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Red Sparrow (2018)

The Cold War-worthy spy thriller Red Sparrow is a misfire that doesn’t seem to be able to commit to what it wants to be. It wants to be provocative but serious; however, it lacks the substance to be serious and lacks the conviction to be provocative. It lands in a middle ground between the sleek genre fun of Atomic Blonde and the understated paranoid realism of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. By landing in the middle zone, Red Sparrow is that rare boring movie plagued by untapped potential.

Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a classically trained Russian ballerina that suffers a gruesome injury. Her leering uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) enlists her into a state-run school for spies and assassins who specialize in seducing their targets. “Whore school,” as Dominka terms it, is run by the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who methodically trains her recruits by stripping away every ounce of fear, shame, and defiance. Their bodies belong to the state now, she says, and they will be put to good use for Mother Russia. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is an American spy working in Europe who tries to convince Dominika to switch sides, to take refuge in the United States. Dominika’s superiors order her to get what she can on Nash, find their secret contact, and eliminate them both.

Firstly, Red Sparrow is far too long and far too leisurely paced at a bladder-unfriendly 140-minutes. When things do get interesting, the overall slow pacing has a tendency to sap whatever momentum was starting to emerge. The entire first act should have been condensed down into an opening ten minutes rather than stretching out into 30-some minutes. We don’t need a full half-hour explaining what Dominika’s life was like before her new life as a deadly state-sponsored seductress. We don’t need all that time to see her life as a ballerina, her life caring for her sick mother, and her hesitancy with her first mission before she’s roped into fully accepting her fate. I don’t need this much convincing that her life was better before or that she was trapped into this decision. I don’t care that Lawrence studied ballet for four months. It’s not integral and it’s a deadly start to a story. Once Dominika is at her spy school, that’s when the movie really starts. I was getting awfully sleepy as the movie just seemed to drift along. I know a high school student who saw the movie and said, “I fell asleep at the beginning, and then I woke up later and it was STILL the beginning!”

Another problem is that the parallel storyline about Nash and the Americans is far less interesting. Every time the movie jumps to his perspective, you can feel the movie stalling. A U.S. spy who is pushing against his own brass and the politics of the agency can’t compete with a woman who is thrust into unfamiliar and dangerous missions that test every physical and psychological boundary she knows. When Nash and Dominika cross paths, he finally starts to justify his placement. Much like the delayed first act, though, the extra time setting up his life before he was important was not time well spent. Their relationship together is mean to appeal to Dominika to convince her to flip allegiances. They don’t feel like they really connect, and part of that is the lackluster chemistry between the actors. The emphasis on their romantic relationship is even more moot because Dominika’s real motivation is revenge. She didn’t need a handsome, doe-eyed American man for that to happen.

Where Red Sparrow does work is with its unique, high-pressure, destabilizing training environment. There’s a prurient appeal when it comes to watching the training program for assassins who must strip everything away and use their bodies as a weapon. This is where the film is at its most interesting and its most sensational as far as use of genre elements. There is an uncomfortable amount of stark sexual violence depicted in the movie. I lost track of the number of times Dominika is raped, tortured, sexually assaulted, or assault is attempted upon her. I don’t feel like these moments of sexual violence are glamorized or designed for base titillation; it’s a window into the harsh reality these women face. They have been robbed of their agency, their very sex weaponized. There’s a fascinating story to be told from that perspective and the trials and tribulations within “whore school” are harrowing, shocking, and always intriguing, which makes it even sadder when the filmmakers try and posit an arty sheen of self-seriousness. This is a movie about training spies to seduce the enemy and then prove their skills. This is a movie where the head of the spy school runs a play-by-ply analysis on a student’s use of a handjob. This is not going to be John le Carre, and that’s fine. Rather than embrace its inherently trashy side, Red Sparrow tries to stay above the icky stuff, while still indulging in a heaping helping of blunt sexual violence. It’s truly strange. It’s like the filmmakers felt they were making something sober and thoughtful and didn’t want to taint their award-caliber production with too much emphasis on the thing that makes it most interesting. And then instead they threw in a lot more sexual violence, because that’s also serious, and that’s the kind of thing serious movies do to be serious.

Lawrence (mother!) is once again a strong anchor for the audience, even if her Russian accent falters from scene-to-scene. This is a very different role for Lawrence and requires her to simultaneously put much of herself on display physically while finding ways to hide the inner life and thinking of her character from the audience. There’s an interesting character here buried under layers. After her accident, Dominika viciously injures her dance partner and his new leading lady, and it previews the cruelty that Dominika is capable of. Much of the press in the lead up has focused on Jennifer Lawrence’s nudity, and it’s there, okay, but it’s never really emphasized. There is one sequence in particular where she disrobes and taunts her would-be rapist to try and ravish her available body, humiliating him, and it’s one of the few scenes where Dominika turns her body around as a tool of empowerment. Granted, it’s within the prism of a school that’s practically state-run sex slavery, so let’s not get carried away with larger feminist implications. Lawrence keeps the audience guessing scene to scene as she transforms from setting, slipping into different identities that suit her, thinking on her feet, and being, frankly, adult.

There are a slew of good supporting actors tasked with saying ridiculous and foreboding things, like Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress of “whore school” and Jeremy Irons as a high-level Russian spymaster. What really catch the attention are the accents. We have a group of actors from the U.S., Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany portraying Russians, and with Edgerton, an Aussie portraying an American. As you might expect, the Ruskie accents can be a bit thick and obviously phony at times.

It’s not too difficult to see the kind of movie that Red Sparrow could have been. It even previews it from time to time, providing a glimpse into an alternative version of the movie that decides to take ownership of its more sensational, sexualized elements with genre pride. Red Sparrow feels like an out-of-time throwback to the erotic thrillers of the go-go 90s. I mean does Russia even need to train sexy assassins any more in the information age where a troll farm and some Facebook ads can get the job done? Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games movies) has a controlled, precise Fincher-like visual acumen that gives the film a sleek and sterile allure to the spy shenanigans. It’s a nice-looking movie to watch, but without a better story, let alone a verdict on tone, it’s a nice-looking movie that runs self-indulgently too long. Consider it a screensaver you forgot was still going on but with Jennifer Lawrence nudity.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Bright (2017)

Netflix has been fighting to get into the world of theatrical features. While its original series have met remarkable acclaim, Netflix still wants to draw filmmakers. There have been a few high-profile film buys like Brad Pitt’s War Machine, the live-action American Death Note, and it’s become Adam Sandler’s new home. Bright is a $90 million dollar fantasy film directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad, End of Watch) and written by Max Landis (American Ultra, Dirk Gently). The big buzzy movie has been met with big derision from critics, some even referring to it as the worst film of 2017. After watching Bright, I think my friend Drew Brigner sums it up pretty well: “It’s not terrible, but it’s not great.” Slap that onto the poster, Netlfix.

In an alternate Los Angeles, humans exist side-by-side with fantasy creatures like fairies, elves, and orcs. Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is assigned a “diversity hire,” Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc on the force. Nobody wants to work with him. The humans are looking for whatever means they can of getting rid of the orc, and Ward’s superiors are looking for his assistance. Then one night on patrol, Ward and Jakoby come across a nightmarish crime scene. Bodies are burned in place. A woman is stuck in a wall. There’s one survivor, Tikka (Lucy Fry), an elf who has gotten hold of a magic wand. It so happens that magic wands are powerful weapons and only Brights can hold them. Word gets out about their discovery and every group in L.A. is after this powerful item. Ward and Jakoby have to escape gangs, orcs, corrupt cops, and an elf cult leader, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who needs the wand to summon her Dark Lord back to dominate Earth.

For the first 48 minutes or so of Bright I was willing to give it a welcomed chance. The world building from Landis presented enough interesting wrinkles to keep me intrigued. The banter felt believable enough to fit into its desired genre. Edgerton (It Comes at Night) is engaging and charming as a good-hearted orc whose life’s dream is to be a police officer. He is viewed as a traitor by his own kind, so that makes us like him even more for what he’s willing to sacrifice for this precarious position. There’s a personal source of conflict between Ward and Jakoby that is introduced early for them to work through. There are magic police, which is kind of cool. The world feels lived-in with clever details even though it could have used more of that sense of living. Too often it feels like the only difference in this new L.A. are scattered creatures in different locales. Elves are the rich elite. Orcs are the poor and disadvantaged. I could have used more magical creatures in the mix. What about dwarves, wizards, dragons, anything? Still, Landis’ script was providing enough breadcrumbs to carry me along, building up to the wallop of finding the magic wand. It forces Ward to make a startling personal choice that will define the rest of the film. It took a while to get going, but I was still willing to give Bright the benefit of the doubt.

However, it’s after the 48-minute mark that Bright begins its disjointed descent and never truly recovers, disassembling at an alarming rate. What follows is a series of poorly developed, poorly shot action sequences as the characters bump into one violent group after another. The interesting plot development gets put on hold and the weaker elements begin taking greater significance. It wouldn’t be a fantasy film without a great prophecy, which comes into bearing in the most contrived of ways. Speaking of contrived, there is a coincidental rescue late in the second act that made me loudly groan. Then there’s redoubling back to previous locations presumably to save money on set design. Once the movie sets things in motion for the mad scramble for the wand, it just feels like one unrelated sequence after another to keep our characters on the run. Even with the fantastical world building, you’ll be hard-pressed to muster genuine surprise. That’s because all of the later plot turns are readily telegraphed, like the coincidental save. We’re told that only a Bright can handle a magic wand and anybody else that touches it will explode. First off, why doesn’t this make the magic wand a defensive weapon if you know how rare Brights are? If you know idiots are going to have grabby hands, why not slide it toward your enemies? Regardless, knowing that dichotomy, you know one of the two main character will be revealed to be a Bright during a climactic moment, because why else have it? Anticipating payoffs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you can anticipate all of them, then you’re in trouble. The most surprising aspect of Bright is how ultimately it’s still a formulaic buddy copy movie dressed up with some extra fantasy spectacle.

Another weakness that becomes more apparent as the film continues is the characters. Ward and Jokoby are pretty thinly sketched out with a few clarifying details. Ward is the lightly racist archetype who learns to accept his partner’s differences over the course of one long night. He’s pretty indistinguishable from the character Smith plays in the Bad Boys films. I suppose his prejudice and desire to better support his family is enough setup to question whether he’ll follow in the corrupt patterns of his colleagues. But after he makes his choice at that 48-minute mark, it’s like his character growth just stops. He still barks orders, he still quips one-liners, and he makes the big sacrificial gesture, but his character development is iced for a solid hour. Jakoby has more ground to cover and fairs somewhat better as the Jackie Robinson of the orc community. Except this guy seems way too inexperienced, clumsy, naïve, and simply not good at his job. In order to be the first diversity hire, I’m expecting this guy to have to go above-and-beyond to even be considered for a position. It reminds me of Shonda Rhimes quote where she says, as a black woman, “you have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” I didn’t believe Jakoby was the best candidate for shattering that orc-sized glass ceiling. The harassment from the other cops can be painfully juvenile as well, like tacking on a stupid middle school-esque “kick me” sign to his back. He wants to make more of himself and because of that dream he’s shunned by his fellow orcs and distrusted by humans. That perspective should be far more interesting than what we get with Bright.

The supporting characters fare even worse as bodies given momentary activity. Tikka is merely a plot device and not a character. She doesn’t even speak until close to 85 minutes into the movie, and it wasn’t really worth the wait. A toaster could have replaced her and the plot would remain relatively the same. She is the definition of a prop. She has no personality, no agency, and no goal beyond keep the powerful thing away from the villain. Because she’s a Bright she’s one of the few who can wield the magic wand, but even those rare occurrences are underwhelming. If this thing is as advertised, a “nuclear bomb that grants wishes,” then why doesn’t Tikka just utilize it to destroy the villains once and for all or at least help Ward and Jakoby? Poor Fry (The Darkness) just gets yanked around from scene to scene, shivering and generally looking frail. She’s got some killer eyebrows though.

Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) doesn’t have much to work with as the chief villain, Leilah. She’s an acrobatic murder machine who wants to summon the Big Evil Thing of Old, and that’s about it. Rapace does have a naturally elfin-looking face, so it’s solid casting. The other characters, especially the various antagonists, are just slight variations on heavies. No real personalities. No dimension. They’re just a video game stage of slightly different looking goons to be cleared before the next stage. Maybe there’s a larger point about the similar darker impulses all races are tempted by, but I think that’s giving the movie more credit than it deserves.

On that front, the racial commentary of this alternate L.A. is muddled, to say the least. The orcs are obviously meant to take the place of lower-class African-Americans in this newfangled City of Angels. However, what does the movie do with this? The orcs are judged to be troublemakers, prone to violence, and generally subhuman, with several people holding a thousand-year-old grudge over the mistakes of previous orcs. Under Ayer’s murky direction, the orcs easily resemble the black and Latino gangs we’ve seen in many of his police dramas. They’re meant to be an underclass. What does that make black people? There’s a tone-deaf joke in the opening where Ward yells, “fairy lives don’t matter” before swatting the winged nuisance to its death. I guess racism against orcs has replaced all other forms of intra-human racism. Landis’ script takes a hot button issue and drops the ball on making the commentary meaningful. Just think about what Zootopia did with its racial allegory on predators and prey. They took a serious topic and had something to say about it. Landis takes a serious topic and ignores the greater potential. By the end of the film, it feels oddly like Landis just took an old buddy cop story concept and grafted some incidental fantasy elements onto it and called it a full day.

Ayer doesn’t help matters by filming in his Suicide Squad-vision of drizzly grays, cool blues, lens flares, and lots of dim shadows. The very look of the movie is so downcast and the action sequences are too poorly developed and choreographed. The combat is very often close-quartered and the jumpy edits and slippery sense of geography make the brawls practically incomprehensible. The sequences don’t develop organic complications. It’s just the same concept over and over, get to that place, shoot the bad guys before they shoot you, repeat. The action also misses opportunities to connect with the character motivations and to derive mini-goals that can help spice things up. Bright has none of that. Even with the inclusion of magic and magical creatures! The best scene is an attack in a convenience store that gets closest to involving parallel lines of action with some organic consequences related to its specific setting. Otherwise it’s a lot of shootouts in locations you’ve seen in other grimy cop movies (alleys, warehouses, strip bars, etc).

Bright is the most expensive movie in Netflix’s history and they’re already reportedly developing a potential sequel. The world Landis has created has enormous potential. It’s unfortunate that it’s not realized in this first edition. It’s not as bad as some film critics have been harping about but Bright should have been much better. The characters are lacking, the world building feels unfulfilled, the narrative is predictable, the social commentary is simplistic, and the action sequences are dreary and unexciting. I think something like Bright might in the end be intended as a loss leader for Netflix, something they initially lose money on but ultimately draws in new subscribers. It’s almost the same cost for that canceled Baz Luhrmann series, The Get Down (at least got eleven episodes from that). Bright is an underdeveloped genre mash-up that might make you reach for a magic wand of your own, your remote.

Nate’s Grade: C

It Comes at Night (2017)

Like an earlier harbinger of the potential pitfalls of mother! marketing as something it’s not, the vaguely apocalyptic drama It Comes at Night is a paranoid thriller that is so bleak and absent resolution that you’ll wonder why anyone bothered. It’s not a bad film, and actually writer/director Trey Edward Shults has a knowing command on how to raise and develop tension with very precise camerawork and visual composition. The slow inspection of offscreen noise is still ready to build tension. The story has promise. Joel Edgerton is the father of a family trying to eek out an existence after the spreading of a deadly plague. He has a strict series of guidelines to protect his family members and keep them secure. This is put into jeopardy when he meets another family and invites them into his home. The rest of the film follows the slow dismantling of trust and the rise in suspicion and how it ruins both families. That’s essentially the movie. There is no “it” of the It Comes at Night. The post-apocalyptic element is at best tertiary to the plot, and the titular warning seems odd considering sickness can arrive at all hours. I think the reason audiences seemed to froth wildly at the mouth over this movie is due to its grossly misleading marketing. I re-watched the trailer and all of the supernatural imagery, which is extensively highlighted, is from dream sequences, and one dream sequence within a dream sequence. There’s a moment where the grandfather’s dog runs off into the woods at barks at an unseen force. You hear strange sounds but you never see anything, and this becomes just another unresolved, underdeveloped element. This is more a Twilight Zone parable about the destructive nature of man. The look of the film is moody, the performances are good, but I felt underwhelmed by the end and questioned the point of it all. It Comes at Night is okay. I can’t see what people loved and I can’t see what people hated, though I can see more of the aversion.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Loving (2016)

loving_onesheetRichard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) are a young couple deeply in love in the late 1950s. The only problem: he is white and she is black. The laws in their native Virginia forbid marriages to different races. The Lovings traveled to Washington D.C. to be married and then had to live as fugitives before ultimately getting caught and exiled under threat of jail time. Eventually an ambitious ACLU lawyer (Nick Kroll, broadening his range) challenges the legality of the miscegenation law, which will lead to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling striking down laws barring interracial marriage.

The ordinariness of the Lovings betrays the kind of movie moments we expect from great historical turning points, namely moral grandstanding and stentorian speechifying. We’re so used to accentuated versions of history because, deep down, that’s what our storytelling impulses crave because the real thing is often less streamlined and usually more boring. We want Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln admonishing his fellows with the power of his oratory. We don’t necessarily want to watch President Lincoln rewrite his speeches for grammatical mistakes. With all that being said, I appreciated the approach that writer/director Jeff Nichols took with Loving because the very point at the heart of the movie is just how powerfully ordinary Mildred and Richard Loving are. Their love is meant to be ordinary, their relationship relatable. They’re meant to be just like you or I. This thematically taps into the message of the movie about the fundamental human rights of American citizens to love who they love regardless of what others may think. There is nothing dangerous or subversive about their marriage. There is nothing radical. The rationale for why the state would care so much about a marriage can be flabbergasting, including one judge’s written opinion that God created separate races and placed them at separate points on the globe thereby never intending for them to mix. This was considered acceptable legal justification for discrimination in the 1960s and it’s absurd. The other argument against interracial marriage is that biracial children are a harm to larger society… somehow. It’s easy to look back to the past and shake our heads with a fury of moral indignation and say “How could they do that?” but some of these exact same legal arguments have been used in the twenty-first century to justify denying gay citizens the same equality. In that sense, Loving shows us how far we’ve come but also how far we have to go to make sure that human beings are simply considered human.

loving2_h_2016If that wasn’t enough the movie also makes a powerfully compelling case about how the state’s miscegenation laws were an offense to human decency. The Lovings are given the legal ultimatum to separate or be exiled from the state, their families, and the home they were making for their family. They have been banished for loving the “wrong” person. Mildred and Richard try living out of the state in a D.C. suburb but it’s not the same; Mildred misses the quiet and relative safety of the country as well as the warmth of her immediate family. They decide to sneak back into Virginia and lay low, and you get a genuine sense of the day-to-day anxiety of having to constantly look over your shoulder and fly under the radar lest someone throw you in prison for loving another race. The degradation and dehumanizing effect of the miscegenation laws is on full display with how Mildred and Richard must act like criminals afraid of their country of laws. They may be used to the glares and hateful comments from intolerant onlookers but it’s another thing when the power of the state is employed to enforce that same hate. The wear and tear of their love perplexes some of the Loving friends and family. Mildred’s brother and sister each take turns blaming Richard for knowingly bringing this heap of trouble upon their beloved sister and for taking her from them. Her brother confesses he doesn’t know why he doesn’t just divorce her and stay together, satisfying the definition of the law. It’s a pertinent question that asks what is the value of marriage? He could readily be with Mildred and save themselves the persecution, but why should they have to settle for something less with their love? Why should they have to be second-class citizens?

This is very much a duet of a movie and Negga and Edgerton deliver admirable, understated work that cuts deeply. I was most impressed with Edgerton (The Gift) who has the more private and insular character. He’s not seeking the spotlight and doesn’t want to be a civil rights crusader. Richard Loving isn’t exactly a man prone to those speeches we crave and he’s certainly not a man to blurt out his feelings. Edgerton has to play within a tiny frame of emotional reference and he makes it work. When he does start to break down, his stoic defenses melting under the pressure and soul-killing compromises, the moments carry even greater emotional weight. Negga is the more emotive of the two but even much of her performance lies in her large, expressive eyes, taking in the collective injustices and triumphs. Using approximately the same Southern accent from her plucky performance on AMC’s Preacher, she radiates warmth and goodness and a sense of indomitable perseverance. It’s a performance that speaks in small gestures and small moments. Much of the film is Negga and Edgerton working together and each lifts the other up, providing the right space needed. There’s a physical intimacy that says much as each member of the relationship seeks out the other’s touch, grip, presence for comfort. It’s a delicate and understated duet of performances that bring the Lovings to faithful life.

loving-november-2016-movieNichols (Mud, Take Shelter) is the kind of filmmaker that astonishes me with every new movie. He reinvents himself with every picture and he takes genres and redefines them, shaping them to his needs, while never losing sight of tone and characters and narrative payoffs. He’s already delivered one of the best movies of the year with Midnight Special and now he impresses yet again, this time turning toward awards-friendly Important Stories of History. Nichols’ sense of place is implacable. He’s also superb at developing characters and giving them the time to properly breathe. He keeps the spirit of the story linked to his subjects, Richard and Mildred Loving, and makes sure we understand their plight and the larger issue at hand. This isn’t a film that’s going to hit you over the head with its message; in fact you could make a claim that perhaps the movie is too insular. As presented, the Lovings are relatable but we’re only given a fraction of insight into who they are as people and what makes them tick. There’s much subtext here to unpack. It does feel like we’re fighting through the defenses of Mildred and Richard to better know them. This specific approach allows the movie to keep in spirit with the ordinariness of the Lovings and their unknowing place in the history of civil rights, but it also caps the potential emotional impact. We’re invested in them as people but not as completely as characters. It’s a minor criticism perhaps but it’s really the only one I have for Nichols’ movie.

Given our recent turbulent political environment, Loving is an even more significant film. Jeff Nichols has crafted a poignant and affecting movie that passes over easy histrionics for a better representation of history and its characters. These people didn’t want to change the world; they just wanted to live out their lives. Mildred and Richard Loving are regular people living regular lives and that’s the ultimate message of the movie and their love. Having won their Supreme Court battle, the couple returns home to their original plot of land Richard bought in Virginia with the purpose of building his wife a house. Somber text appears in the sky to inform us that Richard would die in a car accident a mere six years later. It left me with a pall thinking about what a short span of time this man had to cherish the woman he loved without recriminations before it all came to a tragic end. It doesn’t seem fair, and I hope that’s a message other audiences take with them. When demagogues try and use religion in place of civil law to justify state-sponsored discrimination, saying the love others share is inferior and somehow a danger to their own lives, that’s when people need to remember the Lovings. This life is too short to harangue others about whom they choose to give their love to. Here is a beautiful, gentle, and restrained film that reminds us that the power of love is in its superhuman perseverance.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Midnight Special (2016)

midnight-special-poster-600x889Jeff Nichols should already be a household name after Mud and Take Shelter, and with his new movie Midnight Special, the man has done nothing to break his incredible record of success with making deeply personal, ruminative, thrilling, and brilliant films. Midnight Special is a better and more earnest love letter to the cinema of Spielberg than Super 8 was. A young boy exhibits strange and supernatural powers. The religious compound he came from looks at him as a prophet. The government thinks he might be a weapon. Two different groups are on the hunt for this boy, and that’s where Nichols drops us right into the middle of, respecting the intelligence of his audience to catch up and figure things as they develop. In some ways it reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road, an expert chase film that establishes its characters naturally as it barrels onward. The acting is wonderful all around and Nichols does a great job of finding small character moments that speak volumes, giving everyone time in the spotlight. The various twists and turns can be surprising, heartwarming, funny, but they stay true to the direction of the story he’s telling and grounded in the simple, unyielding anxiety and love of parents for their child. Michael Shannon (Nichols go-to collaborator) is directly affecting as a humble but determined father risking everything for the well-being of his son. The concluding act left me awed and felt something akin to what I think Brad Bird may have been going for with Tomorrowland. This is a thoughtful science fiction movie that allows its characters space to emote, its plot room to breathe, and yet still thrills and awes on a fraction of a Hollywood budget. It shouldn’t be long before some studio finally taps Nichols to jump to the big leagues of a franchise film, but if he wanted to keep making these small, character-driven indies on his own terms, I’d die happy.

Nate’s Grade: A

Black Mass (2015)

MV5BNzg0ODI3NDQxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzgzNDA0NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_For decades, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) was the most feared man in Boston. After being released from Alcatraz, he returned home to his Massachusetts roots and consolidated power with an iorn grip. He and his cronies ruled Boston’s criminal underworld and were given protection from none other than the FBI. Thanks to agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood pal of Bulger’s, his crimes were given an implicit blessing (as long as he didn’t go too far) as he served as an FBI informant. In reality he was just ratting out his competition and abusing his power. This charade lasted for decades until Bulger went on the run, not being caught until 2011.

Black Mass really suffers from its two core characters, Bulger and Connolly, who are just not that interesting, which is a great surprise for a true-story about corruption and murder. Crime drama have an allure to them and this is accentuated by their colorful and usually larger-than-life figures that we watch commit all those terrible yet cinematic acts of vicious violence. Being the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s crime lord in The Departed, you’d assume that the real-life Bulger would have a menace and personality that fills up the big screen, leaving you asking for more. Shockingly, he doesn’t. He’s a mean guy and he has his moments of severe intimidation, but he’s also practically a 1990s action movie villain with a sneer and one-dimensional sense of posturing. He doesn’t come across as a character but more as a boogeyman. We see him help some old ladies in the neighborhood, but you never get a sense he has any care or loyalty for his old stomping grounds, especially as he pumps drugs into the impoverished community. We don’t get any sense about how his mind works or what motivates Bulger beyond unchecked greed. We don’t get a sense of any discernable personality. We don’t have any scene that feels tailored toward the character (even though I assume many are based on true events); instead, Bulger feels unmoored and generally unimportant to Black Mass because he could be replaced by any standard movie tough guy. How in the world has a movie about notorious criminal Whitey Bulger found a way to make him this boring?

fallmovies16f-black-massThen there are the underdeveloped supporting characters of Connolly and Bulger’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). The guy responsible for Bulger’s misdeeds getting the green light should be a far more important person in this story but he’s mostly portrayed as a stooge. He wants to look out for Bulger but despite one “you’ve changed” speech from his beleaguered wife, you don’t truly get any sense that Connolly has changed. You don’t get a sense of his moral dilemma or even his desperation as new leadership in the FBI starts to see through his poor obfuscations. He’s a stooge from the beginning and we feel nothing when his self-serving alliance comes to an unceremonious end. There is even less when it comes to Billy, a character that seems to pretend his brother is a different person. Billy works as a state senator. His political position must have supplied more inherent drama than what they movie affords. Black Mass is doomed when its three central characters are this dull.

Another problem is that the movie makes Bulger too protected for too long to the point it becomes comical. The script follows a routine where an associate of Bulger’s knows too much or is going to confess to the police, and within usually the next scene that character is easily dispatched, sometimes in broad daylight and with scores of witnesses. There are several recognizable actors who must have filmed for a weekend. I understand Connolly was protecting his meal ticket here with the Bureau, but Bulger is so brazen that we as an audience need more justification for how Connolly could cover for so long. It feels like Bulger has free reign and that extends into the screenplay as well. Without a stronger sense of opposition, or at least watching Bulger rise through the mob ranks, we’re left with a collection of scenes of the status quo being repeatedly reconfirmed.

I’ve figured out the way to revise Black Mass and make it far more entertaining. As stated above, Bulger is just too much a one-note boogeyman to deserve the screen time he’s given, and his onscreen dominance hampers what should be the movie’s true focus, Agent Connolly. Here is where the movie’s focal point should be because this is the transformation of a person. Bulger is the same from start to finish, only shifting in degrees of power, but it’s Connolly who goes on the moral descent. His is the more interesting journey, as he tries to use his childhood connections to get ahead in the FBI, but he consistently has to make compromise after compromise, and after awhile he’s gone too deep. Now he has to worry about being caught or being too expendable to Bulger. This character arc, given its proper due, would make for a terrific thriller that’s also churning with an intense moral ambiguity of a man trying to justify the choices he has made to stay ahead. It’s a more tragic hero sort of focus but one that has far more potential to illuminate the inner anxiety and psychological torment of the human heart rather than constantly going back to Buger to watch him whack another person. It’s far more interesting to watch a man sink into the mire he has knowingly constructed, and that’s why the narrative needed to shift its focus to Connolly to really succeed.

black-mass-depp-1280jpg-32cad0_1280wDepp (Pirates of the Caribbean) takes a few steps back from his more eccentric oddballs to portray the unnerving ferocity of Bulger, and he’s quite good at playing a human being again, though Bulger strains the definition of human. He underplays several scenes and his eyes burrow into you with such animosity that it might make you shudder. He’s a thoroughly convincing cold-blooded killer, though I wonder if part of my praise is grading Depp on a curve since Bulger is so unlike his recent parts. Regardless, Depp is the most enjoyable aspect of Black Mass and a reconfirmation that he can be a peerless actor when he sinks his teeth into a role rather than a series of tics. He also handles the Boston accent far better than his peers. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Edgerton (The Gift) are more than capable actors but oh boy do both flounder with their speaking voices. They are greatly miscast as two native Massachusetts sons.

If you’re a fan of crime thrillers steeped in true-life details of heinous men (it’s typically men) committing heinous acts, even you will likely be underwhelmed or marginally disappointed by Black Mass. There just isn’t enough going on here besides a series of bad events that don’t feel like they properly escalate, complicate, or alter our characters until the film’s very end when the plot requires it. The screenplay has propped up Bulger by his rep, told Depp to crank up his considerable glower, and called it a day. It’s a Boston mob story that needed more intensive attention to its characters to survive. Black Mass is a crime story that dissolves into its stock period details and genre trappings, becoming a good-looking but ultimately meaningless window into a hidden world.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Gift (2015)

the-gift-poster-3Reminiscent of adult thrillers that dominated the 1990s, Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is a slick and fiendishly enjoyable movie that unravels methodically and is comfortable dealing with moral ambiguity. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are transitioning to a new city and a new job when they meet an old high school acquaintance, Gordon (Edgerton). It seems at first like “Gordo” is going to be a scary stalker with boundary issues, but Edgerton, who also wrote and directed, keeps pushing his familiar narrative further, adding different shades to the trio of characters and allowing them to be flawed humans revealing their secrets. It’s a movie that’s not afraid to go dark and dwell in the unknown, especially with a note-perfect morally murky ending that leaves the viewer in the same wonderfully cruel sense of uncertainty and gnawing curiosity. Bateman pays against type as a rather strident character who definitely has issues with sticking to the full truth. Hall is more than a damsel in distress. She’s overcoming serious problems that she may or may not bear some culpability for, which makes her performance that much more interesting. Edgerton doesn’t overplay any off-kilter tics; his Gordo is a bit off, and always comes across like he’s holding back saying more, but his impression is a lot more wounded animal than psychopath. The screenplay is a model of efficiency and the secrets and reveals are evenly doled out. The Gift is an entertaining thriller with dark turns, deliberate pacing and structure, morally grey characters, comfort in ambiguity, and a healthy respect for its mature audience.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

MV5BMjI3MDY0NjkxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTM3NTA0MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_Director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) is back to work some of his Gladiator magic on another sword-and-sandals epic, the classic story of Moses, this time played by an ever-bedraggled and bearded Christian Bale. It’s been a banner year for Christianity at the movies, though most of those films have been uninspiring save for Darren Arofonsoky’s radical and ambitious Noah. That movie did not go over well with many conservative ticket-buyers. That’s the danger of adapting the biblical epics; pleasing the core audience means not straying too far from the accepted renditions of the oft-told tales, no matter if those popular renditions are themselves inerrant. Exodus: Gods and Kings is an underwhelming translation that slogs through the miraculous. It’s empty CGI wonder in place of authentic storytelling and emotional resonance.

Christian Bale Exodus Gods and KingsExodus: Gods and Kings is a big-budget biblical epic that is startling in what it lacks, namely any amount of surprise or character development. The Moses story is oft told so I’m glad that Scott’s film skips ahead to when he’s already an adult. No basket in the reeds necessary. The brotherly conflict has little impact because, besides Moses, no other character is even given proper attention. Ramses (Joel Edgerton) is pretty much a thoughtless killer from the start, someone who ignores his advisers when it comes to political unrest and just slaughters his own starving people. He is by no means a dynamic villain in any shape, which is disappointing because the role has such dramatic potential. The 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt did a better job exploring the relationship between Moses and Ramses, the pharaoh. In fact, that movie did just about everything better, and it had some pretty songs too. Stuck with a one-note villain, Exodus tries to round out Moses by making him a figure of doubt, providing an arc where he finds his voice when he finds his faith in Judaism. The film even sets it up so Moses has to go on his quest so he can just return home to his family. It’s a pretty strict hero’s journey storyline. Bale is plenty good. His character just isn’t that interesting nor is anyone else. Being stuck with this crew for 150 minutes can get to be rather tedious. That’s because the real emphasis has been put on the special effects and digital landscapes. The action is acceptable but little sticks in your memory. I’m starting to become numb to CGI spectacle. I’m starting to think back to the epics from the 1950s and 60s, when there was no such thing as computer effects. Every person assembled for those epic shots of huddled masses was a real human being, and that’s becoming more impressive with each and every CGI spectacle with copy-and-paste digital figurines.

Given the predictable nature of the plot, you try and find little moments or directions that stand out, something, anything to mark this newest Moses story as different from the numerous retellings of cinema’s past. Beyond the modern-day special effects and the strength of Scott as a visual artist, here is a short list of what you have to look forward to with Exodus: Gods and Kings.

1) An attempt to ground a biblical epic with realism. If conservative audiences were upset with Aronofsky’s portrayal of the Almighty in Noah, just wait till they see what Exodus does. It’s not that God has been removed from the tale, it’s just that God has been mitigated in a way as to provide a rational throughline to follow the supernatural events of the ten plagues and so on. There’s even the possibility that Moses is just seeing things in his head. Two different characters advise Moses that being hit on the head could be the real source for his visions of God. Joshua (Aaron Paul) spies on Moses at several points arguing with God but sees no one else. The plagues are presented in a cause and effect series of misfortunes, with the Nile being turned red due to a surge of crocodiles munching on all the fish. The polluted water then causes the frogs to leave en mass, which then causes them to die and bring about waves of flies, which bring disease to sicken the livestock as well as boils for the Egyptians. Some thought went into this, however, it’s all inconsequential with the Angel of Death killing the first-born sons. There’s no real skeptical or scientific method to explain away this one, as the biblical story relates, and so the grounded approach seems misplaced. It takes away the miraculous from the miracles. And yet, even the parting of the Red Sea is given this same approach, with it resembling low tides brought about by perhaps a meteor strike. The fantastical nature of the Moses story feels handicapped by going a more realistic route. This is not the biblical epic for realism.

exodus-gods-and-kings-62) God is literally represented as a petulant child. When God does make Himself present for Moses, it’s in the form of a young child who is often mocking his servant. This is an angry often-bloodthirsty God who doesn’t appreciate being challenged. He complains how long Moses is taking with his war of attrition, and Moses says right back, “Impatient? You waited 400 years with ‘your people’ in slavery.” A fair complaint, and one that God does not answer.

3) Bad overall casting. Whitewashing isn’t exactly a new trend in Hollywood. It’s not like Charlton Heston looked particularly Middle Eastern. However, it’s rather distracting to watch a movie starring Egyptians and Middle Eastern Jews portrayed by a Welshman, an Australian, John Turturro, Sigoruney Weaver and Aaron Paul. I am a fan of each of these actors but they are just wrong for these parts. There are very little people of any color in the film despite the fact of its geographic location. Moses marries Zipporah, who several biblical scholars believe to be Ethiopian, which seems like a natural opportunity for some much-needed diversity in the cast. Just because you give Paul a bushy beard does not mean he suddenly resembles a Middle Eastern Jew. Same thing with adding eyeliner and bronzer to Edgerton. Then there’s the bizarre appearance of Scottish actor Ewen Bremner (The Rundown) as an adviser for the king. Taken as a whole, the whitewashing is a nagging distraction from a supposedly more grounded approach. To be fair, having relatively unknown (as far as the public is concerned) actors of appropriate ethnic background speaking in subtitled Hebrew and Egyptian sounds like a hard sell for a studio footing a $140 million dollar bill.

4) Lots of dead horses. This is not a friendly movie for our equine friends.

5) Moses sex. Well, sort of, because showing a husband and wife being physically intimate will still offend some of the more conservative ticket-buyers. So after Moses goes through his somewhat romantic question and answer ritual with his wife, the camera pans away from the disrobing couple and fades out. Classy. Now on to more CGI spectacle and carnage thank you very much.

I admire Noah more and more and think he successfully found a way to make a biblical epic accessible, challenging, and complex morally and psychologically without sparing the dark details. In essence he found a way to make a popular story new and interesting again. Scott’s Exodus just leaves me shrugging my shoulders. It’s by no means an appalling film. Beyond the big-budget modern-day spectacle, there isn’t enough going on in this movie to even justify all the expenses. The characters are too sketchy and given little to do, especially Ramses who pretty much just sneers and barks for 90 minutes. The costumes are fancy, the production design is lush, and all the technical elements are impeccable. It just falls woefully short on what should make you care. It feels like a product more than a film and a resonating story, and as such it’s delivered just in time for the Christmas shopping season for the masses. The film takes too long to get started and too long to conclude. It has some moments in the middle, especially when Moses is plotting his political insurrection, but as a whole Exodus is disappointingly lackluster. It ends up becoming empty and noisy CGI spectacle, with lots of yelling to compensate. It’s hard to find inspiration from the film when you’re checking your watch.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Great Gatsby (2013)

the-great-gatsby-poster1It seemed like some sort of educational mandate that every child in the United States was forced to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, when they were in high school. In my highly unscientific number crunching, it appears that those who actually enjoyed the book are in the minority. I recall loathing it, but then again, when you’re fifteen, you sort of loath everything. Enter Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the showman who exploded the screen in razzle-dazzle run amok with Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge!. Not exactly the kind of filmmaker one would fathom helming an adaptation of a classic of American literature, but the man’s style of excess seems like a suitable match for Fitzgerald’s tale of high-class overindulgence.

In 1922, young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to the hustle and bustle of New York City, living close to his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her rich husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He’s also the neighbor to the mysterious and newly rich Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a reclusive man who opens his mansion up to prolific bacchanals. Rumors persist in who he is and how he accrued his enormous fortune. He’s an old flame of Daisy’s and is secretly hoping she’ll attend one of his raucous soirees. He enlists Nick to help arrange a reunion for them, and soon enough Gatsby is already planning their happy future together again. Trouble is, Tom isn’t willing to lose his wife without a fight.

101900_galLuhrmann’s helming of The Great Gatsby gave me exactly what I desired and expected. The movie is convulsing with energy and the first hour just moves; be it the camerawork or people onscreen, for long stretches there always seems to be some degree of onscreen movement. Luhrmann’s signature theatrical visual atmosphere is vibrant, joyous, and a perfect translator of the lavish lifestyles of the noveau rich in the Roaring ‘20s. The man brings to startling life the sensations of being young, privileged, and carefree, and the use of anachronistic music, while not nearly as textured and thematically relevant as Moulin Rouge!, adds to the fun. I quite enjoyed a low-key, jazzy rendition of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” Luhrmann’s style treks in excess but it’s a much more pleasant, dreamy, and altogether beguiling form of artistic indulgence than, say, Michael Bay or Tony Scott and their respective macho visual fetishes. Luhrmann’s campy sense of style doesn’t come across as overly suffocating or distracting, at least to my eyes, and instead the man injects his movies with tremendous energy, immersing you into a new world of old and modern. This is what Luhrmann was meant for. While other canonical classics of American literature may not survive a glitzy Lurhmann treatment, it’s a good match for the extravagant excess of Fitzgerald’s setting. Lurhmann’s visuals are glorious, and the 1920s era is brought to glamorous life. You get the sense it was one giant party without any lasting consequences (if you were rich enough).

The second half of the movie slows down considerably after the amped-up introduction. We’re caught up in the characters at this point, as we should be, and the Gatsby/Daisy reunion dominates the plot. I suppose there are only so many Busby Berkeley numbers and confetti explosions one can encounter before the plot has to set in. Lurhmann and company stick pretty faithfully to Fitzgerald’s plot (rest easy, lazy high school students of today and tomorrow). Interestingly, they are far more explicit about Gatsby’s securities fraud, knowingly making a fortune off junk bonds, all in the name to impress Daisy. There’s a genuine sense of respect for the source material even with Luhrmann’s visual flourishes; at several points, Fitzgerald’s text floats onscreen. The problem is that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is almost entirely focused on the romantic coupling of its title figure and Daisy. Gone is the class criticism, the indictment of the follies of the rich, the examination of the dark side of the American Dream, and the subtext. You’ll get plenty of shots of that famous green light, 20th century literature’s most famous and unsophisticated symbol (pay attention kids: green means go), but there’s little time for complexity. It’s not a screen romance worth this much attention, which is kind of the point, but when the movie clocks at over 2 hours and 20 minutes, drawing out a lackluster romance can become rather grating.

101940_galIf I were top cite one major fault in Luhrmann’s incarnation, it’s that it adopts Nick’s fawning perspective and treats Gatsby as this tragic romantic figure. I acknowledge with every adaption there is a degree of interpretation, and romantic hero is certainly one facet of Gatsby, certainly how he sees himself, but by the end of Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby is really more a naïve man who really only sees Daisy as trophy, a prize for his reinvention and jumping up to the storied moneyed class. Daisy herself is certainly weak-willed but her emptiness (she says there’s nothing better than for a girl to be a “beautiful, young fool”) is part of the appeal to Gatsby because he can remake her however he wants. He’s not interested insomuch as her as a person. I don’t think that the Gatsby/Daisy escapades fall into the ranks of Great Tragic Couples of Literature, but that’s how Luhrmann interprets the novel, transforming Gatsby into a revered, honorable, and heartbreaking romantic we’re meant to shed a tear for. I suppose since we’re reliving the story through Nick’s perspective that events could be colored differently. Beyond just a simplistic analysis, it also misses the greater and more futile tragedy of a man trying to escape his past by obsessively recreating it.

The acting is fairly good all around, though the standout is certainly not whom you’d expect. DiCaprio (Django Unchained) is a good fit for the handsome social-climber, but the movie only asks him to play a limited range of emotions, rarely breaking free to show glimpses of the darker, less polished side of Gatsby’s carefully crafted image. He doesn’t exactly exude the charisma you would think necessary for the man, plus his use of “old sport” is so overly abundant it approaches farce. Maguire (Brothers) is a bit too earnest even for his role. It becomes readily clear within minutes that Maguire does not possess a voice for narration. The man is also a bit too old, at 37, to play the naïve, stars-in-his-eyes Nick Carraway. Mulligan (Shame) is given the least to work with since Daisy is meant to be rather opaque but she brings an extra amount of sympathy for a character trapped by her indecision and the demands of men. Easily the best actor in the bunch is Edgerton (Warrior). It would be easy for the guy to simply be the brutish heavy, the angry husband and easy to hate antagonist. Edgerton showcases a surprising depth, and you may find yourself feeling some smidge of sympathy for the lout.

Much like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, it’s an easy prediction that his Great Gatsby will be equally divisive. There will probably be as many critics decrying Luhrmann’s blitzkrieg of confetti and style as a campy cannibalization of an American classic as there will be celebrating the mad energy and obsequious reverence exhibited in a handsomely mounted, big-budget adaptation. The movie is even being presented in 3D, and did you ever think you’d hear the phrase “The Great Gatsby in 3D” in your life? I enjoyed Luhrmann’s gaudiness and indulgences, painting the screen with his vivid imagination. The impressive production design, costumes, visual effects, and overall visual aesthetic of the movie are a feast for the eyes. Now there are plenty of indulgences and excesses in the movie, particularly the emphasis on grand romance, but Gatsby entertains with few lags. Having read the book once and disliked it heartily in my youth, I can readily say that here is an example of where the movie is better than the book. Now if someone could go about making an improved version of The Lord of the Flies and A Tale of Two Cities, whatever you have to do, my teenage self will thank you kindly.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012)

1823My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey had warned me about The Odd Life of Timothy Green and he quite eloquently voiced his dumbfounded musings, which I will try my best not to knowingly replicate though I’m sure there will be some carryover. But whatever he wrote could not prepare me for what I ultimately got with The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Ladies and gentlemen, I think this movie broke my brain.

Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) are having trouble conceiving a child. One night they write a list of their hopes for a future child, place them in a box, and bury this chest of hopes in their garden. The next day they are shocked to discover a child covered in dirt claiming to be their son, Timothy (CJ Adams). He is the physical manifestation of all those buried hopes and wishes with some leaves attached to his ankles. The Greens take their magical parenthood in stride, trying their best to impart wisdom to their new son. They teach the kid how to play soccer, stand up to bullies, and interact with other human beings. Timothy has a secret he can’t bring himself to tell his new mom and dad, but if you have a hard time figuring out what his leaves falling off means, then there’s nothing I can do for you.

I feel like I just watched a movie where every person on Earth is depicted as being insane. Not goofy, not eccentric, not a little funny, no, we’re talking get the butterfly nets and padded cells. I feel partially insane just having watched the film, obviously still suffering from a contact buzz of insanity. I accept suspension of disbelief and that fantasy-based family films are going to have a whimsical nature to them. We cannot apply every rule of reality and logic to them, and I accept this. But The Odd Life of Timothy Green seems to exist in a fractured, cracked version of our own world, where the most bizarre and fantastical elements are just given a halfhearted shoulder shrug. People react to otherworldly events as if they were doing laundry. Where’s the awe? Or, more so, where is the skepticism? Seriously, if anybody told you they grew a child from a garden, would you accept this notion at face value? Their great piece of proof is that the kid has leaves attached to his ankles. Don’t you think, I don’t know, the parents could have taped those on? Beyond one guy, no one investigates this strange botanical phenomenon or even has the slightest inclination to. Where’s the intellectual curiosity, people? It’s like everyone in town has a lobotomy. Is there not one person in this small town that will dare stand and say, “You know, I think I’m going to require more empirical evidence to buy the story that this kid was formerly plant food.” And then they ran that one man out of town on a rail and salted his land.

80170_galTimothy Green tries to gather a slew of messages and feel-good moments; it’s just that none of them feel coherent or truly earned. The parents don’t feel like responsible or even interesting adults. I understand we’re not going to dwell too much on the disappointments of a couple unsuccessful in conceiving a child (this is becoming an odd trend for Garner), but I expected more than one good cry and a bottle of wine. I want to empathize with these people but the movie makes it impossible time and again with their nonsensical behavior; it’s like they’re adults as envisioned by a child. On that note, I think the movie probably makes more sense from a fantasy point of view to flip the participants. It seems more likely that a child would try and grow new, ideal parents only to learn a lesson about the duds they’re stuck with. The Green family members all work one note, whether it’s the snide sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), the slaphappy grandpappy (M. Emmet Walsh), or the emotionally distant dad (David Morse), it’s all a tiny nub of characterization that gets whittled down to nothing. And then Timothy just seems to step into everyone’s lives and change them forever with little effort. He gets an older girl to fall in love with him, his father to stand up for himself and his family, and all the not nice people in town to be somewhat less not nice. He gets his mom to speak her mind to her bitchy boss (Dianne Wiest), which ends up getting her fired, so it’s a mixed message.

You want a prime example of this film’s collective shared insanity? Take this line from one of the board members from the town pencil factory: “If this boy can have leaves on his ankles, then we can make a pencil out of leaves.” What exactly does one have to do with the other, you may ask? I suppose it’s some claptrap about what is truly possible or whatever. My apologies to Ben Bailey for treading ground he has examined closely, but this cautionary line of dialogue glows with the intensity of 100 neon signs. It’s everything that is wrong and crazy about this movie, and the fact that it is spoken without a hint of irony or humor is all the more galling.

Here’s my problem with Timothy the life-changer: the kid is a dullard. He has no personality, he has no real insights or perceptions into life, he’s not funny, he’s not that interesting, and he eerily stays in the same modulated emotional presence. I found this kid far more unintentionally creepy than endearing. On paper, Timothy Green sounds like it should be a horror film and not the saccharine family slop that it is. Timothy just comes across like a rather bland kid with some weird tendencies, like his repeated inclination to soak up any sunny opportunity to photosynthesize (he gives Scott Stapp a run for his arms-wide-open pose throne). If a character is going to touch people’s lives and change their perspectives on life, then at least make that person fitting of praise. This kid just seems like a hazy mystic that’s playing it as he goes. Come to think of it, did anyone see him do anything superhuman? Cindy and Jim didn’t even find him in the garden, only inside their home covered in dirt. Who’s to say that young Timothy Green wasn’t a con artist this whole time?

80173_galThen, likely as a defensive means to soothe my ailing brain, I started coming up with my own version of where Timothy Green should have gone. The ability to write down a bunch of general attributes and then grow a child seems too good to pass up. I desire more of this unique child cultivation process. For instance, Cindy and Jim want their kid to rock out as a musician, but they simply write “rocks” on their slip of paper before burying it. How is the magical entity that raises mutant plant kids going to be able to understand what the family intends with this vague entry? What if Timothy Green was born with rocks in his head? I wanted the film to simply turn into a comical version of The Monkey’s Paw, where every new version of Timothy Green would go horribly wrong. The first was born and then immediately suffocated because Cindy and Jim forgot to write “working lungs.” Then there would be the Timothy born with a “hunger for life” and become a cannibalistic plant zombie. Or the Timothy born with “his mother’s heart” and then upon his birth Cindy’s heart would go missing. What I wanted was a macabre trial and error game where the would-be parents had to refine exactly what they were asking for with the nondescript magical being in charge of answering hopeful parents. I want The Odd Lives and Deaths of Timothy Green and I want Cindy and Jim to have to bury all the malfunctioning prototypes in the same garden. Then, when they do perfect their perfect kid, the police find a yard littered with the corpses of children and haul them away.

The movie is told through the framing device of the Greens telling their story to the adoption agency, and why this adoption agency continues to listen after, “We grew a boy in our yard,” is beyond my guess. In a film breaking every boundary of believability known to mankind, this aspect to me seems the most incredulous. This is an adoption agency with standards and rules to follow, and to think they would allow a couple to drone on and on about their magical child that grew from a garden and changed people’s lives, instead of calling security and having them escorted from the premises, followed home, and then have their home exhumed for human remains of this child, is beyond me. And then, spoiler alert, they get a kid in the end. What adoption agency could reasonably and responsibly allow these two people, with no physical shred of evidence about their magical child other than some leaves and testimonies, to care for another human being?

Allow me to also question the sincerity of these two damaged people especially concerning their desire for a child. It sure seems like Cindy and Jim are planning on using their present and/or future child as means of settling some longstanding scores between relatives. When it looks like Timothy is finally going to do well in soccer, that’s when they pounce, airing out their resentments. Cindy brattily unloads against her sister: “I’ve had to listen to your perfect kids, well look at my kid! That’s my kid!” And then Jim finally let’s his distant father have a piece of his mind: “I could have been a good player too, dad. I had skills. If only you would have been more supportive.” Am I supposed to find any of this funny, because it comes across as far more sad. I feel like the reason that Cindy and Jim want a child is to desperately prove to their family that they are superior parents. It feels like one very crazy way of proving a point and one where the child will suffer, especially if he or she cannot live to a degree of excellence to provide mom and dad filial ammunition. Another example: both Cindy and Jim are oddly very jealous over the relationship their pseudo son forms with the slightly older gal, Joni (Odeya Rush). They try and talk him out of spending time with her, arguing there are so many fish in the sea for him to pay attention to. Are you really laying the argument that a 10-year-old should be playing the field? It also seems weirdly petty and controlling for two supposed adults to be jealous that their son chooses to spend part of his waking hours with another human being. So, does that sound like a loving and healthy family?

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is certainly odd but probably not for the reasons that Disney or the filmmakers had in mind. It feels like it exists in an alternative universe where everyone lacks any common sense, curiosity, or relatable human emotions. Nobody acts like a recognizable human being in this film, not for a single second. These people are all zombies, cowed into the cult of Timothy, the magical and, ultimately, messianic figure. But allow me to declare the emperor has no clothes. This Timothy is not worthy of the adulation he receives. He walks around like an ecological Forrest Gump, spitting sappy platitudes and changing lives with the insipid nature of all these easy messages. I wish I could say there was one genuine moment in this movie, but I cannot. It takes a magical premise and suffocates it with unearned solemnity. Why can’t a movie about growing a kid in your garden try and be, you know, fun? Well, I suppose embarrassing music recitals and kids getting hit in the head could be mistaken for fun, but I prefer a well developed story, characters I care about, and a genuine sense of enchantment to go with the supernatural. If we can make a movie about a kid with leaves on his ankles, then we can turn any sort of half-formed maudlin pap into family entertainment. Kids deserve better than The Odd Life of Timothy Green, and, for the record, so do plants.

Nate’s Grade: D

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