Wonder Woman may have beaten her to the punch but Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, deserves her own share of headlines as the first woman to have her own starring vehicle in the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Her presence was first teased in the post-credit scene of Infinity War. After twenty-one films, Captain Marvel gets squeezed into the penultimate chapter before closing the book on the MCU as we know it for a decade, and it feels like a throwback in both good and bad ways.
Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), or “Vers” as she’s known on the Kree home planet, is part of an elite alien squad of “noble warrior heroes” fighting in a long-running war against another alien race, the shape-shifting Skrulls. Carol Danvers goes back to her home planet of Earth (a.k.a. Planet C-53) in the 1990s to look for a hidden weapon linked to a mentor she can’t quite remember, a woman (Annette Bening) from her past life on Earth as an Air Force pilot. Carol Danvers must try and recall who she is with the help of Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and stay one step ahead from the invading Skrulls.
This definitely feels like a lower-to-mid tier Marvel entry, something more akin to the Phase One years (2008-2012) where the initial franchises were just starting to get a sense of direction and personality. They were also lacking the larger depth of character development, social and political messaging, as well as judicious independence from the overall studio formula that has come to define dozens of superhero blockbusters. It’s not a bad movie, and is fairly entertaining throughout its 124-minute run time, but it’s hard not to notice the shortcomings that, frankly, haven’t been this transparent in an MCU movie for some years now. I had to think back on a comparable MCU experience and I had to go back to 2015 with Avengers: Age of Ultron or maybe even 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. In short, Captain Marvel just feels a little less super in many important areas.
This is the first female-lead superhero film in the MCU (sorry Black Widow) and Carol Danvers has been a character in Marvel comics since 1968, and yet the film doesn’t put together a compelling case why she is the one getting her big screen moment. The character suffers that wonderfully tired movie trope of the foggy memory, so we have a protagonist trying to discover who she is alongside the audience. This would be a fine starting point for her to essentially reclaim her humanity and her agency as she travels back to good ole C-53 and learns more about her past. There’s a core of a beginning theme already present there, the nature of what it means to be human, and how it can be viewed as a weakness by n alien species and how it comes to be a strength for her. Maybe that’s too pat but it’s a start. The problem is that Carol Danvers isn’t seen to be that interesting. She’s somewhat boring and the presentation feels a tad inauthentic; when she’s quippy it feels forced, and when she’s badass it feels lethargic. There’s a personal journey that challenges her to assess her preconceived notions of good and evil in an ongoing intergalactic conflict, but it’s so impersonal. Even when she’s revisiting with friends and reminiscing (what she can) it doesn’t feel like we’re getting that much more insight than we had before. She’s a warrior. She’s upstanding. She definitely doesn’t like men telling her what she can and cannot do. But what else do we know besides her increasingly invincible super powers? What is most important to her that drives her? What are her flaws other than a faulty memory? When she goes full super saiyan it should be celebratory and joyous and instead it feels more weirdly perfunctory.
I love Larson as an actress and have been singing her praises for dramas (Room, Short Term 12) and comedies (21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim) for years, and I kept waiting and waiting to be wowed by her in this role. I was left unfulfilled. Larson is a terrific actress and can be so expressive, resolute, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and I grew frustrated as the movie kept her talents buttoned up for too long. She seems too removed from the action even as it’s happening in the moment. It’s not that she’s too serious (“smile more” chime the denizens of cretinous “men’s rights activists”) because her character should be serious. It’s that she hasn’t been given enough depth and interest a hero deserves.
Jackson (Glass) and Mendelsohn (Ready Player One) were my favorite parts of the movie. Watching a 40-something Jackson front and center looking like he was ripped out from 90s cinema is remarkable. The movie is at its best when Jackson and Larson are working their 90s buddy cop chemistry together. There’s a fun running joke about how Fury loses his eye with some near-misses played for comedy (reminiscent of Crispin Glover’s eventual armless bellhop in Hot Tub Time Machine) and while the film does a disservice to Carol Danvers’ character it opens up Fury even more as a person. Mendelsohn has become a go-to villain for Hollywood and the filmmakers use this to their advantage. He slinks around having a good time being bad, but there’s also a surprising turn that provides unexpected pathos and depth to what could have been a one-note scary-looking bad guy. In a movie that deserves headlines for being the first female-lead MCU entry, the supporting dudes end up having the most depth and success, which is rather odd.
Captain Marvel is missing a larger sense of vision and purpose, which is why it feels more like a throwback to those early days. Directing/co-witting husband-and-wife team Anna Bodin and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) don’t manage to have a feel for the material and for action as a whole. There are some pretty-looking sequences and some moments that strike their intended effect well, but the structure of their movie could use a bit of an overhaul. The first act, the pre-Earth return, is a bit convoluted and could be condensed. This even goes for the Kree Special Forces team (Kree Team Six?), which comprise many differentiated soldiers when really three non-Jude Law members would suffice. The Kree characters are stranded for the middle act and when they come back it’s hard not to feel disinterest. The concluding act brings the various plotlines together better with some good twists I did not see coming and appreciated. However, the climax is missing out on its triumphant jubilation because of the spotty characterization and the haphazard action direction. From the start, the action is unimpressive and poorly choreographed and edited. The chases are humdrum and the special effects are surprisingly substandard at too many turns. It’s hard to tell what’s happening in many fight scenes, and once Carol Danvers gets her full super laser-blasting powers, the screen becomes even more obstructed and even harder to decipher. Bodin and Fleck have showcased a natural feel for visual storytelling but action appears beyond their grasp for now.
Captain Marvel suffers from being asked to do too much, slap together an origin tale for the last essential character for the conclusion to a larger multi-movie storyline, also forging the beginning of the MCU timeline as a prequel for Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D, as well as some connective back-story with the Guardians universe. It has to do a lot of heavy lifting in two hours that the screenplay and characterization do not seem best equipped to handle. The humor is a bit dull and unsure of itself, relying upon certain beats one too may times, notably a cute orange cat tagging along. Even the 90s setting feels like something tacked on for easy jokes about dial-up Internet and references to Radio Shack. It feels like simple nostalgia and that goes to the soundtrack selections as well. This must have been the easiest job the music supervisor ever had for a film, having to do a mere cursory scan of 90s alternative rock for the hits. An action sequence set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” should have more attitude than it does. A dream/trance sequence set to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” should be creepier and more unsettling. By the end, as the credits flash onscreen set to the guitar chords of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” I felt certifiable 90s fatigue.
I feel like I’m piling on Captain Marvel with complaints and quibbles and presenting the impression that it’s a bad or dimly entertaining film. It’s not a bad experience but it definitely has its share of flaws that hinder the enjoyment factor. As a white guy in his thirties, Hollywood has been making movies tailor-made for me as their default setting. I cannot underestimate the cultural and personal impact this will have for millions of women and young girls who have been eagerly waiting for a big-budget movie with a strong female protagonist front and center. Wonder Woman was a cultural and commercial touchstone that might diminish the luster of Captain Marvel for some, but the MCU is its own unparalleled zeitgeist. Having a woman carry a movie in this special high-profile film universe will mean considerably much to many. I wish it was a better movie, but even lower-tier Marvel is still better than plenty, and that may be enough. I’ll look forward to see how other screenwriters and filmmakers make use of the character in the ensuing Avengers sequel coming out next month. I’ll reserve my final judgment on the character after I see how she fits into the larger picture and with storytelling talents that have shown more aptitude toward the super stuff.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I don’t know what this movie was trying to say about anything. Vox Lux stars Natalie Portman as the adult Celeste, a survivor of a school shooting as a teen who became an international pop star in the months after. Is there something writer/director Brady Corbet wants to say about the transformation of tragedy into mass entertainment? The dulling effect of an entertainment industry to grind up human beings and re-purpose them into shiny, inauthentic, easily marketable figurines? I don’t know. I warily thought as we open on an upsetting school shooting, “I don’t know if the final product will justify this tone,” and it doesn’t. There are decisions that feel like they should mean something, like having the same actress, Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland), play both young Celeste and her eventual teen daughter, but what? It feels like an idea looking to attach to an interpretative message. Then there’s a modern terrorist group dressing like one of Celeste’s iconic music videos. She distances herself from the violence and even publicly challenges the perpetrators. This will obviously come back and mean something, drawing upon her own beginning stages of fame derived from the bloodshed of others, right? Or during her big concert the terrorists will invade and attack her, bringing the main character face-to-face with the ramifications of hubris. None of these things happen. Instead, Portman enters the scene at the 45-minute mark and proceeds to lash out at others, lament her parenting deficiencies, gets drunk, and then puts on her show. That’s it. It’s like Vox Lux forgot to be a movie for the final 20 minutes and just becomes a numbing series of EDM pop dance numbers. Portman is actually very good and digging deep into her anxious, entitled, and spiraling pop star, rounding out her dimmed humanity when Corbet cannot. There’s a solid storyline here between the adult Celeste trying to reconnect with her teen daughter who she’s been neglecting. This isn’t it. The pretension level of the pedantic exercise made me think of Lars von Trier as filmed by Darren Aronofsky. Skip it.
Nate’s Grade: C-
When they adjusted the Hobbit movies so there was going to be three instead of two, it required some very noticeable padding and filler material to meet out that requirement. The second Fantastic Beasts film (of a planned five film series, expanded from a trilogy) feels exactly that way, a mostly table-setting movie with more incidents than plot, a few pertinent revelations, and not much in the manner of resolution. The second Fantastic Beasts does improve on its predecessor in several regards. It introduces a formidable villain that’s well played by Johnny Depp. It introduces a compelling younger version of Albus Dumbledore that’s played by the dashing Jude Law. It also finds more purpose for its hero, the shy magical zookeeper Newt (Eddie Redmayne), as the series inches closer to a wizards-vs-wizards world war. Things take a turn for the darker; within the First Act, a baby is murdered. They didn’t even do that in the new Halloween. The larger world building of Beasts, written by author J.K. Rowling for the screen and directed by longtime stalwart David Yates, has been its biggest draw. The supporting characters are back, though not everyone has much to do. Rowling is improving as a screenwriter but she still has trouble executing exposition-heavy scenes, resorting to sequence after sequence of characters prattling on. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of consequence until the very end, so we endure characters running through underdeveloped and contrived storylines. One of these involves Katherine Waterston mistakenly believing Newt is engaged (his brother is) and somehow, despite having access to magic let alone other forms of media, never findings out the easy truth. It’s stuff like that that show me Rowling was struggling to find material for every character to push them forward on this now extended journey. Crimes of Gindelwald is an overall step in the right direction for the prequel series even if this individual movie has trouble standing on its own magical merits.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Sometimes a movie just gives the wrong impression from its conception, pre-production, and initial advertisement, and that’s exactly King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Optimistically planned as a six-part franchise, this new big-budget rendition of Arthurian legend looked like a total disaster. Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) seemed like the wrong fit for the material, the tone seemed messy and unclear, and it screamed a transparent attempt by Hollywood execs to sex up something old. I was holding out a sliver of hope that it might be stylish, mindless fun, and this was coming off of Ritchie’s unexpectedly enjoyable Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake. If I do not see a more headache-inducing, self-indulgent, cumbersome, illogical, and generally exasperating movie this summer, I will consider myself most fortunate.
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a streetwise youth raised in a whorehouse on the dirty streets of Londinium. He’s a low-level criminal with his own loyal crew and his own moral code. He’s also, unbeknownst to him, loyalty in the making. Arthur is the son of the former King Uther (Eric Bana) who was murdered by his brother and mage, Vortigern (Jude Law). Arthur runs afoul of the law and is captured, and his identity is revealed when he successfully pulls Excalibur from the stone. Vortigern must kill the young upstart but a group of dissidents kidnaps Arthur and pleads with him to join their cause. Together they can topple Vortigern and free England of his tyranny.
If you can keep up with Ritchie’s willfully shifty film narrative then you’re of sounder mind than me because it felt like King Arthur was just being made up on the spot. Whenever one tells a story in a fantasy realm with fantasy figures, the rules are important to establish, otherwise everything can just feel airless and arbitrary and anticlimactic. If a movie can’t establish its own internal logic and system of rules it feels obtuse. There aren’t setups, and without setups there can’t be well-orchestrated payoffs. This is basic structure, plain and simple. This does not happen in King Arthur at all. Beyond the most flimsy good-guys-triumph-over-evil underpinning, there is nothing that makes sense. Characters will all of a sudden achieve some advanced knowledge without the audience seeing how this was gained. Characters will make use of powers that would have been very useful if they had been used earlier but we have no explanation why. The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) all of a sudden summons a giant snake, or turns into a giant snake, and I’m thinking, if you have giant snake-making powers, why did you wait so long on this? Conversely, Vortigern offers blood sacrifices to an evil squid-siren-sister-threesome, but what he gains in exchange is vague, their demands are vague, as is their overall fit into a larger scheme. I thought Arthur was trying to stage an insurgency and court a political revolution, but that fizzles out after a few scenes of rare coherency. I gave up trying to understand the movie within the first twenty minutes. It feels like Ritchie and company are just hurtling through expected fantasy elements as if they were merely expanded features from a trailer and a chore to overcome. Arthur has an incredibly expedited adventure on an island with oversized animals (literal R.O.U.S.!), and it feels like Ritchie is just laughing at the expense of the audience and whatever genre demands they might have had.
The characters are also extremely uninteresting and kept me at a distance for the entire film. Ritchie is trying to incorporate his cheeky gangster movies into the fantasy mythology of the King Arthur legend, and the two don’t exactly fit. An early sequence involves Arthur explaining his routine that day through repetitious, annoying narration and a non-linear time-skipping timeline. It’s the kind of narrative trick we’ve become accustomed to in Ritchie’s movie. This time it was shallow because it wasn’t funny, interesting, and its only justifiable purpose seemed to be beating an audience into submission to remember the names of Arthur’s pals through rote repetition. The characters have stupid, Dick Tracy-in-Midlevel times names like Goose Fat Bill, Wet Stick, Back Lack, Chinese George, Jack’s Eye, Blue and Mischief John. Silly names by themselves are not an issue, as Snatch had characters with monikers like Franky Four-Fingers and Bullet-Tooth Tony, but by God those characters were memorable. These characters lack striking personalities and general purpose other than filling the frame. If you challenged me to put names to faces I would probably fail (the main female character doesn’t even get a name; she’s simply The Mage). These boring people just drifted from scene to scene, bumping into an increasingly arbitrary, ungainly, and meaningless plot.
The subtitle is also an indication of the deeper problems inherent with the plot. It’s “Legend of the Sword” and not “Arthur,” and it doesn’t even name the sword. We’re told that the sword wields immense power, though like much it’s never explained in any sort of manner that would provide context or general understanding. The sword is powerful but it’s also more active than our hero, because Arthur is told that the sword controls him and not the other way around. His mission then is learning to simply allow the sword to do its thing. His mission is to become more passive when fighting? Does that strike anybody as a character arc that makes sense or would be satisfying to watch?
With so many missteps at so many levels, the only way this movie could have been salvaged is from some sensational action sequences to quicken one’s pulse. Ritchie is a stylish director but I don’t think he’s ever been a great stager of action. His documentary-style zooms, speed ramps, and quick cuts are more about engendering an impression. An excellent example, and probably the high-point of the movie, is a montage establishing Arthur’s childhood growing up on the rough and tumble streets of Londinium. It’s wordless, set to a gasping, percussion-heavy score, and quickly establishes through concise visuals how Arthur came of age and gained his street smarts. The legitimate action sequences are underwhelming and poorly orchestrated. The setups are rushed, confusing, and the edits are a scrambled mixture of slow motion, fast motion, and extreme close-ups, a combination that doesn’t aid in coherency. The advanced fighting feels like the movie just accelerated into a video game cut scene. It’s generally as incomprehensible as the plot and as ultimately tiresome as the various characters.
Allow me to indulge an exemplary example as to why King Arthur is as stupid, irritating, and headache-inducing just from a plot standpoint, never mind Ritchie’s filmmaking tics. The villain has three chances to kill Arthur and he inexplicably whiffs every freaking time. The first is when Arthur is a young boy and his father manages to place him on a small dingy and pushes him out to sea like he’s Moses in a basket. Vortigern is his super video game bad guy ultra self, who we later see has the power to launch fiery projectiles, and he just watches as the slowest boat in the world slowly drifts away, forgetting he has projectile powers. Either that or the movie inserts an arbitrary limitation for no reason. Now established as king, Vortigern lives by the prophecy that Arthur will return and pull Excalibur from the stone and one day vanquish him; however, Arthur can still be killed because he is mortal. Arthur pulls the sword from its stony sheath and passes out. Does Vortigern kill his long-prophesied enemy while he’s unconscious? No. Does he kill him while he’s locked in a jail cell? No. Does he kill him before a big public ceremony where, surprise, a group of outlaws rescue Arthur? No. Even if you were being generous and account these foolish actions as the result of unchecked hubris, consider the very climactic battle between the adult Arthur and Vortigern. Once again, Vortigern has adopted his fiery, giant video game boss battle visage, the same that killed Arthur’s father that fateful night. It’s clearly a life and death showdown, and at one point Arthur gets thrown, hits his head on rock, and is knocked unconscious. He eventually wakes up and looks over to find… Vortigern just standing on the other side of the rock and admiring like a stone altar. It’s the battle between good and evil and evil decides to take a walk. Three obvious instances where the villain could have won, easily, and three illogical excuses that showcase the absence of even acceptable storytelling.
So what if the story of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is dumb and feels like it’s being randomly made up on the spot? So what if the characters are underwritten, lacking in distinguished personalities, and are rather pointless? So what if the main character has to learn to better give up his agency to a stupid magic sword? So what if the only significant female character doesn’t even merit a name? So what if the action often resorts to a slow-motion frenzy of a CGI dust cloud? So what if there are 300-foot sized elephants in this movie and then never appear again? So what if I don’t understand anybody’s personal relationships besides good and evil designations? So what if I was so bored and disengaged from the movie that I started contemplating strange subjects to pass the protracted time, like why does Hunnam’s natural British accent sound so fake, and why does Jude Law’s hair remind me of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters? The ultimate question is whether or not something as ostensibly irreverent as a cockney crime King Arthur is fun, and the answer is unequivocally no. If you’re still wondering how poorly conceived and executed this movie is, I’ve saved the best doozy for last, which coincidentally is also one of the final moments in the two-hour film. I kid you not, the movie ends with the eventual Knights of the Round Table actively befuddled by the existence of a round table. They cannot apply their knowledge of tables to this new, rounder model. They gawk, shake their heads, and wonder what it is exactly. There you have it, a group of heroes mentally defeated due to the absence of corners.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Melissa McCarthy’s meteoric comedic rise hasn’t been without its missteps, mainly the complaint that she seems stuck in a rut playing aggressively weird and foul-mouthed characters that are growing tiresome. McCarthy is never better than when teamed with her Bridesmaids’ director Paul Feig, and Spy is a welcomed return to form for a great comic actress who relishes being outlandish. The best part of the film is that it’s a character-centric comedy, with McCarthy as Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who works as a handler, the voice on the other end of the earpiece, guiding her partner the handsome Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is compromised on a mission, Susan unexpectedly finds herself in the field to track down some very bad people. McCarthy does get to be vulgar, but fortunately it’s only one persona she adopts as a mask, and it’s cleverly utilized. Feig’s screenplay makes sure to find different comic beats as it goes, rarely repeating itself and, like any good action movie, finding twists to further develop conflicts. Part of what’s so enjoyable about Spy is how comic scenarios will evolve while staying true to the characters and the central conflict. Also, Feig acquits himself more than well with the film’s semi-slick action photography. The supporting cast is nicely tied into the story and matter and each actor has material to cut loose, none more than Jason Statham (The Expendables) as a hilariously boastful and incredulous agent. His boisterous chest-beating about his past deeds are some of the film’s funniest moments. Consistently funny, witty, and mildly progressive with its heroine, Spy is a vehicle that makes perfect use of McCarthy’s talents and then some.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Undeservingly lost in the shuffle, Dom Hemingway is a brash and wildly entertaining dark crime comedy. Jude Law is a sheer force of nature as the title character, a charismatic and garrulous criminal with no shortness of ego or volume. He’s just getting out of a 12-year jail sentence and taking stock of his life. His wife is dead, his grown-up daughter (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) hates him for his absence, and his bosses are ready to reward him for his long silence. The only person who could screw things is up is Dom, and he does, as he’s prone to impulsive fits, shouting matches, and oversized bravado. This is really a series of comic vignettes and vulgar monologues, but the writing by Richard Shepard (The Matador) is slyly hilarious, leaving me in stitches throughout (“I am not burying your body today! I didn’t bring the right shoes for it.”). The comic voice here is assured and finely attuned to the broad wavelengths the characters. It’s not exactly he colorful, cartoon criminal universe of early Guy Ritchie films, but there’s a definitely heightened atmosphere here that blends well with the manic nature of Dom. Law is bouncing off the walls; you may have to wash the spittle off your TV. But he’s compelling from his first minute onscreen to his last. The third act squeezes in a degree of emotions though by then we’ve been enjoying the depravity too much to switch focus. I don’t think the work has been put in to make Dom a three-dimensional character, but that won’t stop Dom’s film from being a blast of entertainment with swagger to spare.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Wes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.
In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.
For Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.
The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.
The fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.
The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?
Nate’s Grade: A
Steven Soderbergh’s supposed last stop before retirement is another of his genre exercises, but Side Effects feels like a firmer success, albeit modest, for the director to go out on. It’s the story of a woman battling depression, played with terrific cageyness by Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). She gets prescribed a new drug and… does some very bad things. Who is culpable? The doctor, being funded by the drug companies? The woman who was sleepwalking at the time? The industry for blanketing patients with ads to demand their drug? After a rather slow start, the movie gets interesting and starts to try out different genres like hats. It appears for a good while we’re now going to be following her doctor (Jude Law) and his downfall as the industry turns on him and the media coverage intensifies. Written by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), the movie has that same enticing sense of realism about how all the moving parts of a complicated industry would come into sync and conflict. Then the film tries out another identity, that of traditional thriller, with wronged parties orchestrating vengeance. I was invested until the end and felt sufficiently satisfied with the end results. Soderbergh’s smooth camerawork and cool color palate are well suited for a film about the battles of depression, and for a good while, before the thriller aspects take over, the movie is a fairly mature look at the struggles of depression and the industry that profits off it. Side Effects doesn’t seem like a closing statement for an artist as varied and unpredictable as Soderbergh, but as far as a Saturday afternoon goes, it’ll sure pass the time nicely.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’ve never read a Russian novel before, mostly because I don’t need to read 900 pages of bleakness and repressed happiness. With that said, I knew very little going into Anna Karenina (the very title sounds too heavy in syllables, like you’re stuttering). What didn’t help matters was director Joe Wright’s edict to set the story as if it was being performed on a living stage. This bizarre visual concept is interesting for a little while until you realize that it never goes further than the obvious note that the lives of the elites were played out in public for cruel judgment. The staging also gave me many periods of confusion where it felt like a character fantasy was taking place. The peculiar staging seems superfluous and the real draw for the film, not the relatively fine performances or Tom Stoppard’s (Shakespeare in Love) adaptation. I don’t think it works as a movie because, much like Wright’s Atonement, it feels too self-satisfied in its own mannered artifice. It’s an overload on style and the film neglects to give me a reason to care about the story and the characters. Keira Knightley as the titular heroine is hard to embrace, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Savages) seems miscast as her dashing lover, and Jude Law (Hugo) comes across as unreasonably tolerable of his wife’s flights of fancy, so much so it makes it hard to sympathize with her downward spiral. It’s a pretty movie and I applaud its attempt to do something different, but Wright’s Anna Karenina feels too fanciful to come across as tragic.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Dreamworks animation has long existed in the mighty shadow of Pixar, but as of late the studios might be at a creative crossroads. After the excellent Kung Fu Panda films and How to Train Your Dragon, suddenly Dreamworks animated movies matured beyond feverish, pop-culture explosions and into character-driven, colorful, and genuinely heartfelt family films. I don’t think we’ll be getting something as dismal as Shark Tale again with the current path the studio is blazing. Rise of the Guardians looks like the pilot for a new lucrative Dreamworks family franchise. It’s easy to see the appeal for a superhero assembly of fantasy figures, though is every region going to have working knowledge of the Tooth Fairy? The movie just looked too silly to function for me, but I was optimistic after raves from a few trusted friends. Perhaps my own childlike sense of wonder is permanently replaced with a heart of stone, but I found Rise of the Guardians to be a somewhat entertaining but mostly stilted, intellectually and emotionally, journey.
The guardians are an ancient group of holiday-themed characters entrusted with keeping the sense of wonder alive in children. There’s Santa Claus, a.k.a. North (voiced by Alec Baldwin), and his army of yetti workers, the tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and her own collection agency of tooth-gathering fairies, the Sandman, in charge of the sweet dreams of children, and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), an Australian jack rabbit with a bit of a chip on his bunny shoulder. The world is threatened by Pitch (Jude Law), a bogeyman who desperately desires children to fear him again, because belief is what powers the Guardians. To stop Pitch and his array of nightmare creatures, the Guardians must add another member to their outlet, Jack Frost (Chris Pine). Except Jack has no interest in joining this fuddy-duddy group and would rather do his own thing, which usually involves wrecking havoc. Jack’s desperate to find out his past and figure out why he was chosen for his immortal role and what it will take to make kids believe in him.
Ultimately, I just couldn’t really get into this movie. It’s set up like an Avengers team of children’s fantasy figures, but I felt like the movie failed to make me emotionally connect with their plights. The Jack Frost protagonist was another tired variation on the selfish, plays-by-his-own-rules cowboy character that needs to learn a dash of personal responsibility and putting others first. But his goal is essentially to be… seen. He’s worried kids will never see him because they won’t ever believe in him. That’s a fairly abstract existential crisis for your main character to have, and one that I found too odd to care about. The entire core of the movie revolves around children’s sense of belief, and unless you’re twisting this into some general statement about the purpose of faith (the Man in the Moon = God?), then I find it all to be silly considering we’re talking about the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny. I mean, the main kid (Dakota Goyo) has to be eight or nine years old and still fervently believes in these mythical creatures, to the point that he is literally the only person on the planet who believes at one dour point (sheesh, talk about how easily disillusioned kids can get these days). We’re celebrating a kid going into adolescence believing in these things. That just smacks me as a little weird if you stop and think about the film’s implications. This kid is going to grow up socially warped. Then again his beliefs are proven right, so maybe it’s just the rest of us cynical bastards out there who need to adapt. I guess I’m going to go accept my fate and be a crotchety old man now.
The plot feels too airy for my liking, too frenetic to get to the next set piece or chase sequence. It doesn’t feel like it ever takes the time to settle down and develop its characters or story. As a result, we’re left with a fairly middling backstory for Jack Frost that should be easy to figure out, but we’re also stuck in a world that doesn’t feel like the rules have been sufficiently explained. Case in point: the Tooth Fairy keeps all those baby teeth in one huge archive because, you see, the teeth hold memories. I guess. But then Jack’s after his own teeth to retrieve his forgotten past (yes folks, we have an amnesiac protagonist). I’m okay with this so far though it’s a tad forced, but when Jack does get those teeth, he’s presented with memories at the age of 18. I know people suffered through poor dental hygiene hundreds of years ago, but you cannot expect me to believe that Jack is still losing baby teeth. This is just one example where the movie didn’t come across as fully formed. The Guardians all seem to possess different super powers involving space-time travel, but then they don’t seem to do anything with these abilities that matters by the final battle. Pitch has the ability to craft nightmare creatures and all he does is end up making wispy evil-looking horses. That seems like a waste. There are not enough payoffs here with all the imaginative possibilities.
Rise of the Guardians has some enjoyable moments but it practically relies upon you to supply all the work as far as character empathy. We’re familiar with these magical figures, and so the movie gets by because we put in the emotional connection to Santa and the Easter Bunny, but the characters just don’t register on the page, at least with this story. I don’t know if David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbithole, Inkheart) was the best candidate for the job, but he doesn’t give me enough reasons to engage with the movie. The characters are lackluster, their conflicts feel too abstract, the conclusion feels superfluous, and the world feels poorly defined, developed, and unsatisfying.
I like Chris Pine (Unstoppable) as an actor, but the man brings absolutely nothing to the table when it comes to voice acting. Baldwin (Rock of Ages) and Jackman’s (Real Steel) performances are defined by their respective accents. I feel like Hollywood needs some sort of seminal moment to go back to genuine voice artists rather than hiring whatever celebrity. Yes we all enjoyed Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin, but are you going to tell me that Pine’s vocal work was so exceptional he had to be cast? It’s like having celebrities provide the voices for the helium-sounding Chipmunks. The best voice actor in the film is clearly Law (Sherlock Holmes) who does such a good job I felt more sympathy for him than I did Jack Frost. I know it’s commonplace in movies for the hero and the villain to have some duality, but I wasn’t probably supposed to jump ship as far as loyalty. Maybe I just found the actual kids in the movie to be annoying so I didn’t mind a magical creature preying upon their collective childhood fear. It reminded me of the space cloud villain from 2011’s Green Lantern flop, where I wondered if this fear-sucking cloud sought out the delicacy of children’s fears first.
To top it all off, I found myself left rather cold by the visual aesthetics of the movie. It has this overly androgynous, big-eyed anime feel, and I kept getting the sense that the whole movie looked like an extended video game cut scene. This movie even had Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) and the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakens (Skyfall) as producers or visual consultants, so I’m even more baffled at how visually poor I found the movie. The colors are so muddy and the visuals felt so limited for me, especially considering the imaginative parameters of the characters and their respective worlds. I thought Pitch seemed oddly similar in visual approach to Hades in Disney’s underrated Hercules. The action sequences had some nice visual panache to them as far as choreography, but I couldn’t stop thinking how cruddy and dreary everything looked.
Rise of the Guardians is based upon a series of yet-to-be published books by famed author William Joyce, who won an Oscar himself the previous year for the animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I feel like that short was a better representation of magic and imagination than this film. The humor, the life lessons, the character development, it all felt so stilted to me. I thought the conflicts were too abstract and hard to care about (oh no, people have stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy!) and the world and rules felt too amorphous, poorly explained and creatively handicapped. If you’re going for a fantasy setting with larger-than-life figures, each with certain gifts and powers, hen I want the promise of that setup to be fulfilled. Rise of the Guardians isn’t a bad movie by any means but it left me cold and indifferent. It’s meant to strike at my childish sense of wonder, but I felt too often like a cynical adult, picking apart the frailties of its storytelling and muddy visual designs. It felt like it was missing the best magic of all: gifted storytelling. You’ll probably have more fun than I did, but that’s just because I probably have no soul.
Nate’s Grade: B-