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Artemis Fowl (2020)

Artemis Fowl is a popular children’s’ book series that has scores of fans who have been anticipating a film adaptation, but I have to hope they expected more than this. The Artemis Fowl movie, directed by Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express), became a casualty of the Disney purchase of Fox studios, and in the wake of COVID-19 Disney decided to drop Branagh’s film straight to its streaming service and delay this pain no longer. The critical reception has been scathing and honestly it was the one thing that piqued my curiosity to even watch Artemis Fowl.

We follow young Artemis Fowl Jr. (Ferdia Shaw), a rich genius whose father (Colin Farrell) is rumored to be a notorious art thief. Dear old missing dad would fill his young son’s head with stories of magical creatures from other worlds that he would assist. One day, Artemis gets a cryptic message that his father has been kidnapped by a mysterious figure (by an un-credited Hong Chau, of my). If Artemis cannot find the “Acculas” then his father will be killed. Artemis Junior teams up with his martial arts expert butler, named Butler (Nonso Anozie), to capture a fairy, the chip-on-her-shoulder recruit Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), and hold her hostage. This leads to attempted incursions from the fairy police, led by Commander Root (Judi Dench) and a kleptomaniac dwarf, Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad). The battle rages through the Fowl mansion all while threatening to expose the magical realm to the human world.

The only way I can better comprehend where Artemis Fowl goes wrong is simply to begin listing those erroneous elements and try and better make sense of the head-scratching decision-making.

1) Speaking voices. This one is immediately regrettable and so obviously a mistake that it boggles my mind that Branagh and his crew signed off. Why oh why would you task Gad (Frozen 2) with imitating the gravelly Batman-esque voice of Christian Bale? Why hire Gad if you’re asking him to adopt this distracting and unfamiliar voice? Even beyond that, why oh why would you ever have this gravelly growl serve as narration for the entire movie? Listening to this voice is painful and it made me pity Gad, though he alone is not the only victim of bad vocal choices. There’s also Dench, already reeling from the stink of Cats, doing her best as the leader of the fairies or leprechauns, I cannot tell the difference, and she too has a voice that sounds like she’s been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for life. It’s such an unpleasant voice and it doesn’t make either character seem more imposing. It just made me feel even sorrier for two actors that I was already feeling sorry for over their participation in this.

2) Lazy plotting. I had to ask my pal Alex Knerem some questions regarding whether or not what I saw on my screen was close to what was originally on the page. Apparently, the lazy plotting is ripped right from the book and not a result, as I theorized, of being more budget conscious. The entire story involves Artemis holding a  fairy hostage and then just waiting for different waves of different magical creatures to come to him. Imagine discovering a new world of supernatural fantasy creatures with unique powers and unique worlds, and all you do is wait in your mansion for those creatures to come to you. It becomes a siege thriller. It’s such a dull starting point, and it’s not even like Artemis Fowl’s cause is righteous. According to Alex again, the main character of the first book isn’t Artemis but his fairy captive. Alex said, “The first book was billed as Die Hard for kids and Artemis is Hans Gruber.” And that sentence blew my mind. Why should I care about the bratty version of Hans Gruber? The plotting of Artemis Fowl is strangely unimaginative because it’s just one group trying to get inside after another, and ultimately once the location of the magic McGuffin is revealed, it makes even more of the plot feel lazy.

3) The dialogue. The pacing of how people speak to one another is simply jarring and unnatural. There is nary a breath in between lines, and so a conversation feels like every person in a rush to say their next line before their partner finishes. It becomes exhausting to watch and confounding given the movie’s running time of only 90 minutes. Could they not have afforded a few seconds here and there in between lines of dialogue? Beyond the breathless delivery, the dialogue itself is so powerfully expositional that it becomes downright painful to endure. In any fantasy movie, there’s going to be a learning curve to make your movie accessible to a new audience. Some explanation is a given, though it’s best to learn as needed and through as many visual actions as you can (show, don’t tell). With Artemis Fowl, the characters are constantly talking at one another, not with them, and they’re just vomiting exposition. Here is a sample: “Beechwood Short used his magic to steal the Acculas from us, which need I remind you, is the most precious artifact in our civilization. The Acculas was stolen on your watch, he has put our entire people in danger, disappeared, and in my book that’s a traitor.” Woof. Then there’s the redundant talk of the Acculas, but for what it does, it doesn’t exactly seem worthy of lore considering we already have creatures from various worlds traveling to and from other magic realms.

4) The special effects. For a fantasy adventure, the special effects aren’t really that bad though unexceptional. However, there is one nightmare-inducing exception. Mulch is an expert digger and part of his process is literally unhinging his jaw and stretching his mouth to far wider than would be otherwise advised. It is well and truly horrifying, and this is a movie intended for children. How many of them will be forever haunted by the image of Gad extending his jaw, then reaching his arm deep inside his own throat, and retrieving a stored keepsake?

5) The world itself. If you’re going to drop me in a new world, you better make it interesting and worthy of further exploration, and Artemis Fowl doesn’t do this whatsoever. If you want your audience to be hungry for future adventures then you better make this new world charming and well-realized. Artemis Fowl has the equivalent of “magic cops” with its fairies and that’s about all we get as far as an alternate world of wonders. They have laser guns and flying ships, which begs the question whether flying creatures need themselves flying machines, and a judicial system we get a brief glimpse of thanks to that scamp Mulch being sentenced to hundreds of years of hard time for his misdeeds. Mulch is also derided for being a “tall dwarf” and others call him out for not being a “real dwarf,” which makes me wonder if this is some colorism social commentary (I doubt it). The movie ends with the promise of exploring more worlds and meeting new species of creatures but I have zero interest in continuing any of this. The world relies too superficially on the basics of fantasy lore without offering its own personal spin. Imagine just reading a story that said, “And then fairies showed up, and then dwarves, plus a troll. And then it all worked out in the end.” There is nothing special here to separate itself.

6) The character. Lastly, I was not charmed by any of these characters nor did I find them remotely interesting. The relationship between Artemis and his butler was boring, his relationship with his know-everything father was boring, even Artemis himself is a boring figure, a smug child who thinks he’s better and smarter than everyone else in the room. Mulch is more annoying than comically disarming. Holly Short has her gumption to prove herself and clear her maligned father’s name, but she too lacks the development beyond her initial description. None of these characters have anything approaching an arc. I don’t want to spend any more time with these characters on any further adventures because they’re not charming, they’re not funny, they’re not complicated, and they’re not compelling.

Artemis Fowl is a bad movie and oddly, perhaps even to its credit, seems confident about being a bad movie. Why else impose such a terrible speaking voice for Dame Judi Dench? It’s reminiscent of that mid-2000s period where every studio was chasing their own Harry Potter and snatching whatever Y.A. Chosen One fantasy adventure I.P. they could find. It’s the kind of story that seems to just been importing elements from other derivative sources, becoming a derivation from a derivation, a copy of a copy, and losing any sense of identity. Disney was right to banish this.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Take my opinion with all the caution you need when I say this: I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie mysteries. Sacrilege, I know, but I just don’t find enjoyment from a mystery that is too convoluted, oblique, dense, and purposely unable to be solved until the clever detective explains everything. That’s not a mystery that engages an audience; it’s a problem that is followed by an intermediate period of downtime. Murder on the Orient Express is a remake of the 1974 Oscar-winning film, this time with Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as Christie’s brilliant Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. The original film’s appeal wasn’t the story (see above) but in spending time with the colorful suspects played by many older actors decades removed from their Hollywood peak. It was scenery chewing of a first order. The 2017 Orient Express has some slick production design and requisite big name actors but that’s about it. There are a few alterations here and there but the big moments are the same as is the ending, which means it’s another mystery primarily of obfuscation. I just don’t find these fun to watch. I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t really involved. It failed to provide ways for me to connect, to put the clues and pieces together, and confused volume with development. The new actors feel wasted, especially Judi Dench. I was most fascinated by Branagh’s extensive mustache that seems to have grown its own mustache. If you’re a fan of Poirot, Christie, or the original film, there will probably be enough in this new edition to at least tide you over. I wasn’t too sad to get off this train by the end.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan is one of the rare filmmakers in the world that can do anything he wants. He’s reached a level of critical and commercial success that he has earned the leeway to tell the stories he wants with a blank check. Apparently he’s been eager to tell the big screen story of Dunkirk, the mass evacuation of 400,000 Allied troops on a French beach in World War II, and it would be the first film of his career to not have a crime or science fiction slant. If this is what he has to turn into in order for mainstream Oscar attention then please go back to making your sci-fi puzzle boxes, Mr. Nolan, and let someone else make the underwhelming WWII epics. Don’t believe the effusive praise from critics saying this is Nolan’s masterpiece or the finest of his career. Dunkirk is Nolan’s least engaging film and maybe even the least ambitious of his otherwise storied Hollywood career.

Dunkirk is less of a cohesive movie and more a series of moments, never eclipsing the next or coalescing into a larger, more meaningful, more satisfying whole. We keep cutting from primarily three perspectives (air, sea, land) but it fails to feel more than a check-in before moving onto the next vantage point. It’s a shame because the opening ten minutes launch you immediately into this world of danger and Nolan sets up the different perspectives with effective visual clarity. I thought it was a great moment having the soldiers collect the fluttering propaganda fliers meant to remind them about how the enemy surround them. The initial burst of violence is visceral and unnerving. The burial of a soldier in the sand is a somber moment. Things were getting good, and then I kept waiting for the movie to escalate, to hit a new gear, and it never came. Instead it repeated the same plotting that just forced the bland characters from one curtailed escape to another. Screenwriting is about setups and payoffs, and that is strangely absent throughout Dunkirk. Bad things just kind of happen, and then they happen again, and then you tune out. That’s even before Nolan throws in needless non-linear elements that I was ignorant about. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first film under two hours since 2002’s Insomnia, and yet it could still stand to lose even more. After a while, your mind drifts when all you’re watching is poorly written characters, many of whom you can’t identify, jump from one crummy situation to another without a stronger storytelling drive. If you want a more personally involving retelling of the heroes of Dunkirk, just watch the film-within-a-film of the underrated 2017 gem, Their Finest.

The miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation is really lost in this film. Without a more involving story, it’s hard to get a sense about the personal sacrifices and risks of the evacuation. The scope feels mishandled. We’re told that 400,000 men were rescued but I did not get any sense of that scale. We’re stuck to a small corner of a beach, or a small section of the sky and sea, for the far majority of the film, which again traps the film at a lower register. We don’t adequately sense the monumental scale of what is at stake. The embodiment of the threat is condensed down to a single German fighter plane that Tom Hardy has to chase for half the movie. It’s like this guy is the freaking Red Baron. Another aspect that exacerbates this issue is Nolan’s haphazard command of screen geography. When the camera is inside the various ships, your sense of space is uncertain. When things go bad, it just all feels like a mess, with no clear indication of where the characters are, their proximity to others, or even the interior design of the ships. Without a coherent sense of geography, the action and suspense is going to be inherently limited. Nolan locks into a claustrophobic sensation at the expense of audience clarity, and without better-developed action and interesting characters, it’s a decision of diminishing returns.

The characters are so indistinct that most of them in the end credits didn’t even merit names (Irate Soldier, Shivering Soldier, and Furious Soldier are among the lot). This is one of the biggest mistakes of Nolan’s movie. By not providing characters that an audience can engage with he’s handicapped how much an audience can care. We don’t learn about any of the main characters we follow, with the slight exception of Mark Rylance’s even-keeled seafaring father. I challenge audience members to even remember a who’s who of the young men because I don’t think I’d be able to identify them in a lineup. I was still trying to recall which of them may have died. I haven’t had this much trouble keeping people straight in a war film since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. With Dunkirk, there are faces we follow really more than characters. The most recognizable is Tom Hardy and that’s because he’s Tom Hardy and not because of anything related to his character. Kenneth Branagh’s character just seems to be here to stare off into the distance with awe and say something about “seeing home.” It’s as if Nolan had no interest in telling a war story from a human perspective, which is a vastly strange approach considering the large-scale human cost.

Nolan is a smart filmmaker. He has to know these characters are thinly sketched ciphers at best, so the question becomes why is Nolan choosing to make Dunkirk this way. If I had to hazard a guess I think Nolan was trying to accomplish a visceral, immersive war experience to echo the hopelessness and confusion of those men in jeopardy. They’re meant to be faceless everymen. This would explain why it feels more like a series of moments, of jumping from one failed escape to another and one fraught encounter to another. Nolan does a fine job of introducing conflict (in a wartime setting this also shouldn’t be too hard) but without more distinction he runs the serious risk of everything feeling like more of the same. At the end, thousands of soldiers are ferried back to England and congratulated. One of them is incredulous, not feeling like retreating is worth the fuss. “We just survived,” he says. “Well that’s good enough,” the other says. It’s like Nolan intended to place the audience into a crucible where just getting out was enough to satisfy demands. I don’t think it is.

From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is often breathtaking, no more so than in its mesmerizing sound design. Nolan uses brilliant sound tacticians to heighten your senses and build a sense of dread. An oncoming fighter plane tearing through the sky can raise the hair on the back of your neck. The sound does the heavy lifting when it comes to creating tension. The score by Hans Zimmer is very effective in that regard as well. Its central musical element sounds literally like a ticking clock, which instantly heightens any scene. Granted adding a ticking clock sound against anything would make it more fraught (you’ll never fill out boring paperwork the same way again). Visually, the aerial photography is gorgeous with the IMAX cameras able to take in such startling depths. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) has some beautiful visual compositions, especially as different boats capsize and the water rushes in at odd angles. This is a film that has commendable technical achievements. It’s Nolan who lets down his team.

War movies often run the risk of being overly reliant upon broad themes of heroism, nationalism, patriotism, sacrifice, and such, which can be in replacement of a strong narrative and well developed, interesting characters. War is a film genre like any other, and there are inherent genre shortcuts that can be abused. However, it’s like any other genre in that, regardless of the setting or situation, you are expected to tell an interesting story with characters the audience cares about. Nolan sacrifices all for the immersion in his war experience machine, providing listless, interchangeable characters and a story that amounts to a collection of harrowing moments but not a movie. My pal Joe Marino chided the movie as akin to visiting a planetarium, sitting back, and taking in the wonderful visual spectacle but walking away unmoved. It’s like Nolan has created the Dunkirk Experience: The Ride instead of an actual worthwhile story.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Cinderella (2015)

MV5BMjMxODYyODEzN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDk4OTU0MzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_What is it about old stories that we enjoy so much? I pose this question after watching a commercial for the TV movie, Killing Jesus, based upon Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling novel. While it’s based upon a popular book, what can possibly be told with this newest rendition of the death of Jesus that hasn’t been shown a thousand times in other movies? There was even a movie that was released in theaters last year, Son of God, which covered the same territory with equal reverence. There’s something to be said for good stories and the universal appeal of the familiar, but why do people constantly pay more money for new renditions of the same old same old? That question leads me to Disney’s live-action Cinderella, a fairly faithful and warm-hearted rendition of the oft-told tale. I can’t exactly muster many reasons for an audience to dust off their best glass slippers and run out to the theater, but if you’re looking for the comforts of old and some family-friendly entertainment, then Cinderella will charm with its modest and achievable goals.

Cinderella (Lily James) is the titular put-upon heroine suffering under the cruelty of her two stepsisters and her new Stepmother (Cate Blanchett). Cinderella thinks back to the advice her mother gave her at a young age, to always be “kind and courageous.” One day she rides off into the countryside and comes upon a handsome man who just happens to be the Prince (Richard Madden). He’s smitten with their exchange and convinces his father to open the royal ball to all members of their kingdom, in order to see his special someone once more. His adviser (Stellan Skarsgard) is against such matters because he wants the Prince to marry for a political alliance, not for love. Cinderella is forbidden from attending the ball by her Stepmother, but luckily she has a Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) who, with a pinch of magic, will make sure Cinderella attends in style and steals the Prince’s heart. None of this should be rather new to you, dear reader.

CINDERELLAThe first aspect of Cinderella I enjoyed was how it attempts to ground the story without losing a sense of magic to the proceedings. It’s still a fantasy film under director Kenneth Branagh (Thor), but there’s a concerted effort to place these characters in a world that resembles more of our own than the animated landscape from Disney’s original 1950 classic. Thankfully, half the movie isn’t spent with anthropomorphic mice wearing clothes and escaping the clutches of a house cat. There are a handful of helpful mice but at least they don’t talk and are mostly kept as cute accessories rather than co-stars. The reality of Cinderella’s hardships, especially after the death of her parents, is given an appropriate degree of solemnity. I also appreciated that the Prince is given an entire character to portray, one where his pursuit of a bride is placed in a political context about the security of his kingdom. He’s pressured to marry several available ladies for various political reasons, but he’s smitten with the girl he saw in the woods one fine day. The movie also succeeds in advancing a stronger, more developed relationship between Cinderella and her Prince. Instead of love-at-first-sight, they interact before the ball, and there is terrific chemistry between James and Madden (HBO’s Game of Thrones). There’s also a rather nice subplot between the Prince and his father (Derek Jacobi) that opens up their relationship. It’s a subplot that could have just as likely never existed and yet there’s something touching about the love shown between father and son. These moments, and the care to develop them, allow the characters to feel like flesh-and-blood people and to charm us all over again.

Another tilt toward greater narrative realism occurs with the villains, played by Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Skarsgard (Thor 2). While she’s still an arch villain, the treacherous Stepmother, who has no actual name, is given a generous treatment by Blanchett and especially writer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass). The movie actually attempts to articulate her position, one where a woman of her age is left with few options to secure her family’s stability after the death of a husband. She clearly knows how society sees her waning value and Blanchett does a good job of casting that bitterness in way that you’re still reminded why she’s so furious and devious. I was so pleased I wanted more. I wanted the Stepmother to break down and admit that Cinderella is proof that her father will never love the Stepmother the same as Cinderella’s mother; she’ll always be second place to a ghost, and Cinderella is a constant reminder of this. Blanchett is also deliciously dishy as the wicked stepmother every moment she’s onscreen. Skarsgard can’t compete with the main attraction, but he provides an interesting secondary antagonist as he schemes behind the scenes to ensure the Prince marries a specific maiden with a reliable family name. He’s seemingly devoted to strengthening his kingdom, and he can’t let something as important as a marriage securing an alliance to fall aside because the Prince happens to be in love with a commoner. The extra dose of political intrigue is further attempt to ground and humanize the fairy tale, and it mostly succeeds.

Cinderella-Footage-4That’s not to say that the movie is without its fantasy pleasures. It is still a Disney movie about a famous Disney princess, and as such it maintains a bouncy, exuberant tone that keeps the heavier moments of drama from getting too heavy. Carter (Les Miserables) works wonders as the Fairy Godmother; she’s only in the movie for a solid ten minutes but she makes every second count. She has a silly nature that provides a welcomed jolt of scatterbrained comedy. Carter is clearly having a ball of her own with the role. The magical coachmen and assorted helpers supply extra cuteness. I also appreciated the quick fix of just creating a spell so that Cinderella’s step-family doesn’t recognize her at the ball. However, I never understood why all the artifacts of magic disappear at midnight but the shoes are left behind. Are they not magic too? Maybe only one of them happens to be magic and that was the one left behind. As presented, the shoe fitting is merely a ceremony rather than the missing clue toward finding the absent Cinderella.

So with all that said, does the new live-action Cinderella justify retelling what is one of the most retold stories in cinema history? I’d conclude a mild affirmative. It’s a charming adaptation that develops its characters with greater attention to detail, providing flights of fancy but also further humanizing the good guys and the bad. It’s no a deconstruction of the fairy tale, nor is it a revision, but it’s a faithful attempt to take what works but ground it in a slightly more realistic context, and it works. It’s at turns magical and touching and fun and buoyant and heartwarming. The casting all around is excellent, with every role impeccably chosen. Blanchett and Carter are great fun, and James and Madden have a winning chemistry. The technical merits are up to the same challenge, as the costumes and set design are gorgeous. Of course the aims of a new Cinderella movie are modest. Even if it benefits from a reworked attention to detail, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. It’s still the same story with the same major plot beats and the same ending we’ll all expect from the moment the Disney logo appears onscreen. The greatest achievement of Branagh’s Cinderella is that it makes you ignore these impulses. You find yourself once again returning to a familiar world and enjoying it all again.

Nate’s Grade: B

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

In 1957, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) was the biggest star in the world but she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) was an award-winning thespian considered to be acting royalty, but he was looking to siphon some of Monroe’s fame and vigor. Monroe flew over to England to shoot the light comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, directed by and starring Olivier, and it was here that she changed the life of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Clark was an ambitious young chap who served as the third assistant director and Oliver’s personal assistant as well. He was mainly a glorified go-fer but the position allowed him to glimpse the world of Marilyn Monroe and her various handlers, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) and Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper). Monroe’s flighty behavior and struggles with acting drive the more professional Oliver stark raving mad. Monroe’s rocky marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) is causing her fits of depression. Who better to cheer her up than young Colin Clark? Over the course of nine days, the two become inseparable and Clark falls head over heels for the world’s most glamorous woman.

The character of Colin Clark seems to be stripped of all defining personality traits. He’s this bland kid caught in continual awe. He just seems to be smiling and twinkling those big, compassionate eyes of his, typifying the earnestness of young love. I think he’s been rendered into a cipher for the audience to put themselves in his shoes, becoming star struck with Monroe’s attention. The screenplay takes far too much time on showing Clark coming to the repetitive rescue. His romance with a costume girl (Emma Watson) is a nonstarter and the movie doesn’t even try and hide the fact. She’s the backup romantic option, so the fact that he goes back to her after being spurned by Monroe and we’re supposed to feel that this is growth seems disingenuous and a bit caddish. Perhaps she didn’t take it too hard; if you’re going to be dumped for anyone else, there’s no shame if it’s Marilyn Monroe. Judging by the movie’s depiction, Clark is a rather boring young man, and I didn’t buy for a second that Monroe would cling to him as her hero.

My Week with Marilyn is really focused on the titular star. Clark is just out path to the real star. I doubt there’s anything particularly revelatory about Monroe here. She was plagued with insecurities, a need to be loved, and the fatigue of “playing” herself all the time, all hips swivels and winks. At one point Clark and Monroe are taking a walk and met with a group of fans. “Shall I be her?” she coyly asks Clark and then turns into the vampy goddess the public loved, striking poses and smiling wide. By the very constricted nature of the timeline, we’re not going to learn too much about the famous beauty. She flubbed her lines, she and Olivier didn’t get along, and a mini-entourage of sycophants who were meant to be a surrogate family for the troubled gal surrounded her. Was she a lonely gal crushed by the weight of stardom or a manipulative lady who knew how to get what she wanted? The movie doesn’t take a side, instead serving up all sides of Marilyn Monroe, including a few in the buff. The film has some enjoyable juicy bits, particularly the friction between Monroe and Olivier, but the movie ultimately becomes another fawning admirer of its star. There are a couple musical numbers with Monroe that feel clumsily reproduced and the tone seems too light too often for the dramatic moments to have any real bearing. It becomes another fan that celebrating her image and sponging off her fame and legacy.

While the film may not be revelatory, Williams (Blue Valentine) herself is the revelation. She’s not exactly a dead ringer for the curvaceous, buxom blonde beauty, but she inhabits the spirit of the woman rather than sticking to a breathy imitation. She doesn’t capture the baby-doll voice but the demeanor she has down pat; when she turns it on you can feel the screen light up with the luminescence of star power. There’s quite a difference between the sad, depressed, codependent Marilyn and the sexy pinup fantasy. It’s an incredible performance in an otherwise so-so movie, though I wish the screenplay had given her more complexity to work with. Branagh (Valkyrie) is great fun as the stuffy, overbearing Olivier who gets plenty of snappy lines to vent his frustration over Monroe’s antics (“Teaching Marilyn how to act is as useful as teaching Urdu to a badger!”). Both actors are so good, and so good together, that I wish we could just remove the “my week with” from the title and focus on the relationship between Monroe and Olivier.

Allow me to question the voracity of Clark’s account. He waited until 1995 to publish his film set diaries, and then after his first memoir of his time with Monroe sold well he published another one in 2000, this one filling in a nine-day gap he says was that fateful week with the sex icon of the twentieth century (eat it, Clara Bow!). The second memoir was written fifty years after the fact and from the nostalgic perspective of an old man looking back to his youth. I feel that the particulars have been smoothed over and romanticized. The fact that surviving actors from The Prince and the Showgirl cannot verify any sort of relationship, and that several sources say that Monroe and her new husband Miller were inseparable at the time, cause me to doubt the validity of this personal account. In his first memoir, Clark even criticizes Monroe’s physical appearance (“Nasty complexion, a lot of facial hair, shapeless figure and, when the glasses came off, a very vague look in her eye. No wonder she is so insecure.“). Yet in the second book he becomes her defender. So which is it? Who wouldn’t, with sixty years of hindsight and a best-selling first memoir, embellish their one-time dalliance with a star like Monroe? The most desired woman in the world and he, a 23-year-old nobody, was the one to become her confidant? Aren’t we full of ourselves? And he crawled into her bedroom and was asked to stay the night and didn’t consummate that relationship? In the book she offers and he declines. Talk about the biggest mistake of your life.

If you’re going to embellish, then you might as well get some action out of it. Then again, maybe in the books Clark says that Monroe gave him a pity handjob and the filmmakers deleted this (I can hear him screaming from beyond the grave, “You fools! The handjob was a metaphor. The whole tale falls apart without it!”). If I ever had even a fighting chance of getting lucky with Marilyn Monroe, you’d best believe I would be telling that story so often that my grandkids would roll their eyes in disgust (“Geez, we get it grandpa. Marilyn gave you a handy once.”). The post-script tells us that after The Prince and the Showgirl, Monroe went on to Some Like it Hot and Olivier went back to the theater for some of his best-reviewed runs of his career. So clearly, these two stars owe all their good success to the heroics of Colin Clark, who nudged them from greatness to legendary. We have only Clark’s take since Monroe cannot dispute Clark’s claims so I feel like the memoir, and the film adaptation, is an exercise in serving Clark’s ego.

My Week with Marilyn is a light, weightless movie that retells the shooting of a light, weightless movie. Well done, everyone. The emphasis on this bland kid and his fairly unbelievable whirlwind romance of the twentieth century’s most iconic sex symbol makes the movie feel self-serving. Does anyone honestly believe the events of this story? Whatever the validity of the events, a movie should be entertaining on its own rights. My Week with Marilyn has its bouncier moments and is saved by stellar acting from Branagh and the radiant Williams. But even the best acting in the world can’t save a movie that feels like it’s completely some old man’s exaggerated, embellished, and somewhat boring fantasy. If this is the relaxed standard for getting a movie made, then I look forward to the eventual film adaptation of my soon-to-be-released novel titled, My 28 Hours of Incredible Sex with Angelina Jolie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Thor (2011)

thor_ver5I had strong misgivings going into Thor. How was a powerful Norse god going to seem remotely relatable? How was the most improbable member of Marvel’s Avengers ensemble going to be explained in a way that didn’t feel like a ton of cheese richly slathered in hokum? I was expecting this movie to be a silly, trippy, LSD-enhanced flashback (rainbow bridges! Pass the bong!) that could barely strain any sense of believability. It’s one thing to have stories about super heroes who have gotten their powers via genetic defect, scientific accident, or act of God. But what about when your character happens to be a god? It just seemed too goofy for it all to be pulled off with any conviction. A Thor movie seemed destined for some Xanadu-level of camp. Get a load of the blonde with the big hammer, boys. Not every super hero flick has to be as brooding and dark as The Dark Knight. Marvel’s own Iron Man was a great example of a briskly entertaining movie. Now that I’ve prefaced my experience, let me publicly admit that Thor is indeed a somewhat silly but mostly fun entry in the mighty realm of summer blockbusters.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the god of thunder on Asgard, a distant planet populated by the Norse mythical figures (apparently, they visited Earth and the Scandinavian amongst us worshipped these… space aliens?). Thor waits to inherit the throne from his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), a wise king who has kept a tenuous truce with the fierce Frost Giants, inhabitants of another planet. But Thor is not ready to assume the responsibilities of leadership. He’s quick to action and temper, arrogant, and defies his own father’s orders by trying to start some intergalactic conflict with the Frost Giants on their home turf. Thor is robbed of his powers, his mighty hammer, and banished to Earth to walk amongst the smelly Earthlings. He crashes in the New Mexico desert and is retrieved by a team of scientists (Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard) led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). The group wants to learn where exactly this man from the sky came from. So does the government, led by the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency who takes possession of Thor’s hammer. Thor thinks if he can reunite with his beloved hammer, then he can go home. But for a thunder god, he’s got a lot of lessons to learn. While Thor is out of the picture, his younger brother, Loki (Tom Hiddelston), plots to take what he feels he is owed – the kingdom of Asgard.

hero_Thor-imageThe biggest surprise for me was that the Asgard sequences are the best part of the movie; thankfully the majority of the running time is spent in this fantastic realm. I credit Kenneth Branagh’s direction, which neither hides the silliness of the material nor fully acknowledges it. By the time Thor hurtles to Earth, I was completely engaged in the operatic tale of fathers and sons, gods, jealousy, hubris, intergalactic conspiracies, you know, the stuff of juicy drama. It jus so happened that these characters wear funnier costumes. The family dynamic between Thor and Loki, the infighting and the scheming, intrigued me. Some critics have thrown around the word “Shakespearean” to describe the movie’s outsized family conflict, but I think that’s just the critical community getting lazy. Would they even approach that term is Branagh was not the director? This opening section of Thor effectively explains the history of Asgard as well as its place with the other eight worlds, the shaky relationship with the Frost Giants, the family responsibilities at play as Odin must decide the future of his ABBA-infused nation, as well as the various mechanics of how this different world operates, like Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) stationed at the end of the rainbow as a gatekeeper to the other worlds. I liked discovering how all the pieces of this world fit together. If analyzed out of context, any part of the Asgard section just seems stupid. But taken in the film, Thor‘s crazier, more fantastic elements come together and spark genuine interest. I wanted to spend more time in this magical realm. The more ridiculous and fantastical that Thor got the more interesting it became.

But unfortunately Thor was sent tumbling to our ordinary planet. It is the Earth section that seriously deflates the movie’s vibe. It’s a relief that the fish-out-of-water comic relief is kept to a minimum, because the character of Thor isn’t an idiot, just an arrogant brat. But it’s the period on Earth where the God of Thunder learns his Really Important Lessons and finally understands what it means to be a good leader. It’s all very expected and the execution is less than inspired. The trio of scientists that Thor encounters (Portman, Skarsgaard, Dennings) could easily have been consolidated into one character. Their contributions to the story are weak. Skarsgard is mostly there for fatherly advice and the occasional expository ejaculation. As a gawky little sister scientist, I don’t even know why Dennings is in this film other than to make my eyes happy. I anticipated that Portman would assume the “love interest” spot in comic book movies that we now reserve for Oscar-winning actresses, and I assumed that role would be underwritten. But I never expected Portman’s part to be this underwritten. She’s practically nonexistent except for that winning smile of hers. Over the course of… two days, she falls in love with our banished brute. But to be fair, it’s not every day that a guy looking like Hemsworth falls out of the sky. New Mexico isn’t exactly looking like a great singles mingles hotspot. Anyway, their relationship is supposed to be the trigger that makes Thor realize he’s been a selfish and reckless fool. But their scenes lack any tension, any charm, anything of interest. They feel like two actors sitting in chairs telling stories. You don’t feel any romance between them. The drabby Earth sequences only serve as a losing contrast to the crazy Asgard territory. You can’t compete with rainbow bridges (imagine the tolls on those suckers).

thor-natalie-portman-chris-hemsworthBranagh has never directed anything of this magnitude in size before, and it shows at parts. While none of the action sequences are particularly bring, none of them are particularly thrilling. The beginning battle between Thor and his pals on the Frost Giant planet (Jotunheim) is so poorly lit that the darkness forces you to squint to focus on what’s happening. Why spend $150 million on a super hero flick and shoot a dankly lit action scene? What’s the point in that? The choppy editing can also be too hectic to follow with all the quick-cuts that fail to orient the action geography. Really, there are only three serious action sequences in Thor, but then again I remember Iron Man having a light load when it came to on screen action. That film was devoted to character and performance. This film, under Branagh’s watch, is devoted to just making the entire universe of Thor credible. It’s a lot to take in, and Branagh’s biggest accomplishment is producing a sense of grandeur to the film that saves it from falling into the sticky clutches of camp. The world of Asgard feels convincing in production design and infrastructure; the cities look like pipe organs. Branagh’s film expands the Marvel universe significantly, broadening the scope for future installments. Mercifully Thor does not hard sell the upcoming Avengers movie as appallingly as Iron Man 2.

The acting in Thor is as splashy as the Asgard scenery. Hemsworth gave a notable performance as the doomed father of James Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek. He as only in the film for that ten-minute prologue, and yet the actor found a way to do much with what he was given. You got to see his character hurdle through a gauntlet of emotions: fear, duty, relief, desperation, and acceptance. His sacrifice still can make me tear up, and Hemsowrth deserves some of that credit. However, Thor is a different matter entirely. Obviously it’s going to be a more challenging role to play a buff cocky god with a magic hammer. Buff he does quite well. Cocky he does fairly well, but this is not a great starring vehicle for the actor. Hemsworth looks too self-satisfied, like he’s playing his character as an intergalactic hotel heiress. In sharp contrast, Hiddelston (Wallander) commands your attention. Those penetrating eyes, the cold yet calculated demeanor, this is an actor who feels like he walked off a Shakespeare production and just changed his headgear. You want to spend more time with Loki than watch Blondie futz around on Earth. Loki has much more depth to him than Thor; he feels betrayed by his family and an outcast to his society. I’m glad that we’ll be seeing more from this trickster in future Marvel movies (have I said too much?). Hopkins knows how to sell silliness like few other actors. And for those who have been wondering where Renee Russo has been for the last six years, well here she is, as Thor and Loki’s mother, a role that’s best suited to confirm that she is still alive.

thor-2011I was expecting far worse judging upon the scraps I had seen from the Thor advertising campaign. So I suppose that beating my low-flying expectations might not necessarily be something to champion. Thor is an inherently goofy, yet mildly satisfying and credible action film. It doesn’t have the style or panache of other heroes, but the fact that Branagh could make a two-hour Thor film that didn’t cause me to laugh derisively from start to finish is an accomplishment. Again, that sounds rather dismissive. I’m just very surprised that this movie works. Because if you take it apart, it doesn’t seem like it should. The acting ranges wildly in quality, with Hiddelston outshining everyone else. Thor is a solid if inconsistent start to the summer season of blockbusters. If you must turn your brain off for some movie, you’d do far worse than Thor. It has pretty colors.

Nate’s Grade: B

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

So is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets better than the first film? Well, mostly yes. The story of Harry Potter is a long and complicated one, full of numerous funny names as well. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is still living with his abusive relatives and barred in his room. He’s warned by Doddy, a self-abusive CGI house elf, not to return to Hogwart’s School of Magic because he will be in grave danger. Fat lot of luck this does. Before you can say Jar Jar Binks, Harry’’s timid friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and his flying love bug rescue Harry. They meet up with old friend Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and begin their second year of magical education. But danger surfaces as students with Muggle (a non-magically inclined family member) blood are turning into petrified statues. Lots of other stuff is crammed in (like broomstick rugby, Nancy Drew-like detection, and spiders oh my!) but let’s all be honest here, it’s not like a plot synopsis is going to push you into seeing this movie.

Much of the acting responsibilities falls on the shoulders of our three young leads, and all I can say is what a world of good puberty has done them all. Radcliffe, stiff and overly subdued in the first film, has grown a deeper voice. He seems to have settled into the part nicely. Grint, playing a noble coward, goes from squeal to grimace in 3.5 seconds. Watson has a winning smile and bounces with enthusiasm but sadly sits the last half of the film out.

Some notable additions to the Harry Potter family include Kenneth Branagh as the narcissistic new professor of the Defense Against the Dark Arts. Can anyone do ham better than Branagh? I don’t think so. Jason Isaacs is malevolently delicious as the aristocratic father of Harry’s school rival, Draco Malfoy. You could start shivering from the icy glare this man casts.

Chamber of Secrets is better than the earlier Sorcerer’’s Stone in many ways. The story has less exposition and contains darker elements that suit the story surprisingly well. The special effects are vastly improved from the first film. The child acting, as previously mentioned, is much better.

Despite lacking prolonged setup, Chamber of Secrets clocks in around 2 hours and 40 minutes — 9 minutes longer than the first! You could watch your life go by sitting through a Potter movie marathon. This might seem like an eternity to small children if they weren’t so overly obsessed with the book series.

So remember when I said Chamber of Secrets was “mostly” better than the first film? Well that “mostly” is because the amazing adult cast is hardly seen. Gentle giant Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith are mere background noise to the story. Headmaster Dumbledore (played by the late Richard Harris) has a weathered feel. What Chamber of Secrets needs are more scenes with the brilliant Alan Rickman, as moody professor Severus Snape. Rickman (Dogma) is perfect and a thrill to watch. I got a fever and only more Rickman can cure it.

Chris Columbus (Home Alone) is a director with no remarkable visual flair or distinct vision. Everything that is occurring is so faithful to the book that it has no individual flavor or distance. It’s directing with your hands tied. It should be Rowling’s name for the director’s credit because she’s the one with the vision being translated.

Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon that is already breaking box-office records and parents’ bank accounts. Chamber of Secrets plays toward audience expectations, but all of the components involved seem to be settling in their roles. Chances are whatever you felt about the first film you’ll relive during the second.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Road to El Dorado (2000)

Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branaugh) are two 16th Century Spanish con men who somehow speak in English accents and appear to have a secret gay relationship. I calls ’em as I see ’em people. Through a strange comedy of errors the boys end up marooned on a far off land with a horse in their possession as well as a mysterious map. The map leads to the unfold treasures of the mysterious fable of the city of El Dorado. They partner with a saucy native (Rosie Perez) with hips bigger than shoulders and a pining to be taken away.

Dreamworks has scored big with previous strong ink and paint outings, but El Dorado seems to be a disappointment. At times the banter between Kline and Branaugh is lively and humorous but the energy is never sustained for long. El Dorado lulls unexpectedly quite often. Katzenberg created the very successful Disney animated formula, and still sticks by it regrettably. The Iron Giant showed originality can work, so why is no one listening?!

The animation is surprisingly shoddy at times. The contrast between 3-D and 2-D animation is easily noticeable, unlike the work in Prince of Egypt. Perez seems miscast, what with her Puerto Rican accent, and close to all the characters are poorly underwritten, even the damn horse.

Elton John and Tim Rice buddy up after their successful pairing with the Diz blockbuster The Lion King to unleash wave after wave of senseless drivel. None of the monotonous songs are memorable, or even downright humable. After seeing these pop regurgitation it’s easy to see that everyone makes a bad step. Consider this one.

El Dorado is an animated attempt toward the bumbling road pictures of Hope and Crosby, but this tank is too low on gas for the entire trip.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Wild Wild West (1999)

This movie should have been re-titled “Wild Wild Mess.” After much speculation, the truth finally comes out about the overly hyped Will Smith vehicle: It is the loser of the summer season.

Rehashed from a 1960s series that no one under 30 will remember unless they stay up late watching Nick at Nite, it is full of special effects, headlining stars, and a talented director. So what went so terribly wrong?! The main problem is the story, or more accurately, the absence of one. This movie meanders through the entire plot, characters are thrown in, but there is NO story whatsoever.

Will Smith is a real disappointment. Even though he is such a charismatic actor and has a natural likability, he couldn’t save this disaster in the West. There is so little chemistry between Smith and Kline that it probably would’ve been better if ILM just created a Western Jar Jar for Smith to banter with. The jokes are so lame and unfunny that I slapped myself in the face more often than I laughed.

The beautifully delicious Salma Hayek plays peek-a-boo with the audience as she disappears and then reappears periodically throughout the movie. She has no real purpose except for some T&A and a forced romantic love interest. After playing every possible Shakespearean character, Kenneth Branagh now focuses on being an evil Lt. Dan of the South. His villain is more kooky than dangerous and provides more unintentional laughs than thrills.

This is an incredible lumbering mess that shows what can go wrong when children are not supervised while playing with daddy’s toys. May John Peters’ mechanical spider rot in hell! I want two hours of my life back!

Nate’s Grade: D

This movie also revisited and analyzed in the article, “1999: The Greatest Year in Film? A Review Re-View.”

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