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Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

James Cameron has been dreaming about making Alita: Battle Angel for decades. He bought the rights to the 90s manga and has been sitting on the property, having to continuously push it back because of technological demands and the demands of, at last count, a thousand Avatar sequels. Cameron co-wrote the screenplay and handed the directorial duties over to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), a talented visual stylist who has been struggling of late. The marriage looks good and the final 122-minute feature is the closest a live-action film has ever gotten into replicating the look and feel of an anime, for better and worse.

Hundreds of years after the fall of civilization, a lonely scrapper and doctor, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the remains of a cyborg with a still beating heart. He puts her back together with a new body and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). She’s special and learning about the big new world, trying to unlock her memories of the past, and we’re talking way way back into the past. She’s old technology, something that’s quite valuable for the street gangs that strip amputees for parts and for the global corporation whose emissary (Mahershala Ali) needs to reclaim the powerful tech. Alita falls in love, learns about her sense of humanity, and fights lots and lots of robotic villains.

This visual decadence of Battle Angel is the greatest reason to see it, especially on the big screen if able. The future setting is immediately visually engaging, with people walking around with mechanical limbs that look like they were literally cobbled together with whatever junk was lying around. There is a have/have not dichotomy between the huddled masses trying to eek out a living in a garbage city and the floating metropolis above that regularly dumps its trash onto the people below. It’s easy to see the influences of Battle Angel in other media, like Elysium, as well as its own cyberpunk influences, from the likes of Blade Runner to recycling the chief sport of Rollerball. The character design is to die for in this movie, with exceptionally assembled figures that stand out in memorable, dangerous, sometimes junky ways. There are a number of different robotic killers with colorful and unique weapons and personalities, and the larger world invites further scrutiny. There is a bustling post-apocalyptic life here and it’s plastered on a splashy, broad visual canvas with some spectacular special effects. Not all of the effects are at the highest level, from some compositing issues with faces to the big anime eyes (more on that later), but Battle Angel is an expensive movie that puts it all onscreen. The world is fun to watch and the action sequences feel ripped directly from the manga, with larger-than-life creatures fighting in vicious and frenetic ways. Even when the movie feels like it’s losing its momentum there’s always the visuals to enjoy.

The central idea of this post-apocalyptic junk town being populated with deadly bounty hunters who work for a mysterious conspiracy is a great starting point. There is a bevy of killers with different allegiances and different codes, and then you throw in a powerful new addition who doesn’t remember her hidden past and you’ve got a recipe for drama and conflict with some crazy characters. There are even little dark touches that I would have thought would have been clipped in the adaptation process. Battle Angel has so much going for it that it can get a little frustrating when it feels like it’s spending so long to stay in the same place. The plot revelations are fairly predictable but still effective, but the long delays between them are filled with numerous action set pieces that diminish a sense of progression. I liked the Alita character and her relationship with her surrogate human father, but I didn’t think enough of any other relationship she had in the film. I wasn’t that invested in uncovering her past, which was still a bit too vague for me as a non-reader of the source material. At the end of the story, Rodriguez has set up his audience for a continuing saga of strife that feels too incomplete. Alita has learned more about herself (though I’m still confused) and has a goal of vengeance (against a force that is left too vague) and a renewed sense of purpose (built upon a relationship that doesn’t feel that affecting). It’s a curious end point and a questionable decision for a movie this expensive to assume it would secure demand for a presumptive sequel.

Where Battle Angel began losing me was because its title character, Alita, became too overpowered for her own good, eliminating a sense of stakes early on. The battle calculus skewed far too quickly. After the first act, actually from her first fight onward, there is never any doubt whether Alita will triumph. She doesn’t undergo any training or any real learning curve when it comes to her superhuman defense. Right from the get-go she’s doing amazing acts of fight choreography and making it all look easy. She even defeats an enemy when she’s only a one-armed torso. That’s admittedly impressive but another indicator that there is no real threat that can be posed against her. No matter how huge the cyborg, or how many pointy appendages at their disposal, it’s only a matter of time before our little pint-sized warrior is eventually triumphant. There is really only one fight where she’s presented with any slight disadvantage, the aforementioned one-armed torso sequence, but this too is shortly rectified. She goes from having a nigh-invincible body to an even more nigh-invincible body, making her, you guessed it, even more powerful. This reality takes something away from the numerous cyborg-on-cyborg battles, and without greater variance on the scene-to-scene needs, the fights become somewhat stale. Visually they are still impressive with a sense of fun watching the manga pages come to startling life, but without stakes and variance, it’s all the same punches with less power.

Now Battle Angel isn’t the only story to deal with an overwhelmingly powerful protagonist (see: Neo, Superman, just about every character on Dragonball). The solution is usually a specifically applied weakness or, most often, the vulnerability of those closest to the hero. It’s the regular people that can be gotten to, that can be endangered, that approximate the “weakness” for the overpowered protagonist. However, for this to work, you need an emotional connection to the characters in order to feel their potential loss. This cannot work if the characters are stuck in archetypal mode and add little help. That’s the problem with Battle Angel; I didn’t really care about any of the other characters. They had points of interest, a tragic shared back-story, a dream to escape their earthbound poverty, some secrets they don’t want getting out, but it’s never enough to make them feel that much more refined than the secondary background players. The film doesn’t even go the route of really threatening the more vulnerable people in Alita’s life, which is a strange miscalculation. What we’re left with is a very kickass robot woman doing her thing and taking down the big bad cyborgs. It’s entertaining and there’s enough of an interest in bullies being beaten by the underdog, but Alita isn’t really the underdog and so the many action sequences become a tad tedious.

Salazar (The Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gives an expressive performance and enables her superhuman cyborg to find a semblance of her humanity. Because of the character design the degree of performance capture relies much on the micro expressions of Salazar, so if she overdoes it then Alita can lose that tenuous sense of reality. She finds a balance that makes her feel real, at least real enough to exist in this world. Waltz (Downsizing) is enjoyably paternal with a few dark secrets of his own. His rocket-powered pickax thingy falls under my category of something that’s futuristic but not exactly practical. This wouldn’t present much of a problem except his character is an expert at using the parts he can scrounge up to get the job done. Skrein (Deadpool) has found a real career for being sneering villains with oh-so punchable faces, and he succeeds yet again. Ali (Green Book) and Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) deliver enough with so little that you wish the screenplay asked more of them than the occasional in-shadows skulking. It’s interesting to look at this cast, which has four Oscars to their names (possibly another one for Ali), and an additional nominee with Jackie Earl Haley.

Let’s talk about those eyes. The film is based upon a popular manga and anime and James Cameron was determined, from the earliest point, to recreate that stylized big-eyed look famous to Japanese art. It’s one thing on the page and another brought into real life, and the response has been all over the place. Some cite the uncanny valley and cringe while others argue it makes Alita more vulnerable, the eyes being the window to the soul and all. It does set her apart from the crowd, which is supposed to befit her character and where she came from, so to that end it works. It’s not as distracting as I feared and you do grow accustomed to them. However, was any of it necessary? Would we feel any different for Alita if she had more human-sized eyes? I doubt it. The costly effect of a very costly movie ($200 million reported) made me think of a similar quirk with the 2011 Green Lantern film where Ryan Reynolds’ suit was a CGI effect. Rather than simply wearing a costume the filmmakers spent millions applying one in post-production, and in the end what of value did it offer to the experience?

It’s hard for me to watch Alita: Battle Angel and understand why this was a property that James Cameron set aside for almost two decades. What about this makes it special or at least separates it from the pack of imitators? It’s a world with points of interest and characters that could be interesting, though many stop short at the design phase. The live-action version is entertaining and visually sumptuous, but I was finding myself grow tired of the film’s loose stakes, predictable plotting, simplistic themes, and archetypal characterization. The action can be pretty fun but even as Alita lines up more obstacles and more enemies we never feel threatened or concerned. Without a larger sense of danger and plot development the many fights start to grow monotonous. The special effects are wild but they service a story that seems ordinary genre. Alita: Battle Angel ought to please fans of the source material but it short-circuited for my attention.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

15 years. 6 movies. 3 different lead actors. 2 reboots. I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of the American public likely knows more about Spider-Man than their relatives. In 2002, the first Spider-Man movie kicked off the new century by affirming to studios that superhero movies are a sound financial investment. Director Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire kicked off the glut of superhero cinema, paving the path for the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and its own unparalleled run of financial and critical success. Then the overreach killed off Raimi’s Spider franchise in 2007 and overreach again killed off Sony’s Spider reboot in 2014. Sony wisely sought out an assist from the gurus of Marvel, striking a deal and having the web-slinger return to the MCU. Fans rejoiced. Spider-Man: Homecoming announces itself as a brash, exhilarating, hilarious, and amazingly assured film that immediately lines up with the upper tier of the MCU. Marvel should use this as Exhibit A, submit it to Fox, and say, “Here’s how we can do your franchises better.”

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is your ordinary 15-year-old from Queens, New York who was given amazing powers after being bit by a radioactive (or genetically modified) spider. It’s been weeks since he was called into action by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to thwart Captain America (Chris Evans). Now Peter is back home and waiting for his literal call to adventure, for Stark to officially call him up to join the Avengers. Peter anxiously waits for school to end so he can don his Spider-Man suit, modified by Stark Industries, and fight local crime and injustice. This mostly amounts to stopping bicycle thieves, helping old ladies with directions, and other inglorious tasks. Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) would prefer he focus on his studies rather than the time he’s been spent on the “Stark internship” (his fib to cover said crime-fighting). New weapons begin appearing on the streets, built from the discarded alien technology from The Battle for New York. Spider-Man investigates the source, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a pilot who adopts the moniker of The Vulture while in the sky with his winged jet pack. The formidable weapons pose a real pressing danger to society, and Peter pushes further, at his own peril, to confront the Vulture and stop the flow of high-tech weapons.

For many fans of the webhead, this will feel like the first time they’re watching the Spider-Man of the comics on screen. This is the first film incarnation where Peter remains in high school for the entire duration of the movie, and it’s also thankfully the only telling that eschews an origin story. He just is Spider-Man, however, the arc of the movie is him settling into that identity. It’s in many ways a coming-of-age story for the superhero set, as Peter has to come to terms with his earnest desire to help others and his own maturation, both as Spider-Man and as a high school sophomore. He’s learning just as much to be Peter as he is Spider-Man. Just because he has these powers doesn’t mean he’s ready for the rigors of the world. Homecoming is very much a high school movie. There are familiar John Hughes influences throughout, and the film smartly subverts certain high school tropes (driving lessons, prom dad from hell). It presents our hero struggling with asking the cute upperclassman (Laura Harrier) to the dance just as much as the demands of being a fledgling local superhero. His interior life is much more available and relatable but he’s still a teen navigating the world. Also, by having Peter be the youngest film incarnation yet, it allows for the satisfying indulgence of superhero wish-fulfillment. Whereas the X-Men powers are naturally linked to the progression of puberty, those are usually portrayed as a curse, something that ostracizes, confuses, and produces great anxiety and fear. With Spider-Man, being a superhero is the coolest thing in the world. He’s not consumed with angst like Andrew Garfield’s broody Peter Parker and his weirdly special DNA (what was the deal with his parents and that conspiracy? Oh well). Watching this exuberant Peter Parker embrace his new abilities with glee is a great way to keep the movie light and bouncy.

This is also, bar none, the funniest film yet in the MCU (yes, even dethroning Guardians of the Galaxy). With the lighter tone, the movie finds consistent opportunities to inject comedy, from the irony of Peter trying to lead a normal life, to the awkwardness of Peter’s attempts at crime-fighting, to his over eager demeanor, to misunderstandings and hasty excuse-making to conceal his double life, to the sterling supporting cast of characters that contribute different flavors of jokes when called upon. If anything there is so many talented supporting players I wanted even more time with them (Donald Glover, Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr). This cast is a comedic embarrassment of riches.

I was laughing pretty much from beginning to end with Homecoming. Just thinking back on the school’s morning announcements (complete with anchor Betty Brant) makes me giggle. Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is the movie’s chief source of comic relief, and in less careful hands he would become rapidly annoying. Instead, he’s a reliable presence and given a character arc with a payoff of his own, his desire to be Peter’s “guy in the chair.” It’s genuinely impressive screenwriting when even the comic relief sidekicks have arcs. Zendaya does an impressive job of selling every one of her jokes, which traffic in a very specific smart-aleck, apathetic tone. She’s graduated from the Disney Channel to the bigger leagues. There’s a hysterical series of inspirational education videos featuring Captain America, and if you stay past the end credits there’s a great payoff for that. There’s even some sly meta jokes calling back to Raimi’s Spider-Man. Every joke at least lands and most of them hit hard, benefiting from strong development and timing.

Nevertheless, just because it happens to be one of the funniest movies of the year, Spider-Man: Homecoming still finds plenty of space to be dramatic and thrilling. The comedy doe not tonally detract from the other elements. This is not an insubstantial movie just because it knows how to have some fun (take notes, Zack Snyder and DC). This is not a flippant movie because of tone or the heavy joke quotient. There are sincerely sweet moments born out of the characterization, like when Aunt May takes it upon herself to teach Peter how to dance (this would not be possible with a geriatric Aunt May). Director Jon Watts (Cop Car) has a steady command with his high-flying visuals and maintains the tight walk of tone that allows all the elements to work together as a blissful whole.

There are superb action sequences that advance the story forward and allow for the characters to grow. It’s exactly what good action is supposed to do, besides, you know, quicken the pulse. The humor can also arise naturally from these set pieces. Take for instance Peter suiting up while attending a suburban house party. He spots some alarming energy discharges on the other side of the suburb, but without any tall buildings for him to latch onto, he has to hoof it the whole way on foot. It’s a smart comedic aside and it helps to remind us that this Spider-Man isn’t an instant pro after getting his powers. It all comes together best in a D.C. rescue at the Washington Monument. It bridges the personal with the action. The bifurcated ferry set piece serves as the Act Two break and it’s a killer segment that pushes Peter to his limits to solve a dilemma that seems incapable of being fixed. There may not be any action scene to rival Raimi’s finest but the character-centric action and the organic development of the complications lays a foundation for a consistently entertaining film littered with joyful payoffs.

The biggest fear I’ve read from Spidey fans was that the involvement of Robert Downey Jr. would tip the scales, turning a Spider-Man movie into a defaco Iron Man sequel. Considering America loves Iron Man, I don’t see how his inclusion is a problem. Civil War was still very much a Captain America film even though Iron Man was the co-lead. Tony Stark represents a distant mentor for Peter and also the gatekeeper. Peter is anxious to become an Avenger and looking for Stark’s approval, which brings an enjoyably unorthodox paternal side from Downey. If there is a complaint I can foresee, it will be that Spider-Man is too similar to Iron Man thanks to the special suit. Spider-Man’s suit has its own Jarvis-style A.I. program (adeptly voiced by Jennifer Connelly, wife to Paul Bettany, former voice of Jarvis) and extra special gadgets including a spider drone and unusual web shooting options. It provides a new sense of discovery for the character since we’re already starting with him powered. The second act is Peter getting accustomed to the boost his suit gives him, becoming reliant upon them, and then having it stripped away as a natural Act Two break so that the conclusion has even more stakes without the security of the suit. It makes Peter much more vulnerable. The Iron Man parts are more a background motivational force and this is still very much a Spider-Man film.

Holland (The Lost City of Z) is already my favorite Spider-Man. Period. He made such an immediate and strong impression in Civil War that I was greatly looking forward to his first big starring venture, and Holland does not disappoint. This is the first Spider-Man that doesn’t feel crushed by the heavy burden of being a superhero. He’s a kid eager to grow up and join the world of other caped crusaders, but he’s modeled his crime fighting from what he’s seen on TV. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s still an awkward kid, and Holland brings great authenticity to the smaller character moments and the bigger heroic strides (while maintaining a convincing American accent). This is a more relatable, vulnerable, and interesting Peter Parker. Even though he thinks he should be beyond the mundane life of high school, he doesn’t ever act pompous or look down on other characters, which is endearing. At times Holland feels like he’s going to explode with energy, as if life is too much to process in the intermediary. He’s a teenager and the world feels so big and open. It’s an instantly engaging and likeable portrayal that wonderfully capitalizes on the introduction from Civil War. This is a Spider-Man, and his spider world, that I want multiple sequels to further explore and challenge.

Keaton’s Vulture already ranks as one of the best villains in the MCU (a low bar, I admit), and that’s because the movie humanizes him and gives him significant moments. He’s just a regular working-class man trying to provide for his family. In fact the first five minutes of the movie focus exclusively on Toomes and explains his sticky situation. He feels cast aside by those in the upper echelons of power. His eventual “you and I are the same” speech to Spider-Man has credible points. You can see, from his perspective, how he’s an underdog sticking it to the rich elites. Shockingly, there’s only one death in the entire movie and even that is an accident. Toomes is not your standard comic book villain, and there’s a brilliant third act twist that makes him even more centrally involved in the narrative. That opens a delicious sequence of dramatic irony. Keaton has a quiet menace to him that’s very unsettling. It’s all in the lower register. His character doesn’t blow up. He just narrows his brow and intensifies that scary stare. I’m glad the filmmakers realized that more Keaton was an asset to the film.

Let’s also take some time to celebrate the sixth Spider-Man movie for having a diverse population of characters that would actually represent Queens. Peter’s best friend is of Filipino descent, the girl he crushes on is biracial, the loner girl is biracial, and even the high school bully, Flash Thompson, is Hispanic, played by Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel. This might be Marvel’s most diverse cast yet, though “yet” being the operative word considering that Black Panther is arriving in early 2018.

This movie is a total blast. Spider-Man: Homecoming actually manages to give new life to a character that has already appeared in five other movies. That’s an amazing feat. Another amazing feat is that six different screenwriters, including the director, are credited with this movie, yet it feels fully coherent in its vision and presentation. This is Peter Parker, the teenager struggling with self-doubt, hormones, and an eagerness to grow up, and the movie feels much more human-scaled, forgoing giant CGI smash-em-ups for something more grounded, personally involving, and ultimately successful. Just because Homecoming is fast-paced and funny doesn’t mean it lacks substance. I was elated during long portions of this movie, impressed by the steady stream of setups and payoffs, the incorporation of the many characters and comedic voices, and the varied action set pieces that were focused on character progression. If you are tired of superhero stories, I’d still heartily recommend this movie. Dear reader, I feel like I’m failing you and turning into a frothing fanboy because I can only think, at worst, of negligible quibbles against the film. Everything in this movie works. Everything. It’s everything I was hoping for and then some.

Nate’s Grade: A

Noah (2014)

noah_ver2Meticulous director Darren Aronofsky gained a lot of creative cache after Black Swan raked in over $200 million worldwide, a Best Actress Oscar, and heaps of critical acclaim, including from myself (not to imply I was a deciding factor). The man had what all artists dream of, a perfect moment to seize whatever creative project his heart desired. And what he chose was to remake the biblical story of Noah for the masses, with an artistic fury and idiosyncrasy the likes of which audiences have never witnessed. The decision left many scratching their heads, wondering why Aronofsky would waste his time with a story already well told, in an outdated genre (Biblical epic), that would likely turn off evangelical ticket-buyers with any deviations and turn off mainstream audiences with any devotion. It looked like a big budget folly with no way of winning. The box-office is still unwritten, though I suspect the effects will net a pretty penny in overseas grosses, but as far as a creative statement, Noah is far more triumph than folly.

Noah (Russell Crowe) is living his life in isolation from the communities of king Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone). Noah and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), their two older sons Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman), youngest son Japheth (Leo Mchugh Carroll), and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), are living on the outskirts of civilization, aided by a group of fallen angels. Then Noah is given apocalyptic visions of an oncoming flood and the mission to save the world’s animals. After speaking with his 900-year-old grandfather Methusselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah is convinced what he must do, and it involves a lot of intensive manual labor.

Noah-Movie-2014-ImagesAronofsky treats Noah and the beginnings like Greek mythology mixed with a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic, and it’s madly entertaining. The visuals are stirring, large-scale, and sumptuously memorable (the Earth covered in spiral weather patterns is a standout, along with Noah’s visions and a Tree of Life-style triptych narrating the birth of life). The film has come under fire from conservative critics for its creative deviations from the Bible, but sidestepping a larger conversation, why should a movie be punished because it wants to entertain a wider berth of people than the faithful? Does it truly matter that the people refer to the Big Guy as “The Creator” rather than “God”? Would these people even use the word “God”? This just seems like a petty battle of semantics. It seems like certain critics are looking for any nit to pick. Sure giant rock monsters that were fallen angels might make people snicker, but why should this aspect of the story be any more preposterous than a man and his family gathering two of every biological creature on the planet? I loved the rock creatures, I loved how Aronofsky introduces them, I love how they walk, I love that Aronofsky even finds a way to give them a redemptive storyline, offering an emotional payoff. Seriously, why should these be any harder to swallow for narrative stability?

There were fears that Aronofsky would be less than reverent to the source material with his additions and subtractions bringing it to the big screen; Noah is a Biblical epic for our modern age but also one fervently reverent to the lessons of the tale. First off, a literal version of the Genesis tale would be boring and short. There is going to be some additions and they should be welcomed. What Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel (The Fountain) have done is taken a story filled with casual larger-than-life events and given it a smaller human perspective that is thought provoking. When Noah’s sons ask about wives, it’s personal planning but also a necessary part of, you know, repopulating the planet. They’re being anxious teen males but the small, relatable plot line also finds a way to relate to the larger picture, a tactic Aronofsky frequents. There’s a focus on family, fathers and sons, jealousy, but it really comes down to a personal level, differing perspectives about the overall purpose of man. The human-scale provides a richer context for the Biblical tale’s better-known aspects, like Noah turning to the bottle. As a result, we get the special effects spectacle without sacrificing the potent human drama at work. While the movie may never refer to “God” by name, it’s respectful and reverent.

noah2Another aspect about what makes Noah so daringly visionary is that it doesn’t blink when it comes to the darkness of the story. Over the years popular culture has neutered the tale of Noah into a cutesy tale about a guy on a boat with a bunch of happy animals. I think we’ve purposely ignored the lager picture, namely how truly horrifying the entire story is. It’s an apocalypse, humanity is wiped out; children and babies are drowning. Everybody dies. The later brilliance of Noah is that it doesn’t mitigate this horror. Once Noah and his family are inside, the floods having arrived, they painfully listen to the anguished wails of those struggling for life in the waters. The movie forces the characters, and the audience, to deal with the reality of a world-destroying cataclysm. Noah’s visions of the ensuing apocalypse are beautifully disturbing. The film takes place eight or nine generations removed from Adam, and God is already willing to take his ball and go home. After watching mankind’s wickedness, you might sympathize with The Creator. Aronofsky’s film has an unmistakable environmentalist stance (how does one tell this story without being pro-nature?), but he also shows you the brutality of mankind. The citizens of Tubal-cain have no respect for life, at one point kidnapping crying young girls and literally trading them for meat to eat. Resources are dwindling and people are pushed to the brink. There’s some sudden and bloody violence, as death is not treated in the abstract or with kid gloves. This is no cutesy story for the little ones. No stuffed animal tie-ins.

Of course once the flood occurs, the story seems like it’s at an end, Noah and his family having only to patiently wait out before starting over. It’s during this second half where the movie becomes even more personal, challenging, and philosophical. Noah believes that his family was spared to save all of those creatures born on Days 1-5, not so much Day 6 (a.k.a. mankind). He accepts this burden with solemn duty, declaring that his family will be the last of mankind to ever walk the Earth. However, spoilers, his own family pushes him to the test of this declaration. His adopted daughter is pregnant. There is hope that mankind can continue if the child is a girl. Noah sticks to his guns, saying that the child will live if a boy but killed if a girl. Now we’ve got a ticking clock, so to speak, while in the ark, and it manages to be a personal test of Noah’s own faith. How far will he go to enact what he believes to be God’s plan? He’s single-minded in this regard but he’s no zealot, more a flawed and troubled man of virtue trying to make sense of an improbably difficult conundrum. That’s the stuff of great drama, finding a foothold in a debate over the nature of man, whether man is inherently evil and shall lead, once again, to the ruination of God’s paradise. Can Noah place the personal above his burden? This looming conflict tears apart Noah and his family, forcing them into hard choices. Even assuming the film wouldn’t end with Noah butchering his grandchildren, I was riveted.

There’s an intellectual heft to go along with all the weird, vibrant spectacle. The film doesn’t exactly break new ground with its fundamental arguments and spiritual questions, but when was the last time you saw a Biblical movie even broach hard topics without zealous certainty? Definitely not Son of God. There’s an ambiguity here to be admired. Noah isn’t a spotless hero. The villain, Tubal-cain, actually makes some good points, though we all know they will be fleeting. Tubal-cain is actually given more texture as an antagonist than I anticipated. He’s a man who interprets man’s mission on Earth differently. Whereas Noah views man’s role as being stewards of the Earth, Tubal-cain views man as having been given dominion. They were meant to reap the pleasures of the Earth. Before marching off to take the ark, Tubal-cain pleads for The Creator to speak through him; he longs for a connection that he feels is missing, and so, perhaps a bit spiteful, he declares to act as the Creator would, laying waste to life. That’s far more interesting than just a slovenly king who wants to live to see another day.

Noah-2014-Movie-ImagesAronofsky also benefits from a great cast that sells the drama, large and small. It’s been a long while since Crowe (Les Miserables, Man of Steel) gave a genuinely great performance; goodness it might have been since 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma remake. The man can do quiet strength in his sleep, but with Noah he gets to burrow into his obsession, which just so happens to be sticking to the edict that man does not deserve to spoil the Earth. It’s a decision that challenges him throughout, forcing his will, and Crowe achieves the full multidimensional force of his character. He can be scary, he can be heartbreaking, but he’s always rooted in an understandable perspective. Connelly (Winter’s Tale) overdoes her mannerisms and enunciation at times, like she’s practicing an acting warm-up, but the strength of her performance and its emotions win out. Watson (The Bling Ring) is winsome without overdoing it, Hopkins (R.E.D. 2) provides some comic relief without overdoing it, and Lerman (Percy Jackson) gets to thrive on angst without overdoing it. In short, you’ll want these people to live. Winstone (Snow White & the Huntsman) is always a fabulous choice for a dastardly villain.

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a labor of love that maintains its artistic integrity amidst special effects, threats of infanticide, and giant rock creatures. Aronofsky has forged a Biblical epic that reaches beyond the pew, providing added surprise and depth and suspense. The man takes the modern fantasy epic template and provides new life to one of mankind’s oldest tales, staying reverent while opening it up for broader meditation. It’s a weird movie, but the silliness is given a wider context and grounded by the emphasis on the human perspective. It’s a dark movie, but the darkness is tempered with powerful feelings and a sense of hope that feels justified by the end. It’s also a philosophical movie, but the questions are integral, the stakes relatable, and the answers hardly ever easy to decipher. This is a rare movie, let alone an example of a Biblical film, that succeeds by being all things to all people. It’s reverent, rousing, thought provoking, exciting, moving, and a glorious visual spectacle of cinema. Aronofsky’s epic is a passionate and thoughtful movie that deserves flocks of witnesses.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Winter’s Tale (2014)

Winter's_tale_(film)Every now and then you get to witness a special movie that doesn’t so much offend as it inspires, and what it inspires is a question you grapple with during the entirety of its run time, mainly – How did this get made? At any point, did the producers or actors or anyone stop, take a moment to reflect on the movie they were participating in, and think, “Wait, what is going on here?” Bad movies made by hacks are easy to shrug off because, well, hacks don’t know any better but bad movies (see: InAPPropriate Comedy, or better yet, bleach your eyeballs first). With Winter’s Tale, there are people who should know better, people that have been awarded Oscars. These people should resolutely know a terrible movie while they’re making it. Maybe they did. Look deep into their eyes.

In 1918, Frank Lake (Colin Farrell) is an orphan long abandoned by his family so he could have a better life in America. He hasn’t taken this message to heart. Frank worked as an expert safecracker under the employ of local crime boss Pearly (Russell Crowe), and Pearly hasn’t taken kindly to Frank leaving. Frank is able to escape Pearly’s goons and finds love with Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a wealthy heiress afflicted with consumption. Pearly doesn’t want Frank to get away because Pearly is really a demon in the employ of the Devil (Will Smith, yes you read that right). In the battle of good versus evil, Frank and Beverly appear to be at the focal point.

Winters-Tale-Horse-DogI have to give writer/director Akiva Goldsman some credit for making an unabashedly earnest movie in an era of irony and ready-made snark. His goopy romantic fantasy longs to exist in a simpler era, but even then Winter’s Tale would fall apart on many levels. Its sheer unbending corniness is both a blessing and a curse. Magic realism is one thing (check out 2001’s Amelie as a how-to guide), but what Goldsman seems to be going for is a modern fairy tale (our maiden locked away in her tower, true love’s kiss, etc.). The film wants the audience to fall under its spell but instead will likely elicit numerous unintentionally hilarious moments; I was laughing to myself throughout, trying to comprehend all of the hokum and poor decision-making (Will Smith as the devil?).

Let’s begin with the fact that the movie is an obtuse fantasy that feels like it makes up its plot and its rules as it goes along. Bleeding fantasy and fantastical creatures into the everyday world is a marvelous conceit but it needs finesse and careful rule building. Otherwise it doesn’t so much feel like a story with a sense of internal logic as it does a bedtime story that can always just create a new shortcut or extension. The very first few minutes of the film will already push your credulity to the test. We see an adult Peter on the run from Pearly and his goons and all of a sudden he runs into… a white horse. Ah, but this is no ordinary horse, this is a magic flying horse, and Peter flies away to live another day. Yep, within minutes, we’re given a magic flying horse. No groundwork. Worse, the horse just randomly appears when the plot demands, and I think the horse is supposed to represent the side of God in this cosmic battle between good and evil. Whatever, there is a magic flying horse. From there the film gets even cornier. It’s the type of movie that posits the stars are really human beings, and so, in the end, rather than having our hero ride off into the sunset he (spoilers be damned) flies off into space on his magic flying horse and he BECOMES a new star, resting beside the star meaning to represent his beloved (never mind that these stars would be millions of light years apart). If you can read that sentence without rolling your eyes then congratulations are due.

Another problem is this massive time leap that creates far more plot holes. After Beverly succumbs to her illness, which I might add happens literally SECONDS after she’s done having sex for the first time (Colin Farrell killed her with his penis), the film leaps forward to present-day. However, Peter was given immortality through Beverly’s miracle. I suppose you could view miracles as a byproduct of sex. At first glance, this almost seems like a cruel gift; your love is dead and now you have to live forever without her. For no discernible reason, Peter also suffers amnesia, because, really, why not? All he does day after day, presumably for… 90 years, is sketch the same image of a redheaded girl in public places. In the intertwining years, why hasn’t evil Pearly picked up on the fact that Peter is still alive? He’s only been sketching the exact same image. Also, how does Peter even support himself? How does he feed himself? Who are his friends? These are the questions that arise when you take this foolish route with the plot. It could have been avoided with a simply Rip Van Winkle-style hibernation or time jump. Another problem is that Peter grew up with the 90 years of history, meaning he should know what things like the Internet and library cards are. He’s not a man out of time. The solution to Peter being confirmed is to seek out the still-living Willa (Eva Marie Saint, nice to see you again). The problem with this is that Willa should at least be over a hundred years old if you do the math. If the purpose of the leap forward was to just save another character we hadn’t seen previously, why does it have to be 2014? Why couldn’t it just have been 1940 or any other earlier period?

And the central romance between Frank and Beverly is just so boring you wish Frank would move on to someone new. Presumably they fell in love at first sight, which just so happened to be when he was in the process of robbing her home. Ah, but you see, her love redeems him because that’s really the whole role of the sick love interest in movies, to make the other figure a better person through this shared experience of grief. So in this regard it’s no surprise that Beverly lacks defining characteristics outside of her ailment. She plays the piano and falls fast for Farrell’s bushy eyebrows, but that’s all we got here. The entire second act of the film follows their abbreviated courtship, but there’s no real moment where you buy into their romance. Like most of the film’s storytelling, we’re told something is and expected to buy into it 100 percent without flinching. They’re in love, what more do you need? Well, some interesting characters would be a start.

A WINTER"S TALEI’m fairly certain that all of these actors were doing Goldman a favor by appearing in this nonsense, but only Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks) walks away favorably. He is the best person onscreen who burrows into their character, ignoring the absurdity of every moment, yearning so hard that you almost want to give in. You won’t. Many will best remember Findlay as the Lady Sybill on TV’s Downton Abbey (she was also the reoccurring ghost on the BBC’s Misfits). Here she gets little else to do but smile and give those knowing looks that all afflicted characters give, as if their illness has opened up the secrets to the universe for them. Crowe’s performance will likely draw up comparisons to his maligned work in Les Miserables, a performance that wasn’t as bad as advertised theater snobs. This performance, however, is as bad, as his Irish brogue seems to overtake him and he comes across like a hotheaded big bad wolf. Jennifer Connelly’s appearance isn’t even worth mentioning as it is that slight beyond the fact that she’s the mother of a terminally ill child (you really thought the movie had any sense of restraint?). The film has numerous well known actors for flashes, like Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Graham Green, Matt Bomer as Frank’s immigrant father. One suspects their brief time was either a sign that the screenplay evolved as production went or that they were repaying a debt.

I will say the only saving grace in this entire blunder is the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ). Even when the cheesy special effects take flight, Deschanel makes sure the images are worth watching, having a special skill with the cool hues of the wintry color palette. I wanted to at least credit one redeeming aspect.

The inconsistent plotting and rules, the corny and overly wistful characterization, the overwhelming silliness of every single moment, Winter’s Tale will spark far more guffaws and derision than plaudits. It’s a movie that bludgeons you with its unrelenting maudlin nature disguised as romantic fantasy. The source material is beloved by some but it all comes across as nonsensical twaddle onscreen. Goldsman’s screenwriting credits run the gamut from award winning (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man), to big budget  to notorious stinkers (Batman & Robin, Lost in Space). It’s hard to judge the man’s talents with such a wide range of quality. However, I can question the finished results of Winter’s Tale and openly wonder what in the world convinced Goldsman to cash in all his Hollywood cache to direct this dreck. I’m almost tempted to encourage people to watch Winter’s Tale just to try and make sense of it themselves, to try and take in 118 minutes of earnest bad decisions. Whether it’s the magic flying horse, the 100-year-old news writer, or the fact that we’re dealing with a bad guy named Pearly, or Will Smith as Lucifer, but sometimes Hollywood unleashes a disaster that begs to be seen.

Nate’s Grade: D

9 (2009)

9 began its life with acclaim. Director Shane Acker won a Student Academy Award and a 2004 Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short for his eleven-minute tale of post-apocalyptic ragdoll people. Blown up to feature length and with a screenplay by Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride), 9 the film is being sold on the name appeal of producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (director of Wanted). It’s being sold to gloomy animation aficionados. I can hear the producers saying, “These guys will see anything that?s dark and different.” I advise everyone to surf YouTube and watch the eleven-minute original short by Acker. You’ll save eight bucks and see the more effective and satisfying version of 9. If you wanted to boil 9 down, it’s like The Brave Little Toaster starring the villainous robots from The Matrix. Sound like a winner?

War machines have killed humans. The only life on our planet is a handful of numbered ragdoll creatures. The main hero, #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), awakes in the home of a dead scientist. The outside world is demolished. He finds other little ragdoll people like him, each numbered 1-8. Together they must try and make sense of this scary new world and survive the roaming robots still on the hunt for… something. #9 accidentally gives life back to the monstrous Machine, who we learn is responsible for the downfall of mankind. Way to go, ragdoll. The Machine is patching together mechanical minions to take over the ashen remains of a post-apocalyptic world absent life. Seriously, I’m at a loss what the big evil Machine hopes to accomplish. Then again, maybe it’s just in need of a hobby.

Even at a scant 79 minutes, 9 the movie still feels stretched and draggy, chiefly because the plot is lousy and the character work stopped at the design stage. I was bored throughout, I didn’t care about any character, and the movie failed to even arouse my curiosity to solve the mysteries of the movie. I didn’t even care if I found out why these ragdoll creatures existed or what had happened to leave the world in chaos. I sat in my chair, completely uninvolved with what was happening onscreen. Part of this is because a majority of the plot involves these tiny characters walking from one point (a church) to another (a factory) over and over again; the plot could be substituted by a linear line connecting Point A and Point B. It’s all so crushingly repetitious. And these are not short distances either, compounded by the fact that it’s little eight-inch ragdolls walking these great expanses of land. I invite every reader to position two fingers on their hand, index and middle, and then proceed to pretend to walk across. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the miniature plot of 9 magnified for your edification. Just imagine weird robots chasing after your fingers and you get the drill. There’s not enough story here to make the jump and fill out a feature film.

The characters have an interesting design, to be sure. Each has different sewn parts but Acker makes the mistake of animation where the design is the full personality of the character. #8 is a big dolt, #1 is an old tyrant, #6 is a loon (voiced by Crispin Glover, naturally), #7 is a lady rag doll warrior complete with some purposeful enhanced womanly hips, and so on. The bland characters don?t ever take a moment to ask more important questions. These creatures have just been given life in a hostile world absent of life, so how about a moment where they ponder something a bit existential (Why am I here? What is life?) before they immediately speak English fluently and assimilate perfectly in a world they were born into moments earlier? The characters are a challenge to feel any empathy for.

The mechanical monsters designs also come across as highly derivative; then again, so does the movie as a whole. The main villain, The Machine, looks exactly like the Sentinels from the Matrix movies. It has a central red glowing eye, a head lined with pistons, lots of twisty tentacles, and even creates shockwaves of electricity that seem to bathe over the mighty creature. I think it even makes a similar noise as the Sentinels. Then there’s also one mechanical minion whose key design feature is a mutilated doll head. Too bad I already saw this exact same design in Toy Story 14 years ago. Here’s the thing: I don’t automatically cry foul whenever a design concept looks familiar, but when things just keep hitting you in the face with familiarity then it develops into a pattern. The overall film feels stitched together by the parts of other, better movies.

At least there’s a saving grace with bad animated films: you have something moderately interesting to watch considering the painstaking work that goes into every frame. That is not the case with the dreary 9. The entire landscape is post-apocalyptic, which means the sets are little more than ash, ruins, and barren remains. There are only so many scattered mechanical remains you can see before it all just starts resembling one vast junkyard. The setting is not 21st century, but more like mid twentieth in some unidentified Eastern European city (a film reel reveals that we’re in communist territory). I’m not saying that it’s impossible to find beauty in destruction, but this movie misses out. Acker and company has created a competently animated movie with a somewhat different look and feel, but there isn’t a single moment of wonder or awe to be had. It lacks an imaginative spark.

This animated tale lacks a sense of wonder, a sense of intrigue, even a sense of scale. The visuals and story are derivative of other sci-fi/fantasy films. In the original short, the characters were silent, causing the viewer to work harder at interpreting body language and context. If the ragdolls are just going to spout lame exposition gunk, they should have stayed silent. Director Rob Marshall’s upcoming big screen musical, Nine, need not worry about being confused with this film. In about two weeks, everyone except those with Hot Topic punch cards will have forgotten this mediocre movie. People who say, “It’s only an animated movie, give it a break,” are deluding themselves. No matter the genre, an audience should expect to be entertained. 9 just makes me hopeful that in the future Acker proves why he was targeted as a talent on the rise.

Nate’s Grade: C

He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)

Based upon the best-selling nonfiction book, the movie follows the interconnected lives of a cadre of characters trying to get lucky in love. As with any ensemble piece, some storylines are better than others, notably Ginnifer Goodwin (HBO’s Big Love) as a naïve and hapless gal confused by the ever-changing rules and rituals of contemporary courtship. Her scenes with Justin Long, as her dating coach, are the movie’s high-point. The two actors have a light, charming chemistry and their scenes get at the heart of the male/female dating dysfunctionality without feeling trite. But in between, you get a lot of hackneyed yakking about the stereotypical differences between men and women, how dumb men are, how crazy women can be, etc. It’s all been covered to death by other romantic comedies to the point that it feels like common knowledge, which makes it tiring to sit through. Some of the drama feels overly manufactured, like Jennifer Aniston pushing to get married because she her little sister got engaged, there are characters that are just annoying people, like Kevin Connolly continuing to nip at the heels of Scarlett Johansson for some scraps, and Some of the material is weirdly dated, like Drew Barrymore talking about being “Myspace-ed” by a prospective date (Hello, it’s all Facebook all the time now). Naturally, it’s all rather predictable as well, however, this is not the fun date movie it may seem. It hits some rough dramatic patches, like the pains of infidelity, losing trust in a spouse, manipulating people, and occasionally there will be a moment that comes across as genuine and heartfelt, like when Ben Affleck wins over Aniston simply by being thoughtful and doing the dishes. It’s in these sporadic moments that He’s Just Not That Into You feels like it’s tapped something a little deeper and more meaningful than scraping the barrel of romantic comedy clichés.

Nate?s Grade: C+

Reservation Road (2007)

What happened here? Director Terry George was coming off of 2004’s stirring Hotel Rwanda, he had A-list talent like Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly and the results end up feeling like a parody of awards-hungry prestige films steeped in grief and set in suburbia. To be fair, the acting is mostly respectable even if the characters start yelling a majority of their lines. The film moves at an absurdly swift pace that doesn’t allow much time for the actors to react reflectively about grief and guilt. The movie is kept afloat by some contrived coincidences, like Ruffalo’s lawyer being hired by Phoenix to find the culprit responsible for the hit and run that killed his son (surprise, it was Ruffalo behind the wheel!). Reservation Road doesn’t dwell too long on the plot setups it crafts and stumbles into a sudden and convenient epiphany by Phoenix. The conclusion is neither satisfying nor emotionally grueling, and the movie just kind of ends abruptly with little resolved, crushed under the weight of failed pretensions. This movie wants to dig deep and say Big Things about the human condition but it’s hard to do when you’re as emotionally inert and dramatically flaccid as Reservation Road. Seriously, what happened here?

Nate’s Grade: C

Little Children (2006)

Director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) and author Tom Perotta (Election) have created the most incisive, mordant, and entertaining peek into suburban life since 1999’s American Beauty. You really feel the carnal yearning that Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson have as they inch their way to an affair. I’ve never felt the raw appeal of an affair perhaps like this before. Even more amazing, the film explores an entire neighborhood of characters and breathes life into them. Little Children feels like a great novel, with a scalpel-sharp narrator offering glimpses into the inner workings of these people. You get a great sense of worth in the film and it’s easy to fall under its spell. Little Children is a wonderful movie that looks at the complexities of people without judgment but with plenty of sly humor. It’s a fine work of satire and sensuality, and Winslet is becoming so good at delivering powerful performances that she’s being taken for granted as perhaps the best actress of her generation.

Nate?s Grade: A

Babel (2006)/ Blood Diamond (2006)

The world is a global community. It is increasingly difficult to shut out unpleasant news just because it happens to an unfortunate few we’ll never know. Hollywood has reminded us through the years that our actions do have sound repercussions, including our indifference. Babel is Mexican-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s examination on the fragility of human relationships in the world. Blood Diamond wishes to shine the spotlight on America’s love of diamonds fanning the flames of genocide in Africa. Both movies wish to convince the public that they matter, and not just in box-office, though that would be appreciated. Both of these films have good intentions but the results are sloppy and leaden.

In typical Inarritu fashion, the different storylines of Babel converge, blend, criss-cross, and crash together. The timeline isn’t as disruptive as it was in 21 Grams, so that is a welcome relief. The storylines offer wide-eyed views into different worlds and cultures. A Morocco goat herder purchases a riffle for his sons to protect the herd. The two brothers turn sharp-shooting into a competition, with the one betting the other he cannot hit a bus far in the distance. On that bus is Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), a married couple at odds with each other. Suddenly a shot whizzes through the window and into Susan’s neck. Richard panics and struggles with his options being far removed from advanced medical care and being unable to speak with the natives.

The incident becomes the shot heard round the world. The U.S. government is quick to suggest a terrorist link (who didn’t see that one coming?) but caught up in red tape to rescue the couple. Their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), cannot find someone to watch the kids so she can attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) agrees to drive her and the kids south of the border where the blonde moffetts can learn things like how to kill a chicken. Things take a sour note when reentering the United States at a border crossing manned by suspicious patrolmen.

And half a world away, a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) deals in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide by flashing her vagina at boys and throwing herself at older men. Therapy might also be a workable alternative.

The strong ensemble acting is what kept me watching. Babel is filled with many talented actors that each get a turn to look pained, incredulous, and helpless. This is a movie primarily built around sadness and misfortune, and actors jump at those chances. Exhibit A: Brad Pitt. I’ve always thought his serious acting credentials get cast aside because of his good looks (the man even played a Greek god), but he’s into his 40s now and weathering some grown-up gray and wrinkles that, I don’t know how, add a mature sexiness to the man, much like George Clooney. Pitt was serviceable in Babel but failed to impress. He gets to pace a lot and look haggard but he still seems like a distant character. The whole American tourist storyline cannot outrun the sense of pointlessness it seems to be circling. The greatest moments of acting come from the extreme anxiety of Barraza and the dissatisfied yearning of Kikuchi. I expect both women to get nominated for many awards.

The most frustrating aspect of Babel is how little it matters. It’s hard to connect with the characters. And in the end, nothing all that tragic happens to reach anything profound. Most characters leave their shadowy places and only a small number are changed for the worst, mostly the victims of some very bad decision making. But when the movie concludes there is only one dead body and one displaced person. That’s it, and Babel doesn’t even hang on to let us feel that pain. It just skips from story to story never settling in and never evoking any human emotion except for that of morbid curiosity. These people are victims of fate and not much else. Babel is a letdown of a letdown.

The Japanese schoolgirl storyline has no place in this film. The other three storylines all have a pertinent relationship, but the only thing that ties the schoolgirl into this web of international kerfuffle is that her father once owned the gun in question. Wow. It might have made better drama, and more sense, had this riffle had some significance, like it was the weapon of choice for her suicidal mother. Nope, it’s just another object with no more bearing to this family than a stapler. I think the deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl is a terrific character and intensely intriguing, especially as she battles the trials of teenage life and feeling like even more of an outcast than usual, but this story needs its own separate movie. It has no business being here and, like much of Babel, adds little understanding or significance. So much of the movie isn’t even told to the audience, like character back-stories and written catharsis, so any distraction feels like a waste of time for a 140-minute movie.

The ending is symptomatic of the film in general; it just kind of peters out and thinks its message has been well-received. What message? What the hell is Babel saying? Stop, look, and listen? The world stage is at such a precarious time and is, for better or worse, unified; someone else’s problem has ripples that will become our problem. Isolationism is dead. But Babel squanders any attempts at a deeper message by playing it safe; never pushing further than the scene descriptions it has confined itself to. The title refers to the Biblical story where God punished man’s arrogance by creating multiple languages. Most of the conflicts revolve around communication issues, but they really only seem like a small portion of the story. When Amelia takes the kids to Mexico, there really aren’t any communication problems. When the car is stopped by the Border Patrol there aren’t any slip-ups in communication, but Santiago freaks out and bolts. The central idea of Babel, lost communication, never really feels properly executed except with the Japanese schoolgirl, who, like I said, doesn’t even belong here.

When Babel does have something political to dwell upon it is usually very lazy. Law enforcement treats illegal immigrants like crap. The U.S. government is more interested in punishing perceived threats than medically helping those in need. American tourists are boorish and see dusty places like Morocco as a place to be alone, despite all the impoverished people shuffling about. Give me a break. There’s nothing within Babel that makes it worth more than one viewing. Once you know the outcome for characters than the film ceases to have a point. This is a true surprise and disappointment from the team that had so much emotional vitality and open humanity with Amores Perros and 21 Grams. I guess a lot must have gotten lot in translation.

On the flip side, while Babel is a mildly interesting movie desperately needing a message, Blood Diamond is a message in desperate need of an interesting movie. The message rings loud and clear in the film?s opening moments: conflict diamonds are bad. They account for 15 percent of all diamond sales and help finance genocide, civil war, and child brainwashing in Africa. The diamond industry says they cannot decipher which diamonds are which, but come on, they know. They use their market share to control world prices, thus creating a windfall for African rebels. They come up with more diamonds, and the diamond industry purchases them to take them off the market. Got it. But now what?

The short answer is, “‘Just say no’ to conflict diamonds, that is.” The long answer is one very trite movie that wears its liberal idealism on its sleeve with a bit too much fondness. Africa has become the cause celebre of recent films, but have any of them really made a difference? Did The Constant Gardener make us think twice about why drugs are so cheap (because Africans are exploited)? Did Syriana make us think twice why oil was comparatively cheap for Americans (because Africans AND Middle Easterners are exploited)? I doubt it. I may sound a pinch too cynical but I believe that the Unites States of America just generally doesn’t care as long as prices stay nice and low. I applaud filmmakers for attempting to open eyes and change hearts and minds, especially for many thought-provoking and worthy causes. But if you’re going to sponsor a message movie than you need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Blood Diamond will make you gag, that’s how heavy the message is. It displays a depressing showcase of Africa recycling violence, but it always manages to stay on point. The movie is supposed to be concerned with the well being of Africa, but yet it hangs its attention on a pair of white people. Danny (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a South African diamond smuggler who gets the classic Hollywood redemption arc, courtesy of Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) an enslaved mine-worker that has found a pink diamond the size of a bird egg. Danny and Solomon form a reluctant partnership to get recover the diamond, rescue Solomon’s lost son, and get everyone out of the raging gunfire. But the film is focused on Danny’s arc as he goes from scoundrel to savior, with all those black faces in the background just becoming that — background. The film’s climax involves Danny running through a mining camp looking to rescue Solomon’s lost son. However, Danny shoots and kills all the other kids holding weapons as he dances in between explosions. You cannot root for that as a moral audience member, can you? Danny may save one child but he’ll blow away all the rest, and to the pounding score of Hollywood glory. If this was meant to seem meditative than God help us all.

Jennifer Connelly plays a photo journalist that?s a self-described action junkie. She says she just can’t go through her day sipping lattes and reading Ziggy in the funny papers, not with knowing how cruel the world is to one another. Did she just become aware of this? The world has always had people getting treated poorly and will forever. Her character is an outlet to the Western world, a lens that can capture and broadcast the horrors of Africa which she flippantly predicts will be a minute on CNN “between sports and weather.” She’s your prototypical bleeding heart and the not-so-subtle outlet for the righteous indignation of the filmmakers. There’s nothing to her character except a camera for proof, an unyielding moral compass, and a pair of breasts for Danny to improbably snuggle up to.

The message of Blood Diamond is what we’re reminded of time and again, including tidbits to clue us in on how it all began (where did Africa learn some brutality? Why white colonists of course). The movie is built as an action vehicle, but it’s an action vehicle going in the wrong direction. The bursts of action are frequent but never anything well imagined or exciting. Usually the film follows two, or more, characters talking and then they’re interrupted by bouts of gunfire. Danny starts uttering “GO!” and “MOVE!” every other breath and they escape. This formula is repeated for the rest of the movie. It hampers getting to know and feel for the characters and sure as hell doesn’t amount to a lot of interesting action. There’s the main problem: we can’t feel for the characters because the movie doesn’t spend enough time with them, and yet we can’t get excited because the movie doesn’t spend enough time to build effective suspense. Blood Diamond finds its way into a balancing act it is hopelessly ill-prepared for.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) is used to fashioning mass-friendly entertainment with cultural issues bubbling to the surface. Perhaps, though, he should have taken a cue from Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War. That film had an easily identifiable message (guns can be bad) but found ways to engage an audience. It had a lot of political ire and troubling statistics to dish, but Niccol knew that an audience must be entertained first and foremost. He found inventive camera angles, stirring monologues, and fascinating true-life anecdotes about arms trading. The main character wasn’t likeable but you just wanted a longer peek into this world behind the curtain. Blood Diamond lacks the biting insights that made Lord of War powerful and enjoyable. Even Lord of War handled the subject of turning children into a blood-thirsty army better. Zwick seems adrift and too close to his message to care about sharpening a good movie.

The movie has a handful of odd moments. In our introduction to Danny he is negotiating a weapons deal. He speaks to the head of a militia in a highly accented speech and subtitles pop up on the screen. Naturally, you would assume the language currently being spoken is not English. Danny is actually just impersonating an African’s English speaking voice. If you listen to what they’re saying they speak English the entire time. And the line, “In America, it’s bling-bling, but over here it’s bling-bang?” No. A thousand times no.

DiCaprio is muscling his way into a riveting and meaty actor of prominence. His accent is near flawless, just like his Bah-stun accent was in The Departed. He gives more simmer to his role than deserved. Hounsou is a great actor but his most emotive scenes involve a lot of yelling that just seems like yelling. A lot of high-volume yelling doesn’t work when the character is so flimsy. Both of these actors are victims of playing characters with little else to them besides the title of Victim and Victimizer. Connelly and DiCaprio have no chemistry to them, not that the film’s neutered sensuality and agitated story help much. It’s as if Blood Diamond expects that by smashing the two characters together long enough their romance will be plausible. It isn’t. The romance is a distraction at best and eye-rolling at worst.

Babel and Blood Diamond are both pieces of misguided Oscar-bait. Innaritu and his writer for three films, Guillermo Arriaga, have said to have clashed since Babel‘s release and may no longer work again together in the near future. I welcome this trial separation because their film collaborations seem to be dulling. Babel has all the technical skills evident in 21 Grams and Amores Perros, but nothing substantial or contemplative. Conversely, Blood Diamond is a message movie posing as an action flick. It can’t succeed with poorly constructed action sequences and archetypal characters posing as openings for outrage and shameful finger-wagging. The movie is crushed to death by a message. Blood Diamond is a message movie that’s so weighted down it never gets very far. Both films are marginally interesting but nothing transcendent or demanding. Hollywood has its heart in the right place. They just need to make better movies.

Nate’s Grades:

Babel: B-

Blood Diamond: C

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