oil fields that look like some alien world. It’s a perfect visual representation of how alone these men are and how ill-equipped they are for that scenario. The camerawork beautifully echoes the emptiness of their surroundings. Jarhead should easily score a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Deakins (House of Sand and Fog).

Jarhead is really an analysis of the psychology of what it takes to go to war. There is a transformation process, where young boys get stripped down and turned into killing machines. Jarhead poses a central question: what happens when you create the ultimate killing machine and give it nothing to do? Essentially, these men are breaking down in the tedium and many will be broken for the rest of their lives. A very poignant scene comes late in the film during their triumphant bus ride home. A Vietnam vet hops on to cheer his fellow Marines and in his hazy jingoism, you see how haunted and broken this man is from his own war experiences decades past. The future is staring them right in the face. Swofford opens and closes the film with narration explaining that once a man holds a rifle in combat, no matter what else he does in his life his hands will feel that rifle. These are men trained for war and adjusting to everyday life where the only war resides inside. Jarhead is a monstrously powerful study on the lasting effects of turning young men into monsters of combat.

Jarhead‘s inherently anticlimactic nature works against it, which will cause some level of disconnect with an audience. This is a very loosely structured flick about delayed gratification with no payoff. That’s not exactly a recipe for success. Jarhead is essentially the Waiting for Godot of war movies. The film is about monotony, about inaction, and the movie achieves a surprising yet palpable tension simply from drawing the viewer along for so far. In lesser hands a movie about boredom would still be boring, but Mendes brings an unprecedented art to it. Mendes has a confidant vision and the technical skill to bring out the drama of boredom. Jarhead has a deadpan sense of humor and some very sobering moments, like when Swofford comes across the remains of a traffic jam caught in napalm. These killing machines are getting rusty and will come back home without ever getting to pull a trigger, and what does that do to a man? These are important questions and Mendes is interested in answering them at a pace that still serves his characters. I love that Mendes has directed three films that are wildly different from one another. In my view, this guy is three-for-three.

Jarhead is no Full Metal Jacket and yet Mendes gives passing nods to Vietnam and how our culture has shaped its history. The Marines watch Apocalypse Now and cheer as helicopters mow down villages set to a thundering soundtrack by Wagner. They’ve completely missed the point of one of the most anti-war films ever, transforming it into a bloodlust ritual. When Mendes reaches the desert then Jarhead becomes a war movie unlike any other. It’s a war movie without a war, sort of. All wee see are the results, both external and internal.

In a way, Jarhead is all about transformations and transitions, one of which is the Gulf War itself. This was arguably the first made-for-TV war and viewers were amazed at the green-tinted images of explosions and military might. War had been brought into the video game age where what once took months on the ground could be accomplished by pushing a button. Jarhead shows you the side of the Desert Shield/Storm that never made it to the cameras. The movie also presents some of the more obscured details of the war, like the care for and disposal of human waste from outhouses. That stuff never made CNN. Jarhead shows, very quietly and somberly, that sometimes the soldiers who return home have still been left behind.

Jarhead is an intense, sobering, evocative, and deeply contemplative film about the psychology of turning young men into killers and then leaving them with nothing to do. The inherent anticlimactic nature will likely push some audiences away while others will simply find it tedious. Mendes’ direction is strong and confidant and able to squeeze drama and tension from inaction, crafting an existential war movie that feels relevant and profound. Gyllenhaal is amazing and utterly captivating; you can’t take your eyes off him and, for many out there, a certain strategically located Santa hat. This movie isn’t anti-America, anti-troops, or even anti-war for that matter. Jarhead tells us that all wars are different and all wars are the same. We know war is hell, but for some, the absence of war is an even greater hell.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Any Given Sunday (1999)

Oliver Stone is a seamstress of visuals and visceral noise. Any Given Sunday is perfect as he delves into the professional world of football and how it becomes a dance of testosterone and fury. But after awhile all the audience feels is a pounding and a ringing in its ears.

The biggest stumbling block may actually be its focal point – there’s too much football! The games last as long as actual games and there are multiple games through out. Though Stone captures the essence nicely that these spandex-clad athletes are the gladiators of today playing in a ballet of chaos, he just throws too many jangled cuts, quick shots, and extreme angles flashing around to hyper-decibel soundtrack fodder. After a while the viewer becomes dizzied by the rush of noise and flash of lights buzzing around their precious skull. It’s enough to cause a concussion simply from watching.

]Most of the action in Any Given Sunday actually happens off the field with some meaty drama delivered by multiple players. Stone focuses in on the people behind the catches and blocks and how the game can control or transform their lives. Finally a drawn-out story that covers football with respect. Diaz and Pacino get into screaming matches for roughly most of the movie, but it’s exciting to see two great actors throw the acting medicine ball back and forth trying to out-duel the one before. The supporting characters all have stories suitable to the game and interesting enough to warrant attention. Jaime Foxx has a nonchalant magnetism that keeps the audience pulling for him even after he vomits for the third time on camera.

Stone lets the viewer into the game of football in a manner truthful yet exaggerated. But with all the whiz-bang he throws out in Any Given Sunday one can’t help but have wished for more constraint in the excess and more minutes for the drama in between.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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