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The Aftermath (2019)

I am struggling to come up with something of substance to say about The Aftermath, an adequate drama with decent performances, handsome production design, and a boring love triangle. It’s set in the aftermath of World War Two Germany in the Allied-occupied stretch. Jason Clarke plays a British officer stationed in another man’s home, a wealthy German local (Alexander Skarsgard) who lost his wife in the war. Clarke’s wife (Keira Knightley) is anxious to go home, still processing her grief from losing her child during the war and her relationship with her distant husband seems irreparable. It’s only a matter of time before Knightley and Skarsgard find comfort in one another, and they do, almost absurdly quickly. The more interesting story is Clarke trying to keep a fragile peace in the ruins of bombed-out Germany while Nazi sympathetic elements conspire to form an insurgency against the remaining officers. Now that’s a movie I would watch. That’s a way more intriguing storyline, and one I’m sure chapter after chapter was filled with sprawling, conspiratorial detail in the novel by Rhidian Brook. Alas, we’re stuck with a pretty drab love affair between two pretty people. I didn’t feel any passion between them; it felt like they were acting by-the-numbers, and ultimately maybe that was what the director had in mind all along. I found my mind drifting away for long interludes, thinking about other movies, thinking about watching other historical dramas. The acting is pretty good all around. Knightley has a standout scene where she breaks down and reveals the full extent of her maternal grief and what it has done to her marriage. The Aftermath will be readily forgotten in its own aftermath, and I don’t think too many viewers will mourn.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

Rest assured fans, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a definite improvement over its waterlogged 2011 predecessor, but I can’t help feeling like the magic of this franchise, and even the high spirits of the immediate sequels, has been squelched. It’s a multi billion-dollar franchise born from a theme park ride and now I think I’m ready for that ride to come to an end.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is once again in the middle of some high seas hijinks. Everyone is on a collision course with the world’s most infamous, swishy, and soused pirate. The ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead crew are looking for a release from their curse and of course vengeance against Sparrow, and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is their key to reaching their target. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner, is looking to retrieve the mystical Trident to erase all nautical curses, thus freeing his father’s indentured servitude aboard the Flying Dutchman. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is looking to discover the whereabouts of her father via clues tied into astronomy. All the parties are fighting to be the first to discover the location of the Trident and get what they feel is deserved.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales has some advantages that are worth discussing before attention turns to what’s wrong with the franchise as a whole. Unlike Rob Marshall, directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) understand how to expressly direct action sequences. They have a strong sense of visuals and know how to hit some majestic big screen imagery, whether it’s a see-through silhouette of a zombie shark, or Salazar’s ship splaying like a retracting ribcage, or a runaway bank heist with a literal runaway building. There’s a terrific scene of visual comedy and action when Sparrow is trapped in a spinning guillotine, with the blade coming perilously close only to fall away from gravity and then repeat the process. That was a moment that made me think of the original 2003 film’s comic inventiveness. Instead of just having cool ideas and concepts (carnivorous mermaids, a psychically controlled ship), Pirates 5 at least puts them to better effect. It feels like greater care has been put into meaningfully incorporating the elements of the story, though there are still noticeable shortcomings. I loved the look of Bardem’s villain and the CGI texture that made him seem like he was underwater. It added an unsettling dreamlike quality. Jack Sparrow is thankfully once again a supporting character. There are also several other characters that are worthy of our attention, plus the welcomed return of Barbossa. The movie comes together quite well for an extravagant final set-piece that reasonably serves as an emotional climax.

For the last couple days since my screening, I’ve been turning over in my head reasons why the Pirates sequels, especially of late, have felt so removed from the original film and even the lesser sequels from 2006 and 2007. I think I have deduced the three essential missing ingredients: clarity, urgency, and characters.

The first three Pirates films were gloriously complicated and convoluted, a series of spinning plotlines that weaved in and out, intertwined with conspiracy, collusion, and reversals. They’re overly plotted affairs, and eventually the third films succumbs to the pitfalls of convolution. However, something readily apparent in those movies was a sense of clarity in the individual scenes. Perhaps the overall picture was murky but in the moment you knew what needed to happen, which characters had opposing goals, and what those conflicts were. It’s those opposing goals that provide much of the enjoyable confrontations and complications in the film. Take for instance the first meeting with Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in the blacksmith’s shop. Jack is looking to free himself of his shackles and escape. Will is looking to capture Jack, for his believed assault on Elizabeth, and he’s also looking to prove himself as a swordsman. One of them wants to leave and one of them wants to delay that leave. It’s clear. The scene plays out as the characters clash but we, the audience, know the needs of the scene, and it allows each to reveal their character through action. The majority of the first three films follow this edict. The allegiances are all in conflict: Barbossa wants to alleviate his curse, Jack wants vengeance and to regain his ship, Will wants to rescue Elizabeth, and none of them trust the other. While the dynamics are complicated they are built upon classic storytelling devices of conflict/opposing goals and there’s a genuine clarity in the micro. You know what the characters need scene-to-scene and why they are in conflict and what those goals are. In Pirates 5, the goals are too vague or overly generalized, and from scene-to-scene there’s little internal logic established for the actions to have significance.

The next missing element is urgency, which is a natural byproduct of clarity. If you don’t know what your characters are doing or what their goals are then it’s hard to maintain a sense of urgency. The stakes of this franchise have felt a bit wishy washy after the culmination of 2007’s At World’s End. Before, the characters felt like they had something to lose, something that might not be accomplished. Look at the first Pirates film and you see that those goals are being accomplished poorly. There are complications and unexpected detours, but the stakes felt real because there were ongoing challenges. I think the absolving of stakes in the franchise has gone directly hand-in-hand with the series becoming more jokey. Once characters become cartoons the sense of danger dissipates and then anything can become lazily excusable. There is no recognition of an over-the-top anymore, which then makes the characters feel limitless. That’s not good when they’re supposed to be going against supernatural villains who present their own special powers. In Pirates 5, the characters bumble through every sort of scenario, and while they may not be in control at the moment, you never really fear for them. It’s a safe series of chases and escapes like a Saturday morning cartoon you know will merely reset its characters back to their starting positions by the next adventure. It feels weightless, which is shocking considering the Macguffin everyone is after eliminates all known curses.

Finally, with the series becoming jokier, it’s become more of the Jack Sparrow Show to its overall detriment. Maybe it’s too much of a good thing, or maybe it’s a latent realization that Sparrow was never the main character of the original trilogy, but Depp’s iconic figure has simply lost some of his luster. It feels like Depp is on sashay autopilot. He’s still a charming rogue but it’s become drastically obvious that he needs supporting characters that can stand on their own to serve as foils. He’s a character that leaps off the screen; however, if he’s our only focus, then his act starts to curdle into schtick. There are sequences that only serve to deliver misapplied comedy, like a beachside wedding where Jack is strong-armed into marrying an ugly woman. Jack should not be the lead character but he also still needs to be a character with a sufficient storyline and arc, which has not happened since At World’s End. He’s become the Halloween costume of Captain Jack Sparrow, content to coast on audience good will repeating the same act and delivering the same punchlines. Likewise, the characters supporting Jack Sparrow need their own individually compelling stories and motivations to alleviate some of the pressure.

Fortunately, one of the more noticeable improvements with Pirates 5 is that there are some interesting supporting characters, chiefly Scodelario (The Maze Runner). She could have been a discount version of Keria Knightley, much in the same way that Thwaits (The Giver) is so bland he comes across as a discount Orlando Bloom. While she follows the same feisty, independent-woman-ahead-of-her-time model, she manages to separate with her own identity, a woman who loves science, pushes against authority, and is desperate to discover the whereabouts of her father. Her discovery of her lineage provides the film with an unanticipated degree of emotion. She’s a fun character who can provide a rich, exasperated sense of irony as a learned woman constantly being mistaken for a witch, and then when called upon, she provides the heart of the story with her family drama. Likewise, Barbossa has always been one of the series highlights and in particular the MVP of On Stranger Tides. As he’s waffled between friend and foe, Rush has always found a way to make him worthy of our attention. He gets what I’ll call the Yondo treatment in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (supporting character elevated into force that can legitimately elicit audience emotion). He comes into the film late but he dominates the second half. Pirates 5 also has a superior villain to On Stranger Tides. Javier Bardem (Skyfall) eats up every second as his ghostly captain and his enjoyment is infectious. He’s weird and creepy and just the right kind of crazy to make him even more dangerous.

Also worth noting is a flashback scene that explores the personal connections between Sparrow and Salazar, though Salazar’s back-story is still rather weak even with the mysterious Caribbean volcanic lava pits. The sequence is noticeable for the fact that it employs the de-aging CGI technology on Depp, making him look like a plasticized version of himself circa… Edward Scissorhands? It’s a neat trick and it seems like nobody does the de-aging effect better than Disney at this point (Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, Robert Downey Jr. in Civil War). But then the movie keeps featuring the effect, showcasing it in ill-advised close-ups, and the magic starts to fade and we’re reminded of its fakeness. It’s a moment that inadvertently sums up the later Pirates sequels: a neat trick undone by sloppy repetition and a lack of self-control.

If you’re a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, by all means you’ll find enough to satisfy your appetite with the fifth installment. At this point audience expectations have become entrenched, which is one of the reasons why Jack Sparrow has morphed into a Looney Tunes cartoon rather than a fleshed-out comic character with depths of danger. I don’t regret seeing the latest Pirates film but I would also shed few tears if this were the last time we visit this universe. The recent sequels leave the inescapable impression of listless fan fiction. They’re trying to recapture the magic formula of the original but missing the crucial elements that made a movie about drunken pirates and zombies a zeitgeist-harnessing, culture-defining classic. The sequels have lacked consistently effective clarity, urgency, and characterization to register as anything but generally incomprehensible, vacant, disposable mass entertainment. It’s become product, and maybe that was inevitable for what once felt like something so different and subversive, especially coming from the Mouse House. Age softens all franchises and a safe sense of routine creeps in. They start becoming imitations of themselves and then imitations of the imitations. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a fitfully entertaining venture that saves its best stuff for last, has some solid supporting turns, and decent fantasy-horror visuals. It’s also a reminder of what has been lost and, unless the franchise changes course, will continue to be lost.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Collateral Beauty (2016)/ Manchester by the Sea (2016)

collateral-beauty_posterTrauma and grief are common colors in the palette of screenwriting. Wounded men and women overcoming loss and sorrow allow us all an opportunity to learn and heal through someone else’s personal pain and suffering. It’s the movie theater as therapist’s office with art serving as catalyzing event to help those in need. When 2006’s United 93 was released many critics thought it was too soon for a dramatic recreation of the events of 9/11. First, there’s never a right estimation for how long the world of art should wait to respond to shared tragedy, but I argued that United 93 could function as a facilitator for healing for select moviegoers. It helps to be able to live vicariously through fictional characters on screen, and it makes us smile when they overcome those obstacles and give hope to the rest of us. Two new movies have taken very different paths to explore responses to trauma onscreen. Collateral Beauty is a star-studded affair built from a screenplay that sold for an estimated three million dollars. Manchester by the Sea premiered at the Sundance film Festival and blew away audiences with its understated and unsentimental portrait of loss. One of these movies goes big and miscalculates badly and the other delivers one of the better, more emotionally involving films of the year. I think once you hear the premises it’ll be clear which is which.

In Collateral Beauty, Howard (Will Smith) is an advertising guru still reeling two years later from the unexpected death of his six-year-old daughter. He’s become a hermit who furiously rides his bicycle into traffic to tempt fate. He shuns his old friends and minority partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena). He also writes angry letters to the concepts of Death, Time, and Love to note his general displeasure. Major accounts are lost because of Howard’s seclusion and now it looks like the whole company might go under unless they accept a stock buyout. Howard refuses to sign off on the purchase, which forces his trio of friends to hire struggling actors to play “Death” (Helen Mirren), “Time” (Jacob Latimore), and “Love” (Keria Knightley). These three personified concepts will converse with Howard to provide an unorthodox therapeutic breakthrough. The actors will be paid handsomely and they relish the challenge. If that doesn’t work, they will record his public feuds with the actors, digitally erase the actors, and make it seem like he’s gone crazy with grief. Along the way, Howard gets closer and closer to talking about his loss in a support group run by the saintly Madeleine (Naomie Harris), a woman also suffering the loss of her child. If the universe is all about making connections, Howard is on a collision course with the fates.

Few films have dropped in estimation so precipitously in my mind as Collateral Beauty. To its credit, while you’re watching the movie you don’t notice as many of the misguided manipulations from prolific screenwriter Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, Just Go with It). You’re aware of their presence but they don’t remove you from the movie, that is, until you extend further thought on the full implications. Allow me to simply vocalize in print the Christmas Carol-esque premise of this “feel good” holiday movie.t-collateral-beauty

“A group of wealthy advertising executives scheme to get their grieving mentor and friend declared mentally incompetent so they can sell their company. They hire duplicitous actors to pose as metaphysical concepts, engage with Howard in public, and then they will digitally erase the presence of the actors, making it look like Howard fits the lazy man’s definition of crazy. And these people are the heroes.”

The characters give plenty of rationalizations for why they’re forced to set up their supposed friend, mostly about saving the company and saving jobs. Simon especially needs the money and medical insurance with where he’s headed. Howard is spiraling and they worry that he will take down everyone with him. That’s fine, but why do they resort to the outlandish and ethically dubious practices that they do? The hiring of actors seems like a helpful therapeutic exercise on the surface, unless you stop and think about a grieving man badgered by an antagonistic universe. Howard is already exemplifying mentally unsound behavior so I don’t know why the public spats are required. The digital erasure constitutes explicit fraud and it feels so much grosser. It’s an expensive step to provide visual evidence of a man having a nervous breakdown. They could have simply recorded Howard in his office for a week while he builds elaborate domino structures just to watch them topple (symbolism!). Even the characters call-out one another for this gaslighting trick. On another note, won’t Howard eventually find out? What if some enterprising digital effects editor has a moral crisis and confesses? This is the equivalent of false documents forged to push the rich old lady into the booby hatch so her scheming relatives could abscond with her vast fortune. It’s even more egregious when Collateral Beauty presents these characters as the heroes. Yes they have different degrees of guilt but that is tamped down by their moral relativism justifications. It makes it a little harder to swallow all that outpouring of cloying sentiment later. These murky and misguided manipulations will symbolize much that is wrong with the movie.

I hope the audience is prepared for Smith to be sidelined for much of the movie because Howard is more a supporting character in someone else’s story. Howard is really more a catalyst than a fully developed character. He grieves, he suffers, but his point is how his grief and suffering affect others, which is a strange tact to take. His journey is quite similar to Casey Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea. He must come to terms with loss, accepting the cruelty of that reality in order to move forward and let others in. Moving on doesn’t mean we forget, especially when that trauma is a loved one’s loss, and Howard holds onto that pain for so long as a means to still feel his daughter’s presence. It’s an acceptable character conceit but it flounders in the movie because EVERYONE simply talks at Howard. Smith’s asked to be teary-eyed and mute for most of the picture. Any significant breakthroughs, developments, or even passing of information occurs from others applying meaning to this sad silent man who must not remain sad.

pegasus_large_t_1581_107191149As a result, the movie pumps up the supporting characters and pairs them with one of the actors. “Death” relates with Simon for him to accept his declining health and to allow his family to know. “Time” relates with Claire over her worry that she’s sacrificed starting a family by prioritizing her career (this is another film world where nobody puts serious consideration into adoption). I need to stop and question this particular storyline. Doesn’t it feel a bit tacky and outdated? It’s also, by far, the storyline with the least attention; we literally see Claire glance at a sperm donor brochure and website for a scant few seconds and that’s it. Then there’s “Love” who relates with Whit to try and get him to repair his relationship with his rightfully angry young daughter after Whit cheated and broke up his marriage. “Love” literally just goads Whit to actually try being a parent and accept some responsibility for his failings. That’s it, and she has to use the incentive of a date to convince him to try and be a better father (Whit sloppily hitting on “Love” definitely lays a plausible peak into why exactly he’s divorced). “Death” and Simon play out the best mostly because Mirren is impishly amusing, and also benefits from naturally being Helen Mirren, and Pena’s character is given the most sincerity. He has the most at stake personally and setting things right for his family is taking a toll. Loeb has given each actor something to do, and the talents of the actors are enough that I was distracted from the overall machinations at least until the very end.

For most of its relatively brief running time, Collateral Beauty has kept to its own form of internal logic and avoided blatantly manipulative calculations for heightened drama. Sure Pena’s first instance of movie cough is an obvious telegraph to more astute members of the audience, but it makes some sense since this is less our real world and more the well-sculpted Movie World. Then the final ten minutes play out and the movie doesn’t just skid, it steers into this skid of counterfeit sentiment. I’ll refrain from spoiling both of the major reveals but they both serve to make you rethink everything. It’s not one of those eye-opening twists but more something my pal Eric and I were dreading in our seats, mumbling to ourselves, “Please please don’t.” These final two reveals are completely unnecessary. They disrupt the tenuous reality of the movie and the balance of tones becomes a mess. It also divulges how overly constructed the screenplay really was, designed to lead an audience to these chosen end points that don’t engender catharsis. It’s about pointing out how clever the screenplay was rather than the emotional journey, a movie in service of its twists. Neither twist serves strong narrative purpose other than to be out-of-the-blue surprises.

collateral-beauty-trailerLet’s get to that ungainly and clunky title. It’s a nonsense pairing of words that’s meant to sound profound but is really just confusing and remains so even though the characters repeat this clumsy phrase like eight times. There’s a conversation where it appears in every sentence, as if repetition alone can make this phrase/idea successfully stick. It doesn’t. I think I understand what it means, or at least what Loeb was going for, but I’m not sure. Madeleine talks about making sure to see all the collateral beauty in the universe, but is this merely a more obtuse way of restating Wes Bentley’s floating plastic bag declaration in American Beauty? Is it a more pretentious way of saying to stop and smell the roses? Here’s where I thought it was going with its meaning: “collateral” in this sense means accompanying and instead of accompanying damages we’re focused on the accompanying beauty, therefore a contemplation of the possible unintended helpful ramifications. This was going to make sense for Madeline since she uses her personal tragic experience to reach out and help others heal through their own tragedies. It’s the long ripples of human kindness reaching out far beyond our initial actions. And maybe, juts maybe, Howard and Madeleine would become romantically linked through coping with their similar heartache and find one another. However, the movie’s real ending torpedoes this interpretation. What we’re left with is a clunky pairing of words that still makes little sense by film’s end.

Collateral Beauty is probably the best-looking Hallmark movie you’ll see at the theaters this holiday season. It’s a gauzy and manipulative endeavor packed with movie stars doing their sad and redemptive best before hopefully cheering you up. There’s nothing that can’t be overcome with a good group of friends who only want what’s best for you while they take part in a criminal conspiracy to defraud you of your business stakes. That’s because even the most nefarious of behaviors can be forgiven with the right actor to provide a twinkle of the eye, a little swooning musical score to tell the audience how and when to feel, and the backdrop of lightly swirling snowfall. It’s a universe that refuses to allow Will Smith to stay sad and so it intervenes. Collateral Beauty has its draws, namely its core of great actors who each find some point of emotional grounding to their character’s plight. The finest actor in the movie is Harris (Moonlight) who radiates tremendous empathy and a bittersweet serenity. I’d watch the movie from her perspective. To Loeb’s credit, the movie is more grounded and less fanciful than its premise could have lead. It doesn’t sink to the depths of a Seven Pounds (“Do not touch the jellyfish”). Waterworks are shed all around, hugs are evenly distributed, and I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a lump or two in my throat by film’s end. However, its emotional journey doesn’t feel anywhere as revelatory as Manchester by the Sea.

manchester-1Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is living out an ordinary existence as a Boston apartment complex maintenance man. His routine is rudely interrupted when he receives news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has fallen deathly ill. On the car ride north to Manchester, Joe passes away. Guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is entrusted to Lee much to his shock. “I was just supposed to be the back-up,” he says to himself to little avail. Lee wants to move back to Boston with his new ward but Patrick refuses, pleading that he already has a life in town he enjoys. Lee is itchy to leave because of his painful associations with his hometown, tracing back several years to a fateful night of tragedy he shared with his current ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee takes on the mantle of parent while trying to ignore the trauma he’s doing his very best to ignore with every fiber of his working-class Bostonian being.

The first impression from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s movie is just how achingly authentic it feels. We drop in on the lives of these hardscrabble folks and glean important details as we progress, better forming a clear picture as to why they carry such pain with them as penance. In simplistic terms, it’s a two hour-plus journey to reach a point where the main character can openly cry. It’s also much more than that. It’s an incisive character piece on grief and tragedy, a surprisingly funny movie, and an effortlessly engaging movie that swallows you whole with its familiar rhythms of life. There is no formula here for Lonergan. Each fifteen-minute sequence opens the movie up again for further re-examination, especially a middle passage that is truly devastating. It provides compelling evidence why Lee has decided to become a recluse drifting through life. It’s not that Lee is lonely; he’s actively disengaged from all communities and connections. There are three different potential openings with women who seemed flirty and interested that Lee could have capitalized upon, or at least pursued, but he does not. A woman spills a beer on his shirt and squeezes closer to apologize, pleading to buy him a drink. He coolly looks away, ignoring her, and instead chooses to wait until closing time so he can get into a drunken fight instead. Lee would rather feel pain than momentary pleasure.

manchesterbythesea_trailerThe movie is also a poignant father/son relationship told in waves, with as much humor as emotional breakdowns. Lee is trying to fix the situation the best way he can as if it was another clogged drain. He’s thrust into a parental position that he doesn’t feel fits. It’s not that he’s actively evading responsibility as he does try to accommodate his nephew, even driving him back and forth and covering for one of his two girlfriends to sleep over. Lee cannot work in his hometown because of his own lingering pain and also because nobody will give him a job thanks to the reputation he carries. For a long while it feels like Patrick isn’t even registering the death of his father except for his distress at the thought of his father’s body remaining in a freezer until the ground thaws for a burial. He’s trying to live a normal teenage life filled with activity like band practice, hockey practice, and juggling some alone time with his two girlfriends. He seems like a normal teenager with a normal teenage attitude, and that flies in the face of our expectations. Hedges (Kill the Messenger) provides a nice dose of awkward comedy to keep the movie from drowning in sadness. The burgeoning relationship between Lee and Patrick takes on new familial elements and dynamics and each is feeling out that new role. This movie is more than an elegant bummer.

Lonergan has only directed two movies prior to Manchester, both of them insightful, complex character studies with meaty parts for game actors. 2000’s You Can Count on Me cemented the wide appeal and remarkable talents of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Then his follow-up, the criminally underseen Margaret, ran afoul with producers who wanted to trim its near three-hour running time. It was kept in limbo for five long years until 2011 where it met with a degree of fervent critical fandom, including yours truly. Manchester began as a starring vehicle for producer Matt Damon, but when scheduling conflicts got in the way, the project was reworked with Affleck in the lead and Lonergan told the story his creative impulses desired without studio interference. As a big fan of his previous directorial outings, I’m not surprised by the gripping results. He lets an audience draw conclusions from the impressions and pieces he offers, notably with Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) who he refers to as “not an alcoholic anymore.” There isn’t one big obvious scene but we’re given enough pointed clues about Patrick’s history with his mother and why Lee is adamant that his nephew does not live with his mother. The history of characters and their relationships follow this model, layering in further meaning as we continue at a safe distance in our seats. Things aren’t spelled out as they are allowed to breathe, the furtive connections becoming perceptible in time like a message written in the fog of a window. Lonergan has great affection for his characters and their flaws, insecurities, and struggles. This was evident in Margaret where the title character (vividly played by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin) was a teenager exploding with emotions, opinions, and thoughts and Lonergan celebrated her for this fact. I appreciate Lonergan’s refusal to paint in broad strokes with all of his characters.

This is Affleck’s (The Finest Hours) movie and while good the more extroverted performers around him overshadow him. Affleck can be a gifted actor as evidenced with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He has a quiet intensity and a habit of burrowing inside himself to discover something raw and different. His performance feels like he’s trapped in a PTSD shield that saps the life from him. He’s drifting through his life and waiting to die, simply put. Because of his taciturn nature he doesn’t garner any sizeable monologues to spill out all his feelings. He has to use little moments and the nuances of choosing his words carefully. When he tells Patrick “I can’t beat it” those words are loaded with meaning that he can only convey in subtext. When he stops to process that Randi has gotten pregnant from another man we notice the subtle registration of pain and regret, a twinge of memories he’s trying to hold back. Affleck’s performance is very subdued for most of the movie but it’s in the final act where he cannot maintain his well-manicured bubble of resistance to the outside world. When Lee does start to cry, it will earn every ounce of your sympathy.

Williams (My Week with Marilyn) is more presence than character in the movie, but when she does stay long enough she leaves an emotionally gut-wrenching impression. I understand that “gut-wrenching” is a pejorative term but it’s really one of the more uplifting moments in the movie. That’s because her character’s reunion with Lee isn’t one of enmity but reconciliation, allowing her to make amends and say plenty of things that she’s been holding back for years. It’s an unburdening and once Williams starts it’s hard not to feel the flow of tears coming from your own eyes. She is a one-scene wonder, reminiscent of Viola Daivs in 2008 for Doubt, nominated for Best Supporting Actress and well deserving a win for one brilliantly acted scene. Fitting then that Davis looks to be Williams’ chief competition for Supporting Actress this year. I invested even more in this scene because the power of Randi’s emotional honesty almost pulls Lee out. He’s shaking, his voice cracking, and trying to stick to saying the customary conversational tokens that have gotten him through to this point. He’s avoiding confronting reality but the sheer emotive force of Randi almost pushes him to that genuine breakthrough.

If there is one noticeable drawback to such an exquisitely rendered film, it’s that it follows the narrative structure of real life perhaps a bit too faithfully. Life doesn’t normally follow a three-act structure with clearly defined character arcs and a carefully orchestrated system of measured payoffs. While Manchester by the Sea isn’t exactly an automatic entry in mumblecore paint drying, it’s certainly less indebted to familiar story structure, which does affect the overall motor of the story. You don’t have a strong sense of its overall direction, an end point, and while the pacing isn’t glacial it can start to feel bogged down in those wonderful New England details of everyday mundane life (how many times do we need to see Lee driving?). There are also probably more flashbacks than necessary to flesh out the characters in an implicit manner. If the movie wasn’t 137 minutes I might accuse it of padding its running time. It doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film but you feel a certain loss of structure and payoff. In contrast, Collateral Beauty is entirely reliant upon plot machinations and a formula serving a very Hollywood-styled ending. Sometimes maybe an audience would prefer a little more of a driving force and a little more oomph for an ending. While certainly lacking in just about every factor, I’d say that Collateral Beauty does feel more climactic with its conclusion than Manchester, which sort of rolls to a close that makes you say, “Oh, I guess that’s it then.” Sometimes realism can profit from a judicious nudging. Then again with Manchester it’s more the journey and Collateral Beauty is all about the destination.

manchesterWhile ostensibly being about two men overcoming the loss of someone close to them to function in everyday society once more with meaningful personal relationships, there’s quite a wide divide between Collateral Beauty and Manchester by the Sea. One represents a more calculated and morally dubious reflection of trauma as a theatrical game leading to Big Twists that are meant to leave an audience swooning from the magic of reconciliation. While fairly grounded on its own terms for a far majority of its time, Collateral Beauty can’t help itself and steers into a ditch of bad plotting, made even worse by the fact that it puts so much significance on its preposterous final destination. It manages to cheapen the movie as a whole in retrospect as an elaborate parlor trick that rivaled what the ethically challenged heroes of the tale were perpetrating. On the other side, Manchester by the Sea is a carefully observed and intimate portrait of grief and the consequences of self-destructive detachment from a larger world of compassion. The acting is terrific and lived in, authentic to its core and stuffed with meaningful details that Lonergan leaves to his audience to formulate. However, some of its indie auteur sensibilities do have a somewhat negative impact on the pacing and ultimate conclusive nature of the movie. It’s not that the film is open-ended; it’s just a “life goes on” kind of ending that doesn’t exactly inspire the strongest feelings of satisfaction. Grief will always be a topic that attracts filmmakers and especially actors because of its inescapable drama, stakes, and general relatabilty. I only implore any readers that if you’re trusting filmmakers with two hours of your emotion, make sure they earn that privilege.

Nate’s Grades:

Collateral Beauty: C

Manchester by the Sea: A-

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

1800It’s the end of the world as we know it and I oddly felt fine… which is not a good sign for your apocalyptic movie. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a peculiar thing, all right. It takes place in the last three weeks of the human race. And lest you think the film wimps out on the promise of its title, think again. I was bemused for the first forty minutes, where writer/director Lorene Scafaria indulges in a series of one-scene vignettes of how humanity comes to terms with the certainty of annihilation. There’s an adult party where people joyfully try heroin, a hit man-for-hire service to bring back some of the mystery of death, and a restaurant where all the workers are spaced out on Ecstasy. I found each of these moments to be funny and a well though-out extension of the premise. But then the film’s diversions give way to the rom-com of our main characters, played by Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as your standard manic pixie girl. And the more time I spent with them the more I found myself not getting engaged. My emotional empathy was kept to a minimum; they’re nice people and all but I didn’t find them that interesting. The resulting movie feels like one of the weakest avenues given the premise. I credit Scafaria for not wimping out in the end, but as these characters faced oblivion together, I felt little emotional stirrings in my chest.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Never Let Me Go (2010)

You’ll be excused for mistaking Never Let Me Go as one of those austere boardinghouse dramas the English are fond of cranking out. I mean it even has Keira Knightley in the thing for goodness sakes. Pretty lily-white British actors trying to find their place in a reserved society spanning the 1970s to the mid 1990s. You’d be forgiven for stifling a yawn. But then Never Let Me Go takes a sudden left turn into a realm of science fiction morality play. It becomes something much deeper and menacing. I am about to go into some major spoilers concerning the sinister premise of the movie, so if you’d prefer to stay pure then politely excuse yourself from the remainder of this review and come back at a later time. I won’t think less of you but only if you promise to come back.

Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and her pals Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Knightley) all grew up in the remote countryside school of Hailsham. It’s like any other school in most regards, except at Hailsham the children all wear monitoring bracelets, are afraid to leave the boundaries of school for fear of being murdered by outside forces, and are told that her physical fitness and internal health are of “paramount importance.” Figured it out yet? My wife didn’t take long before she leaned over and whispered, “Are these kids organ slaves?” Kathy and her friends find out their true identity when an outside third-grade teacher (Sally Hawkins) takes pity on them. She reveals that the students of Hailsham are clones whose sole purpose is to be raised into healthy adults who will then give “donations” to the ailing public at large. Most clones will go through one to four “donations” before “completing,” unless they so desire. You see Never Let Me Go exists in a realm where medical science has made momentous breakthroughs and now people can live to 100 years of age on average. Kathy and her friends are the dirty details.

The rest of the movie flashes through our trio’s teen years. Kathy has always been kind and affectionate to Tommy, but before she could seal the deal Ruth swooped in and took Tommy for her own. Kathy has waited in vain for the two to break up, but that day just never comes. The trio ventures out to a small farmhouse in their teens to do some work and see the outside world. They’re living with a few other Hailsham alums that show them the knack for social interaction with outsiders. There are two rumors at play. One is that the Hailsham alums think they’ve found Ruth’s “original,” the person she’s been cloned from. The second rumor has greater significance: if two Hailsham students can prove that they’re in love, deep, honest love, then they can defer their donations for a few years. This idea takes hold of Tommy and consumes him. Except, we don’t really know whether Ruth or Kathy will be his partner in love.

So why don’t these people run away, or fight back, or do anything of defiance once they discover the horrible truth that will befall them? I have read several critics taking the film to task for being so painfully prosaic and passive, and Never Let Me Go can admittedly fall prey to those detractions at times. However, this is not the Hollywood version where the abused (clones) fight back for their survival and regain independence in a hostile world. That movie was called The Island, plus the several other films that Michael Bay sort of ripped off and then added extra loud explosions. Never Let Me Go has nary an explosion or moment of triumphant revolution. There is no revolt coming because the film doesn’t want to let anyone off the hook; these people are society’s collective collateral damage. They have been bred to be walking, talking, mostly demure, fleshy warehouses for spare parts. It’s only a matter of time before they leave everything on the operating room table, and these people benignly accept their doomed fate (“We all complete”). They march forward, trying to find some level of dignity and beauty before they get the call for “donations.” These people don’t know what it means to rebel; they have no real concept of liberty. They’ve been conditioned since childhood to obey, and that’s the whole point of the film. They have no self-preservation instincts. Likely any cloned child that was expressing strong feelings of boldness was removed, and destroyed, so as not to taint the rest of group. These people are like gown-up versions of veal. They’ve been cultivated since birth for the purpose of destruction, and their knowledge of the world is limited and cruelly self-serving. Watching innocent characters march off to a merciless fate can be very emotionally draining. It should also make you angry.

These people are hopeless so that the movie’s full impact is absorbed. This isn’t some far off nightmarish scenario, because we as a society are already reaping the rewards of a lifestyle, a lifestyle that we’re loath to think about the mechanics of how we got so fat and happy. I can go to a Walmart and buy a T-shirt for a dollar. I am a happy consumer, but what did it take for me to get that product at such a discounted rate? Sure there are variables up the wazoo, but there are many negative factors that go into why that price stays low, invisible hand of the market be damned. Workers clock long hours in unsafe conditions in order to meet supply, earning a penance just enough to keep them alive and moving product. Environmental concerns are overlooked because that would mess with production. Long-term generational poverty can develop. The worker has ceased to be a person and is merely a dispenser of product, much like our clones in the film. This is not a definitive example of what goes on in the world, mind you. Never Let Me Go isn’t some far off scenario; we’re already there, albeit less explicitly. If the price of gas rose a dollar a gallon but it meant that people in other countries could have safe, uncontaminated water and enough food to stay healthy, what do you think would happen?

With all of that said, Never Let Me Go can’t fully fight the trappings of inert drama. For two hours we are watching somewhat nice, somewhat bland British kids gawk and smile their way toward the inevitable. The conceit calls for the breeding of rather milquetoast personalities. It simultaneously makes the characters more innocent and less emotionally involving. The screenplay relies on our sense of outrage and injustice to fill in the gaps of emotional connection. There are little molehills of characterization at best. You’re supposed to be choked up on indignation and sadness so as to not notice that the threesome of character are all rather good-natured but boring. That even may be an aim of the screenplay to accentuate the terrible fate that awaits, or maybe I’m just being overly analytical. Never Let Me Go reveals its awful truth fairly early at about the 40-minute mark, making sure that the audience is fully aware that we are definitely not headed for a happy ending. As it is, the actors are all lovely and talented but there’s only so much silent emoting and teary eyes can conjure.

It’s credit to the talents of the actors that you do feel a storm of emotions from such otherwise frail characters. Mulligan (An Education) showcases her great gifts for communicating sadness. Her face just crinkles up, her eyes get glassy, and you want to hug her. She’s our dramatic linchpin. Her looks of conflict and yearning do well to communicate the inner struggle of her character’s abbreviated life. There’s a lot left to the imagination and Mulligan once again crushes it. Garfield (The Social Network) is stuck playing a wishy-washy character, which makes him seem a bit thick at times. He’s the most naïve and hopeful of the three, so when those hopes get crushed again and again his breakdowns have the most emotional heft. Knightley (Pride and Prejudice) has been in six period films since 2005, so she’s got this thing down pat. Ruth is a bit more assertive and angry than her friends, and it’s a pleasure seeing a more calculating side from the actress. It seems like the filmmakers had a troublesome time trying to downplay the attractive features of their cast. So it seems that they relied on the actors eating less. Knightley, and particularly Garfield, look rather gaunt and puckish, even before they begin “donations.”

I’ve gone this far without even mentioning director Mark Romanek’s (One Hour Photo) contributions, or the fact that the film is based off the 2005 novel by author Kazuo Ishiguru (Remains of the Day) and is adapted by Alex Garland (28 Days Later). Great artists that shaped the vision of this film. It’s a shame then that the impact of Never Let Me Go is blunted. It’s an intelligent, poetic, haunting, and emotionally wrenching film experience, and yet it could have been far more penetrating and devastating. The passive nature of the characters accentuates their doom and our sense of outrage. But that same passive nature makes them less than engaging characters. It’s been days since I saw the film and it still lingers in my memory, a testament to the moral quandaries and acting prowess. The existential drama of the film is better suited for the page where the questions of identity and morality can be given more careful and rewarding examination. The movie has an oddly detached feel to so much suffering. Never Let Me Go is a hard film to let go but also a hard film to truly embrace.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Duchess (2008)

I think I understand the real appeal of costume dramas. No matter what else happens, the costume drama must seem smarter. You have actors, primarily British, waltzing in elaborate costuming in realistic historical settings, each offering demure statements and looking for love and acceptance in a time of chaste expression. You could place Saw 18 in that setting and it would automatically seem smarter. I think the ye olde setting for costume dramas automatically gives these films more plot leeway, but not every film actually proves that it should have earned that leeway. Saul Dibb’s handsomely mounted period drama The Duchess offers little beyond the superficial enjoyment of well-crafted costumes.

In 1770s England, young Georgina (Keira Knightley) has been betrothed to the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). The newly minted 17-year-old Duchess of Devonshire is whisked away to live in a giant manor. The Duke is rather cold and seems uneasy with human interaction; he shows the most affection for his dogs. He expects Georgina to primarily bear him a son. Several daughters later, the Duke is engaged in affairs and siring illegitimate children. Georgina has become a star of the social sphere, and it is here that she befriends Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), a woman who is trying to regain her children from her ex-husband. Things get even more complicated when the Duke takes a liking of Bess, and the two become an unofficial union. Georgina has had her only friend taken away and turned into a co-wife. The only solace for the Duchess is in her flirtatious relationship with a politician, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Georgina feels like a prisoner in her own home and yet she cannot desert her children. What’s an oppressed woman to do in 18th century England? That answer should be sadly obvious.

The Duchess breaks no new ground and, in fact, treads water for the majority of its second half. Georgina was an independent spirit in a time that frowned upon breaking from conformity and tradition. As a woman, she was the victim of a double standard that allowed her husband to sleep with whomever he desired but she could not find physical comfort outside her loveless marriage. Marriage was widely viewed as a means to an end for male progeny, not the culmination of romantic love. Women were pressured into delivering male heirs, despite the fact that men are the ones who determine gender. Typically marriages were family arrangements for class and land ownership, so true passion was procured through marital affairs. I get it because I’ve read Jane Austen novels and seen dozens of period movies that have made the same stilted points. The Duchess presents Georgina as a feminist before her time and then a patriarchal society crushes her spirit. During the second half, when aristocratic life keeps producing heavy obstacles for Georgina, the movie just piles it on. I was left questioning what the point of all this corseted drama actually was.

After a while with my downtime I determined whom this movie is really for – hat enthusiasts. This is a Big Hat movie that puts other hat movies to shame. There are gigantic floppy hats, hats that look like fruit displays, hats that look like eighteen-layer cakes, hats that look like they have their own hat, hats with feathers zigging and zagging in every direction, and hats that look like they are consuming their host’s heads. If you work in the haberdashery industry or have an above average interest in hats and hat-related products, then run, don’t walk to The Duchess. You will be enraptured by the orgy of towering hats that jostle for screen time. Rarely are women seen without hats, so you truly will get your hat money’s worth over the course of the film’s two hours. If there were a specific Oscar category for Hat and Hat-like Accoutrement then The Duchess would dominate. I expect it will get nominated for Costumes, and really that seems like half the point in making these powdered wig period dramas.

I think the other point of The Duchess is to channel the modern story of Princess Diana, who is actually a distant relative of Georgina. The two seem to lead somewhat similar lives since they both married young, both had their husbands prefer the mistresses, both were fashion trend setters, both were beloved by the public, and after death both had their husbands remarry the mistresses. The tagline for the film is, “There were three people in her marriage,” a paraphrased quote that Princess Di said in an interview. The Di parallels seem to be all that the filmmakers intended to do with Georgina as a character; she is the least interesting person in her marriage. The Duke and Bess are far more complex and intriguing figures. I’m sure the Georgina biography that serves as the movie’s source is rich in Georgina characterization and personal detail, but all the movie cares about is establishing her as a marital martyr. There is more to this character but she just endures disappointment and punishment; I cannot fully engage with a character when their only personal attribute is suffering. The movie fails to present any notable reason why this woman of history deserves having a feature film.

Knightley seems to spend half her film life in corsets. I’m still undecided upon whether she possesses innate acting ability; to me she too often comes across as a pin-up with great cheekbones. That said her eyebrows do a great bit of acting in The Duchess. She has the habit of cocking one ever so slightly and imbuing a scene with a hint of sexual allure or mystique. They’re pretty thick eyebrows too. Knightley does acquit herself well with the material and I doubt this will be the last time I see her in a tremendous silk gown and a humongous hairdo. The most interesting actor is Fiennes because his character is so reserved and awkward in his own skin, so much must be said through the use of gestures, body language, and the perfect execution of line delivery. His character seems just as ill in his setting as Georgina. Atwell is given the most complex character to play. To say that Bess has conflicted loyalties is an understatement. She betrays Georgina but romancing the Duke can ensure that she sees her children once again. Bess should have been the centerpiece of the movie because, as presented, she is far more interesting with more dramatic conflicts and turmoil other than being wronged.

The Duchess is no more and no less than every other costumer period piece you’ve seen before. It starts well but then falls into boring and repetitious plotting (Georgina wants something, she’s denied, she wants something, she’s denied; rather, rinse, repeat, end). The Duchess will delight those in search of yet another unrequited period romance, but I feel that moviegoers should expect more from their entertainment that mechanically fulfilling the period-y checklist. The technical merits like the production art and the costumes, especially the hats, are first rate. There’s little feeling beneath all the fabulous fussing about. It’s too bad the actual drama couldn’t at least be as interesting as the hats.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Atonement (2007)

No film this awards season seems to have been kicked and beaten more than the sweeping period romance, Atonement. This poor movie has a strong stable of well-respected British thespians, a red-hot young director in Joe Wright (2005’s Pride and Prejudice), plenty of lofty, top-notch production values, and the whole enterprise is based off a highly acclaimed novel by author Ian McEwan. Where did all the hate come from? I think it has something to do with the fact that somewhere along the line Atonement became, on paper, the presumptive favorite to win Best Picture. Then reality hit and it hit hard. Atonement wasn’t even nominated by the Writer’s Guild, the Producer’s Guild, or the Director’s Guild and yet the film still managed to eek out a Best Picture nomination for 2007. I became suspicious that Atonement would turn out to be this year’s Dreamgirls, namely a presumptive front-runner that was too calculating and self-conscious and ultimately free of substance to make its mark. While Atonement is perfunctory and nothing altogether special, the film still succeeds as a worthy piece of entertainment that doesn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud.

In the mid 1930s, Robbie (James McAvoy) works as a housekeeper’s son on a lovely English estate. He has his eye on Celia (Keira Knightley) and puts his burning passion to paper, typing two very different notes. The first one is blunt (and features a naughty word that rhymes with “blunt”) and the second one is more of a poetic declaration of his affections. Robbie has instructed Celia’s younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), to pass his love letter to the rightful party. He realizes too late that he sent her off with the wrong letter and Briony reads it herself, dumbfounded at the message and terminology. Briony is a bright child that fancies herself a playwright, but she’s still a child that cannot fully grasp the meaning of Robbie’s advancements. When she intrudes on Robbie and Celia having spontaneous sex against a library wall, she can only assume that Robbie is attacking her older sister (stupidly, neither says anything to clear up the awkwardness and just leaves the scene wordless). That same night Briony discovers her cousin being attacked and she’s certain that Robbie is the culprit, or is she? Her false confession sends Robbie to jail and alters lives forever.

Flash ahead to World War II, and Robbie has joined the Army to be released from jail, Celia reunites with him for the first time in years, and a now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) realizes her foolishness as a child and tries expunging her overwhelming feelings of guilt by working as a nurse and tending to the ghastly numbers of wounded soldiers.

Atonement is visually ravishing to watch. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is lushly colorful and blends light and shadow to an extraordinarily effective degree, draping the performers in contrasting colors that pop. Wright’s camera always seems to be perfectly located to discover beautiful compositions indoors and out; the movie is just visually pleasing on all fronts, like seeing Knightley in her dark green dress bathed in the glow of police lights at night. At several points, however, the film’s look does get overly soft and glossy, like the cameraman smeared gobs of Vaseline over the lens. The period costumes and production design are agreeably period-y. The musical score has moments of great lyrical poignancy and then it shatters when the score resorts to integrating the sound of a clacking typewriter as a percussive instrument. I wanted to beat my head against a typewriter to make it stop.

There’s a vague mechanical air over the entire two hours, like the filmmakers felt that merely assembling all the right pieces and having the right, awards-friendly pedigree would be enough. The five-minute uninterrupted tracking shot along the Dunkirk beach epitomizes this flawed belief. This superfluous shot wanders around soldiers stationed on a beach, winds around the outskirts of the bombed out city, and finally rests in a pub crawling with Brits, but nothing is added by the shot continuing uninterrupted and the staging fails to illuminate anything remarkable about the expensive set. The shot exists simply to call attention to its self and to serve as another bragging point for the filmmakers. The Dunkirk shot adds little to the atmosphere of the film because the scene barely flirts with giving a bigger picture of what is happening. Instead, that shot, like the movie, while well composed and entertaining, is an exercise in self-congratulation.

The film loses serious momentum as it transitions into war and its period of titular atoning. The movie just isn’t as compelling watching Robbie shuffle around at war. Rarely is he in any danger and he just seems to be biding time. Atonement is a tad too prim, a tad too demure to really go deep enough. The romance is intended to be of the unrequited variety but it feels malnourished even at an unrequited level, which is truly saying something. There is so much more beneath the surface but the film never wants to push too far for whatever reason. Knightley and McAvoy have a nice workable chemistry and that’s part of what makes the first half of Atonement the better half. So much of the story involves internal struggle but the movie doesn’t wish to invest the time needed to explore serious psychological wounds. Atonement never capitalizes on the intriguing if melodramatic opening of the film. This is by no means a love story, no matter what the marketers wish to convince otherwise. The romance between Celia and Robbie has little setup to seem believable or worthwhile. This is a movie about the power of words, which naturally is a topic that functions better in books.

After Kinsey and now Atonement, Vanessa Redgrave seems to have found a contemporary niche or her talents: she shows up in the final minutes to give a monologue that demands that the audience reflect from a fresh perspective. Redgrave plays an older adult Briony who has written several best selling books and is being interviewed for television. The ending is designed to be more devastating in print form, and it wants to call into question the nature of fiction and whether or not one lie and be absolved by another. But in the medium of film, the shockwaves are minimal because the language of film is visual. The stutter-step plot structure, which occasionally bends backwards to replay an event from an alternative perspective, is an extraneous annoyance that’s finally justified by Redgrave’s late appearance. What is the true cost for a “happy” ending?

While Knightley and McAvoy get all the attention and cause teen girls to swoon uncontrollably, the real star of Atonement is 13-year-old Ronan. The young actress is a revelation as a sophisticated girl entering the earliest stages of womanhood. She’s nursing some serious puppy love on Robbie and his disinterest fuels her false confession; she means to punish him. Ronan is eloquently precocious at the start, acting wise beyond her years, but when she steels a glimpse at Robbie’s unfortunate letter, she drops her older pretensions and presents the spirited and unrestrained eagerness of a girl that’s madly curious and madly in love. Ronan effortlessly switches between the two sides of Briony, playing the astute, proper young lady or the nervy, confused girl trying to make sense of her budding sexuality. Kudos to the casting director as well for casting an older actress to play the 18-year-old Briony that genuinely looks like a grown-up Ronan.

Naysayers dismissing Atonement as outdated rubbish are diluted; it’s a well-crafted movie from considerably all angles. Then again, those that champion the film as a testament to bravura filmmaking are also diluted; the film is good, yes, but entirely unexceptional. Atonement is a fine film that takes a reportedly unfilmable novel and gives it a good attempt.

Nate’s Grade: B

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

Shiver me timbers Jerry Bruckheimer. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are taking no prisoners when it comes to money and fans. Ten months after 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest comes the concluding chapter to the Pirates saga. At World’s End is longer, bigger, and more expensive, but it is also the first Pirates movie that felt like a ride I wanted to get off.

The British navy, at the command of Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), is eliminating all piracy once and for all. He now controls the heart of Davey Jones (Bill Nighy) and so controls Jones and the crew of the Flying Dutchman, the most fearsome ship run by cursed barnacle-encrusted crewmen. As the very busy hangmen will attest, it’s not a friendly time to be a pirate. The Black Pearl has set out to Singapore to find support from Soa Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), one of the nine pirate lords. The Pearl is now commanded by Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) who was brought back from the dead thanks to the witchy Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris). They travel to the ends of the earth to Davy Jones’ locker to rescue Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who was last seen in the belly of a beast. Elisabeth (Keira Knightley) and Will (Orlando Bloom) are both aboard and still bickering about their stalled romance. Once Sparrow returns to the land of the living, the group meets with the other pirate lords from all across the globe in an effort to pull together and stand against Beckett.

As it turns out, the fear that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was a 150-minute trailer for this movie was unfounded. That’s because the third movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean series completely ignores or messes up the many intriguing setups from the second film. Character motivations from Dead Man’s Chest are mostly unresolved and revert to stock generalizations. Jack Sparrow feels like he’s been grafted onto an unrelated storyline. Most disappointingly is what happens to Davy Jones, the greatest addition to the Pirates landscape. This awesomely-realized villain was scary and fascinating and looked fantastic thanks to Oscar-winning special effects. At World’s End takes such an intriguing villain and turns him into an impotent tool to Beckett. He’s been transformed into a houseboy who might as well fill people’s teacups. Yes Davy Jones thankfully figures into the climax but why in the world’s end must an audience wait that long? Davy Jones reminds me a lot of the ghostly twins from 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded who were completely dropped from the second Matrix film to the third.

But not only does At World’s End fumble the hand-off from the previous sequel, the movie itself establishes many setups with poor or unsatisfying payoffs. So much is made about the pirate lords from all over the world, and we see a colorful collection of international pirating groups that is fitfully amusing, but the whole section has no point at all. Chow Yun-Fat’s character is a non-starter; in fact none of the new characters introduced in At World’s End play any importance on the overall plot. The film is building to a final all-out battle between the united pirate lords and the British navy. We witness the awesome sight of the sea filled with vast armadas of ships, and as an audience we are getting hungry for some epic nautical action. Then At World’s End pretends that none of the other ships matter and sets its entire battle as one ship versus one ship inside a whirlpool. While this is admittedly exciting it isn’t anywhere near as exciting as an entire war amongst hundreds of ships. The filmmakers have all the money in the world and they couldn’t give us a little something bigger in scope? The pirate lords could have just as easily been cut from the movie if they were just going to stand on the sidelines and wave a flag.

The pirate lords make a big deal about their apprehension with releasing the sea goddess Calysto from her earthly prison. The pirates trapped her into the body of a human in order for them to gain control of the seas. They reckon she’ll be one very bitter sea goddess and take out some apocalyptic wrath out on the pirates. So the pirates release her, cowering in fear at her powerful reprisals and,,, nothing. Calysto vanishes, causes some mildly inclement weather, and is never seen again. Talk about a lot of pointless hot air.

I think perhaps the clearest example of how the movie screws up is with the monstrous Kraken. This slimy beast got a ton of attention in Dead Man’s Chest and was a ferocious terror on the high seas. Now, I would expect that such a creature that played an integral role in Dead Man’s Chest would be back for the next sequel. Ignoring its prominence in the plot, the thing just looked amazing onscreen. But with At World’s End the giant monster is killed off screen and in between the movies. I felt insulted when I saw the mighty carcass washed ashore like a pathetic beached whale. What is satisfying about that? Why would Beckett make Davy Jones kill such a powerful weapon he could use for his own unseemly gain? It makes no sense. The Kraken isn’t the only character done a disservice by a plot stuffed to the gills. Some are killed in terribly pointless incidents and it just becomes irritating.

At World’s End is missing the high-flying fun of the first two Pirates movies, and this venture just feels draggy, tiresome, and far too dreary. You know you’re headed for some morose subject matter when a movie hangs an eight-year-old before the opening credits. This latest film is crushed to death by the weight of excess plot and confusion. There’s a damn near 20-minute section of the movie that’s nothing but characters double-crossing, triple-crossing, quadruple-crossing each other; it literally requires a character to spell out what has just taken place and set the record straight. I don’t think At World’s End ever recovers from this absurdly confusing miscue.

The film seems more interested in talking over an audience than delivering something genuinely thrilling and stirring. There’s a curious lack of action and nothing new matches the imaginative action set pieces of the previous films, like the duel atop the roving water wheel. Excluding a large melee between the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman as the climax, the action pops in and out in shortly timed bursts. For a movie within a hair or running three hours, there needed to be more action. Instead of derring-do, At World’s End spends interminable periods of people talking, usually in personal quarters, and explaining the increasingly laborious plot to each other. All of the Pirates movies are filled with false endings and heaping helpings of extra plot, but this is the first time I really felt the real drag of its running time. Director Gore Verbinski still knows how to keep things looking good but he can’t save the film from its anchor of a maddening and convoluted plot.

The movie is not without its due pleasures. Depp is always going to enchant with his now iconic character, but the true star of the film is Rush, who makes welcomed return. The special effects are still tops. The sequence rescuing Jack from the world of the dead provides many trippy moments that possess their own strange beauty, like when we watch the Black Pearl sail against the black, star-spotted sky. It’s fun seeing Keith Richards appear in cameo as Jack’s father and the stated inspiration for Depp’s performance. A small man and a large gun makes for one very funny sight gag. A Mexican standoff that actually involves an armed monkey is a comic high point. It’s just that all the fun or memorable moments seem to be the ones that matter the least. At World’s End still manages to do enough right to work, especially its Singapore opening. As far as a movie that upholds the quality of its franchise name, that’s a whole other matter.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is a somewhat entertaining but heavily flawed final film to a trilogy. It’s the darkest and trippiest of the three movies, but it also makes the least amount of sense and has the least amount of action. That doesn’t seem like a good exchange in my book. There are not enough important events to justify the bloat. At World’s End has a hardcore case of butterfingers when it comes to handling plot and character setups from earlier films, and as a result almost nothing and no one ends in a satisfying fashion. The effects are still eye-popping and Depp will always be a comic treasure, but this lackluster movie feels like tripping at the end of a marathon. I had so much hope for At World’s End after how gratifying I found the other two movies but I cannot quell my disappointment. This is not a fitting conclusion. This feels more Matrix Revolutions than Return of the King. Of course it’ll make tremendous amounts of booty at the box-office, but will demand for a fourth be as rabid after this muddled and murky capper?

Nate’s Grade: B-

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

America loves its pirates, plain and simple. We as a nation are infatuated with the characters and the high-seas adventure of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. We?re starving for more, and when the first in a two-part sequel was released it only became one of the biggest movies of all time. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest has shattered box-office records, rolling up $100 million in two days and a record $135 million weekend gross, easily surpassing former champ Spider-Man‘s supposedly invincible $118 weekend tally. America loves its pirates more than Spiderman, Star Wars, and who knows, maybe even Jesus. After all, Dead Man’s Chest did just kick out The Passion of the Christ from the top ten all-time grossers. Mel Gibson sure has a lot of grief at this moment.

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is a wanted man on the high seas. The East India Company, whose emissary now controls the Caribbean town of Port Royal, is after Jack and his special compass. But Captain Jack has bigger fish to fry. Davey Jones (Bill Nighy), ruler of the seas, wants what was promised to him: Jack’s soul. Jack made a bargain with the sea creature and now his time is running out. He must assemble a crew and track down the whereabouts of a buried chest. Inside this chest is the still-beating heart of Davey Jones, and he who controls the heart controls Jones, and thus the seas. That is why the East India Company is so interested in Jack. They’ve made an arrangement with groomis interuptis Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who had his wedding hijacked and his bride (Keira Knightley) locked away. If he can retrieve Jack’s compass, then he and Elizabeth will be pardoned for aiding and abetting a known pirate. Will and Elizabeth each set off to find Jack Sparrow and to gain their freedom.

The filmmakers have taken notes in the school of sequels from The Empire Strikes Back. Like the second Star Wars chapter, we’re left with the heroes separated and licking their wounds, evil appears to have the upper hand, and the lives of some beloved characters are left in doubt. Just as long as there’s no Ewoks, Disney has guaranteed my place in line on opening day 2007 for Pirates 3.

It?s hard to fully judge this Pirates sequel because it’s part one of a two-part story. I’m holding out my final say, especially if this movie just turns out to be an expensive 150-minute teaser trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean 3. I can?t fully judge many story and character arcs because we don?t know where movie #3 will carry them. Maybe it’ll end up being like the middling Matrix sequels, where subplots and characters were dropped as if the Wachowski brothers had screenwriting butterfingers (it’s a film critic’s unwritten duty to deride the Matrix sequels at any chance). At least this movie ends with a jolt that I did not see coming.

Most surprisingly, Dead Man’s Chest suffers little from the creative deadlock of sequels. Dead Man’s Chest is more a sci-fi monster fantasy than a swashbuckler. The supernatural edge has swallowed the series whole. Take for example Jack’s broken compass. What once was an oddity befitting its owner is now seen as another element of magic. Some of the interest seems lost if things are simply explained away as being magical. The story, unlike the Matrix sequels (See: above), expands and enriches its universe. Some leftovers from the first film made me cringe. I thought we were headed for a bad track, where the movie uses the audience’s memory as a cheap storytelling device. Familiar characters might pop up every which way, smiling, and saying, “Hey ho, remember me?” Miraculously, the leftovers are integrated so well with the new tale that they really do matter and don’t come across as cheap shortcuts. Norrington (Jack Davenport) and the two comic relief cursed pirates are all smartly woven back into the troupe, and each impacts the story in a non-obtrusive manner. Even the undead monkey is used well.

I made it a point to keep my expectations in check for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It would be naive to think that you could catch lightning in a bottle again. Yes, now with audience expectation we lose the originality and unpredictability that made the first Pirates adventure so joyously delicious. And yet I found myself getting riled up just the same and being whisked away by spirited entertainment. My expectations may have been tempered for Dead Man’s Chest but I still greatly enjoyed the ride. It seems that my opinion sharply differs from my overly negative critical colleagues; my own sister said Pirates 2 was one of the worst movies she’s ever seen. That seems a bit rash. She hasn’t even seen any Uwe Boll movies.

There are moments that seem to stretch the credibility of the story. It’s been said before that it’s not the impossible that bugs you but the improbable, and this holds true for Dead Man’s Chest. I’m able to believe Davey Jones and his creepy crawly crew, but I’m not able to believe that Elizabeth Swan could single-handedly best them all at once in sword fighting. The movie becomes dangerously close to eye-rolls in parts, but generally steers clear of moments that rip you out of the story. Of course a Pirates film would be nothing without Johnny Depp. He’s the main reason the first film was so memorably embraceable and entertaining. It?s not every day someone gets nominated for a Best Actor Oscar playing an addled, swishy comic pirate. He’s truly the star and has been one of our finest actors long before he had any box-office clout. He’s created a character so beloved that he’s crossed over into the cultural lexicon. How many Jack Sparrow outfits do you see come Halloween? I had a friend directing a high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and every young actor wanted to audition as Captain Jack interpreting Shakespeare. Come to think of it, Jack Sparrow would certainly liven up some of the bard’s dusty works.

Depp is still hilarious and likeable even when he’s being a scoundrel. We simply love this character; I love this character. The unpredictable nature of Jack feels squeezed dry by the demands for familiarity with sequels, but Depp finds new ways to enthrall in Dead Man’s Chest. Some people are going to be uncomfortable with Jack being more dastardly, willing to trade others’ lives to save his own hide. I think desperation is an interesting place to put this character. Besides he has his big hero moments as well.

New dimensions are added to the other characters. Knightley gets to be shrewd and try her hand at pragmatic treachery. It eats her up inside at the end and Knightley, a nice comedic actress, allows us to see the rough seas of guilt within her. Bloom will always be Bloom, meaning he’ll be handsome, British, and seemingly too little for grownup movie stuff. Will is given a whole new set of daddy issues when he actually gets to spend time with dear departed dad (Stellan Skarsgard). Best of the rest (“the rest” being everyone other than Depp) is an unrecognizable Nighy, who saunters his deck with the fiery air of a preacher. Nighy manages to make Davey Jones even more interesting. Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) makes her presence felt as a witchy woman responsible for Jack’s compass.

The action sequences are gigantic and well constructed. They expand with organic complications and a lively, graceful sense of humor. An already fun sword fight atop a watermill wheel gets even more pleasing when the giant wheel breaks free and the fight continues. Three characters climb inside and out, all vying for a key that keeps changing hands thanks to gravity. A human-sized fruit-kabob tied to Jack has a wonderful payoff for something that seemed completely random. The special effects are gorgeous. You can practically taste the slime and sea salt from the creatures. Davey Jones is a fantastic design and I’m dying to know how they did his tentacle beard. Whether it be motion capture, CGI, or puppetry (was someone billed in the credits for “operating” Bill Nighy? Does that sound like a fluffer?), it’s all dazzling to behold. The Kraken is ferocious and so well designed that it’s destined to give an entire nation?s children nightmares for weeks. Coupled with the equally super expensive Superman Returns, it seems that nowadays if you want special effects that will retain their wow-factor, it helps to have a $200 million dollar budget. Director Gore Verbinsky has a terrific eye for shot compositions; I am convinced that if you give this man good material then he will give you popcorn gold. If you give him bad material, well, then you get shiny but pointless stuff like The Weather Man.

I know this movie, at its center, is empty. It’s grand throwaway entertainment, a true popcorn romp, but yes, when you get down to it the film has little to it. It’s an explosion for the eyes and has some great characters and action choreography, but Dead Man’s Chest is nothing more than very pricey, very tasty cotton candy.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest feels less like a rehash and more like the start of an exciting new voyage. It’s darker, bigger in scale, scarier, louder, brasher, but still barrels of fun. Time will tell whether the back-to-back sequels will support enough intrigue to cover two very long, very expensive action movies. But Dead Man’s Chest has the key Pirates ingredients returning: clever screenwriting duo Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, and, naturally, the irreplaceable Johnny Depp. An early eye gouging might set the icky tone, but this is one sequel that compares favorably to its source. We’re left in a very Empire Strikes Back position, but not after running out of breath keeping up with the many treasures of Dead Man’s Chest. Nothing will recapture the magic of the 2003 original but this is one summer sequel that delivers without letdown. Then again, after Pirates 3, it could all be for naught. See you in 2007!

Nate?s Grade: B+*

*Final grade pending the outcome of Pirates of the Caribbean 3.

UPDATE: Having just seen the third film, I’m somewhat conflicted. Many items from Dead Man’s Chest have little payoff in the third film, At World’s End. So while I wouldn’t grade Dead Man’s Chest any higher after seeing where it concludes, I still find it to be too fun to rate any lower. Its final grade stands.

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