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mother! (2017)

Now I know why there weren’t any promotional screenings for mother! in the lead-up to its national release. Director Darren Aronofsky’s highly secretive movie starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem was marketed as a horror thriller, a claim that is generous at best and dishonest at worst. This is not Rosemary’s Baby by a long shot. It’s a highly personal, livid, and visually audacious think piece on mankind, so it’s no surprise that general audiences have hated it and graded it with the rare F rating on Cinemascore (a shaky artistic metric, granted, but still a dubious honor). Aronofsky is a polarizing filmmaker who routinely makes polarizing works of art, so the stupefied outrage is not surprising. mother! is a challenging film that demands your attention and deconstruction afterwards. It’s not a passive movie going experience. I’m still turning things over in my brain, finding new links and symbols. mother! isn’t for everyone or even many. It requires you to give into it and accept it on its own terms. If you can achieve that, I think there is enough to be gained through the overall experience.

Lawrence and Bardem are husband and wife living out in the country. He’s a poet going through serious writer’s block and she’s remodeling the house in anticipation of a future family. One day a stranger (Ed Harris) comes by looking for a place to stay, and Bardem invites him into his home. The stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) soon follows, looking for her husband. These uninvited guests awkwardly make themselves at home, testing Lawrence’s politeness and the bonds of her marriage. More and more strangers follow, flocking to Bardem and the home, and their unpleasantness only grows, pushing Lawrence into further states of agitation, desperation, and shock.

The first thing you need to know before sitting down to watch mother! is that it is one hundred percent metaphorical. Nothing on screen has a sole literal intention. The movie is clearly Aronofsky’s statement about mankind’s harmful tendencies, as well as a larger potential indictment, but this is a movie that exclusively traffics in metaphor. Accepting that early will make for a much better viewing experience. It took a solid thirty minutes for me to key into the central allegory, and once I understood that lens the movie became much more interesting (this was also the time that more unexpected visitors began complicating matters). I was taking every new piece of information from the mundane to the bizarre and looking to see how it fit into the larger picture. I would genuinely recommend understanding what the central allegory may be before watching the film. Looking back, I can appreciate the slower buildup that, at the time, felt a bit like an aimless slog awaiting some sense of momentum. Even the significant age difference between Bardem and Lawrence is addressed and has a purpose. mother! is the kind of movie that gets tarred with the title of “pretentious,” and yeah, it is, because if you’re devoting an entire two-hour movie to metaphor, then you’re going to have to be a little pretentious. Terrence Malick movies feel like obtuse, pedantic navel-gazing, whereas mother! felt like a startling artistic statement that had a legitimate point and was barreling toward it with ferocity. It invited me to decode it while in action, keeping me actively alert.

When dealing in the realm of metaphor, much is dependent upon the execution of the filmmaker, and Aronofsky is one of the best at executing a very specific vision. Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream are both excellent examples of Aronofsky putting the viewer in the distressed mental space of the characters, utilizing every component of filmmaking to better communicate the interior downward spiral. With mother!, Aronofsky attaches his camera to Jennifer Lawrence for the entire movie; we are always circling her or facing her in close-ups, always in her orbit. She is our tether. When she walks out of a room, we follow, trying to listen to the conversations going on without us. When the revelers and mourners show up, we experience the same confusion and irritation as her. The film builds in intensity as it careens toward its hallucinatory final act. It’s here where Aronofsky unleashes his targeted condemnation with extreme vigor. It’s one confusing moment cascading upon another, strange images that ripple like a nightmare. There are some pretty upsetting and offensive acts meant to provoke outrage, and Lawrence is always the recipient of much of that cruelty. Like a Lars von Trier film, Lawrence plays a heroine whose suffering serves as the film’s thematic underpinning. Aronofsky’s commitment to his vision is complete. He doesn’t leave anything behind.

Existing as a highly metaphorical work of art, there are numerous personal interpretations that can be had from mother! although, even with that said, one interpretation seems very obvious (spoilers to follow). This is first and foremost a Biblical allegory with Bardem portraying God and with Lawrence as Mother Earth. They live by themselves in tranquility but God is bored and unable to find solace. That’s when Ed Harris (Adam) and then Michelle Pfeiffer (Eve) show up, and all of God’s attention is soaked up with these new people, who bring their warring sons (Cain and Abel) and then more and more strangers. The people won’t listen to Mother Earth’s requests and warnings, and after trashing her home and breaking a sink that causes an explosion of water (Aronofsky Noah meta reference?), she and God kick them all out. She says afterwards, “I’ll get started on the apocalypse.” It’s Aronofsky’s retelling of humanity’s existence from a Biblical perspective up until the fiery, vengeful end. From here there are all sorts of other symbols, from Jesus and the Last Supper, to the spread of the Gospels, and the corruption of God’s Word and the subsequent cruelty of humanity. These newcomers are selfish, self-destructive, ignorant, and pervert the poet’s message in different ways, caging women into sex slavery, brutally executing divided factions, all while God cannot help but soak up their fawning adulation. God finally admits that Mother Earth just wasn’t enough for him, like a spouse coming to terms with her husband’s philandering. He’s an artist that needs an audience of needy worshipers to feel personally fulfilled. Ultimately it all ends in fire and ash and a circular return to the dawn of creation. For viewers not casually versed in Biblical stories, the film will seem like an unchecked, unholy mess.

This is going to be a very divisive movie that will enrage likely far more viewers than entice, and this result is baked into Aronofsky’s approach from the start. Working in the realm of allegory doesn’t mean the surface-level story has to be bereft of depth (Animal Farm, The Crucible, and Life of Pi are proof of that). However, Aronofsky’s story just feels pretty uninviting on the surface, lacking stronger characterization because they are chiefly symbols rather than people. There are recognizable human behaviors and emotions but these are not intended to be recognizable people. This limits the creative heights of the film because the surface isn’t given the same consideration as the metaphor. If you don’t connect with the larger metaphor and its commentary, then you’re going to be bored silly or overpowered by artistic indulgences. Everything is, ironically, a bit too literal-minded with its use of metaphor. The movie’s cosmic perspective is, to put it mildly, very bleak. It can be very grueling to watch abuse after abuse hurled upon Lawrence, so it doesn’t make for the most traditionally fun watch.

mother! is a movie that is impossible to have a lukewarm reaction to. This is a shock to the system. Aronofsky’s wild cry into the dark is a scorching cultural critique, a condemnation on the perils of celebrity and mob mentality, and a clear religious allegory that posits mankind as a swarm of self-destructive looters that are as ruinous as any swarm of Old Testament locusts. It’s an ecological wake up call and a feminist horror story. It’s an artistic cleave to the system that’s meant to disrupt and inspire debate and discussion. This is going to be a movie that affects a multitude of people in different ways, but I feel confident in saying that fewer will connect with it and its dire message. Motherhood is viewed as martyrdom, and Pfeiffer’s character sums it up best: “You give and you give and you give, and it’s just never enough.” It’s about dealing with one-sided, usury relationships, surrendering to the insatiable hunger of others who are without appreciation or introspection. It’s not a horror movie like It about scary clowns. It’s a horror movie about how we treat one another and the planet. Aronofsky can confound just as easily as he can exhilarate. mother! is a provocative, invigorating, enraging, stimulating, and layered film that demands to be experienced and thoroughly digested.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

Rest assured fans, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a definite improvement over its waterlogged 2011 predecessor, but I can’t help feeling like the magic of this franchise, and even the high spirits of the immediate sequels, has been squelched. It’s a multi billion-dollar franchise born from a theme park ride and now I think I’m ready for that ride to come to an end.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is once again in the middle of some high seas hijinks. Everyone is on a collision course with the world’s most infamous, swishy, and soused pirate. The ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead crew are looking for a release from their curse and of course vengeance against Sparrow, and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is their key to reaching their target. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner, is looking to retrieve the mystical Trident to erase all nautical curses, thus freeing his father’s indentured servitude aboard the Flying Dutchman. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is looking to discover the whereabouts of her father via clues tied into astronomy. All the parties are fighting to be the first to discover the location of the Trident and get what they feel is deserved.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales has some advantages that are worth discussing before attention turns to what’s wrong with the franchise as a whole. Unlike Rob Marshall, directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) understand how to expressly direct action sequences. They have a strong sense of visuals and know how to hit some majestic big screen imagery, whether it’s a see-through silhouette of a zombie shark, or Salazar’s ship splaying like a retracting ribcage, or a runaway bank heist with a literal runaway building. There’s a terrific scene of visual comedy and action when Sparrow is trapped in a spinning guillotine, with the blade coming perilously close only to fall away from gravity and then repeat the process. That was a moment that made me think of the original 2003 film’s comic inventiveness. Instead of just having cool ideas and concepts (carnivorous mermaids, a psychically controlled ship), Pirates 5 at least puts them to better effect. It feels like greater care has been put into meaningfully incorporating the elements of the story, though there are still noticeable shortcomings. I loved the look of Bardem’s villain and the CGI texture that made him seem like he was underwater. It added an unsettling dreamlike quality. Jack Sparrow is thankfully once again a supporting character. There are also several other characters that are worthy of our attention, plus the welcomed return of Barbossa. The movie comes together quite well for an extravagant final set-piece that reasonably serves as an emotional climax.

For the last couple days since my screening, I’ve been turning over in my head reasons why the Pirates sequels, especially of late, have felt so removed from the original film and even the lesser sequels from 2006 and 2007. I think I have deduced the three essential missing ingredients: clarity, urgency, and characters.

The first three Pirates films were gloriously complicated and convoluted, a series of spinning plotlines that weaved in and out, intertwined with conspiracy, collusion, and reversals. They’re overly plotted affairs, and eventually the third films succumbs to the pitfalls of convolution. However, something readily apparent in those movies was a sense of clarity in the individual scenes. Perhaps the overall picture was murky but in the moment you knew what needed to happen, which characters had opposing goals, and what those conflicts were. It’s those opposing goals that provide much of the enjoyable confrontations and complications in the film. Take for instance the first meeting with Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in the blacksmith’s shop. Jack is looking to free himself of his shackles and escape. Will is looking to capture Jack, for his believed assault on Elizabeth, and he’s also looking to prove himself as a swordsman. One of them wants to leave and one of them wants to delay that leave. It’s clear. The scene plays out as the characters clash but we, the audience, know the needs of the scene, and it allows each to reveal their character through action. The majority of the first three films follow this edict. The allegiances are all in conflict: Barbossa wants to alleviate his curse, Jack wants vengeance and to regain his ship, Will wants to rescue Elizabeth, and none of them trust the other. While the dynamics are complicated they are built upon classic storytelling devices of conflict/opposing goals and there’s a genuine clarity in the micro. You know what the characters need scene-to-scene and why they are in conflict and what those goals are. In Pirates 5, the goals are too vague or overly generalized, and from scene-to-scene there’s little internal logic established for the actions to have significance.

The next missing element is urgency, which is a natural byproduct of clarity. If you don’t know what your characters are doing or what their goals are then it’s hard to maintain a sense of urgency. The stakes of this franchise have felt a bit wishy washy after the culmination of 2007’s At World’s End. Before, the characters felt like they had something to lose, something that might not be accomplished. Look at the first Pirates film and you see that those goals are being accomplished poorly. There are complications and unexpected detours, but the stakes felt real because there were ongoing challenges. I think the absolving of stakes in the franchise has gone directly hand-in-hand with the series becoming more jokey. Once characters become cartoons the sense of danger dissipates and then anything can become lazily excusable. There is no recognition of an over-the-top anymore, which then makes the characters feel limitless. That’s not good when they’re supposed to be going against supernatural villains who present their own special powers. In Pirates 5, the characters bumble through every sort of scenario, and while they may not be in control at the moment, you never really fear for them. It’s a safe series of chases and escapes like a Saturday morning cartoon you know will merely reset its characters back to their starting positions by the next adventure. It feels weightless, which is shocking considering the Macguffin everyone is after eliminates all known curses.

Finally, with the series becoming jokier, it’s become more of the Jack Sparrow Show to its overall detriment. Maybe it’s too much of a good thing, or maybe it’s a latent realization that Sparrow was never the main character of the original trilogy, but Depp’s iconic figure has simply lost some of his luster. It feels like Depp is on sashay autopilot. He’s still a charming rogue but it’s become drastically obvious that he needs supporting characters that can stand on their own to serve as foils. He’s a character that leaps off the screen; however, if he’s our only focus, then his act starts to curdle into schtick. There are sequences that only serve to deliver misapplied comedy, like a beachside wedding where Jack is strong-armed into marrying an ugly woman. Jack should not be the lead character but he also still needs to be a character with a sufficient storyline and arc, which has not happened since At World’s End. He’s become the Halloween costume of Captain Jack Sparrow, content to coast on audience good will repeating the same act and delivering the same punchlines. Likewise, the characters supporting Jack Sparrow need their own individually compelling stories and motivations to alleviate some of the pressure.

Fortunately, one of the more noticeable improvements with Pirates 5 is that there are some interesting supporting characters, chiefly Scodelario (The Maze Runner). She could have been a discount version of Keria Knightley, much in the same way that Thwaits (The Giver) is so bland he comes across as a discount Orlando Bloom. While she follows the same feisty, independent-woman-ahead-of-her-time model, she manages to separate with her own identity, a woman who loves science, pushes against authority, and is desperate to discover the whereabouts of her father. Her discovery of her lineage provides the film with an unanticipated degree of emotion. She’s a fun character who can provide a rich, exasperated sense of irony as a learned woman constantly being mistaken for a witch, and then when called upon, she provides the heart of the story with her family drama. Likewise, Barbossa has always been one of the series highlights and in particular the MVP of On Stranger Tides. As he’s waffled between friend and foe, Rush has always found a way to make him worthy of our attention. He gets what I’ll call the Yondo treatment in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (supporting character elevated into force that can legitimately elicit audience emotion). He comes into the film late but he dominates the second half. Pirates 5 also has a superior villain to On Stranger Tides. Javier Bardem (Skyfall) eats up every second as his ghostly captain and his enjoyment is infectious. He’s weird and creepy and just the right kind of crazy to make him even more dangerous.

Also worth noting is a flashback scene that explores the personal connections between Sparrow and Salazar, though Salazar’s back-story is still rather weak even with the mysterious Caribbean volcanic lava pits. The sequence is noticeable for the fact that it employs the de-aging CGI technology on Depp, making him look like a plasticized version of himself circa… Edward Scissorhands? It’s a neat trick and it seems like nobody does the de-aging effect better than Disney at this point (Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, Robert Downey Jr. in Civil War). But then the movie keeps featuring the effect, showcasing it in ill-advised close-ups, and the magic starts to fade and we’re reminded of its fakeness. It’s a moment that inadvertently sums up the later Pirates sequels: a neat trick undone by sloppy repetition and a lack of self-control.

If you’re a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, by all means you’ll find enough to satisfy your appetite with the fifth installment. At this point audience expectations have become entrenched, which is one of the reasons why Jack Sparrow has morphed into a Looney Tunes cartoon rather than a fleshed-out comic character with depths of danger. I don’t regret seeing the latest Pirates film but I would also shed few tears if this were the last time we visit this universe. The recent sequels leave the inescapable impression of listless fan fiction. They’re trying to recapture the magic formula of the original but missing the crucial elements that made a movie about drunken pirates and zombies a zeitgeist-harnessing, culture-defining classic. The sequels have lacked consistently effective clarity, urgency, and characterization to register as anything but generally incomprehensible, vacant, disposable mass entertainment. It’s become product, and maybe that was inevitable for what once felt like something so different and subversive, especially coming from the Mouse House. Age softens all franchises and a safe sense of routine creeps in. They start becoming imitations of themselves and then imitations of the imitations. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a fitfully entertaining venture that saves its best stuff for last, has some solid supporting turns, and decent fantasy-horror visuals. It’s also a reminder of what has been lost and, unless the franchise changes course, will continue to be lost.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Counselor (2013)

counselor-2The magnitude of author Cormac McCarthy’s involvement should not go understated in discussions over The Counselor. The acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author has written modern classics often exploring the darker side of humanity. McCarthy’s first screenplay must have seemed like a hot commodity for all of Hollywood. It attracted director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) and a score of A-list actors. The anticipation was that McCarthy could match the brilliance of his prose. The Counselor, a dreary and lackluster thriller in every conceivable way, proves that McCarthy still has an uphill learning curve when it comes to serviceable screenwriting.

The titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) seems to have a nice life. He’s just proposed to his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and their sex life is vigorous. Then an old client, Reiner (Javier Bardem), invites the Counselor in on a shady drug transportation deal. The allure of easy money is too much for the Counselor to resist. Naturally, things do not go according to plan. A Mexican cartel intercepts the transport truck, bodies pile up, and the stakes get very personal for the Counselor.

Cameron-Diaz-and-Penelope-Cruz-in-The-Counselor-2013-Movie-Image1To be blunt, if McCarthy had submitted this script under a different name, it never would have made its way to the big screen. This is the award-winning author’s first screenplay and it shows. The pacing is shockingly slack, with the film rarely having any sense of life onscreen. I’m not a slave to the standard three-act structure of Hollywood screenwriting, but you need to produce something that keeps pushing the film forward, heading to a finale that seemed inevitable. McCarthy’s script is bogged down with pointless scene after pointless scene, little arias that get away from him, indulging his characters to monologue at length about philosophical nonsense. There are lengthy conversations about diamond shapes, the very nature of existence, and all sorts of Matrix Reloaded-like lingual excesses. These characters talk round and round; it feels like there aren’t even other characters in the room. Their lengthy, pretentious conversations also do little to push the narrative along or reveal essential bits of character. You get to hear one crime kingpin talk about his favorite poet. Great, but what can you say about him beyond the fact that he’s well read? Every character in this movie, from top to bottom, is a vapid space. Some of them have interesting aspects/quirks, like owning cheetahs or masturbating on car windshields, but not one character can be described as interesting. Beyond the terms “ruthless,” “pragmatic,” and “naïve,” I cannot even fathom a way to describe anyone in this film. They don’t even really work as plot devices because that would imply causality. When you couple the void of characterization with ponderous, rambling dialogue, then you’re already sabotaging your entertainment chances.

The plotting is muddled beyond all comprehension. I like to consider myself a pretty sharp moviegoer, but I was left scratching my head far too often. With a paucity of characterization and some idle pacing, I was confused as to what exactly was going on, sometimes even just at a literal level. What was this plan? How do all the players fit in? Why are the betrayers acting as they do? Who works for whom? Why should I be shocked about revealing the identity of a betrayer when it was made all too obvious in a previous scene (note: this is so directly transparent that it cannot count as foreshadowing)? Why does the appearance of a DVD signify finality after a previous phone conversation already did the same thing? And most of all why should I care? Watching this movie is like traveling through a long, impenetrable fog. There are serious, ongoing clarity issues, which make those florid digressions and overall pointless character nattering to be even more maddening. There are well known actors that come in just for single scenes, and then those scenes amount to little to nothing on the overall bearing of the plot. The Counselor doesn’t feel like a fully formed story; it feels like a collection of 30 scenes served as disposable sides for actors during preliminary auditions.

Even worse, for a film about drug deals gone badly, murder, and Cameron Diaz masturbating on a windshield, The Counselor is deathly boring. I grew restless before the halfway mark and just kept hoping beyond all evidence that the film was going to find some direction and pick up the intrigue. It did not. The film’s essential story structure, criminals getting in over their heads and paying a price, is a familiar one. This structure can work to marvelous results both grand (Goodfellas) and small (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead). Hell, even McCarthy’s own novel lead to the brilliant, Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men. Look at how the Coen brothers approach the macho, nihilistic material as opposed to its author. They created a sense of all-consuming dread with efficiency, elegance, and their characteristic macabre sense of humor. Watching The Counselor, it’s like the turgid knockoff of a McCarthy novel. When I got home I felt like I had to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. Tarantino is given to long indulgences of elaborate dialogue as well, but he makes his characters interesting, with personalities that grab you and stand out, and listening to his dialogue is a pleasure unto itself.

McCarthy’s brand of ruthless killing has its peculiar intrigue, but again it only functions as morbidly fascinating little asides. The use of tripwire is given high priority by the killers onscreen, decapitating a speeding motorcyclist and cutting into the jugular with another character. It’s a strange, harrowing, and gruesome manner of death, but is it at all practical? I know I’m treading dangerous waters bringing the concept of reality to a murky film, but what killer decides to set up a wire approximately neck high across a road? It seems likely that another car would travel that same road in the hours of buildup. It also seems highly lucky to adjust the wire to the exact height to cut into the neck. I’m no professional killer but it seems like a lot of setup and guesswork. I have to imagine there are far easier ways to kill a speeding cyclist or a man walking along the street. Attention professional hit men of the movies: stop making your job more difficult than it has to be. Nobody is awarding you a ribbon for Most Inventive Kill.

new-images-arrive-online-for-the-counselor-141250-a-1374829476-470-75There are plenty of pretty faces in this movie, genuine acting talent, and to strand them with precious little characterization is an outrage. Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) is a little too sly to play naïve, and his later actions lack a necessary sense of desperation to sell his emotional plummet. Cruz (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is so effortlessly sensual but is put on the sidelines early and stuck in the damsel-in-distress box. Brad Pitt (World War Z) is the slick snake charmer we’ve seen plenty of times before. But the worst lot goes to Diaz (Bad Teacher). She’s supposed to be mysterious and threatening as Reiner’s sexually adventurous girlfriend but Diaz plays things so stone-faced serious. This poor woman is given the most unerotic, bizarre sex scene in modern history to enact, and I don’t know whether to applaud or pity her. Sure she gets to uncork some meaty monologues about Malkina’s trenchant world perspective, but this is the movie that will be defined by Diaz humping a windshield. At least the movie plays this out somewhat realistically, with Reiner more horrified than aroused. What did that outrageous scene add up to? Also, Penelope Cruz plays a “Laura” and Cameron Diaz a “Malkina”?

I know it’s a petty thing but it really irritated me how often people refer to Fassbender’s character as “Counselor.” The end credits do reveal this to be his name. If you thought it got irksome hearing Leonardo DiCaprio say “ole sport” after every other sentence in The Great Gatsby, then enjoy the repetitive declaration of Fassbender’s lone job title. “What do you think, Counselor? I don’t know, Counselor. I’d think things over, Counselor.” Do people really refer to somebody by this title as their name, and so frequently? He also doesn’t seem to be a competent lawyer at all.

The Counselor is such an unforgivably boring slog, languid and rudderless when it should be thrilling and complex. The characters are nonexistent, the plotting is muddled and confusing, the dialogue often laborious and roundabout, and the overall film is too meandering to properly engage an audience. Even talented people can produce bad movies, and here is further proof. With this cast, with this crew, there is no excuse for The Counselor to be overwhelmingly stilted and tedious. I cannot fathom what attracted the talent to this film beyond the cache of working on “Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay.” If the results of The Counselor are any indication, I don’t know if we’ll be seeing too many McCarthy screenplays in the future, or at least McCarthy scripts that haven’t been vetted by other writers who better understand the contours of the medium. His florid arias and abstract, directionless plotting can be forgiven on the page but not on the screen. Scott doesn’t help matters, taking great care to film the luxury of the lifestyles on screen. What we’re left with is a tepid movie about bad people meeting bad ends, with little entry for an audience to care or even find entertainment. The art direction is given more care than the characters. In the weeks leading up to its release, The Counselor adopted a tagline from a quote by Laura: “Have you been bad?” It was turned into the Twitter hashtag promoting the film. Well, Counselor, you’ve been very bad.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Skyfall (2012)

The James Bond franchise, one of the most enduring of all time, has been open to criticism since it came back in a big way with 2006’s Casino Royale. Fans have started to whine that the Bond movies are no longer the Bond they remember, and they’re probably right. In 2006, the producers decided to go back, reboot the series, and introduce a more grounded Bond, a man with more demons than quips. This backlash to a successful reboot seems so funny to me, especially considering the dubious nature of these older Bond movies. Can we all just take a moment and objectively admit that half of the Bond movies are absolutely awful? Skyfall is the third in the new Daniel Craig Bond era, and it’s received universally ecstatic reviews. It’s a fine work, surprising and satisfying in equal measure, but it’s no Casino Royale for me, but what can be?

James Bond (Craig) is recovering from a serious injury after a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), accidentally shoots Agent 007. In her defense, he was atop a speeding train battling a baddie and her boss, M (Judi Dench), ordered her to fire. In the weeks that follow, Bond is struggling to adapt. He’s lost a step physically and now has to deal with his own doubts. Naturally, this isn’t the most opportune time for crises of faith. MI6 is under attack by one of their own, a former agent turned powerful techno-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem). The man has a serious grudge against M and is exposing MI6 undercover agents to punish her. After an attack at MI6 HQ, the agency is left scrambling and sends Bond out to nab Silva, even if Bond isn’t physically ready to return to field duty. Silva is determined to kill M and destroy the agency that left him for dead.

While Skyfall is indeed a good Bond movie and worlds better than 2008’s Quantum of Solace, it still cannot meet the rapturous applause it’s receiving among critical circles. It starts off strong with a nifty action sequence in Istanbul (the go-to action setting for 2012). Bond is chasing a bad guy, and we go from foot chase to car chase to rumbling on top of a speeding train. And there are natural complications that take advantage of geography! When Bond hops on the train, he climbs into a construction crane to fight back, smashing open the back of the train car. It’s a terrific opener that gets things starts briskly, and the sexual chemistry between Craig and Harris (28 Days Later) is palpable. Then the movie pretty much deflates in the second half. There’s a build-up to the villain and his master plot, but once that plot is revealed the film can’t live up to the hype. There are enough plot elements that feel important but eventually get discarded. Here’s a minor example: Bond is given a handgun programmed to his palm print, so it will only fire with Bond wielding it. It’s the only gadget in the movie, so you’d expect it to be utilized in a significant way. One nameless thug uses it then gets eaten by a Komodo dragon. That is it. Seems like an awful waste of funds for it to be thrown away so casually.

The last act has a protracted finale in Scotland, exploring Bond’s ancestral home and his tragic backstory. I’d like to think the insights we’re offered are important but I don’t believe they are. Bond was an orphan (the best recruits, says M) and Albert Finney (Big Fish) was his quasi-father figure/caretaker. It’s not enough to compensate for the slack pacing and encroaching boredom present. The good guys are holed up in an estate, waiting. And that’s what you want in a Bond movie, let alone any action film, for the heroes to sit and wait. An action movie should be building to a climax of intensity, thematically as well as plot-wise. Skyfall is that rare Bond film that flirts with coming undone; each passing action sequence seems less interesting than the one before.

With Mendes directing and Roger Deakens, the greatest working cinematographer, at his disposal, this has to be the best looking Bond movie. The shot compositions are often stunning, making fine use of the visual space and the balance of light and shadow. There are even some shots that might remind you of Mendes previous films like American Beauty or Road to Perdition. Added with some above average action, it makes the thrills an even better sight. There was a fight sequence in a Chinese high-rise almost completely in unbroken silhouette, with the neon tentacles of advertisements dancing in the background. It’s a wonderful image. Even when the movie was losing me at points, I could at least admire the visuals. I was worried that Mendes would not have a deft feel for action. After all, another indie director mostly known for dramatic work, Marc Foster, helmed Solace. That selection did not work out so well, though the script was notably weak. Mendes, on the other hand, can stage some pretty exciting action sequences with judicious editing, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. He’s not exactly a knockout when it comes to constructing action sequences, but the results are more than adequate for a guy whose last two movies were Away We Go and Revolutionary Road.

For the previous Craig entries, it feels like the movies have borrowed more from Jason Bourne than Bond. They’ve gone for a grittier, darker, more realistic portrayal. Skyfall takes a very interesting angle with the character, showing a Bond coming to terms with his physical limitations. It’s a Bond that has to confront his most nefarious foe: aging. Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells the agent that the whole spy business is “a young man’s game.” In the old days, you needed men with lairs in volcanoes and giant doomsday lasers. Now you can send the world into irreversible chaos with a laptop. Skyfall is at its most engaging when it confronts the old world of spies and the scary new world of technology. Can the Queen and MI6 compete or will they be left behind? Bond and his organization must confront their limitations and mortality, and this added dimension of vulnerability makes the series far more emotionally resonant.

Here’s my main problem with the villain: it’s a bait and switch affair that leads to unfulfilled potential. Silva has been spoken of with such awe, a man who could bring governments to their knees with the click of a button. He’s made out to be this dangerous cyber-terrorist genius. So what happens for the second half of the movie? He chases people around and shoots guns. It’s like Skyfall completely forgets what made their villain special. Bardem gives a flamboyant performance with an extra dash of actorly nuttiness, but it’s nowhere near the memorable menace of 2007’s No Country for Old Men. That’s an unfair comparison, I know, but where the movie really starts losing it is when Silva loses it. He becomes just another garden variety psychopath, though one with a creepy oedipal complex. Psychopaths do not work in the James Bond universe. Agent 007 needs a foil that is smart, not crazy and a mad genius rather than mad. I recognize that Silva’s psychological shambles is meant to be a sign of the potential fate of all agents, let alone agents that are given up by M. That doesn’t mean you abandon all the traits that make the villain who he is. The problem with Silva, despite a rather jarring monologue about the effects of surviving a cyanide capsule, peaks with his first appearance. He has a grand entrance and places Bond in a very precarious position, forcing him to confront his physical failures. That’s the villain I want to see. And the awkward handsiness of Silva will also lead many to question whether he’s gay, which wouldn’t matter if the movie wasn’t so clunky.

It also feels like Skyfall may be the conclusion to this incarnation of Bond. I know Craig has been signed for two more films, and that’s great news as he’s fully made the character his own at this point, but the movie seems to setup the Bond we’re better acquainted with. We started from scratch with Casino Royale and now the familiar world, with the reemergence of familiar characters, is coming into focus. The scenes with the new Q (Ben Wishaw), a gangly whiz kid, are enjoyable and they contribute thematically to the old vs. new/age vs. youth conflict at heart. This feels like a transition film, meant to pass from the bruising realism into the polished pyrotechnics of the franchise’s past. There’s a reason the famous gun barrel shot happens to conclude the movie, because by the end of those 142 minutes, it now feels like the formation of James Bond has completed. There are also plenty of in-jokes and references for Bond aficionados to lap up. Even the (lackluster) title song by Adele is in the vein of the old Shirley Bassey numbers.

While not living up to the exultant hype machine, Skyfall is certainly a good Bond movie, though not nearly good enough to be in the conversation of the best. The action starts strong but is prone to diminishing returns especially as the movie transforms into a more ordinary action thriller. The most memorable sequence is in the opening, which isn’t a very good sign for the rest of the movie. It’s still a suitable action movie, and one that pays closer attention at character for a character that’s lived for 50 years in various film incarnations, but just because it pays more attention to character doesn’t mean it does it well. Perhaps I’ve just become spoiled after the artistic and commercial heights of Casino Royale. This is still an entertaining movie that often looks great and has some great actors doing suitable work. We’re still far and away from the loonier Pierce Brosnan episodes, so there is that. I imagine audiences will be more favorable than I am and make Skyfall the most successful James Bond film in history. That’s fine because it feels like, with everything established, that we’re about to hit a new and exciting phase with Craig’s version of the character, and that will leave me shaken and stirred.

Nate’s Grade: B

Eat Pray Love (2010)

Eat Pray Love is based on the best-selling memoir about Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts), a woman in her 40s trying to recover from personal setbacks. She’s divorcing her husband and she’s generally unfulfilled with her life. It seems to be missing meaning. Her solution is to set off on a journey to Italy, India, and Bali in order to rediscover who she is and what is missing in her privileged life.

Granted I am not in the target demo for this movie’s audience, but I found the main character to be rather hard to relate with. The film opens with her deciding to end her marriage to Billy Crudup (Watchmen). So far I’m okay. The dissolution of a marriage, especially when you’re older, is a prime starting point to reevaluate your life now that you’re on your own and, frankly, terrified by that prospect. But then the movie presents Gilbert as a rather self-involved and almost callous individual. Her husband is devastated, but she’s only tear-eyed one night as she prays to God why she’s in her marriage. Then we get a scene where the couple meets to talk about their impending divorce. Crudup wants to talk and work on fixing whatever problems exist. Gilbert won’t even do that. She is bailing. Her refusal to even try to fix her marriage, in the face of her husband who is willing to choose his wife over everything in the world, is a perplexing filmmaking decision. Gilbert seems shallow. The movie throws out some half-hearted excuse, saying her husband is wishy-washy about his career, but it’s a smokescreen. Why even leave this stuff in there if we’re just going to dislike Gilbert? That’s like including an opening scene in Schindler’s List where Schindler beats a child to death. A hyperbolic example, yes, but proof that it’s a terrible idea to have an early scene kill audience sympathy for your main character.

And so Gilbert goes about on her globetrotting voyage of self-discovery, chiefly to fulfill her health, spirit, and heart. Except the movie seems to get worse with every stop on the map. The overly long beginning in New York shows that our flighty main character shacks up with a hunky theater actor (James Franco), and then even there agonizes over how unhappy she is with this new guy. She needs to learn to love herself before anybody else, she says. Not to sound sexist, but I think many women wouldn’t have problems being in relationships with Crudup and Franco (edit: written before revelations of Franco and sexual harassment surfaced). Now people can find unhappiness in all stripes, especially with beautiful people, but Gilbert is packing up a lot of self-absorption before she ever leaves New York City. In Italy, she finds freedom in losing herself to food. She feasts on fine Italian cuisine and doesn’t obsess over her weight gain. In fact, she and a buddy treat shopping for larger sized jeans as a joyous celebration. I?m pleased that people can become more comfortable with their bodies, but Roberts celebrating gaining 10 pounds and not caring may rub some core audience members the wrong way. However, this Italy section focuses on food and fellowship, and Gilbert learns the language, enjoys the company of a group of locals, and cooks a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her new friends. This is easily the most likeable Gilbert will be in the film.

First off, a film about a character finding personal discovery and self-awareness is going to be hard to pull off. Internal journeys of self-actualization and enlightenment don’t necessarily scream great movies, a medium of images and movement. For this to work you need a good story and a character worth rooting for, somebody who the audience can empathize with and cheer on the arduous path to personal grace. Elizabeth Gilbert is not that character. The other two segments in India and Bali are a true test of patience. Watching Roberts sway around, chant to herself, and look forlorn waiting for enlightenment to come is not the best use of 40 minutes. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) gives the film’s best performance in the most tedious segment, which kind of reignites the “tree falling in a forest” scenario. When Indians have spiritual crises do they travel to New York? The end feels even more leisurely paced and I found myself nodding off here and there. The movie was failing to keep my attention short of some lovely scenery.

Director Ryan Murphy, co-creator of TV’s Glee, knows that his audience wants beautiful countryside, beautiful food, beautiful men, and Julia Roberts smiling. To that end, Eat Pray Love is a success. Murphy seems to enjoy filming the food sequences the most. The food is portrayed like a glamour reel. It’s easy to feel the rumbles of hunger while watching this movie, and my wife and I came directly from dinner when we saw the film. Pizza from Naples looks divine. But Murphy also serves as co-writer, along with Jennifer Salt, so he should have known better about the plot deficiencies that keep the audience at a distance from embracing Gilbert. The actors all seem to be having a good time, and why wouldn’t they? Visiting exotic places and stuffing their faces with local delicacies? It feels like I’m watching someone else’s boring vacation videos that go on for 135 laborious minutes.

Eat Pray Love seems to be missing something, namely the soul of its journey. By design, so much of this existential crisis is internal, which is where the book can fill in all the clarifying and illuminating details to make this feel like a full story. As a movie, it just doesn’t work on screen no matter how powerful Roberts smiles. The main character is hard to relate to and even harder to sympathize with as she becomes swallowed up in her self-absorption. How many people can solve a midlife breakdown by flying across the world for over a year? How did Gilbert afford this? I’ll tell you how. Gilbert pitched the idea to a publisher and then used the advance to pay for her yearlong trek of dining and self-discovery. She was banking on her travels solving her personal woes before she ever left the country. That makes me question some of the Gilbert’s motives. It makes me doubt how genuine this whole journey really was, considering she sold the ending before she ever reached her catharsis. Maybe the title should have been Eat Pray Cash Check.

Nate’s Grade: C

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Joel and Ethan Coen are two of cinema’s most talented oddballs. Together, they’ve created some of the most intricate, eclectic, and best movies of the last 25 years. Their last two efforts, 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s remake of The Ladykillers, didn’t feel like Coen movies; they felt like they were compromised and missed the artistically deft touch. As a result, both movies were mild failures for filmmakers that have a series of genre-spanning masterpieces to their name. No Country for Old Men is the first time the brothers have adapted someone else’s work, in this instance Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel. Not too shabby if I say so. Fortunately for all lovers of film, the Coens have embraced McCarthy’s blood-soaked tale and crafted an exciting, honest, and intensely provocative modern Western that stands out as one of the greatest films of the year.

In dusty West Texas, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting the lonely plains when he discovers a blood trail. It leads him to four empty cars riddled with bullet holes, dead bodies collecting flies, and a sack containing two million dollars in cash. The signs are all there that this was a drug deal gone badly, and two million will never go unnoticed, but Moss sees this as an opportunity of a lifetime and takes the money. The men in power have hired Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to find their drugs and money and exact retribution. Chigurh’s preferred method of killing involves a high-pressured air canister that can blow out doorknobs and human brains. Chigurh chases after Moss all the while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is following the trail of death to try and save Moss or any future innocent victims.

What a fine-tuned, nerve-wracking, and engrossing cat-and-mouse thriller this film is. The action is brief but the buildup can be nearly unbearable to endure. The tension is magnificent. Chigurh chases Moss from hideout to hideout and some of the tensest moments are just waiting. There’s a moment where Moss is calling the front desk of his newest motel and we hear the phone ringing unanswered again and again from the hall, all the while Chigurh’s footsteps inch closer. But it’s the moments of silence that cause the most dread. When Moss is trying to recover his loot, all the while Chigurh is in the opposite motel room, it becomes a balancing act of sound and silence. No Country for Old Men is expertly orchestrated to involve the use of sound as a tool for high suspense. None of our main three characters inhabit a scene together. Sure Moss and Chigurh shoot at one another but even then it’s short and focused on waiting for response and counter response. Moss is no dummy and he sets up some traps for his would-be dispatcher. No Country for Old Men is unnerving, intelligent, near flawless entertainment.

Chigurh, as masterfully played by Bardem, is the stuff of nightmares. I was literally afraid to go home after seeing this movie and it is because No Country for Old Men fashions a villain so methodical, so cold-blooded, and so downright deadly and cunning that I felt as if he could very well be residing under my bed at night waiting. Bardem is hypnotically horrifying and the Coen brothers establish early on how ruthless their cinematic boogeyman is. The very first moment we’re introduced to Chigurh he escapes from police custody and strangles the inattentive officer on duty. He drags him to the floor and chokes the life out of him, but the Coens position the camera not on the last desperate kicks of the officer but on the face of Anton Chigurh, and it is nasty. His eyes are bugged out and his intensity comes across as sadistically jubilant. He seems like a caged animal finally let loose. It’s a scary yet fascinating introduction to a deadly character.

Chigurh is a humorless and determined man, and every scene he steps into instantly changes. A gas attendant casually asks Chigurh about the weather and gets on his bad side and the stone-faced killer in the Dutch boy haircut proceeds to press the poor man with increasing agitation, yet Chigurh always speaks in such a placid tone that makes him far creepier. He’s a maniac that never raises his voice. Chigurh then corrals the man into one of his signatures, having a victim decide their fate by the flip of a coin. Before the man can say anything the coin is flipped, Chigurh intones to “call it,” and the man nervously repeats that he needs to know what he’s at stake to win. “Everything,” Chigurh responds. This scene starts off so innocuous but becomes monumentally unsettling thanks to the rising dread and Bardem’s deeply committed portrayal. Bardem is alarming, ferocious, grimly efficient, mesmerizing, and deserves an Oscar win, not just a mere nomination, for what is his finest performance to date.

There are many ways to describe Chigurh, but it seems most appropriate to speak of him as nothing short but the full-tilt vengeance of God. He’s a hired killer, yes, but that doesn’t stop him from killing indiscriminately. He murders several innocent victims, he murders his competition sent out to nab Moss just because it insults him, and even after the money no longer becomes a concern, Chigurh still plans to continue his wrath out of sheer moral principle. He made a promise of swooping vengeance and he will stick to it. This means that anyone could die at any moment while onscreen with Chigurh, and No Country for Old Men has plenty of surprises as it toys around with our baited anticipation. When Chigurh gets the drop on his competition he doesn’t shoot the man immediately; instead the scene plays out for an agonizing length even after we listen to the room phone ring several times, and then blam! Chigurh answers the phone and casually raises his boots so the pooling blood doesn’t touch his feet. This is the most memorable incarnation of soulless evil I have seen in the movies since Hannibal Lector came to iconic form in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs.

Brolin is having quite a career year for himself after compelling turns in American Gangster (where he also shoots a dog), In the Valley of Elah, and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror half of Grindhouse. Brolin gives the audience a figure to root for even though he never actually displays true heroism, just survival instincts. Jones serves as a wise and guiding father figure that feels out of place in a world that is becoming increasingly, shockingly violent. It’s a role that Jones has performed before but it’s a role that fits the actor exceptionally well. Woody Harrelson pops up as a charming and laid back handler trying to convince Moss to give up before things get worse. Kelly Macdonald, as Moss’ wife, cuts through the darkness in a refreshing performance.

The technical craftsmanship is on par with previous Coen excellence. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is exquisite, Carter Burwell’s score barely makes its presence felt, and the editing is tight and focused. The sound design, which I’ve already discussed in detail, deserves an Oscar. This being a Coen brothers’ film, it wouldn’t be complete without some dark humor to punctuate the bleakness. They have a perfect ear for local vernacular and Texas shorthand, so the dialogue feels sharp but realistically twangy without being condescending as some had accused Fargo (I do not agree with this accusation).

What works in the favor of No Country for Old Men may perhaps be its undoing for a mainstream audience. The film works against conventions and this provides for some stellar surprises and upheavals, none of which is bigger than killing a certain character off-screen. No Country for Old Men definitely seems like it’s laying stage for a climactic showdown and then one key figure has been bumped off by a group of ancillary characters that have little overall bearing over the plot (I have read that the same gap happens in McCarthy’s novel). If this doesn’t perturb audiences then the final 10 minutes ought to do it. There’s no sense of closure for the movie and this will frustrate many, but it all fits rather nicely with the movie’s highly nihilistic tone. Like Chigurh’s coin, the film focuses much on the randomness and cruelty of fate. By sticking to this ethic, the Coen bothers are eschewing the traditional Hollywood rulebook and playing around with our expectations for characters and plot. The outlook isn’t too sunny for many involved. It works and demands an audience remain on edge for fear that anything could happen at any moment. However, don’t say I didn’t warn you if you walk out of No Country for Old Men and say, “What was that all about?”

No Country for Old Men is exactly the kind of material the Coen brothers needed to return to form. This is a lean and stirring thriller that plays to their strengths and echoes some of their most riveting and twisty work, like Blood Simple and Fargo. In many ways the film feels like a Western, a high-stakes drama, and a tragedy that takes its time to unravel. It may have taken some time but the Coen brothers are back, baby, and No Country for Old Men is fit to stand beside their hallowed pedigree of cinematic classics.

Nate’s Grade: A

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