Antebellum was originally supposed to come out in the spring and yet it only feels even more relevant today in the wake of months of protests over police brutality, the removal of Confederate monuments, and whether or not black Americans can attain justice in an imperfect system. Antebellum has also been flagged with overly negative reviews and accusations of being just another movie that exploits the horror of slavery for cheap thrills. After having seen the movie, I feel perplexed that so many of my critical brethren could not connect with the film and its finer points on the world we lived in and the world we live in today, inextricably linked.
Eden (Janelle Monae) is an enslaved woman surviving on an eighteenth-century Southern plantation run by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and the mistress of the land, Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Then there’s Veronica (Monae) who looks identical to Eden and lives in modern-day. She’s an author and academic speaker on social oppression and politics. How these two women are related, as well as past and present, will be revealed over the course of 100 minutes.
Antebellum is divided almost equally into 30-minute thirds, and it’s the structure that helps to aid in its mystery while also stiffling its larger implications. The first third is watching a plantation and the horrors of slavery; however, there are clues that something strange is happening. Little touches, character responses, a tattoo that seems too eerily modern. From there, we jump forward to the next third with what appears to be the same Eden, this time as a featured academic author. From here, if your mind is similar to mine, you’re attempting to bridge this connection and uncover how the past and present have become entwined. Is Veronica experiencing a deeply felt dream? Is it time travel? That was my guess before starting the film based upon the advertisement. I thought it was going to be a story about horrible racists from America’s past kidnapping black Americans to enslave. It’s a sci-fi angle that can make the material feel fresh, as there are more things to say other than the obvious and profound statements that “Slavery was terrible,” and, “It should never be forgotten or mitigated of its horror.” I also think it would serve as a rebuttal to those who ignorantly argue, “It was so long ago, why does it still matter? Get over it.” The past, in that instance, is literally ensnaring the present and forcing citizens to relive generational trauma. It’s that final third where Antebellum reveals what it really has been all along, and it’s a surprise but it also makes sense in the world that its meant to represent, leaning into a contemptible degree of human avarice that reminded me of HBO’s Westworld. It’s a fitting revelation and, as one would expect, the final third charges into an emotional catharsis as we watch Eden/Veronica fight for her freedom at last.
However, and this is a word I can already tell I’m going back to repeatedly to qualify my reservations, once the Big Reveal is known I wish we could have spent far more time dwelling in the implications of what exactly it means. I won’t spoil what exactly that reveal is but it’s definitely something that has plenty of social and political commentary and a reflection of our modern times and the injustices that have only been further highlighted this year. It’s such an interesting angle that I almost wish the filmmakers had re-prioritized their movie. Rather than structuring to best serve a mystery with a Shyamalan-style twist, it could have had its Act Two break be its inciting incident, revealing its twist as the starting point for the real terror. As a viewer, while I enjoyed the mystery and portentous mood of the movie, it presents a potent storytelling avenue that is far more compelling than the first two-thirds, but by then it’s too late. It works as context for the behavior and setting we’ve seen, both past and present, but Antebellum strangely suffers from trying to be too clever when a more straightforward version could have better tapped into its full dramatic and political commentary potential.
I was intrigued early on and came away genuinely impressed with the technical skills of debut writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. The photography is often stunning and that goes for their visual compositions as well as their specific camera movements. The opening scene involves a tracking shot that starts from the front of the plantation facade, and that’s the best word, all prim and proper and beatific in appearance, before swooping behind and into the slave quarters to see the ugly reality behind that illusion. I didn’t feel like the filmmakers were simply using the backdrop of slavery as cheap genre exploitation. I felt their intentions were good. The horror of slavery isn’t downplayed but it’s also not overtly recreated just to add an easy splash of violence or terror. The movie relies more on implications, like Eden sleeping next to the plantation owner every night or an enslaved man finding his wife’s necklace in a charnel house among a scattering of ashes. The implication of the larger horror is there without having to be explicit. I’m reminded of the abrasively negative condemnations of Netflix’s Cuties insofar as people seemed to be missing obvious artistic intent. These are challenging and uncomfortable movies but movies with something to say, and Antebellum is not just a simple rehash of slavery tropes to turn black people’s historical suffering into slapdash slasher pulp.
Monae (Hidden Figures) is strong throughout and continues to build her case as a leading lady. She must register her fear in subtle ways without going into larger histrionics, but she maintains a quiet strength that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. Her time spent in the present, as the author calling out aging racist ideology, is bold and confidant and serves as a counterpoint to the woman we’ve experienced on the plantation. We know that woman is still inside Eden. Monae has a late scene set in slow-motion, with the music swelling, that simultaneously feels badass, uplifting, and like an American Valkyrie blazing against unchecked Confederate revisionism.
Antebellum is better than its reputation and offers more from an artistic standpoint than hitting the same points and rehashing the same traumas of the past. It’s a movie built around its mystery when I feel like it had much more it could have said with restructuring and more time spent after its final explanations. As a mysterious thriller, it’s tasteful, thematically involving, and technically impressive. It doesn’t even use the N-word once, which could be decried by some as unrealistic but also a sign of the filmmakers’ good faith to not merely use a shameful historical legacy for base titillation. It works as a thriller with more on its mind. However, and this is my last usage of that word, it’s that mind I was more intrigued by. Antebellum is a B-movie with A-level ambitions but a story structure that keeps it stuck as a well-polished B-movie.
Nate’s Grade: B
The prospect of a new Nicolas Winding Refn movie is akin to a trip to the dentist for me: long, painful, and full or regret over one’s life choices. The Neon Demon will not change this perception of mine. I hated this movie, and the more I think about it the more I hate it. Unlike Refn’s last film, the punishing, overwrought, and nihilistic Only God Forgives, there isn’t even a kernel of an idea of a movie here. I loathed Only God Forgives but I’ll at least credit Refn for crafting something with potential in its plot dynamics. In better hands, somebody could have done something with the setup for that movie. I don’t think anyone could work with what Refn offers in The Neon Demon because he offers nothing. That’s not entirely true. He offers pretty pictures and alluring shot compositions, bathing the screen in high-contrasting colors. What he fails to offer is a story, or characters, or any reason that this movie shouldn’t exist instead as a ten-minute short. Somebody enlighten me and tell me what exactly this vacuous and tedious art exercise offers.
Perhaps I’m being too cruel so allow me to explain the plot. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old girl fresh off the bus to L.A. She gets hired at a modeling agency and makes friends with a makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who also works in a coroner’s office beautifying corpses. Jesse quickly rises through the ranks of the modeling world because of her fresh face and youthful, pure demeanor. She makes enemies with older models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) who feel threatened by her. And Keanu Reeves plays a sleazy motel owner who sticks a knife down Jesse’s throat for fun. Or that was a dream. I think. Then there’s a confrontation that includes necrophilia, murder, and cannibalism. And even after the cannibalism the movie still goes on for another fifteen minutes!
There is not nearly enough plot or any substance to carry out Refn’s near two-hour running time, which becomes all the more obvious with one dreary, pretentious, artfully self-indulgent scene after another. There are long segments where I cannot even tell you from a literal level what is happening on screen. Is Jesse descending into madness? Is Jesse losing herself to the vanity of the industry in a heavy-handed visual metaphor? Does anything happening register with the slightest merit? Refn is possibly trying to tackle the same meandering dream logic that populates David Lynch’s more obtuse filmmaking entries, like Lost Highway and Mullholland Drive (recently voted the top film so far of the twenty-first century by the BBC). I’m not a fan of untethered David Lynch but he will at least keep things interesting. The Neon Demon is a powerfully boring enterprise in annihilating audience patience. There’s no there there.
Another problem I have with Refn’s movies is that he hangs much of his meandering on broad and obvious themes and assumes they’re revelatory. Only God Forgives was all about the pointless nature of vengeance and cyclical violence, and you felt the pointlessness with one grisly and uncomfortable moment after the next. With The Neon Demon, Refn falls back on the most general of broadsides against the fashion industry. Did you know that people working in a surface-level industry could be shallow? Did you know that young women are exploited for their beauty and then quickly cast aside? Did you know that succumbing to the appeals of vanity could be self-destructive? These are the most general themes and they are presented without able commentary. It’s like Refn thinks touching upon these shallow themes is enough substance to justify all the excesses.
This is borderline unwatchable cinema. The plot is like Showgirls without the camp but still following some of the basic plot beats. There is nothing interesting about these characters at all and that’s because they’re not people but robotic figurines at best. They’re dolls for Refn to pose and play around with his purple lights. It’s like watching two hours of somebody rearrange fancy-looking furniture. The characters are just as significant as the nearest love seat or coffee table. I’ve complained about all the empty space in Refn movies and The Neon Demon is no different. This movie is padded out exponentially to become Refn’s longest movie in his career. He cares far more about his shot compositions and cinematography than storytelling. At this point I don’t think Refn has any interest whatsoever in telling a story. He wants to construct a visually immersive film experience. The Neon Demon is little more than the misty atmosphere of the impermissible, the phantasmagorical. Refn deploys controversial imagery and plot elements but he deploys them in place of actual substance. Anybody can get a strong response by throwing in a necrophilia sex scene, but has that reaction been earned and has this moment been properly setup by careful development? Absolutely not. Things just happen.
This was also billed as Refn’s horror movie but there’s nothing genuinely terrifying, at least from an intentional standpoint. You don’t feel any sense of danger or even a sense of uncertainty until the very end, and by then the movie has meandered far too much for the horror elements and gore to have an impact beyond lazy shock value. This is a movie where pretty people stand around and then, on the turn of a dime, do something outrageous. Refn hasn’t laid the groundwork for a descent into mental instability with our lead character, which seems like the most obvious solution. I could see a Black Swan-style psychosexual story about obsession with perfection and how this blinds one woman into making a multitude of sacrifices, driving her over the edge and into murder. Black Swan was a great, often brilliant movie. Go watch Black Swan instead, folks.
I think I have a solution that will benefit us all, dear reader. Nicolas Winding Refn should forgo the director’s chair and devote his career to being a cinematographer. He has an alluring eye for visual compositions and a great feel for atmospheric lighting, but with each passing movie I feel the man’s disdain for narrative filmmaking. His skill set is best utilized at making pretty pictures. Get him away from directing actors. Get him away from writing stories. Have adults in charge of the other aspects that help make a movie what a movie should be. The Neon Demon is a confounding, obnoxious, obtuse, intellectually destitute and monotonous movie experience. It’s frustrating to deal with the Cult of Refn in cinematic circles because I just cannot see what they see (I liked Drive well enough). The Neon Demon is too shallow and tortuous to be an insightful commentary on beauty, too oblique and maddeningly dreamlike to be an engaging story, and too devoid of interesting characters to hold your attention as they drift from one scene to the next. I’d be more forgiving of Refn’s indulgences if he was a short filmmaker. I’d allow more latitude for experimentation. The Neon Demon is not a movie. It’s a collection of half-formed, shallow ideas that Refn has thrown together, a whole lot of dead and empty space connecting them together, and an 80s synth score to underline the high-contrast colors. At this point I’d rather go back to the dentist than sit through another Refn film.
Nate’s Grade: D
This is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. It’s not because I’m torn over the film; no, it’s because this review will also serve as my break-up letter. Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), we’re just moving in two different directions. We met when we were both young and headstrong. I enjoyed your early works Paul, but then somewhere around There Will be Blood, things changed. You didn’t seem like the PTA I had known to love. You became someone else, and your films represented this change, becoming plotless and laborious centerpieces on self-destructive men. Others raved to the heavens over Blood but it left me cold. Maybe I’m missing something, I thought. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe it’s just a phase. Then in 2012 came The Master, a pretentious and ultimately futile exercise anchored by the wrong choice for a main character. When I saw the early advertisements for Inherent Vice I got my hopes up. It looked like a weird and silly throwback, a crime caper that didn’t take itself so seriously. At last, I thought, my PTA has returned to me. After watching Inherent Vice, I can no longer deny the reality I have been ducking. My PTA is gone and he’s not coming back. We’ll always have Boogie Nights, Paul. It will still be one of my favorite films no matter what.
In the drug-fueled world of 1970 Los Angeles, stoner private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by one of his ex-girlfriends, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s in a bad place. The man she’s in love with, the wealthy real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is going to be conned. Mickey’s wife, and her boyfriend, is going to commit the guy to a mental hospital ward and take control of his empire. Then Shasta and Mickey go missing. Doc asks around, from his police detective contact named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), to an ex (Reese Witherspoon) who happens to be in the L.A. justice department, to a junkie (Jena Malone) with a fancy set of fake teeth thanks to a coked-out dentist (Martin Short) who may be a front for an Asian heroin cartel. Or maybe not. As more and more strange characters come into orbit, Doc’s life is placed in danger, and all he really wants to find out is whether his dear Shasta is safe or not.
Inherent Vice is a shaggy dog detective tale that is too long, too convoluted, too slow, too mumbly, too confusing, and not nearly funny or engaging enough. If it weren’t for the enduring pain that was The Master, this would qualify as Anderson’s worst picture.
One of my main complaints of Anderson’s last two movies has been the paucity of a strong narrative, especially with the plodding Master. It almost felt like Anderson was, subconsciously or consciously, evening the scales from his plot-heavy early works. Being plotless is not a charge one can levy against Inherent Vice. There is a story here with plenty of subplots and intrigue. The problem is that it’s almost never coherent, as if the audience is lost in the same pot haze as its loopy protagonist. The mystery barely develops before the movie starts heaping subplot upon subplot, each introducing more and more characters, before the audience has a chance to process. It’s difficult to keep all the characters and their relationships straight, and then just when you think you have everything settled, the film provides even more work. The characters just feel like they’re playing out in different movies (some I would prefer to be watching), with the occasional crossover. I literally gave up 45 minutes into the movie and accepted the fact that I’m not going to be able to follow it, so I might as well just watch and cope. This defeatist attitude did not enhance my viewing pleasure. The narrative is too cluttered with side characters and superfluous digressions.
The plot is overstuffed with characters, many of which will only appear for one sequence or even one scene, thus polluting a narrative already crammed to the seams with characters to keep track of. Did all of these characters need to be here and visited in such frequency? Doc makes for a fairly frustrating protagonist. He’s got little personality to him and few opportunities to flesh him out. Not having read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, I cannot say how complex the original character was that Anderson had to work with. Doc just seems like a placeholder for a character, a guy who bumbles about with a microphone, asking others questions and slowly unraveling a convoluted conspiracy. He’s more a figure to open other characters up than a character himself. The obvious comparison to the film and the protagonist is The Big Lebowski, a Coen brothers film I’m not even that fond over. However, with Lebowski, the Coens gave us memorable characters that separated themselves from the pack. The main character had a definite personality even if he was drunk or stoned for most of the film. Except for Short’s wonderfully debased and wily five minutes onscreen, every character just kind of washes in and out of your memory, only registering because of a famous face portraying him or her. Even in the closing minutes, the film is still introducing vital characters. The unnecessary narration by musician Joanna Newsome is also dripping with pretense.
Another key factor that limits coherency is the fact that every damn character mumbles almost entirely through the entirety of the movie. And that entirety, by the way, is almost two and a half hours, a running time too long by at least 30 minutes, especially when Doc’s central mystery of what happened to Shasta is over before the two-hour mark. For whatever reason, it seems that Anderson has given an edict that no actor on set can talk above a certain decibel level or enunciate that clearly. This is a film that almost requires a subtitle feature. There are so many hushed or mumbled conversations, making it even harder to keep up with the convoluted narrative. Anderson’s camerawork can complicate the matter as well. Throughout the film, he’ll position his characters speaking and slowly, always so slowly, zoom in on them, as if we’re eavesdropping. David Fincher did something similar with his sound design on Social Network, amping up the ambient noise to force the audience to tune their ears and pay closer attention. However, he had Aaron Sorkin’s words to work with, which were quite worth our attention. With Inherent Vice, the characters talk in circles, tangents, and limp jokes. After a protracted setup, and listening to one superficially kooky character after another, you come to terms with the fact that while difficult to follow and hear, you’re probably not missing much.
Obviously, Inherent Vice is one detective mystery where the answers matter less than the journey and the various characters that emerge, but I just didn’t care, period. It started too slow, building a hazy atmosphere that just couldn’t sustain this amount of prolonged bloat and an overload of characters. Anderson needed to prune Pynchon’s novel further. What appears onscreen is just too difficult to follow along, and, more importantly, not engaging enough to justify the effort. The characters fall into this nether region between realism and broadly comic, which just makes them sort of unrealistic yet not funny enough. The story rambles and rambles, set to twee narration that feels like Newsome is just reading from the book, like Anderson could just not part with a handful of prose passages in his translation. Much like The Master, I know there will be champions of this movie, but I won’t be able to understand them. This isn’t a zany Chinatown meets Lewboswki. This isn’t some grand throwback to 1970s cinema. This isn’t even much in the way of a comedy, so be forewarned. Inherent Vice is the realization for me that the Paul Thomas Anderson I fell in love with is not coming back. And that’s okay. He’s allowed to peruse other movies just as I’m allowed to see other directors. I wish him well.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s been a year and a half since The Hunger Games broke box-office expectations, gifting Lionsgate studio with a formidable franchise. Based upon Suzanne Collins’ series of young adult novels, the first film was an agreeable adaptation that was occasionally hobbled by poor direction, rushed plotting, and budget limitations. Catching Fire, the second film, improves upon the established groundwork in almost everyway with the chief drawback being a terminal sense of dystopian déjà vu.
In the months after the events of the 74th Hunger Games, the two victors from District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are traveling across the other districts of Panem as part of their victory tour. What better way to endear yourself than visiting other districts to remind people that their children are dead and you survived? On the tour, there is growing unrest throughout, and the people have turned Katniss as their symbol of defiance against the tyrannical Capitol. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) threatens Katniss to control her media image, to convince the people that she’s madly in love with Peeta and not a fledgling revolutionary. In order to check the power of the victors, Snow introduces a rule change for the 75th games, the Quarter Quell. This year the participants will be culled entirely from previous past victors, meaning that Katniss and Peeta will be plunged back into the deadly games and this time their competition aren’t children.
What a difference a director with a sense of cinematic visual command can make. Early into pre-production, the original director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) decided to bow out for sequels, and so Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) was hired, and goodness does the movie benefit from this change at the helm. Lawrence has a much stronger visual authority, having cut his teeth in commercials and music videos (remember those, kids?) before feature films. The man couldn’t frame a lousy shot if he tried. With a stronger visual lens, the world of the Hunger Games is able to stretch, given a proper budget, and the visual grandeur unfolds around you, especially the largess of the Capitol. The movie doesn’t feel like they had to cut corners with their budget or special effects, and part of that is credited to the skill of Lawrence. And with this new visual stylist comes the demise of shaky cam. Dance and celebrate that Ross’ misapplied docu-drama approach has been abandoned; this time, when there is onscreen action, you can comprehend what is happening. I read the book years ago but even I was feeling twists of tension, notably the start of the Quarter Quell. The action isn’t terribly developed but it’s sufficient, though again the kill-or-be-killed extremity kept to PG-13 safety is starting to chafe. My only visual complaint is that much of the action within the games takes place at dawn/dusk and thus low-light environments. It feels like someone threw on a muddy filter, though perhaps this was just my theater’s light bulb-saving projection setting.
Now that the world of Panem is established, Catching Fire does a nice job of showing the various social conflicts coming to a head, bubbling into uprising. The pre-games victory tour opens up the world, allowing us into other districts and viewing the different strife befalling them. It’s jolting to watch the public defiance met with summary executions and yet the people will not be stopped. Now the class conflicts of the haves and have-nots get pushed to their breaking point. There’s a great contrast provided with a Capitol party so lavish, with food so sumptuous and plenty that the Capitol denizens have cocktails on hand to induce vomiting. That way you can continue eating (historical fact: vomitorium is actually not what you think but instead a passage below a tier of seats for easy exit, like in modern stadiums). The themes and the points aren’t subtle, that’s for sure, but they are effective and intriguing. Katniss, who only wanted to survive, has been thrust as the face of revolt, and now she has to walk a delicate line to again save her loved ones. The fascist politics and media manipulation hinted at in the first film are given more examination, providing a richer narrative. What works in the first Hunger Games is generally expanded upon and what faults the first film had have been, generally, nipped and tucked. There’s nothing as eye-rollingly awful as Peeta’s human rock sculpture camouflage. The burgeoning love story elements again are abbreviated the harshest, but when the world is coming apart, you have to spend more time on revolution than love triangles.
The film also benefits from a slew of new characters that have strong personalities. We’re introduced to other formers winners of Hunger Games past, and they make the most with their limited exposure. Joanna Mason (Jena Malone) is an axe-wielding woman given to speaking her mind with devil-may-care attitude. Her first scene in the film involves her stripping naked in an elevator with Peeta and Katniss. Malone (Sucker Punch) really has fun with the blithe approach of the character and manages to come across as comical while still being a credible badass. She’s a terrific character and you’ll be seeing more of her in the sequels to come. The other famous victor is Finnick (Sam Claflin) who bathes in the celebrity limelight, luxuriating in his media image as a suave playboy. Except there’s more under the surface and you’ll be given peaks throughout the film. I’m not as sold on Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman) as I am on Malone; he’s got the requisite chiseled physique, but I don’t feel the charismatic pull the character demands. Also, when I close my eyes and listen to him speak I hear James Franco, and I don’t know what to make of that. Then there’s the new head game maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is presented as an enigma. He leans on President Snow to spare Katniss rather than turning her into a martyr for the cause. However his alternatives are sinister and media savvy. Hoffman is one of our best working actors today but he seems to sleepwalk through the role, perhaps because he’s meant to be vague. However it’s played, it’s hard to get a read on Plutarch until the very end.
Strong as ever, Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) is the rock of this franchise. The Oscar-winning actress has been on a tear as of late and her acting and overall presence elevates the material. They struck gold when they hired her. There’s more fire to her and more devastation, as she’s going through the PTSD, plagued by nightmares. She’s haunted by the horror she’s escaped but also by the continuation of the threat from Snow, the ongoing charade that she will have to keep up for the rest of her life. There is no time out of the spotlight as a victor let alone a national celebrity like Katniss. Lawrence can convey so much wordlessly and she can convincingly play the different dimensions of her wounded warrior.
Many of the criticisms one can hurl at Catching Fire are the same from Collins’ book. There is a repetitive plot structure, where the games themselves feel like too much of a retread. It feels forced to serve up what worked the first time. The problem with throwing Katniss and crew back into the Hunger Games is that all the real consequential action is taking place outside of them. We’ve been watching the stirrings of revolt all movie, watching the cracks take shape, and then the movie returns to its deadly TV competition when the audience just wants to leave to see if the revolution will be televised. Breaking free of Katniss’ first-person perspective from the book allows the filmmakers to add scenes fleshing out the world and the characters, with some nicely malevolent conversations between Snow and Plutarch. But that also means we don’t have to be locked into watching Katniss’ every move (I know this sounds like sacrilege). It’s not like the creatively torturous games are boring, but it’s hard to ignore an increasing sense of been-there-done-that. When there are so many larger, wider-reaching consequences happening outside throughout the various districts, you can’t help but feel a bit antsy. Another reason the film doesn’t break free from the games repeat is that it purposely keeps Katniss, and in turn the audience, in the dark about the larger outside machinations. The collective ignorance has a purpose but it also makes the plot frustrating.
Really, Catching Fire is more a setup for the series greater conflict rather than a complete film/story. Things are unraveling in the country of Panem, but if you want resolution you’ll have to wait until 2014 for the next movie, or more likely 2015 for its concluding half. What Catching Fire does is tease out the plot change and then transition to it, but only in the final minute. As my pal and colleague Ben Bailey notes, it ends in similar fashion to 2003’s Matrix Reloaded, and you’re left on a cliffhanger that doesn’t seem like a natural resting point for the story. Again, these critiques can be waged at the book as well as the film is a fairly close adaptation that will satisfy the die-hard fans.
From here on out, the Hunger Games movies are going to get more interesting. With two remaining films to cover the ground in one book, it should allow for greater development of characters, conflicts, dramatic themes, social commentary, or just larger kickass action sequences now that we’re in a larger arena, so to speak. Under the screenwriting expertise of Danny Strong (HBO’s Recount and Game Change) I’m anticipating a more politically astute and intellectual dystopian drama. Francis Lawrence has brought visual dynamism and stability to the franchise, just in time for when things are poised to get really interesting. As a film, Catching Fire is a step above the previous entry, ironing out some of the shortcomings and presenting more subtext when it comes to its social unrest. It introduces a bevy of intriguing new characters, escalates tensions throughout the realm, and promises greater suffering and strife ahead. However, the repetitive plot structure of throwing Katniss back into the games for an hour eats away at time that could be better spent watching the revolution ferment. It’s still a reliably entertaining film with a sharper visual gloss, so fans should go home happy and audiences should be suitably thrilled. The alterations from Collins’ book are all for the better. Catching Fire will slay the box-office with little trouble but I’m most thankful that we’ll be leaving the games behind for good.
Nate’s Grade: B
Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) has been drubbed in many circles for being an empty visual stylist, someone in the Michael Bay camp that worships at the altar of style. Snyder is a nearly unparalleled visual stylist. If only he would use his considerable talents for the purposes of good. I’m not a Snyder basher by trade, and have enjoyed all three of his previous films to some extent, but it’s obvious that Snyder spends much of his time scribbling down imagery he thinks will be cool, and then figuring out how to connect it all at the last minute. So Sucker Punch gives us a bevy of highly stylized, anime-influenced imagery complete with a posse of full-lipped ladies with heavy fake eyelashes operating heavy weaponry in fetish-style clothing. If you were expecting much else, then you’re the one who’s been suckered.
Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is a 20-year-old sent to live the rest of her days locked away inside a dilapidated mental ward thanks to her wicked stepfather. He even makes arrangements with a dastardly orderly (Oscar Isaac) to lobotomize Baby Doll to shut her up for good. Then step dad can swindle the family estate for all its worth. While in this asylum, Baby Doll imagines she’s inside a different world to survive. Her fantasies offer her a world to escape to. Inside, she plots with a group of other patients, including Rocket (Jena Malone), her feisty take-charge sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). Together, along with the sage advice from a mysterious mentor (Scott Glenn) in her visions, they will collect four items to secure their escape. But time is of the essence. The lobotomy doctor, known as the “High Roller” in the fantasy (played in a major surprise by Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm), is scheduled to come do his needle through the brain trick in a matter of days. It’s up to Baby Doll to utilize the therapeutic techniques of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) and retreat into her mind to find the key to save herself.
You can tell Snyder was trying to crowbar in a meek message about female empowerment, but I ask you: is it female empowerment when the women have to be reduced to pretty play things that still operate in the realm of male fantasy? Just because women fight back does not mean that you are presenting a feminist message. Baby Doll’s mode of power is erotic dancing? And her main outfit looks like a grown replica of Sailor Moon’s, which should be a dream come true for just about every male fan of the animated series. You think having characters in short skirts and names like “Baby Doll,” “Sweet Pea,” and Sucker Punch is no more about female empowerment than some ridiculous women’s prison movie where they all fall into long lesbian-tinged shower sequences. That’s female empowerment, right? It’s got women loving women, so what could be more empowering to women?
After Sndyer’s kitchen sink approach to storytelling, the one thing that Sucker Punch lacks, in abundance, is sense. There is no real connective tissue to anything happening onscreen. Snyder employs two different framing devices before slipping into the metaphorical delusions of a third. I felt like I was tumbling through the Inception dream levels without a roadmap or a competent guide. Considering that the first framing device, Baby Doll being locked away in a mental ward, is only featured onscreen for ten minutes, Snyder could have exercised the bit completely. The second framing device, that Baby Doll has imagined her institutionalized imprisonment into a vaguely 1920s-esque burlesque theater/brothel seems just as unnecessary, but whatever. But it’s the third metaphorical level that gave me a headache (more on that later). The premise alone, girls use fantastic imagination to escape from a cruel prison, is good enough to tell a compelling tale. But there desperately needs to be a connection to those images, a relationship between the fantasy and the movie’s reality. In Sucker Punch, there is no substantial relationship to anything. It is a barrage of images meant to arouse and entertain but little more. The different metaphorical levels are only metaphors for, well, hot girls kicking ass, which isn’t so much a metaphor as it is a literal translation. And when the girls are at play in those fantasy sequences, the movie drops all pretenses of any purpose. It’s not just reality defying, which is what movies were meant for, but it defies its own narrative. If I can just cram whatever cool junk I want then what purpose do I even need to set up characters or develop a plot. When the ladies are off on their fantasy tours, they’re invincible and no law of physics, or man, applies to them. It zaps all danger from the screen, and with that, all tension. They all become superheroes who just run around doing super heroic things. And I might have cared if I felt there was any real purpose for what I was watching other than Snyder wanting to scratch a few cinematic itches.
The girls’ quest to attain their needed items for escape is laid out in the most shockingly lazy manner. Snyder uses the power of dance, yes dance; you see, when Baby Doll starts movin’ them hips of hers, she plunges into a fantasy world of her own doing. And then we witness all sorts of crazy things, and she returns back from the fantasy and the mission is complete. The girls have stolen whatever item they were after. I was expecting the fantasy binges to have some direct correlation with the makeup of their world, so that, say, if they have to cross a massive bridge to gain their item, in the brothel they have to cross some massive barrier. It’s the height of indolence for Snyder to simply type “character dances” and then we get an indulgent fantasy sequence and the job is done. We don’t see the steps the girls had to do to win their freedom, the relationships between fantasy and reality, or any clever plotting along the way. There’s no cleverness at all to be had. The fantasy is not just an escape for the characters; it’s an escape from having to do any thinking when it came to storytelling. Imagine what would happen to other works of cinema if they followed this same approach. Why watch the back-and-forth arguments of a courtroom thriller when we could just have “prosecutor dances” and cut to the case being over? Or why bother watching the complicated struggles of a relationship drama when we can have “guy dances” and just cut right to the shot of the camera spinning around the couple kissing? It’s like a fast forward button that eliminates all plot development. Isn’t that much more satisfying? What, you mean it isn’t because it’s a self-indulgent diversion that has no connection to the main storyline and fails to add anything?
I think ultimately Snyder just really wanted to make the most expensive music video of all time. The dialogue is clipped and kept to a minimum, mostly of the expository “you need to do this now” variety. There are long stretches of full-length musical interludes by Tyler Bates (300) and Marius De Vries (Moulin Rouge). The duo orchestrates some uninspiring fuzzy alt covers of alt songs, so familiar tunes like Bjork’s “Army of Me” and the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” get a polish they didn’t need (how many times is that Pixies song going to be covered?). Worst of all is a bizarre mash up of Queen’s “I Want It All” and “We Will Rock You” with a rap track. And of course no film that aimed to ape the tropes of Alice in Wonderland would be complete without some version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” this time covered by talented Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini. The entire musical oeuvre is a bunch of distorted, loud, blaring guitars meant to amplify the visual noise.
Sucker Punch is not so hot. The same, however, cannot be said of Browning (The Uninvited). I am not immune to the charms of a pretty face. And for those who know me, it’s a huge revelation for me to say that Thora Birch (American Beauty) may just have some competition for my ultimate affections (it’s been a long drought since Ghost World, Thora). Browning doesn’t particularly act well in the movie, but then again nobody does, especially Gugino’s awful accent. But this isn’t a film about acting so much as it’s looking the part. And Browning is resplendent geek fantasies come to life, samurai swords, pigtails and all. She makes for a great moving poster. At one point, apparently Amanda Seyfried (Red Riding Hood) was going to play Baby Doll, but then that familiar roadblock known as scheduling conflicts came into being. We may have replaced one saucer-eyed actress for another.
Expect nothing more from Sucker Punch than top-of-the-line eye candy. Expect nothing to make sense. Expect nothing to really matter. In fact, go in expecting nothing but a two-hour ogling session, because that’s the aim of the film. Look at all those shiny things and pretty ladies, gentlemen. This is the perfect film for a 13-year-old kid fed on anime, comic books, and horror films and who don’t give a lick about things like plot, character, or substance. It’s like somebody combined One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with every single damn videogame cut scene in the history of time. I was waiting for the next dance/trance sequence where Baby Doll was going to start jumping on turtles and collecting coins. It’s a series of vignettes that have no connection whatsoever. Sucker Punch is really a live-action Heavy Metal, except with even less plot. This isn’t a fairy tale. This is a meth-fueled explosion of a Hot Topic store, captured in Snyder’s signature slow motion. Everyone is entitled to their own fantasies but not everyone gets a $100 million dollar check to throw them all together on screen.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Author Scott Smith is from Ohio, my home state, which makes me like him. What made me respect him was his adaptation of his own novel, A Simple Plan. The movie version was splendid and taut, well acted and riveting and disturbing. Smith even received an Oscar nomination for his screen adaptation. When Smith released The Ruins, his second book, in 2006 I was mildly intrigued but never got around to reading it. Something about tourists, and Mayan temples, and bad things, and it got plenty of good reviews. Then I saw that Hollywood was producing a film version and that Smith had written the screenplay himself. Well, I figured, I’m going to be in for a chilling treat. Let’s just say my opinion of Smith has been slightly diminished.
Four over privileged American tourists are enjoying their final hours of a vacation to Mexico. Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) is studying to be a doctor. His girlfriend Amy (Jenna Malone) is best friends with Stacy (Laura Ramsey), and the two pal around together. Stacy’s boyfriend Eric (X-Men’s Shawn Ashmore) is along for the ride and enjoying every sun-soaked, boozy second. Lounging around the hotel pool, the group comes across a German (Joe Anderson, Across the Universe) who has a map to a hidden Mayan ruin. It’s a bit off the beaten path but the group decides to witness some genuine history. They take a taxi 12 miles into the jungle, hoof the rest, and discover a not very well hidden path to a not very well hidden Mayan temple (seriously, you’re going to have to do better than a couple of palm leaves if you want to obscure the path and keep people out. Try a fence next time). As soon as they arrive so do a band of armed Mayans that really insist the tourists do not leave the site. The Mayans chase the tourists onto the ruins and then they set camp around the perimeter. The Americans are being kept quarantined. Why? Inside and atop the ruins are a deadly plant that has a powerful hunger.
For a horror movie filled with unremarkable and generally unlikable characters, I must say that they at least don’t do anything incredibly stupid as is accustomed to the genre. Once they are chased to the top of the ruins you, the audience, are now put in their shoes. Every choice they make seems decently reasoned and cautious, exploring their surroundings and testing their boundaries. The Ruins features cheesy killer plants, yes, but the more interesting element to me was the survival game. These characters are quarantined in a remote area with little water, armed guards, and a handful of useful tools. What will they do next? This scenario grabbed my interest, as I played out my own personal survival scenario step-by-step and it wasn’t too different from what befalls the characters onscreen. However, I’m surprised no one tried setting the freakin’ plants on fire. The eventual psychological meltdowns and increasingly grim outlook help The Ruins maintain some level of credible drama.
But I think in the end I just couldn’t get over the fact that the main culprit was killer fauna. I can accept carnivorous plants, but seeing them is a whole different matter. Somewhere from pages to screen a step was forgotten to make them believable. The ancient plant system inhabiting the ruins looks like an overgrown swatch of ivy and marijuana leaves, and the vines would slowly inch forward to retrieve fallen pieces of meat. It’s downright comical to see a stringy piece of a vine trying to discreetly drag a dead body away, and frankly that’s where the movie fails. I shouldn’t be giggling at the killer plants. The execution comes across as way too goofy and made me shudder that I could be watching Little Mayan Shop of Horrors. I’m also wary that this highly localized plant has evolved to the point that it can duplicate exact sound. It mimics a specific cell phone ring tone to lure our vacationers deeper inside the ruins. Now, how in the world would it know well enough to do that? I can’t imagine in its potentially thousands of years of existence that it was come across a significant amount of cell phones. How would it know that exact sound would effectively lure others? I did enjoy the notion that the indigenous birds and insects have wised up and learned generations ago not to go anywhere near the ruins. Let this be a lesson to you, backpackers of America, that when insects refuse to go somewhere then perhaps you should take note.
The Ruins should play out with a slow-burn sense of dread where the characters sadly realize with setback after setback that they are doomed; to be played right the plot needs to be methodical. Instead, Smith’s adaptation is more like a haunted house tale with crummy, obvious jump scares and lackluster spook setups. It seems like most of the film is intended to be a setup but the payoff is badly muffed, like seeing the stupid thin, twisty vines creeping out to sneak inside people’s open wounds. The Ruins has some fittingly disturbing scenes where something is moving and growing under the surfaces of people’s skin, but then you remember it’s just a plant vine and your mind starts racing with questions that illuminate how inane this whole situation comes across (How does a plant stem continue to grow inside a human body? What purpose does having an offshoot inside the prey serve? How does it penetrate open wounds without anyone noticing at all? Why should I be watching this?). I would have preferred if the under-the-skin creatures were some kind of insect or worm that had a symbiotic relationship with the plants. That would be cool and far creepier than stupid ivy vines.
From a gore standpoint, The Ruins has a few squirm-inducing moments. One character is badly injured and needs to have their legs amputated to survive. Oddly enough, this amputation sequence comes across as the most memorable part of a movie dealing with killer vegetation that can mimic cell phone ringtones and, later, lovemaking noises (now who goes out to have sex atop Mayan ruins?). The imprecise nature of the amputation is what makes it so gruesome. In one feel swoop, this character has to have leg bones crushed, then legs sliced off, and then have the stumps cauterized with a frying pan. And the only anesthetic is a bottle of Jack Daniels. Yikes. The amputation is played out with a deliberate pace and allows a satisfying buildup of nervous, queasy anticipation. Aside from that, there isn’t anything notable from the makeup department.
None of the characters approach anything closely resembling characterization, but the acting is a notch above what you might expect from a horror movie populated with expendable, good-looking twenty-somethings. Tucker makes for a capable lead and projects a cool and controlled persona, never rising to hysterics. When he does realize the inevitable he begins to crack and it’s more effective because of how stoic he was before. The actor who gets tested the most is Ramsey, and this isn’t because she started her career in the derided “reality TV documentary” The Real Cancun. Her character is put through an emotional wringer and she sells the distress and Stacy’s fraying mental state. I never once was tempted to laugh even as she sliced herself open and fished around her insides. Malone and Ashmore are stuck being in the stock roles of whiny girlfriend and horny carefree dude.
The Ruins is a horror movie that’s far from horrible but not scary or perverse or funny enough to be recommended. The setup of isolation in unfamiliar territory could definitely produce some chills and thrills, however, when you throw in a ridiculous carnivorous plant that looks as menacing as your mother’s flower bed, well then, things just fall apart. I’m sure The Ruins worked well on the page, since it demands the reader create their own version of what goes bump in the night. Too bad that when you see it fully realized on the big screen it comes across as stupid. I really expected a lot more from Smith than this. The Ruins doesn’t justify why it should be treated any different than cheap, straight-to-DVD cheesy horror flicks (If there are multiple horror movies about killer snowmen, then there has to be an entire sub-genre of killer plants). I know M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming summer release The Happening also features plants turning on humans. Let’s hope the creative force that brought us Lady in the Water can do more with the subject.
Nate’s Grade: C
Undeniably well made, I just couldn’t emotionally connect with the main character, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirch). Chris turns his back on his affluent parents and his bourgeois lifestyle and heads off into the wilderness to experience nature and find what has been missing in his life. Director/screen adaptor Sean Penn turns Chris into a Jesus-like figure that touches all those who he encounters on his cross-country tour that will meet its end in Alaska. I found the character treatment to be a tad naive and off-putting, and his lack of communication with his family, especially his younger sister who was in the same boat with him, seems especially cruel. And yet, the movie has its share of transcendent moments that bury themselves deep inside you, like when Chris befriends an 80-year-old widower (Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook) who is given new life. The closing moments, when Chris has accepted is fate, is profoundly moving and exceptionally performed, and this is coming from a guy that felt an emotional disconnect from the main character. Into the Wild is lovely to watch with top-notch cinematography, a fabulous score by Eddie Vedder, and fine acting by a diverse cast. I’m very impressed by what Penn has accomplished here. However, I admire the movie more than I can embrace it, and it all goes back to the character of Chris. He’s a mystery and both romantic and frustrating, which is kind of a fit summation for the movie.
Nate’s Grade: B
Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your normal malcontent teenager in late 1980s Regan America. He bickers with his older sister, worries over the right moment he’ll kiss his new girlfriend, and tries to ignore the advice of many imprudent adults. Donnie’s your typical teenager, except for his imaginary friend Frank. Frank is a sinister looking six-foot tall rabbit that encourages Donnie into mischief and gives a countdown to the impending apocalypse. And I haven’t even gotten to the time travel yet.
One night as Donnie wanders from his home at the behest of Frank, an airline engine mysteriously crashes through the Darko home and lands directly in Donnie’s room. The airlines are all at a loss for explanation, as it seems no one will take responsibility for the engine or knows where it came from. Donnie becomes a mild celebrity at school and initiates a relationship with a new girl, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). One of his classes consists of watching videos of self-help guru and new age enlightenment pitchman Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). His school has even, under the persistence of self-righteous pain Kitty Farmer, persuaded Cunningham to speak and try to help students conquer their “fears.”
Donnie is also seeing a therapist for his emotional problems and taking medication for borderline schizophrenia. Around this time is when Donnie starts to inquire about a strange old woman, obsess over the possibilities of time travel, as well as see weird phosphorescent pools extend from people’s chests. He also floods his school at the urging of Frank. This is no Harvey type rabbit.
The longer Donnie Darko goes on the more tightly complex and imaginative the story gets. First time writer-director Richard Kelly has forged an excitingly original film that is incredibly engaging with charm and wit. He masterfully mixes themes of alienation, dark comedy, romance, science fiction, and a sublime satire of high school. Donnie Darko is the most unique, head-trip of a movie unleashed on the public since Being John Malkovich. Kelly has a created an astonishing breakthrough for himself and has ensured he is a talent to look out for in the future.
Gyllenhaal (October Sky) is superb as disenchanted Donnie, a Holden Caulfield for middle suburbia. His ghastly stare conveys the darkness of Donnie but his laid-back nature allows the audience to care about what could have merely been another angst-ridden teenager. Swayze is hysterical as the scenery-chewing Cunningham. The rest of the cast is mainly underwritten in their roles, including stars Drew Barrymore (who was executive producer) and ER‘s Noah Wyle, but all perform admirably with the amount they are given. Not every plot thread is exactly tidied up but this can easily be forgiven.
Donnie Darko is a film that demands your intelligence and requires you to stay on your toes, so you can forget any bathroom breaks. The film is one of the best of 2001 but also one of the funniest. You’ll be honestly surprised the amount of times you laugh out loud with this flick. The theater I saw this in erupted every half a minute or so with boisterous laughter.
Donnie Darko is a film of daring skill and great imagination. You don’t see too many of these around anymore.
Nate’s Grade: A