It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.
In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.
There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.
The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.
The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.
This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.
And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I’ve written before that director Matthew Vaughn is the best big screen filmmaker when it comes to making the most of studio money. This is the man who made Daniel Craig Bond, rejuvenated the dormant X-Men franchise, and gifted Fox a twenty-first century James Bond of its own. The first Kingsman movie was one of the best films of 2015 and was bursting with attitude, style, and perverse entertainment. It was my favorite James Bond movie that was never a Bond movie. Success demanded a sequel, and now Kingsman: The Golden Circle is upon us and proof that Vaughn may be mortal after all.
Eggsy (Taron Eagleton) is living a charmed life now that he’s earned his place within the ultra-secret, ultra-powerful Kingsman spy organization. In between battling villains and the riffraff, Eggsy tries to maintain some semblance of a normal life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), who, yeah, happens to be the princess of Sweden. Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug baron in the vein of Martha Stewart. She’s tired of lurking in seclusion in the jungles of Cambodia and wants the credit she deserves as the most successful businesswoman. She locates the homes of the remaining Kingsman and blows them up, leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong). Poppy takes aim at the war on drugs. She infects her own product with a deadly agent and holds the world hostage. Unless global leaders decriminalize drugs, millions of infected people will die. In the meantime, Eggsy and Merlin travel to Kentucky to seek out help from their American brethren, the Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry), a clandestine spy organization that also doubles as a gargantuan bourbon distillery.
With Vaughn back at the helm I expected the best, and while Kingsman: The Golden Circle has plenty to like there is noticeably less to love. Being a sequel means that what once felt fresh will now lose some measure of its appeal and charm, and Vaughn and company do falter at times under the pressure to live up to what they established with their rip-roaring spy caper of an original. The brilliant structure of the first movie (mentorship, spy camp competition, class conflict themes) cannot be readily duplicated. There are interesting story elements here but Golden Circle doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, including with the titular Golden Circle. The villains never really feel that threatening. Poppy’s scheme is great and the 1950s diner iconography of her home is an eye-catching lair worthy of a demented Bond villain. It’s just that it feels like we never get a villain worthy of their wicked scheme. Where did she get all of this tech? Her henchmen are lackluster and a lackey with a cybernetic arm (Edward Holcroft) is no competition for Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) and her slashing blade legs. When the bad guys don’t feel like much of a challenge, it deflates the stakes and enjoyment factor of the big finale. It’s a series of ideas that need to be pushed further, refined, revised, and better developed. The first film was packed with surprises and payoffs both big and small, and the sequel feels lacking in payoffs of any kind.
The Statesmen are more a pit stop than integral plot element. You would think a majority of the film would be the international clash between Yanks and Brits, supplying some of that class friction that energized the first film. With the exception of Pedro Pascal (Narcos), you could eliminate them from the movie with minimal damage to the story. Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) has gotten large placement in the advertisement but he is literally put on ice for a majority of the movie. The exaggerated cartoon nature of the Statesmen feels like Vaughn’s goof on American hyper machismo, but they stay at that same cartoon level throughout. They feel like parody figures, and Vaughn sidelines their involvement. The spy missions are a letdown. There’s an enemy compound atop a mountain in Italy, and all they do is walk inside, immediately grab the thing they need, and immediately run away. It all adds up to a two-hour-plus movie that’s still consistently enjoyable but also consistently unmemorable.
There are things in The Golden Circle that feel like they’re here just because of fan response rather than narrative necessity. The biggest offender is the return of Harry (Colin Firth). He served his purpose bringing Eggsy into the clandestine yet dapper world of the Kingsman, modeling as a father figure, and dying to push our protagonist onward. Bringing him back to life doesn’t serve the story except to bring back a character we genuinely liked. In this sequel, his return and subsequent amnesia doesn’t force Eggsy to retrain his former mentor. Instead he’s mostly a tag-along as another character to shoot the bad guys. Harry simply shouldn’t be here, and resurrecting him takes away from the shock of his death and the weight of his loss. They even recreate the “manners maketh man” bar fight, except the inclusion is so contrived that I thought it was all some kind of Statesman plan to ease Harry back into fighting shape. Nope. Another aspect that feels forced is Eggsy’s relationship with the princess of Sweden. This feels like an apology for the crass joke from the first movie that upset people’s delicate sensibilities (apparently this was worse than a montage of people’s heads exploding). The relationship feels forced and every time the movie cuts back to his troubles with Tilde, they feel small and annoying. It’s like Vaughn is trying to salvage a risqué joke by turning them into a committed couple. Then again the “mucus membrane” moment in Golden Circle (you’ll know it when you see it) seems like a renewed attempt at being transgressive.
The action set pieces have their moments but like everything else there are few that stand out or will stand the test of time. The film starts off strong with a brutal fistfight inside a speeding car. Even with the cramped quarters, it feels easy to follow, creatively inventive, and exciting. As the fight continues, the sequence loses its creative verve and becomes indistinguishable from any other silly Bond car chase. The big finale where the remaining Kingsman storm Poppy’s jungle compound has some cool moments, like Eggsy taking cover behind a giant rolling donut. Regrettably, the action sequences lack the snap and imagination that have defined Vaughn’s films, proving to be yet another underdeveloped aspect. The hand-to-hand fight choreography is still strong and stylish. The final fight between Eggsy and the metallically armed henchman has the fluidity, vision, and fun that were missing from the other scuffles. I’ll credit Vaughn with finding ways to make a lasso and whip look badass and integrating it elegantly with fight choreography (no easy task, right, season five of Game of Thrones?). I kept patiently waiting for any sequence that grabbed my attention like the insane church massacre.
There are two elements in The Golden Circle that rise to the level of entertainment of the first film, and one of those is literally Elton John. It starts off as a cameo with John being kidnapped and forced to perform for Poppy’s private audience. Then he just keeps appearing. He passes over from cameo to downright supporting actor, and just when you think you’ve had enough and that Vaughn has overindulged his Elton John fandom, here comes a climactic solution that is inspired and completely justifies the repeated John appearances. I howled with laughter and wanted to clap in appreciation. It was the best setup-payoff combo in the entire film. The other creative highpoint is a treacherous left turn into the politics of the war on drugs. Poppy argues how legal consumables like alcohol and sugar are far more deadly and addictive. I’ve heard all those arguments before about the hypocritical nature of the war on drugs from every armchair philosopher. Where the film really surprised me was when it gave voice to a nasty perspective I’ve heard in response to the rising opioid crisis in America. Some view drug addicts more as criminals needing to be punished rather than victims needing a helping hand and treatment. When Poppy makes her demands, there are government representatives that openly cheer her ploy, believing they can wipe out the junkie scum. This unsympathetic yet eerily resonant response felt like Vaughn and company finding organic ways to raise the stakes and bring in more sinister forces.
The movie never addresses one holdover from the original Kingsman that I think deserves at least a passing mention, and that’s the fact that every government leader or head of state in Western democracy had their head explode. That kind of public service vacuum would sow plenty of chaos and controversy, especially when people discovered that their elected leaders were complicit with the plan to kill the world’s remaining population. I feel like this was such a huge event that it at least deserves a cursory mention of some sort.
With the glut of disappointing and alternatively maddening action cinema this year, I’ll still gladly take Vaughn’s reheated leftovers. Kingsman: The Golden Circle feels like it’s succumbing to the bombastic spy hijinks it was satirizing before, losing some semblance of its identity and wit to crank out an acceptable though unmemorable sequel. It lacks the sense of danger and genre reinvention that powered the first film. Vaughn’s signature style is still present and there are fun and intriguing story elements available; however, the development is what’s missing. The cool stuff is there but Golden Circle just doesn’t know what to do with it, and so we gallop to the finale feeling a mild dissatisfaction. Apparently the studio execs at Fox want Vaughn to get started on a third Kingsman as soon as possible. I just hope he hasn’t lost his interest in the franchise he birthed. It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Only Living Boy in New York may have made me hate New York. I was rolling my eyes at about every moment of this movie, not just because it wads cliché, not just because it confused the cliché with transcendent and relatable commentary, not just because the characters were aggressively loathsome and inauthentic, and not because it appears to be someone’s idea of Graduate Lite (though, yes, these are all contributing factors). It’s because the movie takes the easy way out at every route and wants to be congratulated for its artistic integrity.
Thomas (Callum Turner) is a twenty-something who feels that New York City has lost what made it special. He’s drifting through life, thinking about becoming a writer, and also trying to romance his best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). His mother (Cynthia Nixon) self-medicates via dinner parties. His father (Pierce Brosnan) has a different approach, namely sleeping with another woman, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). Thomas follows Johanna and makes his presence known to her. He convinces himself he’s falling in love with her and impulsively chases her as a romantic option as well.
I think the movie wants me to be charmed by its male lead, the young protagonist that looks like a lanky Richard Gere. This twerp made me so angry and he pretty much embodied a creepy blend of entitlement. He’s tired of being in the friend zone with Mimi, but he keeps pushing, sneaking unauthorized kisses, and trying to wear down her defenses after she’s told him no. She’s annoyed that her friendship is by itself not good enough for him, and even though they had one “magic night,” that he won’t accept her repeated stances about not wanting to be together romantically. But what’s a woman’s ability to choose matter to Thomas, who we’re constantly told from every other character in this stupid movie, is clever, bright, good, virtuous, and a prized talent in the making. The movie never shows you these things, never provides evidence of his talents or even his virtues, and so it becomes another series of empty gestures. He’s just so captivating that all the women of New York can’t help themselves around him. This wouldn’t feel so tone deaf and backwards if the film did a better job of making Thomas feel like a living, breathing human being rather than some misguided, coming-of-age hipster creep.
The premise here has promise, a wayward son who ends up having an affair with his father’s mistress. That could work and devise plenty of palpable dramatic tension. Except because we never get to know Thomas beyond a superficial level, the affair only feels like another conquest of entitlement. Even a more interesting subtext, punishing his father for putting their family dynamic at risk, is only kept at a distance. What does Thomas learn about himself, his father, Johanna, or the world through his affair? If you cannot come up with a good answer then that means your plot point is lacking substance. Perhaps they just like the danger or the attention of one another, and yes Beckinsale (pick an Underworld movie) is an attractive woman so that’s a plus for a horny young lad. Most frustratingly, nothing seems to be pressed by this affair. It pushes some eventual third act confrontations but Thomas and Johanna’s tryst, for lack of a better term, just kind of lies there. It doesn’t do much, which is strange considering what it involves. It feels like its real purpose is to engineer jealousy from Mimi, which is gross. Johanna is never more than another trophy for the most blithe boy in New York.
The drama is pitched to a level that feels like it dances into self-parody, except it plays everything so unrelentingly serious. The narration begins by calling out life moments pulled from movie watching, but then it presents these very moments without any ounce of satire. We open with a New York dinner party where the attendees lament how the city has lost its soul (“The only soul left is Soul Cycle,” someone says like the worst 1980s stand-up comedian). Oh no, CBGB’s closed down. Oh no, there are Starbucks on multiple corners. Oh no, a city of ten million plus people is now only a commercialized hell, worry the rich elites from their ivory towers and their faulty memories of New York City being more pure when it was older. Not one character feels like an actual human being in this screenplay by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty). This is the kind of elitist, out-of-touch, artificial, self-involved characterization of New Yorkers that hacky conservative writers like to cling to when criticizing their big city targets.
The actors do relatively fine work with what they’re given, though special mention to Brosnan who tries his hardest to imbue notes of complexity in a character that, for 90 percent of the movie, is set up as a snide and disapproving patriarch. I don’t want to give up on Turner (Assassin’s Creed) as an actor because the part did him no favors. Mostly I just felt sorry for them. Cynthia Nixon deserves better. The charming Kiersey Clemons (Dope) deserves better. Jeff Bridges is an executive producer, so he deserves what he gets as an alcoholic author/mentor with an out-of-nowhere ending that feels pulled from a soap opera. These characters are powerfully boring, shallow, and unappealing.
At only 88 minutes long, The Only Living Boy in New York still feels punishing in length, protracted, and not worth the overall effort. Even the title makes me irritable. It’s a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song that you better believe will get played, one more desperate attempt to glom onto the legacy of The Graduate. The title refers to Thomas, our entitled hipster of a lead, but does that mean that he’s the only one who really feels things, man, because the rest of us are just dead to the world, living our lives, and this hip young man just sees through all the nonsense of the day-to-day and, man, if only we could give him the platform he so rightly deserves then we’d all be better off. I wanted the cameraman to abandon the film and run a few corners and join a new set (it’s New York City, so by the law of averages, there has to be another film shoot a few blocks away). The Only Living Boy in New York is insufferable, haughty, pretentious, privileged navel-gazing masquerading as deep thought; it is smug New York hipster twaddle.
Nate’s Grade: D+
In 1982, TRON was a movie ahead of its time. It took place in a world inside the world of computers, which couldn’t have been that advanced back then. But “ahead of its time” and good are not the same things. Arguable one of the most influential science-fiction films in terms of design and CGI, the original TRON was a financial dud for its film studio. All this makes it so curious why Disney would spend upwards of $200 million dollars on a fancy, shiny, big-budget sequel to a movie people didn’t really give a damn about before. TRON: Legacy looks to capitalize on a generation of geek nostalgia. At least it doesn’t fare as poorly as the Star Wars prequels.
Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is 27 years old and the lead shareholder of Encom ever since his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), mysteriously disappeared in 1989. Kevin had found a way inside the world of computers, which he called The Grid. He studied it and based his company’s arcade games on what he found. Then after saying he was going to break the world of gaming wide open, he vanished. Then in 2010, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, a sight for sore eyes) visits Sam with a message. He got a page from a number that’s been disconnected for over 20 years. Sam ventures into his father’s old arcade/workstation and gets zapped inside the world of computers. Now he’s amidst all those racing light motorcycles and flying disc battles. The slinky program Qorra (Oliva Wilde) rescues Sam from the gladiatorial battles. Inside this realm, the Grid is run by Clu (CGI Bridges), a digital doppelganger of Kevin Flynn. Sam is reunited with his dear old dad and together they try to escape this digital prison and stop Clu.
Never have I felt more like an old man than after watching TRON: Legacy. All the special effects dazzled, but after a while it felt relatively empty and insubstantial. But what did all those gleamy flashes of light and snazzy 3-D effects do, ultimately? Distract from the void of a story. I consider myself a fairly intelligent individual, able to follow complicated narratives and appreciate complex storytelling. And yet, when the lights came back up in my theater, I turned to my wife and said, “There is a lot that I never understood.” The setup is relatively painless, but where the movie grinds to a deadly halt is for an exposition-heavy 20 minutes in the middle after our second big action sequence. When father and son are reunited they get to talking, and talking, and talking some more about God knows what. I think my brain shut off from all the stilted dialogue. Every character seems to stop and unload a pile of exposition. Even though the characters seem to explain so often, you always feel like you’re still missing something important. You still feel left out. But after this dreadful slog, suddenly there’s Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) to save me from my stupor exactly like he did at the end of the turgid Twilight film, New Moon. He brought me back to life, but after his campy, cane-guitar rockin’ sequence of battle, I was trying to get caught up on the parameters of plot and setting. But then the film just flew from one set piece to another and I was forever lost. I couldn’t tell you why anything happened in the last hour of the movie. It just seemed like one thing was following another without any sense of logic or foresight. I got the idea of the need to escape this virtual world and that there was a special doorway to make this happen, but after that it all became an unintelligible chain of ones and zeroes.
The incoherent screenplay by Lost scribes Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis is a bleak vehicle for special effects. TRON: Legacy will certainly melt your eyes but it leaves the brain cold and overlooked. The rules of the TRON universe are never adequately explained. When Qorra suddenly drives a vehicle off the Grid and says, “We can do this, they can’t,” you’re forced to just shrug and go with it. Why is Clu trying to kill Sam and his dad when he’s pretty much had the run of things for 20 years? What exactly is his plan for world domination? He thinks his electro-tanks will be able to take out the military powers of the real world? Do these programs have free will or does their engineering trap them? Why would they gather at a stadium to cheer the death of other programs in violent sport? All of these walking/talking computer programs got me thinking about The Matrix and how much more creative and effective and overall better that movie was with storytelling. There are some token nods to character, mainly Sam’s reunion with his long lost pop, but this is a movie designed to mesmerize with flashing lights rather than story and character. I would find this somewhat acceptable if I wasn’t bored so much, let alone paid an extra four bucks for the luxury of being bored in three dimensions.
But if special effects are what you want, TRON: Legacy delivers big time. The sleek production design is married seamlessly with the flashy, techno-oriented effects inside the computer world. Watching the floating spaceships and zooming racecars is a luscious, exhilarating rush to experience. The visual style obviously has to hew close to the first film in 1982, which seems to handcuff the imagination of the crew. We’ve made gigantic leaps in the world of movie special effects but we’re stuck with characters in glow-in-the-dark jumpsuits and cityscapes that look at like half-finished neon outlines. I haven’t seen a 3-D movie since two-time reigning king of the world James Cameron’s Avatar, but I would readily advise people to see TRON: Legacy in 3-D if available. It gives the film that extra whiz-bang quality. This is not just a cheap grab at extra cash where the studio throws a 3-D rush on a film late in the game. The 3-D, which kicks in when Sam travels inside the computer world (like the change into color from the Wizard of Oz), feels more immersive without resorting to hurling countless objects at the audience. The greatest 3-D effect, bar none, is Olivia Wilde (TV’s House, Year One). Director Joseph Kosinski has a steady background in computer effects, and it shows. His handle on actors is another matter entirely.
But the biggest misstep with the special effects occurs with the 1980-version of Bridges. Whenever we get a glimpse of this Bridges of old, whether it’s from Clu or a brief and distracting scene in the film’s 1989 opening, it’s another opportunity for the movie to remind you of its lack of authenticty. The de-aging technique still needs some serious tinkering. What it does is make an actor look like a plastic doll, with dead Polar Express zombie eyes. It’s creepy and off-putting and every time you see the de-aging effect it rips you out of the movie. Watching young Bridges take on older, current Bridges would have been more interesting if we had an entire digital rogues gallery of Bridges characters. Imagine the Dude and his drunken, self-destructive country singer from Crazy Heart involved in digital games of combat.
There are some nice action sequences that begin to touch imaginative possibilities of this unique world. The flying disc duels are interesting enough for the time being. The first few disc battles make fine use of the unique features of the boomerang-esque weapon. The motorcycle battle where the ribbons of light/exhaust create a wall is still a great idea for battle of wits at high-octane speeds. It just never fully materializes. The edits don’t occur in that hyperkinetic Michael Bay fashion that discombobulates the senses; however, I never really grasped the geography of the action realms. In order for the viewer to appreciate the action and the moves and counter-moves, we need to understand the arena and boundaries of the setting. With the cycle chase, it just seems like they’re all appearing at random. An action sequence is less satisfying if it doesn’t seem like it’s building and making use of the particular surroundings. The moody score by electornica duo Daft Punk gives the film a thematic lift, though having them score with a full orchestra feels like hiring Yo Yo Ma and forcing him to play a trombone.
TRON: Legacy feels at times like a super-sized Light Bright meant to dazzle and distract from the gaping void at heart. The story merely exists to get the characters from one place to another. The leaden exposition pretty much destroys the film’s momentum. It becomes plodding and tiresome. It would be like if Luke Skywalker sat and listened to 20 years of history rather than actually, you know, doing something. It’s been 28 years since the first TRON and the world has gotten far more computer savvy, and the jargon from the first flick would be readily understood. TRON: Legacy doesn’t feel like you’re in a computer, just whatever weird alternative universe. It seems like the real legacy of TRON ends up being hollow special effects.
Nate’s Grade: C
It may sound like sacrilege to some to remake True Grit. What can the Coen brothers add? Can Jeff Bridges fill in the boots of John Wayne? Those familiar with the 1969 original will recognize many of the same elements and a solid 70% of the dialogue is the same owing to the fact that both films come from the same source, Charles Portis’ novel. Where the Coens step out is placing the story’s focus on Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the 14-year-old seeking vengeance for her dead father. Marshall Rooster Cogburn is a rascally often drunken cynic, so it’s easy to get swept up in the amusing character, initially played by the Duke and now played with great gruffness by Bridges. But the Coens know this is Mattie’s story, and apologies to Kim Darby, but Steinfeld looks like a 14-year-old. Every second onscreen reminds you how truly vulnerable she is, that is, until she opens her mouth. Steinfeld is remarkable and so self-assured. She holds her own with the stars. This is a young actress that has a bright future in Hollywood.
The Coens have put together such richly drawn characters, so it’s a tremendous pleasure just to watch the people interact, luxuriating in that old West speaking style that actors chew over like gumbo. It takes a while for the film to assemble its pieces, but once the gang is underway you just want to spend. As anyone who has ever seen a Coen brothers’ picture, the movie is technically flawless. Whether it be the sumptuous old west cinematography by the best man in the industry, Roger Deakens, the stirring score by Carter Burwell, impeccable sound design, or the overall languid yet authentic pacing of the whole film. There are moments of offbeat humor, moments of quiet tension, explosions of brutish violence, but I had to ask what it all added up to. It’s a good time spent with some nice characters, but it’s hard to shake the idea that the movie falls short of greatness. The Coens can’t be expected to make a masterpiece every time they step behind a camera. But the films that fall short of the M-word generally can be slotted in the “mostly very good” category (O Brother, Burn After Reading). You’re left with a somewhat sour resolution and it starts you thinking whether or not the film had anything substantial to say about vengeance, friendship, community, or a legion of topics. It turns out, True Grit is a solid two hours of great actors working through an entertaining story. For any other filmmaker, that would be all you could ask for. For the Coens, it means the film only can be classified as “very good.”
Nate’s Grade: B+
This movie was a big letdown given the cast, the strange true origins of this fantastic tale, and even with the title. This odd little film feels tonally off. The material feels mishandled, mixing broad humor and with military satire and the dark realities of the war in Iraq. The premise is solid — a Pentagon program training psychic soldiers, men convinced they could run through walls or terminate goats through the power of thought. Why then does the movie feel so misguided and rudderless and, ultimately, boring? Never has such an outlandish concept, based on true events, felt so devoid of edge. The satire picks safe targets and the comedy remains farcically broad. I think the film’s downfall can ultimately be traced to the decision to turn this material into a fictional narrative. I would have preferred an actual documentary detailing the men, women, and goats involved in the real Pentagon program. If truth can be stranger than fiction, why dress it up and then dull it through fiction?
Nate’s Grade: C
Crazy Heart is more than a country tune come to life. This is a transfixing slice-of-life flick that serves up a big piece of country lifestyle. This is a dusty, slow burning character piece where consummate actors just dissolve inside the bodies of their characters. Jeff Bridges is country music legend “Bad Blake,” a chain-smoking, alcoholic, hard-living dude who’s given up on everybody in his life, he included. Fame long gone, he performs from hole-in-the-wall bars to bowling alleys for small change and the embrace of middle-aged groupies in seedy motels. Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring journalist, interviews Blake and the two seem unable to keep their flirtation at bay. She’s prone to making bad decisions, and he’s looking for somebody that will actually care about him as a person. The relationship between these two is starkly realistic, and the actors interact with astoundingly unrestrained intimacy; there isn’t a glimpse, a pivot, or a nuzzle that feels trite. The love-of-good-woman-grants-second-chance plot device may feel overdone, but Crazy Heart is more than the sum of two great performances (and they are great). There’s a heavy, elegiac pall to the movie, where tiny details quiver with insight about Blake’s life. Writer/director Scott Cooper explores the grimy, dismal lifestyle of a man living on the fumes of fame, rethinking his life’s choices and becoming reinvigorated with creative inspiration. Even better, everyone performs their own singing and they are all, without fail, excellent. Who knew that Colin Farrell could be a convincing country music star?
Nate’s Grade: A-
Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau seem like decidedly odd choices for a studio to hand over a multi-million dollar potential comic franchise. Iron Man certainly isn’t one of the better-known super hero properties but Marvel Studios felt confident that having Favreau behind the lens and Downey Jr. in a heavy suit of armor was the right direction. They couldn’t have been more right. Iron Man is a rock solid action vehicle that flies by in a blast. My biggest complaint: the film never utilizes the ready-made theme song by Black Sabbath.
Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is the billionaire CEO of Stark Industries, a high-grade weapons manufacturer creating bigger and better ways for people to kill each other. His life is a never-ending party, going from gambling to girls to gizmos. His assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), keeps Stark as grounded as he can be. Stark is traveling to Afghanistan to demonstrate the awesome might of some of his new missiles when his convoy is ambushed. One of Stark’s own weapons sends shrapnel into his chest. He is kidnapped by terrorists (read: Arabs with guns) and held captive inside a cave. Stark is kept alive by a glowing electromagnet do-dad in his chest that manages to keep the shrapnel from entering his heart. Raza (Faran Tahir) orders Stark to build him a missile or else. So Stark does what any mechanical boy genius would do: he builds a giant suit of armor and busts his way out.
Stark’s friend Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), an Air Force officer, rescues him in the desert. Once back at home in his Malibu mansion, Stark has a personal epiphany. After seeing the human damage his weapons cause he no longer wants to manufacture weapons. His business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and the board of directors are not interested in Stark’s revision. They want to keep doing what they do, making weapons for the highest bidder. Stark begins building a more advanced mechanical suit based upon the prototype from Afghanistan. He will use his technical expertise and great fortune to destroy his own weapons, even if he has to become an ironclad superhero to do so.
Downey Jr. is Iron Man, yes, but he IS Iron Man. He makes this character, this movie, and serves as the film’s ambassador to an audience that has grown tired of mopey teenagers imbued with super powers. His character is a man going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, reevaluating his life and trying to find meaning in his work. There’s something satisfying about watching an older adult wreck of a man taking on a genre that feels like it’ stuck in a high school atmosphere. Downey Jr. is a fantastically engaging, talented actor and when he turns on his narcissistic quick-witted charm it is impossible not to be won over. He provides the film with a tremendous spark and manages to make a womanizing, alcohol-swilling, super wealthy arms peddler/playboy into a figure of sympathy and a hero for the masses. Downey Jr. has expert comic timing and makes Tony Stark a cool swinging superhero. Just listen to his line deliveries and the energy and pacing he puts into the dialogue; it’s terrific. He also gives Stark the necessary drama to pull off the weight of guilt.
Iron Man is also a victory for Favreau as a director. The Swingers star has become a stealthily competent director. He helmed 2003’s Elf and 2005’s underappreciated Zathura and I suppose Marvel Studios saw what I saw in those films. The direction is focused and he makes smart decisions, never overwhelming an audience and always centered closely to the story. Favreau is more concerned with storytelling than noisy, empty special effects. Hell, Iron Man doesn’t even enter the film until an hour into it. There is a confidence and patience to his direction; it manages to convince an audience that they will be rewarded for their time.
Favreau doesn’t pander and knows well enough that practical special effects will inspire the greatest sense of awe in a summer flick. Iron Man‘s special effects are almost seamless from the practical to CGI. I enjoy popcorn action movies so much more when I’m not nit-picking the special effects. This isn’t a slam on CGI itself, but computer effects have the tendency to declare their fakeness. Sure the special effects were amazing in last summer’s Transformers (how it lost the visual effects Oscar to the subpar Golden Compass I’ll never know), but the CGI-ness of it could be overpowering. When I cannot decipher a special effect automatically, then I know I have been fully immersed in the action. Favreau smartly lays out a bevy of nifty practical effects for the first half. By the time he transitions to broader CGI then he’s already laid the foundation for realism.
Favreau isn’t the best action director but this only presents an issue in the film’s last act. The action sequences in Iron Man take a back seat to watching Tony Stark piece together his new life. I was more interested in seeing Stark test and reconfigure his designs. The construction of Iron Man, to me, is more intriguing than seeing a man in an iron suit battle some guy in a bigger iron suit. The fun is watching him become Iron Man. The action sequences are serviceably kick-ass but too short. I loved watching Iron Man punch people and seeing their bodies fly backwards. Even at over two hours there just isn’t a whole lot of traditional action to Iron Man but this suited my tastes. I’d rather watch an actor with Downey’s talent interact with an A-list cast than watch robots fight and smash personal property.
Iron Man is aided by a strong script credited to two of the writers of Children of Men. It’s structured as an origin tale but it takes its time to set up events and characters that will have lasting meaning. Stark confronts being a weapons manufacturer in a post-9/11 world. He finally stops and asks, “What is the cost?” His own company is double dipping, selling weapons to both sides in a conflict, weapons that will kill U.S. men and women pledged to protect America. Stark has a true change of heart, both figuratively and, later, literally with the assistance of Pepper. There’s a political undercurrent to the film’s drama that manages to be timely and provide at least some thought to go along with the popcorn thrills. Iron Man finds a way to force its characters to combat real moral questions that result from their actions.
The supporting cast has a combined seven Oscar nominations for acting, so this is a step above the acting level of a Fantastic Four. Howard is mostly underwritten but he provides a nice sense of camaraderie with his friendship with Stark. Bridges is an obvious villain just from the first sight of his bald dome and big, bushy beard. He’s got a mean scowl but Bridges provides a warm and fatherly guide for Stark. But man, when he gets menacing he is rather scary. But my highest praise in the supporting work goes to Paltrow, who coolly delivers arch snappy one-liners in a retro do-everything secretary role. And yet the role also offers some reflection, like after dancing in public with her boss she worries over gossip and what perception will construe the moment into. She, his employee, wearing a plunging backline dress that looks gorgeous on the actress, dances with her boss, an infamous womanizer. And then in this moment of doubt there’s a nice, unexpected moment for both a comic book movie and a would-be romance, and the “would-be” is the correct term. She has great chemistry with Downey Jr. and watching the two of them playfully bicker is another reason Iron Man soars above the confines of genre and formula. Plus she looks great with red hair.
Iron Man is a great start to the summer movie season and will be hard to beat. It doesn’t have the psychological depth of Batman Begins or the high-flying fun of Spider-Man 2, but this film certainly deserves to be mentioned in that same group. Favreau has crafted a respectful comic book movie that manages to place special effects in service of an interesting story played by extremely engaging actors. Downey Jr. is the movie’s secret weapon and he delivers a smart, witty, charming, sardonic and enormously entertaining performance that anchors a fine example of what big budget popcorn filmmaking done right looks like. Batman and Spider-Man might want to be on the look out because the new kid on the block is generating some serious heat.
Nate’s Grade: A-