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Bird Box (2018)

As a film critic, I feel compelled to write about Bird Box because, apparently, one third of the entire Internet is currently talking about this Netflix sci-fi horror movie. It’s about killer monsters that cause people to violently kill themselves upon sight. Netflix has reported that over 40 million customers have watched Bird Box in its first week of its streaming release, which basically means 35 million people likely fell asleep to Netflix and it started playing the new high-profile movie on auto play. I know people that love this movie. I know people that hate this movie. I know people who hate this movie with a passion and go into apoplexy trying to describe their disgust. Bird Box isn’t a movie worth strong feelings, both good and bad. It’s a fittingly entertaining movie with too many structural flaws, underdeveloped ideas, and diminished tension and stakes.

Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is trying to navigate the post-apocalyptic world of monsters. She’s traveling down river with her two children, all blindfolded. Meanwhile, she flashes back to the first few days of the monster outbreak when she found security in a stranger’s home until things went from bad to worse to murderous.

Part of the problem with Bird Box is that the monsters never feel that threatening because the hazy rules manage to defang them. Given the unknowable nature of monsters, I’m not expecting a textbook but some level of consistency that won’t rip me out of the film. The monsters are only a threat when you look at them, which is fine, except they cannot or choose to refrain from physically interacting with their human targets. I don’t know if this is a natural limitation, a choice, or simply anecdotal evidence that will be disproved. Just because the monsters haven’t done something yet doesn’t mean they might not be able to. Just because the monsters don’t attack anyone wearing a blue sweatshirt with a googly-eyed reindeer doesn’t mean this is standard. We see at one point the collateral movement of a monster chasing after Sandy and the kids, shoving trees and other forest vegetation aside. They do physically interact with the world; they just do not interact with our characters. This takes away much of the danger of these creatures. There’s one scene where a character is struggling to get indoors and, oh no, the garage door is opening. Look out; all he has to do is… continue not looking at the monsters as he was doing without effort. It makes me think of The Simpsons Halloween episode where the key to defeating killer mutant advertisements was not to look (it had Paul Anka’s guarantee).

The monsters also adopt the voices of loved ones, so survivors would start to learn from these experiences and begin to carry a deep skepticism about suddenly prevalent loved ones begging for blindfolds to be removed. Does this mean the monsters can psychically read the thoughts of human beings to know what voices to tap into? It made me think of The Bye Bye Man and its Bye Bye Man-induced hallucinations (“Is this cop’s face really oozing black blood through empty eye sockets, or is that you Bye Bye Man, you scamp?”). This is an interesting aspect that never feels fully developed, the mistrusting nature of the calls for help. Instead of adopting the voice of dead loved ones, I wish the monsters had chosen more judiciously. You could feature a sequence with someone genuinely calling for help and being left behind by Sandy because, in their blindfolded state, they cannot tell the difference in the authenticity of the speaker’s claims.

But what I kept coming back to is why can’t the monsters go indoors? This was a hurdle I could never fully get over because it cheapened the threat for me. As with any apocalyptic or viral outbreak, there is danger in having to leave the sanctuary, and there will be a need to gather supplies, but once you have a home base the monsters can’t enter, it loses a level of stakes. It makes me think of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs where space aliens can travel the stars but cannot open a pantry door. Having limitations on your monsters is essential or else the threat will feel too overwhelming, but these limitations need to make consistent sense. The monsters in A Quiet Place had superior hearing but were essentially blind. The monsters in Bird Box are deadly to look at, will tempt you with auditory siren songs, but as long as one remains indoors and stays away from windows, you can live a happy and healthy albeit sheltered life of repose.

This is one reason why the story has to find a new threat that is allowed to venture into the safe spaces. There are certain people who seem immune to the suicidal impulses of the monsters. The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (Arrival) implies people who were crazy beforehand are unaffected, though what degree of crazy or mental instability is up to interpretation. These people worship the monsters and actively try to force others to look at them, to also be enlightened. This could have been an interesting addition to the world of Bird Box but it plays it too straight. These cultist people are just another obstacle, a group of standard movie crazy killers. I was hoping that the screenplay was playing coy with this subject and biding its time only to introduce this group in a more meaningful and manipulative fashion later. It never happens. They’re just crazy killers meant to enter buildings and pose a new indoors threat. Now you can’t trust anyone!

The structure of Bird Box constrains the overall impact of its story. The movie is divided almost equally between two different timelines, one shortly after the start of the monster attacks and one five years later. I was waiting for these two different storylines to inform one another, and they do in essentially superficial ways. We know in the future story that it’s only Sandy and the kids, so it’s only a matter of time before everyone in this house will end up dead. It also hurts that this segment is best described as “dime store Stephen King.” We’re stuck with a group of strangers who have all been given one note to play, therefore the extra time feels tedious because we don’t care about them or what happens to them next (sorry John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, and others). Winnowing these extended flashbacks and sticking with the current day storyline would have improved the movie. There’s a more immediate threat and it presents a more intriguing scenario of being on the run and learning as we go about the monsters and the accrued survival tactics. I think learning on the run would be more exciting rather than conveniently finding refuge with a guy who explains everything because he was doing a book report on the supernatural and somehow knows the rules. This would also better hone the theme because the “before” of our before-and-after dynamic doesn’t establish Sandy enough as a disinterested mother.

Much of this could be forgiven or mitigated if the suspense sequences were engaging and smartly developed. I can forgive any nagging plot quibble with A Quiet Place (Why don’t they live closer to the waterfall? Why don’t they have a sound system to draw away monsters?) because the suspense sequences were brilliantly executed and highly unnerving. This just isn’t the case with Bird Box. There is one clever sequence that seems to capitalize on the possibilities of its sight-challenged premise. During the house half, the gang climbs into a car and uses its motion sensors and GPS to navigate a trip to the local grocery store for a supply run. It’s fun and decently staged. The inclusion of caged birds being a monster alarm is interesting until it starts to become more ridiculous. People never seem to listen to these birds and pay the price. The initial outbreak in the opening, with cars flipping and people flipping out, has a nice escalation into madness and chaos. The movie never quite recovers that same tense feeling. Watching people wander with blindfolds doesn’t make for great visual tension unless we see what they do not and dread what’s to come. Bird Box settles into a generic paranoia thriller about who can be trusted, and that’s even before the crazy cultists come knocking. Outside in the woods, the final act involves running to sanctuary, but without the killer cultists, it’s only running away from a thing that can’t touch them. It makes for a curiously inept climax and a sentimental resolution that feels unearned.

The arc of the movie is about Sandra Bullock’s character accepting motherhood and attachment to others but this theme is murky. She named her children “Girl” and “Boy” because she didn’t want to think of them as her own. This is the kind of thing that seems more symbolic and meaningful in theory than practice. She tells the children that in order to survive in this brave new world that they must be ready to cut another person loose at any moment. Attachments to others will get you killed, or so Sandy argues but not in deed. Because this storyline covers half of the film, the relationship she has with the kids feels underdeveloped but not by Sandy’s choice, by the filmmakers. If Sandy’s character arc was going to end at the destination of her realizing love is not a detriment even in a horrible, terrifying world, then we needed more time spent on this emotional journey, which is another reason why we could have used more time in the present-day storyline. A degree of self-sacrifice feels missing to better signify the theme of attachment and the emotional stakes.

I reiterate that Bird Box is not worth the strong feelings of love or hate. It’s got a wobbly structure where either half fails to better inform the other, the limitations of the monsters guts too much of the tension and stakes, and the actors deserve better. Bullock delivers a strong central performance and serves as our entertainment anchor. She makes the movie more watchable and does her best with some less-than-stellar expository dialogue. It’s enough to make you wish this movie was better and better realized with its spooky premise.

Nate’s Grade: C

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I Love You, Daddy (2017)

After years of rumors, highly influential comedian and television guru Louis C.K. has admitted that the sexual allegations against him are indeed true. Several women recently came forward in a New York Times article citing C.K. as asking them to watch him masturbate, forcing women to watch him masturbate, or masturbating over the phone with an unsuspecting woman. Right now in the new climate of Hollywood, it appears that C.K.’s comedy career is at a standstill if not legitimately over. And strangely amidst all this was the planned release of a little movie he wrote, directed and stars in called I Love You, Daddy, about a famous Hollywood director with rumors of sexual indecency. The movie has been pulled from release but not before screeners were sent to critics. I don’t know when the general public will get its chance to watch I Love You, Daddy, but allow me to attempt to digest my thoughts on the film and any possible deeper value (there will be spoilers but isn’t that why you’re reading anyway?).

Glen (Louis C.K.) is a successful TV writer and producer. He’s starting another show and Grace (Rose Byrne), a pregnant film actress, is interested in a starring role and perhaps in Glen himself. His 17-year-old daughter China (Chloe Grace Moritz) takes an interest in a much older director, Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), with a troubled past. Glen idolizes Leslie Goodwin but isn’t comfortable with the interest he’s shown in his underage daughter.

It’s impossible to resist the urge to psychoanalyze the film especially considering it’s otherwise a fairly mediocre button-pushing comedy. The biggest question that comes to mind is why exactly did C.K. bring this movie into existence? He hasn’t directed a film since 2002’s blaxploitation parody Pootie Tang. It didn’t even come into being until this past June, when C.K. funded it himself and shot it over the course of a few weeks. What about this story was begging to be brought to life, especially with C.K. as its voice? He didn’t have to make this. He brought this into the world. Given the controversial subject matter, C.K. must have known that the film would at minimum reignite the long-standing rumors of his own sexual transgressions. So why would he make I Love You, Daddy? This is where the dime-store psychiatry comes in handy, because after viewing the finished film, it feels deeply confessional from its author. It feels like C.K. is unburdening himself. I cannot say whether it was conscious or subconscious, but this is a work of art where C.K. is showing who he is and hoping that you won’t realize.

This is very much C.K.’s riff on Woody Allen movies and Woody Allen’s own troubled history of sexual impropriety; it’s an ode to Allen and a commentary on Allen (C.K. had a supporting role in Allen’s Blue Jasmine in 2013). It’s filmed in black and white and even follows a similar plot setup from Manhattan, where Allen romances a 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway. It’s about our moral indignation giving way to compromise once our own heroes are affected or whether or not our own lives can be benefited. The stilted nature of human interaction among a privileged set of New Yorkers is reminiscent of Allen’s windows into the world of elites. It’s an approach that C.K. doesn’t wear well, especially coming from his much more organic and surreal television series. The movie is trying to find a deeper understanding in the Woody Allen-avatar but never really does. I grew tired of most of the conversations between flat characters that were poorly formed as mouthpieces for C.K.’s one-liners and discussion points (and an N-word joke for good measure). Leslie is an enigma simply meant to challenge Glen on his preconceived ideas. Leslie isn’t so much a character as a stand-in for Woody Allen as stand-in for C.K.’s own fears of hypocrisy and inadequacy. And that begets further examination below.

In retrospect, looking for the analysis, there are moments that come across as obvious. C.K. has generally played a thinly veiled version of himself in his starring vehicles. Here he’s a highly regarded television writer and producer who seems to keep making new highly regarded television series. There are too many moments and lines for this movie not to feel like C.K. is confessing or mitigating his misdeeds. One of China’s friends, a fellow teen girl, makes the tidy rationalization that everyone is a pervert so what should it all matter? Sexuality may be a complicated mosaic but that doesn’t excuse relationships with underage minors and masturbating in front of women against their will. Glen says that people should not judge others based upon rumors and that no one can ever truly know what goes on in another person’s private life. There’s a moment late in the film where Glen is irritated and bellows an angry apology with the literal words, “I’m sorry to all women. I want all women to know I apologize for being me!” I almost stopped my screener just to listen to this line again. In the end, Glen has a fall from grace and loses his credibility in the industry. He’s told by his producing partner, “So you were a great man and now you’re not.” And the last moment we share with Glen before the time jump that reveals his fall from grace? It’s with China’s “everyone’s a pervert” friend and after she confesses that she once had a crush on Glen when she was younger and that she finds older men sexy. After a few seconds, he slightly lurches toward her like he’s going to attempt to kiss her and she recoils backwards. Glen interprets the moment very wrong and tries to make an unwanted move on a much younger woman. Yikes.

There’s also a supporting character that twice visually mimes masturbating in public. Yeah, C.K. literally included that gag twice. For a solid twenty minutes I didn’t know if Charlie Day’s character was real of a Tyler Durden-esque figment of Glen’s outré imagination. Day plays an actor with a close relationship with Glen. He’s not like any other character and seems to speak as Glen’s uncontrolled sense of id, urging him into bad decisions. During one of those furious masturbatory pantomimes (not a phrase one gets to write often in film criticism, let alone the plural) Day’s character is listening to Grace on speakerphone. This is literally the same kind of deviant act that C.K. perpetrated on a woman detailed in The New York Times expose. It’s gobsmacking, as if Bill Cosby wrote a best friend character that would drug women at a party he hosted, and Cosby wrote this after the rape allegations already gained traction. Double yikes.

As a film, I Love You, Daddy feels rushed and incomplete. The editing is really choppy and speaks to a limited amount of camera setups and shooting time. Locations are fairly nondescript and the entire thing takes on a stagy feel that also permeates the acting. C.K.’s television work has revolved around a very observational, natural style of acting and a style that absorbs silence as part of its repertoire of techniques. I Love You, Daddy feels so stilted and unrealistic and it’s somewhat jarring for fans of C.K.’s series. The actors all do acceptable work with their parts but the characters are pretty thin. You feel a lack of energy throughout the film that saps performances of vitality. There’s a method to the reasoning on presenting China as an empty character until the very end, which speaks to Glen’s lack of understanding of who his daughter is as a person. The overall storytelling is pretty mundane, especially for C.K. and the topic. He seems to open conversations on topics he believes don’t have easy answers, like age of consent laws, statutory rape, and judging other people based upon their reputations, and then steps away. The film wants to be provocative but fails to fashion a follow-through to connect. There aren’t nearly enough nuances to achieve C.K.’s vision as saboteur of social mores.

It feels like C.K. might have anticipated having to come forward and accept the totality of his prior bad behavior, and maybe he felt I Love You, Daddy was his artistic stab at controlling the reckoning he knew would eventually arrive. I would only recommend this movie as a curiosity to the most ardent fans of C.K. comedy. I Love You, Daddy delivers a few chuckles but it’s mostly a mediocre and overlong Woody Allen throwback companion piece. It’s harder to separate the art from the artist when that artist has complete ownership over the vision. As of this writing, I can still watch Kevin Spacey acting performances and enjoy them for what they are, mostly because he is one component of a larger artistic whole. In C.K.’s case, he writes, directs, stars, and it’s his complete imprint upon the material. I consider 2016’s Horace and Pete to be of nigh unparalleled brilliance that I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a modern American theatrical masterpiece that could sit beside Eugene O’Neill. So much of C.K.’s material was based around his brutal sense of self-loathing and now the audience might feel that same sensation if they sit down and watch I Love You, Daddy. Unless you want to do like I did and unpack the film as a psychological exercise of a man crying out, there’s no real reason to watch this except as the possible final capstone on C.K.’s public career.

Nate’s Grade: C

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

cpbdmd7wgaafqfs-1-jpg-largePeter Berg is becoming the go-to director for inspirational true-life thrillers following the heroic exploits of everyday Americans thrust into danger. It began with Lone Survivor, it will continue this year with the Boston bombing drama Patriot’s Day, and in between there is Deepwater Horizon about the oil rig drillers and the culminating explosion that lead to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. It’s a sober and reverent movie, with Berg and his screenwriters taking great care to educate the audience on the science of drilling, the technology, the geography of the floating rig, and just exactly why things went as badly as they did that fateful night. The windup lasts about half the movie but that’s because when the explosion hits there isn’t much plot left (the movie is barely 100 minutes). Deepwater Horizon becomes a full-tilt disaster movie by that point with Mark Wahlberg stalking hallways and looking for injured survivors. The tension prior to the blown pipeline can get genuinely powerful, and the action that follows is suitably rousing as the rig resembles a snapshot of hell. Flames and heat consume the rig and escape seems nigh impossible. The sound design is sensational. The characters are mostly stock roles, with Wahlberg as our blue-collar everyman, Kurt Russell as the irritable boss fighting for his workers, and John Malkovich as the villainous penny-pinching BP representative. Malkovich’s campy performance almost needs to be seen to be believed. It’s like he’s visiting from another planet, the garbled Cajun representative. The lack of politics and curiously narrow focus (nothing about Halliburton, nothing about BP consequences, no environmental effects) does hamper any greater impact the film could have had. It’s a respectful slice-of-life drama that humanizes some of the lives lost that day but only by keeping to formula and stock action character development. It’s like a Towering Inferno-style Hollywood disaster movie, except one that treats its subject with stiff-lipped seriousness. In this new docu-action sub-genre, Berg and Wahlberg are kings.

Nate’s Grade: B

RED 2 (2013)

RED_2_11Pretty much more of the same, RED 2 feels too safe, too breezy and light-hearted, and while still fun in spots, you garner the impression that what was once sufficiently silly has gone overboard. The jokes feel flat and the characters aren’t properly integrated, especially Helen Mirren and a vengeful hired killer (Byung-hun Lee). The villains are a tad bland, but we’re here for the wacky retired special agents, so it’s forgivable. However, the good guys feel like they’d rather be elsewhere. Too much of the story is taken up by the frustrating Bad Girlfriend Plot wherein our hero Frank (Bruce Willis) is harangued by his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). I’m not even saying that her character is nagging or shrewish or anything like that, but the movie treats her like she’s dragging him down. We’re also treated to many comedic setups of Sarah trying her hand as a spy to mixed results. Parker is actually the best part of the movie, and maybe because she’s the only character that gets to do something different. RED 2 lacks the visual style of the first film and, inevitably, the freshness of its cavalier old fogies. The action is passable but is that really the adjective you want for a movie? I don’t know what more I was expecting since the first RED felt like a well-executed lark, but at least it had enough style and an impish attitude to leave me entertained. Its sequel is likeable but mostly trying to get by on your good feelings for the last movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Warm Bodies (2013)

1924Given the explosion in zombie culture and the avalanche of zombie movies, it was only a matter of time before a studio pitched the romantic possibilities. They may be dead but they still have needs. Based on Issac Marion’s young adult novel, Warm Bodies attempts to tell a love story from a zombie’s perspective. Writer/director Jonathan Levine, so skillful with tone in the comedy/drama 50/50, tackles an even trickier balancing act, making a zombie romantic. With some visual flair, an eclectic soundtrack, and a winning onscreen pair, Warm Bodies is a sweet love story that does enough right to leave you smiling.

In the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, R (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie who spends most of his days shuffling through an airport. Occasionally he has a series of conversations with his pal, M (Rob Corddry), which mostly amount to grunts. R can’t remember who he was before he became a zombie, or even what life was like before it all went to pot, but there is one thing that will make him feel alive again – human brains. You see, this tasty delicacy allows zombies to relive the memories of their victims. It’s a nice release from, you know, decomposing. The zombies that have completely given up all sense of self peel off all their skin, becoming the Bonies, a wraith-like band of creatures that will feed off anything, even the dead.

98534_galThis is R’s life until his chance encounter with Julie (Teresa Palmer). He’s smitten instantly and feels something weird in his chest. His heart has started beating again. He doesn’t want to eat her, just protect her. Of course he did also happen to eat her now-ex-boyfriend (David Franco). R whisks her to safety to his home in an airplane cabin. They listen to records and he instructs her on ways to pose as a zombie. She’s cautious but grows fond of her zombie protector (zombie Stockholm syndrome?). But R is proof that the zombies can change and that humanity can be saved. There’s just the matter of convincing Julie’s father, General Grigio (John Malkovich), who had to shoot his own wife after she turned. He wants them all dead and will do whatever it takes to protect the last bastion of the living.

Levine has found what may be one of the only optimistic zombie films out there. Usually these movies end one of two ways: 1) everybody dies (the preferred option), or, 2) the heroes manage a final escape but are most likely doomed beyond all hope (just pushes the inevitable off screen and into our imaginations). Tethered to a genial but winning romance, Warm Bodies is a zombie movie with a genuine sense of hope, revival, and even finds way to carve out a happy ending that, while predictable, feels right tonally.

The twee romance has a lot more in common with indie stylings than it does, say, Twilight, which will likely be invoked by many a critic and ticket-buyer alike. It’s not so much the brooding, sullen, exasperating kind of “romance” Twilight has primed people to expect when monsters date young girls. Thanks to the helpful voiceover, we see R as a thoughtful (being generous here considering his peers) guy who, like most teens, is trying to battle his inner urges and sense of awkwardness. He may be a zombie but Levine and Hoult have found a way to make R relatable and a likeable dead chap to root for. It also helps that he and Palmer (I Am Number Four) have above average chemistry together. Sure it’s a little weird that she takes the whole guy-crushing-on-me-kinda-ate-my-old-boyfriend, but like any relationship, there are just obstacles you’re going to have to overcome together. And as my pal Eric would attest, any Franco had it coming (his big bro did lead to the end of mankind in 2011, so maybe he’s responsible for the zombie apocalypse).

I appreciated that even with a PG-13 rating the movie still has a bite to it. Premise-alone, there is plenty room for some intriguing mismatched comedy. I enjoyed the aspect that consuming human brains unlocks that person’s memories. I like that R saves brains for later snacks. I liked that he used this absurd plot device to help him get closer with Julie and makes him feel guilty. Warm Bodies finds a way around the whole bodies decomposing issue, which is important since we don’t want our Romeo to be too disgusting for the teen girls. It refrains from overt gore, relying on implied carnage and preferring a chaste smearing of blood on lips, like he just got carried away eating a cherry pie. Honestly, I didn’t miss the gore. While the concept of a completely putrid corpse, with its flesh rotting and falling from its face, finding romance would be darkly comical, I think Levine chose the savvier path, forming a romance that doesn’t overdose on irony, which it would if the dead-boy-meets-girl romance were more grotesque. That’s the reason the Bonies exist, to provide a more grotesque and more evil foe that can provide perspective on the nobility of the not-all-the-way-dead people.

98524_galLevine works enough comic angles that the comic possibilities feel explored, although much like the horror and romance could have been pushed even further. As is, I found R’s musings wryly enjoyable, and his undead bromance with M provides some of the funniest moments in the film. Corddry (TV’s Children’s Hospital) is terrific in the movie and even finds what little room he can to add a touch of poignancy with his character. Often the humor, like the horror elements, is pretty relaxed but effective, refraining from oversized wackiness. You seriously would think that the movie would go bigger with its comedy considering everything at play.

Hoult (X-Men: First Class, TV’s Skins) does a credible job as a zombie, let alone an American zombie; it’s not all shuffling and caveman monosyllabic grunts. The actor is adept with communicating the awkwardness of his character in physicality. It’s funny how much you end of empathizing with a character that is dead. Hoult is also a pretty hunky guy, Vulcan eyebrows and all, but his amiable demeanor and young love clumsiness will win over as many guys in the audience as ladies. Palmer, also sporting an American accent, gets the blood pumping. Julie is underwritten but rises above just being a typical damsel-in-distress. It’s nice that later in the movie, when R breaks into the human camp, the roles are reversed, and Julie gets to protect him with her wits and will. Malkovich (R.E.D.) gets the worst of it just because his character is so rote.

I suppose I could lambaste the movie’s love-conquers-all logic with a dash of critical cynicism, but I feel like its low-key yet unfailingly romantic side is another of the movie’s charms. Sure, the idea that teenage love changing the world one beating heart at a time sounds like someone took the lyrics from an 80s power ballad and had it come to life (I’m reminded of the Patton Oswalt bit about the music video of an 80s hair band against the police: “He’d deflecting the bullets with the power of his rocking!”). There’s no real explanation why the zombies are getting better, though the concept of reclaiming their humanity appears to be contagious. I guess you could make some mild commentary on the healing power of human connection, but I don’t think Levine goes too far with any sort of subtext/social allegory, though there are enough slipshod Romeo and Juliet parallels. To the audience members who rankle at the unexplainable zombie cure, I would like to draw attention to the fact they are ignoring the fantastical logical puzzle of corpses coming back to life in the first place. If nobody minds why the zombie virus/crisis starts, then I don’t see why I should be sweating over what solves it.

Warm Bodies is a return to horror for Levine. Before his Sundance breakthrough The Wackness, the man got his start directing 2006’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. He’s made what may be the only zombie movie that I can say is “cute,” and that’s perhaps the best word for Warm Bodies. It’s a cute movie, perfectly pleasant, charming in its low-key sweetness while still managing to be clever. It’s dark but not too mordant, and sweet but not sappy. The last act doesn’t feel like it has the proper balance that the rest of the movie coasts with, but it wasn’t enough to ruin the film. At its core, it’s a cute love story, a zom-rom-com that’s much better than being relegated as “Twilight with zombies.” Yes it could have been darker, more macabre with its humor, and there are plenty of gloomy opportunities afforded by the premise of an undead boyfriend, but Levine and his actors have conceived a film that manages to be many things, chief among them enjoyable. It’s a zombie movie that might make you feel squishy but under completely different circumstances.

Nate’s Grade: B

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

After the obnoxious, oafish mess that was 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a sequel that took everything good from the first flick and undermined it and took everything awful and magnified it, I wasn’t expecting much. True, low expectations have benefited this franchise built upon merchandizing, product placement, and giant freaking robots that fight. I still remain a fan of the first film back in 2007, and I do feel like director Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armegeddon) is a natural fit for this material. But after another overlong, overblown, and overloaded Transformers film, I’m starting to think that the franchise’s best days left with Megan Fox and her cut-off jean shorts.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has graduated from college and is now perusing a job in Washington D.C.’s vast center of government contracts. He’s living with his new girlfriend, Carly (Rose Huntington-Whiteley), the assistant to a rich billionaire (Patrick Dempsey) and his fleet of collector cars. Sam gets a job with at a military private contractor run by a angry loon (John Malkovich). But Sam’s post-collegiate journey once again runs afoul with killer alien robots. The villainous Decepticons are plotting to steal a spaceship that crash-landed on the dark side of Earth’s moon. Inside that spaceship are teleporter orbs and a sleeping robotic giant known as Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy, hooray). Optimus Prime, leader of the noble Autobots, revives his predecessor. Together, the group attempts to thwart the Decepicons, lead once again by Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving).

The Transformers films have been getting larger and larger in scope and destructive power; the first film messed up some L.A. streets, the awful second film trashed Egyptian pyramids (only Six Wonders of the World left in your punch card, Bay), and now the third film pretty much obliterates downtown Chicago in stunning and overblown fashion. The climactic Windy City beatdown lasts a solid 50 minutes and may just be the greatest thing Bay has ever put onscreen, which admittedly might be faint praise to many. Perhaps the city of Chicago thought this would make for good tourism: ”Hey kids, come see the buildings that were turned to rubble in your favorite summer movie!” The impressive special effects are uniformly terrific, and the integration of reality and fantasy seems seamless. That goes without saying. I must credit Bay for creating sustainable action that is, here it goes, actually coherent. I know that “Bay” and “coherency” rarely go together, so I’m as shocked as everyone. No longer does geography become a hindrance to understanding. During this climactic Chicago onslaught, the locations are established, the objectives are clear, and the audience has a crisp understanding of the different teams, their paths, and their organic roadblocks and setbacks.

There’s a strong set piece within this 50-minute assault where Sam and company enter into a crumbling skyscraper that then teeters on its side. The organic complications allow for some nifty, almost ingenious, split-decisions utilizing a specific location, the hallmark of good action sequences. One moment they’re climbing up the floors, the next moment they’re tumbling through the floors, then sliding down the sheer glass wall, then firing at the glass to fall back inside and tumble some more. All the while a giant worm-like robot is churning through the foundation of this collapsing building. The scale of the sequence is quite thrilling for the time being. And yes, the 9/11 imagery is undeniable and relatively unearned without even a nod to solemnity or anything less than brainless summer spectacle. Sure the “cool-ness” of the individual parts never really materializes into something greater, and yeah maybe the action would have more impact if you actually felt for the characters, or knew who some of them even were, but you take what you can get in Michael Bay world. The extended climax for Transformers: Dark of the Moon is relentless and will beat you into submission, admiring the intrinsic beauty unique to Bay’s epic, albeit mind-numbing, demolition of the senses.

But Dark of the Moon is also the most visually coherent of Bay’s troika of Transformers flicks because the man has finally settled down when it comes to editing. Now no one will confuse this movie for Rope or Russian Ark (look it up, Transformers geeks), but the edit/panic button is given a slight reprieve. The shots last longer; the editing is far less frenetic and chaotically ADD-addled, and no longer does a Transformers action sequence look like jumbled, mechanical scrambled porn. Image A and Image B make a logical connection, at long last. You can tell which robot is which, for the most part. Perhaps this editing epiphany was a result of Bay’s corporate betters insisting that the film be shot in 3D (I chose to see the film in good old boring 2D, feeling that 150-minutes of Michael Bay with headache-inducing glasses was not worth the extra dough). Perhaps Bay had to consciously think about his audience’s well being so his shot selections lasted longer than his usual whirlwind of cuts. Perhaps the secret was loading Bay with cameras that weigh the same as couches. Maybe a little extra weight was all the man needed to formulate lucid action sequences.

And yet Dark of the Moon is just as stupid, outlandish, and tonally disjointed as the other movies, particularly the abysmal Revenge of the Fallen. The comedy remains at a puerile, sophomoric level. Bay’s sensibilities have always somewhat mirrored that of a snickering 14-year-old boy; the love of destruction, the fascination with things that go “boom,” the ogling of lithe feminine bodies. No joke, the first image seen directly after the film’s title is a close-up of Huntington-Whiteley’s ass ascending a staircase. I imagine there were plenty of men spasming in their 3D glasses trying to reach out and grab the circumference of a Victoria Secret model’s talents. I wrote about the second film: “Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women.” Huntington-Whiteley’s character certainly leaves much to be desired, outside aesthetics. At least Megan Fox’s character had, you know, some character traits. I also wrote: “Amazingly enough, [Fox] manages to lose more clothes the more she runs in slow-mo, allowing the male audience members to follow the nuance of her bouncing breasts. She’s clearly not the next Meryl Streep but this girl deserves more than being wordless arm candy.” Seems apt to me. Carly is as bland as she is blank-eyed beautiful, just the way Bay likes ‘em.

The first 90 minutes of the film is spent with the humans and it’s like being trapped inside a bad comedy. There has always been a strong comedic bent to the franchise ever since the first film in 2007; however, the latter films have taken to grotesque caricature. In Dark of the Moon, the comedy is so deeply unfunny but so consistently antic, trying to overwhelm you with its bad taste. There’s a scene where Ken Jeong (yes, you read that right) corners Sam in a bathroom stall to distribute his crackpot manifesto. Then Sam’s boss walks in and, oh boy, he overhears and thinks they’re having a homosexual liaison in the men’s stall. What a hoot. Then Sam’s mother gives him dating advice, stating there’s no earthly way her son is going to nab a third “hottie” unless her boy has a giant…. and trials off (wouldn’t a mother kind of have an idea about that subject?). And then there’s the little Autobots, the size of remote control cars (perfect presents for Christmas mom and dad), who wheel around spitting smart-alecky backtalk. The entire Malkovich portion could have easily been cut from the film without damaging a soul. The Ken Jeong stuff should have been eliminated first. There’s something to be said when John Turturro’s returning Agent Simmons is the least annoying comic sidekick in this movie. But hey, at least there aren’t any overt racist depictions and jokes about robot scrotums. Nope, there’s only infantile humor and nonchalant misogyny. The comedic pit stops and non-sequitors never allow the movie’s tone to gel.

Before the movie descends into an all-out series of explosions and shrapnel, the setup actually has some genuine interest. Then it just all goes nuts at warp speed. The fact that the space race to the moon had a sinister ulterior motive, investigating alien technology, is an intriguing start. Bay even shoots the 1960s sequences like he’s ripping off Oliver Stone, swapping film stocks and black and white film to showcase his historical reinactors (three presidents get represented, including Obama). Apparently after this film and X-Men: First Class, the breakout star this summer is archived footage of JFK (man did he have a full plate, mutants and robots, and the man still found time to bang Marilyn Monroe). There’s even a cameo by the real Buzz Aldrin, which served to make me remember his better cameo on TV’s 30 Rock (“Would you like to yell at the moon with me?” he politely asked Tina Fey).  The space race was a pretense for getting our human hands on some alien technology. Of course we were warned years ahead of time via Pink Floyd but nobody could put the pieces together. But there’s more alternative history to be had. Turns out that the disastrous nuclear accident at Chernobyl was caused by the Russians trying to operate alien/Transformer technology. I’m sure modern-day Ukrainians will adore having their deadly tragedy turned into a plot point in a stupid movie about fighting robots. The Decepticons wicked plan is to open a teleportation portal and bring their dead planet, Cybertron, to Earth. Then they will use Earth’s human population as slave labor to bring their dead planet back to life. My question is this: when you’re a huge robot the size of a building, wouldn’t puny little humans make for a terrible labor force with their stunted little legs and feeble muscles? I know there’s billions of them, but there’s a reason human beings have never turned on ants and forced them to become a labor force for our construction projects. How many more deadly things from Cybertron are secretly going to be hidden on Earth? And yet none of this is even one-tenth as stupid as Transformers’ heaven in Revenge of the Fallen.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is likely everything fans would want from a franchise. There’s wanton destruction, a plethora of noisy explosions, and plenty of eye candy both in special effects wizardry and pouty, full-lipped women. But at a colossal 150-minute running time, this is a Transformers film that punishes as much as it entertains. There’s really no reason a movie about brawling robots should be this long. There’s no reason it should have to resort to so much dumb comedy. There’s no reason that the women should be fetishized as if they were another sleek line of sexy cars. There’s no reason why something labeled a “popcorn movie” can’t deliver escapist thrills and have a brain too. Dark of the Moon is saved by its long Chicago-set climax, which gives way to some staggering action set pieces. The newest Transformers movie is just as stupid as the rest (what the hell is up with the weird Igor robots tending to Megatron that just seem to grumble and grunt?) but, unlike the previous installment, it’s not offensively stupid. Dark of the Moon is an exhaustive experience whose thrilling high points even feel mechanical and pre-programmed. Is this the future of Hollywood? Bay and his army of robotics and excessive spectacle have taken over the world. When it comes to big-time summer entertainment, the machines of Hollywood are going nowhere fast and even louder.

Nate’s Grade: C+

R.E.D. (2010)

I can watch Helen Mirren fire high-powered weapons all day. RED is a jaunt throwaway that manages to be far more entertaining than it has any right to be. This isn’t excess on the level of The A-Team, nor is it all cynical and emotionless like Wanted. RED is the film that The Expendables could have been with a bit more polish and a little less muscle flexing. The premise almost seems worn out by this point in 2010: retired CIA agents are being hunted down and killed for some mysterious reason. Thus Bruce Willis must travel across the country and recruit his former spooks like Morgan Freeman, a daffy John Malkovich, and dame Mirren. He also gets a rather charming romance with Mary-Louise Parker (TV’s Weeds) as a pension customer service rep that Willis dials up for small talk. She gets whisked along this madcap adventure and enjoys it for the ride that it is. And I think that’s the best summation of the film. What other movie of this sort has actors of this caliber? Four Oscar winners, one nominee, plus solid work from Karl Urban (Star Trek) and beloved character actor Brian Cox to boot. The film definitely has a style, slick enough to please without being heavy-handed to rip you out of the film. The plot may be full of holes, the characters aren’t fully drawn, and certain action sequences are derivative, but thanks to the charms of its golden cast, RED is fun while it lasts.

Nate’s Grade: B

Burn After Reading (2008)

The Coen brothers tend to follow serious works with silly, and now that they have a heap of Oscars from 2007’s No Country for Old Men audiences can expect extreme silliness. Burn After Reading is a farce in the best sense of the word; it’s a send-up of the spy thriller where morons inhabit every role. The incompetent characters repeatedly act impulsive and the whole movie’s tone is cranked to outlandish heights. The score by Carter Burwell is like a continuous thundercloud that underscores the ridiculous and faux ominous atmosphere. The Coens have been accused of ridiculing their characters and being too detached and clinical as screenwriters. I do not believe this for a moment. Anyone who watches Burn After Reading can tell that the Coens love their characters, especially Brad Pitt’s ebullient personal trainer. Pitt is a comic joy and brings fresh life to his fun character, a highly cheerful doofus who can’t stay still. Even the funky way Pitt walks is worth a giggle. Burn After Reading takes some surprising twists and turns and could have been much longer than 96 total minutes. The Coens go to such terrific lengths establishing great oddball characters and great comedic scenarios, and then the whole movie just comes to a close when it feels like it’s hitting another gear. Still, Burn After Reading may be no masterpiece but its yet another unconventional and mostly entertaining comedy from the reliably quirky Coen brothers.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Beowulf (2007)

Taking note of director Robert Zemeckis’ new motion-captured animated version of Beowulf, I began to wonder what other classic works of literature could use a good CGI sprucing up. Dusty old tomes would have greater relevancy to the youth of today if they were coated in animation and presented in a 3-D format. Just think of the works of Jane Austin with a flying, zooming camera and the aristocratic families repeatedly jutting marriage contracts toward an audience. This might be the only way to make The Great Gatsby tolerable.

The 1000-year old story begins in the dining hall for King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins). Their loud and drunken reverie is interrupted by the monstrous creature Grendel (Crispin Glover). The creatures rips men apart, lays waste to the hall, and munches on a few heads for the long journey back to his cave. The King offers a reward for anyone who can slay the monster and bring peace to the Danish lands. Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone), a determined warrior and competitor who seeks eternal glory. He brags that he will kill their monster and then kill Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) next. However, the slinky lass offers a tempting promise that she can make Beowulf the greatest story in all the world.

This is not the same Beowulf you were forced to read in high school English. I confess never having read the 3,183-line ye olde English poem, but I don’t think it had scenes of burping, public urination, a “coming” sexual joke, and some unexpected man-on-monster action (not the kind you’d readily think). This is a bloody and often exhilarating retelling intent on jazzing up a classic work for a younger generation. The action sequences have tremendous scope and can be relentless, and when witnessed in 3-D they are even more immersive and breathtaking. Stepping aside from the thrills and chills, Beowulf also works as a cautionary tale about the dangers of lust and particularly pride. Beowulf is a boastful and arrogant fellow, enough that he chooses to fight Grendel in the buff so that it will be even more challenging and thus ego stroking (as they battle, objects conveniently obscure the audience from seeing Beowulf’s manhood). The main deviation from the poem, connecting the various characters on a much more personal level, works with he context of the story and the overarching theme about the costs of vanity.

I encourage all potential Beowulf ticket-buyers to seek out where their nearest 3-D screening resides and to plan and, if needed, carpool to that theater immediately. This thing is meant to be seen in three dimensions, and in that environment Beowulf is amazing to behold. This is my first encounter with the next generation of 3-D and it is a giant leap beyond the funny glasses with blue and red lenses. Hollywood has hopes that this technology will be the next great invention that drives people to the movies and turn it into a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in the quiet privacy of your own home. I must say I was thoroughly impressed with how immersive the process becomes. Beware, though, because of the deep focus your eyes will dart around the screen resting from object to object, marveling at the different planes of depth; you may feel some strain and a headache after awhile. Objects keep sneaking into your peripheral vision and the movie takes many opportunities to hurl things at the screen, and thus the audience, be they coins, swords, arrows, limbs, heads, pots, and blood splatters. The 3-D technology also has some bountiful benefits, like having a very buxom peasant wench scrub a table and having her womanly assets swing with her. It’s quite something in 3-D and makes me sad that Russ Meyer couldn’t live long enough for this age. The CGI animation coupled with the 3-D technology makes for a compulsively stunning first-rate spectacle.

The visual look is a great step forward from 2004’s The Polar Express, the first time Zemeckis used his newfangled motion-capture toys. I really disliked the look of Polar Express, and the kids and their dead, glassy eyes creeped me the hell out. I’m still not entirely sold on what motion-capture even brings to the world of animation; to me, it seems like animators can dictate movement just as well as copying from an actor. Where the animators do make strides is in their depictions of real people. It’s not photo-realism, in fact sometimes the characters look like plastic dolls, but you can see all the pores in the skin and follicles of hair in bristling detail. The look of the movie reminded me a lot of the video game God of War, especially when Beowulf is slicing and dicing one-eyed sea monsters. I think that’s a pretty fair assessment ultimately, that the film better resembled a slickly produced video game cut scene than reality.

In the end credits, I noticed that someone is specifically singled out and credited for the design of Grendel’s mother. I’m all for credit where it’s due, but Grendel’s mother was simply designed as Angelina Jolie with a tail coming out of her head. The character design looks remarkably like its big name actress and she struts around mostly naked, though her body drips with a melting gold finish that stops the nudity from having any real definition (it’s kind of like she’s in a melty candy shell). This may be enough for frisky moviegoers that must have missed out on the 1001 other movies Jolie bares her flesh for, or perhaps the head-tail fetish folk will finally have their day. It makes a lot of sense for Zemeckis to choose Jolie for the seductress role. It seems that mortal men just can’t help themselves around her and they end up doing the nasty, which produces little nasty creatures. If there were anyone in today’s world that could make men weak with overwhelming lust, it would be the lovely Jolie. Just ask Brad Pitt.

The character work on Grendel, however, is fascinating and startlingly grotesque. He resembles a cross between Frankenstein, Dobby the elf, and a coffee pot, all covered in rotting, patchy skin. The amount of detail is amazing and simultaneously stomach-churning. Glover offers a magnificently eccentric frame to build from. Grendel comes across less like a monster and more like a misunderstood wretch that just wants some peace and quiet by any means necessary. The screenplay gives Grendel some deeper backstory and a motivation for his murderous rampages (the poor guy is hyper sensitive to music, which blares in his head and causes agony).

Beowulf does have some slow moments and a noticeable lag in the middle before it sets up a climactic dragon battle. I was actually starting to nod off somewhere along the middle. The screenplay, adapted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, squanders a load of underwritten characters, like a queen, a young concubine, and a religious advisor that asks if they should also pray to this new Roman God, Jesus something or other. Zemeckis is too enamored with the 3-D technology at his fingertips and clutters his screen too often to play around with the depth of field. I cannot fathom how this movie would play out in a regular 2-D environment, but needless to say, I’m sure the constant barrage of things pointing at the screen would get old quick.

Beowulf is a rousing and thrilling experience when seen in its intended 3-D format, otherwise it might get a tad tiresome and the visuals would come across as less accomplished. Zemeckis is getting better acquainted with the limitless freedom his motion-capture technology afford him and his imagination, however, I mourn the loss of Zemeckis ever directing another live-action film again. He seems to be completely taken with his technology and while it will improve with age I just wish the man who gave me so many wonderful movies like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would just go back to basics.

Nate’s Grade: Movie itself: B
3-D presentation of film: A-
Average: B+

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

I’m a big fan of the late Douglas Adams’ series, so going in I had a slate of expectations but also a working knowledge of this kooky universe. I really don’t think this film will work for anyone but the fans. The movie isn’t even structured like a screenplay, it has more of the novel’s loose loopy feel. Some things work wonderful, like the Vogons, giant marvelous looking puppets made by Jim Henson’s studio. The cast is mostly excellent (Alan Rickman steals the show as the voice of Marvin, a very depressed robot). The animated guide entries in the Hitchhiker’s book are colorful, stylistic, and witty. Somethings, however, don’t work at all. The additions to the story, an increased romantic angle between our lead Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and Trillian (Zooey Descehanel) as well as a flat happy ending that rewrites all the opening danger. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy occasionally serves up some juicy bits of wacky humor or visual fantasy (John Malkovich’s bit part is weird) but unless you were a fan of the book series, you’re really not going to be able to follow along or have any interest in keeping up.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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