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All the Money in the World (2017)

All the Money is the World used to star Kevin Spacey as the prolific oil billionaire John Paul Getty, that is until director Ridley Scott elected to reshoot the part, replacing Spacey with Christopher Plummer after Spacey’s unsavory history of sexual assault came to light. In only ten days, Scott changed his movie with only a month to spare before its release. It’s an amazing feat, especially when you consider Plummer is in the film for at least a solid half hour. He’s also the best part as the mercurial, cruel, penny-pinching magnate who refuses to pay his grandson’s ransom even though he’s the richest man who ever lived. In 1973, John Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) was kidnapped by Italian criminals. With the miserly grandfather offering no help, Gail (Michelle Williams) tries to negotiate with the criminals and her father-in-law to secure the release of her son. I didn’t know anything coming into this film, but afterwards I felt like it focused on the wrong characters. The mother stuck in the middle is not the most interesting protagonist here and seems like a go-between for the two more immediate and intriguing stories, the elder Getty and the youngest Getty. Williams (Manchester by the Sea) is acceptable as the strong-willed, put-upon mother, though her mid Atlantic accent made me think I was watching Katherine Hepburn. Mark Wahlberg (Daddy’s Home 2) is completely miscast as a former CIA agent that helps Gail. He succeeds in converting oxygen to carbon dioxide and that’s about it. The central story is interesting enough, though there are points that scream being fictional invented additions, like a last act chase and a kindly mobster who undergoes reverse Stockholm syndrome. John Paul Getty is an interesting character, and Plummer is terrific, though I am quite curious what Spacey’s performance would have been like under octogenarian makeup (Plummer already happens to be in his 80s). All the Money in the World is an interesting enough story with decent acting but I can’t help but entertain my nagging sense that it should have been better even minus Spacey.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Baby Driver (2017)

Car chases are one of the greatest things in movie history. The visceral sensation, the speed, the urgency, the thrills, the syncopation of edits to carry out the escalating collateral damage and stakes, it all works to seamlessly create one of the pinnacles of the moving pictures. If you’re going to create a musical where car chases are the chief instrument, then you could do no better than having director Edgar Wright as the maestro. Baby Driver is being hailed by critics as a blast of fresh air, an eclectic wild ride of an action movie with style to spare. That’s true. Unfortunately, this is the first movie of Wright’s career where it feels like the gimmick is all there is to be had.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his crews. Baby was in a car accident that killed his parents when he was a child and he was left with tinnitus (a “hum in the drum” as Doc dubs it). To drown out the ringing, he listens to music at all times, including during those high-speed getaway chases. In his downtime, Baby romances Debora (Lily James) a diner waitress eager to hit the road without a map. Pulled into one more job, Baby is paired with a hotheaded group of dangerous criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez) that could threaten his future plans with Debora.

Baby Driver is a gimmick movie, but this isn’t exactly unheard of from Wright. Each of his movies has a strong genre angle that can tip over into gimmicky, so a gimmick by itself is not an indictment. This is, by far, the least substantial film of Wright’s career. Let’s study his previous film, 2013’s The World’s End. Like the other entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), that film has a clear adoration for a certain genre and its styling, in this case alien invasion/pod person sci-fi. It didn’t just emulate the style and expected plot trappings of its genre. It spun them in a new direction while telling an engaging story on the strains of friendship over addiction and stalled maturity. It’s the heaviest and most emotionally grounded film in the trilogy. Every single moment in that movie adds up, every line, every joke, every plot beat, it all connects to form an inter-locked puzzle that would make Christopher Nolan whistle in appreciation. It wasn’t just clever plot machinations of genre parody. It was a layered and heartfelt story. It all mattered. With Baby Driver, what you see is pretty much what you get.

It’s a car chase musical, a novelty that certainly entertains with Wright’s visual inventiveness and ear for music. The film has that alluring quality of wondering what will happen next, especially with its extensive collection of songs on the soundtrack. A trip to get coffee can become a long take perfectly timed so that graffiti and prop placement along street windows lines up with lyric progressions in the song. Some sonic standouts include “Bellbottoms” and Queen’s “Brighton Rock” during the climax. There’s a fun sense of discovery with the movie and each new song presents a new opportunity to see what Wright and his stunt performers do. The car chases are impressively staged and the stuntwork has dynamism to go along with Wright’s high-level energy output. The emphasis on physical production goes a long way to add genuine excitement. This isn’t the ricocheting CGI car chase cartoons of the Fast and Furious franchise. As far as gimmicks go, it’s at least an amusing one. Perhaps I’m just a musical philistine, or more likely my brain just isn’t as accustomed to sound design idiosyncrasies, but I actually wish Wright had done more with his central gimmick. I’m fairly certain I missed half of the connections with the music. If this is the film’s calling card then it needs not be subtle; rub my face in all the clever edits and how the gunshots equal the percussion, etc.

The ceiling imposed upon Baby Driver is because of its characters. Wright and his collaborators have done effective work shading depth to genre characters in the past, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which examined unhealthy usury relationships and entitlement. The characters in Baby Driver are defined by their archetype designations and often behave in unbelievable ways just because the plot necessitates them. The worst offender is Baby’s love interest, Debora. Her initial scenes with Baby are sweet and work on their own, but when she’s ready to abandon her life for a guy she met days ago, Debora comes across like one of those people who write engagement proposals to incarcerated felons. Her decision-making leaps don’t feel plausible. I don’t think she’s acknowledged her lingering co-dependency issues. The problems are magnified when so much of the second half involves Debora being put in harm’s way or needing to be rescued. Then there’s Baby, a kid with a conscience who uses music as an escape figuratively and literally. He’s too bland and uncomplicated for the lead. Baby takes care of a deaf foster father. He surreptitiously records conversations to remix them into Auto-Tune cassettes. Yes that really is as dumb as it sounds especially when those conversations involve criminals. All we know about Baby is he’s nice, he wants out, and he’s good at driving. Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t have the space to do anything but look cool and springy. The supporting characters are assorted hardasses and nincompoops. Foxx (Django Unchained) seems like he’s there always to push contrived conflict.

As a genre movie with above-average execution, Baby Driver is going to be a suitably enjoyable time at the movies for most. Wright couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. However, it doesn’t feel like he tried hard enough with Baby Driver, at least to make a full-fledged movie. It’s an admirable assemblage of music and visuals but after a while it feels like a collection of music videos, albeit with highly impressive stuntwork. The movie suffers from overblown hype because it doesn’t have the characters or story to balance the action. There isn’t much of an attachment to what’s going on beyond the surface-level thrills of Wright’s central gimmick. As a result, you may get restless waiting for the next song selection to kick into high gear to provide another pert distraction. It feels like the gimmick has swallowed the movie whole and Wright was too busy timing his precise edits to notice the absence of appealing, multi-dimensional characters. Baby Driver is a fun movie with plenty of sweet treats for your senses but it’s too devoid of substance to be anything other than a rapidly dissipating sugar rush.

Nate’s Grade: B

Noirvember: L.A. Confidential (1997)

la_confidential_1997_5There was no stopping Titanic in 1997, iceberg be damned. James Cameron’s epic disaster movie had all the momentum of the times, and yet it’s a smaller movie that captured more of the critics and was far more deserving of the ultimate Oscar prizes that year. L.A. Confidential was based upon a James Ellroy novel that many argued was unfilmable. Enter journeyman director Curtis Hanson and novice screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and the pair stripped the book down from eight main characters to three, kept the spirit and essence of the book alive while rearranging the storylines for large-scale popcorn thrills. It’s been nearly twenty years since L.A. Confidential first seduced big screen audiences and its powers are still as alluring to this day. It’s a neo noir masterpiece.

In 1950s Los Angeles, not all is what it seems. The captain of the police, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), is looking to keep the peace in the City of Angels as outside criminal elements are looking to fill the void from Mickey Cohen going to prison. Three police officers of very different stripes find themselves on the edges of a complicated murder case stemming from a massacre at the Nite Owl cafe. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the son of a famous police captain and wants to rise up the ranks as quickly as possible. He’s a political animal and unafraid of ruffling feathers. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a bruiser of a man who enforces his own level of justice when it comes to men who beat or harass women. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a happily shady officer who serves as a consultant for a hit TV police procedural. The Night Owl case takes them into many sordid corridors of sex, money, and power, including Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), part of Pierce Pratchett’s (David Strathairn) stable of prostitutes meant to look like movie stars, the mysterious self-serving sources to tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), and good cops and bad cops on the controversial L.A. police force.

primary_laconfidentialThis movie is a master class in plotting and structure, enough that it should be taught in film schools. By nature noir plots are meant to be busy and mysterious, and a guarantee for mystery is a Byzantine plot full of plenty of suspects, dispirit elements, and strange coincidences that eventually coalesce into a larger picture. The beauty of what Hanson and Helgeland have done is that they have made the script complex yet accessible, able to lose one’s self in the tangled web of intrigue but still able to see how all the myriad pieces fit perfectly together by the conclusion. There is an efficiency to the screenwriting that is mesmerizing. It all seems so effortless when you’re with storytellers this gifted or who have a divine connection to the source material. Forgoing the customary slow builds of recent film noir like the oft-cited Chinatown, L.A. Confidential just moves from the opening narration. Within the first 25 minutes, the movie has expertly set up all three of its main characters, what defines them, their separate goals, the obstacles in place, and previews how they will intersect into one another’s orbit, and then the Nite Owl case explodes. Every scene drives this narrative forward. Every scene reveals a little more depth to our characters or fleshes out a superb supporting cast. Every scene cements that contradictory theme of the glitzy allure and unseemly darkness of the post-war City of Angels. My only quibble is that before the truncated third act the movie resorts to a few easy shortcuts but by that point Hanson and Helgeland had more than earned their paces. This is one of the greatest modern screenplays, period (WGA listed it as #60 all-time).

There are so many remarkably assured sequences but I want to emphasize one in particular – Exley’s interrogation of the three Nite Owl suspects. “Oh I’ll break him,” Exley promises his superior before entering into the first interrogation room. At first you’re with the other officers and morbidly curious with his arrogance. By the end, your jaw hangs in amazement at the intuitive pressure this man is expertly applying. It’s a terrific moment that allows Exley to masterfully manipulate three different men, taking pieces and running toward accurate insinuations, building momentum and clarity. Each man is different and each man offers a new piece of the overall puzzle. A slight reference by one unlocks another’s confession. An overheard sound byte pushes another into self-defense. I’m convinced it was this scene that ensured robust and thorough interrogation was a crucial element of the gameplay for the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, a noble misfire that definitely looked to replicate Hanson’s film as a user experience.

la-confidential-2Noir is one film genre with a visual code that can get the best of directors, but Hanson played this to his advantage. Classic noir is filled with criminal activity and the allure of sex and violence, typified perhaps best in the position of the untrustworthy but oh-so-sexy femme fatale. Yet the majority of film noir was produced in an era of censorship thanks to the implementation of the notorious Hayes Code, making sure that audiences didn’t enjoy the sordid elements too far. Free of these restrictions, some modern filmmakers take the opportunity to revisit the noir landscape and fill in the blanks of old, furnishing an outpouring of unrestrained exploitation elements. Brian DePalma’s 2006 film The Black Dahlia (also based on an Ellroy novel) gets drunk on this mission, though “restrained” has never been a word I would associate with DePalma’s filmmaking anyway. My point, dear reader, is that it’s easy to get lost in the superficial trappings of the genre: sexy dames, corrupt lawmen, temptation, shootouts, schemes, and chiaroscuro lighting. It’s easy to dabble in these elements because they’re so nostalgic and celebrated.

Hanson did something different with his 1997 masterpiece. He builds upon the audience expectations with noir but he doesn’t let his complex story and characters come second to the visual spectacle of the famous genre. L.A. Confidential is in many ways a movie that straddles lines; old and new, indie and Hollywood classicism, and film noir and drama. It’s an adult film that doesn’t downplay its darkness, brutality, and moral ambiguity, yet when it comes to those exploitation elements, especially sex, it’s almost chaste. The relationship between Lynn and Bud seems refreshingly square, like it was pulled from Old Hollywood. The entire movie feels that way, an artifact that could exist any decade.

Hanson was something of a journeyman for most of his career, directing competent thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. As Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote in his eulogy for Hanson (he died in September 2016, a fact I shamefully didn’t know until writing this review), after 25 years in the industry the man became an earth-rattling auteur after the age of 50. That is a rarity. Who knew the guy had something this singularly brilliant within his grasp his entire career? The care he puts into the screen is evident from the opening montage onward. There’s an elusive magic to the filmmaking on display, a bracingly divine sense of how to move the camera for best effect, how to escalate and deescalate audience nerves. He knows his story structure and characters inside and out, but he also knows how to play an audience. His time making serviceable studio thrillers certainly helps him during the film’s climax, a bloody shootout that’s also a mini-siege thriller.

screen_shot_2015-11-17_at_12-23-46_pmHanson also assembled an incredible crew to enable his vision. The technical elements recreate the early 1950s L.A. time period with beguiling immediacy; the cinematography by Dante Spinotti (Heat) gives a sense of the darker elements just under the surface without having to overly rely upon the film language of staid noir visuals. Peter Honess’ sharp editing provides a downright Thelma Schoonmaker-esque musical orchestration to the proceedings, especially as the multiple storylines and developments spill onto one another. Speaking of music, the score by Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek) is thick with the jazzy overtones of the genre. It’s a score that simmers with sexual tension and malevolence. The casting director deserves a lifetime free pass. There are a whopping 80 speaking parts in the movie, and each person is a great hire that builds a richer film.

While the plot of L.A. Confidential sucks you in right away, its characters take hold the strongest. Film noir is one genre that has a codified cheat sheet of character archetypes, and this movie fulfills and subverts them, finding surprising and gratifying ways to further round out these figures into complex and nuanced human beings. The three main characters all provide a different approach to law enforcement and when we see them start to work together it’s a wholly wonderful turn of events. Bud is the muscle, Exley is the brain, and Vincennes is the charm, and each one attacks the Nite Owl case and its subsequent leads from different angles that best apply to their set of skills. Each of the three characters discovers new pieces of evidence, new contacts and suspects, and when they start to work together it not only provides a payoff with the combined evidence but with the satisfying nature of their teamwork. That’s because they become better people when they work together and each moves closer to some moral redemption.

Bud is the loyal cop with a hair trigger and a penchant for being a white knight to abused women. His personal history of abuse makes him seek justice, often by his own fists. He has a rigid moral code of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to cross lines to achieve it. He’s also tired of being a bully and wants to be more than just the muscle. Exley is a straight arrow with a strong sense of moral righteousness and a mind for politics. He knows how to play sides for his own gain. He’s not afraid of making enemies within the department, and his opportunistic choices create many. He’s trying to forge his own path outside the shadow of his father, a famous lawman who was gunned down by a random purse-snatcher (“Rollo Tamassi”). He has to learn that he can’t do everything on his own. Finally, Vincennes is in many ways the face of the department as an ambassador to the world of TV and film. He’s succumbed fully to the glamour of Hollywood but he’s also full of profound self-loathing, trying to count how many compromises he’s made in life and where it’s gotten him. The appeal of the old life is crumbling and his detective instincts are reawakened, spurring Vincennes into the fray and surprising even himself. It’s extremely rare for any movie to successfully develop more than one protagonist, let alone three, and yet L.A. Confidential achieves this milestone so that when we alternate perspectives there isn’t a drop in viewer interest. Each man brings something different and interesting, each man reveals new hidden depths, and each character is fascinating to watch in this setting.

landscape-1454063515-kim-basinger-la-confidentialThe gifted actors take the already excellent written material and elevate it even further, turning an already sterling movie into one of the all-time greats. Almost twenty years later, it’s fun to see these famous actors when they were young and, arguably, in their prime. Spacey (House of Cards) was on a tear at this point in his career, between his two well-deserved Oscar wins, and having the time of his life in every role. His character seemingly has the least complexity, a man who knows he’s sold out but believes himself to be enjoying the ride, but Spacey offers poignant glimpses of the man behind all that oily charm and sly glances. There’s a scene where he stumbles across a mistake of his making and the subtle, haunted expression playing across his face is amazing. The man was capable of expressing so much, and still is. Crowe was still a couple years from his big breakout in 2000’s Gladiator but he put himself on the Hollywood map as Bud White. He’s a coil of anger and pain looking for an outlet, and Crowe is magnetic as hell. His glowers could burn right through you. Pearce (Memento) was another knockout that solidified leading man status thanks to his performance as the rigidly self-righteous Exley. He’s a character that thinks he’s above moral reproach, and his humbling is a necessary part of solving the case. Exley is constantly surprising his peers and it feels like Pearce does the same, showing exciting new capabilities from scene to scene, from his stirring hire-wire act with the interrogation scene to his understated glimmer of fear through a poker face. These three performances are golden.

Nobody better represents sleaze than Danny DeVito’s character and the man brings a merry lechery to his tabloid journalist/exposition device. His unquenchable thirst for the worst in humanity to sell more papers feels even more sadly relevant given the media climate that contributed to the recent presidential election. Kim Basinger (Batman) won an Oscar for her somber performance, which reinvigorated her career. She’s good but I can’t help but feel that she won the Oscar in a weak field (my choice would be Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights). David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) is enjoyably nonplussed as a man who specializes in delivering vice. James Cromwell used every bit of audience warmth associated as the loveable farmer from Babe and used that to his advantage. His pragmatic police captain is a father figure for Exley and the audience and perfectly sets up a turn that leaves the audience spinning even twenty years later.

There are little details the could go unnoticed but confirm for me just how much thought was put into L.A. Confidential. Exley is chided by his superiors for wearing glasses as they think it makes him look weak. As the film develops and he gets more immersed in the Nite Owl case, his compulsions against violence and rash judgment start to waver about the same time he stops wearing his glasses, a subtle symbol of his difficulty to see things for what they truly are. I enjoyed that our introduction to Lynn is in a liquor store and she’s wearing a winter cloak that strongly resembles a nun’s habit. It’s a memorable costuming choice and also suggest Lynn’s penchant for straddling the line of devotion. The Patchett “whatever your heart desires” line of high-class prostitutes has allusions to our current media culture of celebrity worship and personalized sexual fantasies. It naturally ties into the exploitation of the dream factory of Hollywood that takes young ingénues with dreams in their head and squashes them pitilessly. It’s not the first film to explore the darker side of the film industry but that doesn’t make its themes lesser.

la2L.A. Confidential feels like the noir thrillers of old but stripped down to its essentials and given a new engine. It’s something that celebrates noir thrillers of old and Old Hollywood but it isn’t so lavish to either the genre or older time period that it loses sight of its own storytelling goals. The elaborate plot is complex and intensely engaging while still being accessible, populated with memorable and incredibly well developed characters, each given their own purpose and own insights that contribute to the larger whole. Hanson’s lasting accomplishment is a near-perfect masterpiece to the power of story structure and characterization. The three lead detectives are compelling on their own terms and the movie keeps them separate long enough that when they do come together it feels like a payoff all its own. Hanson recreates the world of classic film noir and makes it his own, using new Hollywood to lovingly recreate Old Hollywood. It’s the kind of movie I can watch again and again and discover new depths. It gave way to a wave of success for its participants. Hanson never quite delivered another movie on the level of L.A. Confidential, though I’ll posit that In Her Shoes is an underrated character piece. Helgeland has become a go-to screenwriter for many projects low (The Postman) and high (Mystic River) and became a director for A Knight’s Tale and 42. It’s a movie that plays just as strongly today as it did almost twenty years ago, and that’s the mesmerizing power of great storytelling and acting. L.A. Confidential is a lasting achievement that proves once more the power of our darker impulses. It’s stylish, seductive, smart, subversive, and everything you could ask for in a movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

Margin Call (2011)

Set during the first twenty-four hours of the 2008 economic meltdown, Margin Call feels like David Mamet’s classic play Glengarry Glen Ross just set fifty floors higher. It’s a tense stew of ego and hubris and cunning and manipulation and self-preservation, peppered with some salty language. The corporate bigwigs of a fictional financial firm scramble to get out the door first before everyone else catches on to the looming market crash. “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat,” says the CEO (Jeremy Irons). Debut writer/director J.C. Chandor brilliantly captures the rationalization of sociopathic greed; the CEO waxes about the historical inevitability of our own self-destructive influences, glibly recounting other market crashes and saying he will survive because the nation’s class systems are fixed. The behind-the-scenes scheming has a sick appeal, witnessing how Wall Street wriggled free of responsibility. This isn’t a far-reaching look into the financial meltdown; it’s more of an insular, thoughtful, occasionally meditative play about the moral questions at play. The prosaic pacing caused quite a slew of yawns in my audience. There does seem to be a never-ending cascade of scenes where two characters will just sit and talk. However, when the writing is this sharp and the actors are all at the top of their game (Kevin Spacey is emotionally spent in a test of loyalties; Irons is charmingly sleazy), then you can forgive some stagnate pacing. Margin Call has a few heavy-handed metaphors (Spacey putting his dog down = the economy!), but overall it’s astute, insightful, sophisticated, and compelling enough to forgive its overreaches.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Horrible Bosses (2011)

The true joy of Horrible Bosses, besides the vicarious premise, is the interaction and camaraderie of a rock-solid cast of comedians. Jason Bateman (Juno), Jason Sudekis (TV’s Saturday Night Live), and Charlie Day (TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) play the three put upon friends who conspire to kill their not so very nice bosses, respectively played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston. The comedy is amusing from start to finish, prone to plenty of guffaws and a few big laughs. The film strikes a delicate tone while being nasty without being too brutish or oft putting. This is not a scorched-earth sort of comedy despite its murderous implications. The guys are more bumbling than threatening, which makes even their criminal pursuits clumsy and endearing. It’s got plenty of surprises and I enjoyed how most of the storylines and players wound up back together. It’s a satisfying movie that veers in some unexpected directions. But the real reason to see Horrible Bosses is just how damn funny the cast is. The snappy screenplay establishes a solid comedic setup and lets the leads bounce off one another to great hilarity. Whether arguing over who would be most raped in prison, the ins and outs of killing on a budget, or the dubious nature of hiring hit men under the “men seeking men” section online, the three leads all bring something different to the comedic table, and watching them interact and play around with the situation is a delight. It’s a buddy comedy with a dash of Arsenic and Old Lace. While the characters are more exaggerated stock types, the comedy, kept at a near breathless pace by director Seth Gordon (King of Kong, Four Christmases), is refreshing, smartly vulgar, and not afraid to get dark. Watching Aniston play against type as a sex-crazed man-eater is enjoyable, but hands down, no one does sadism with the same joy as Spacey. That man could melt a glacier with the intense power of his glare. Horrible Bosses is a relative blast of a comedy, one that maintains a steady output of laughs with some easy targets.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

This movie was a big letdown given the cast, the strange true origins of this fantastic tale, and even with the title. This odd little film feels tonally off. The material feels mishandled, mixing broad humor and with military satire and the dark realities of the war in Iraq. The premise is solid — a Pentagon program training psychic soldiers, men convinced they could run through walls or terminate goats through the power of thought. Why then does the movie feel so misguided and rudderless and, ultimately, boring? Never has such an outlandish concept, based on true events, felt so devoid of edge. The satire picks safe targets and the comedy remains farcically broad. I think the film’s downfall can ultimately be traced to the decision to turn this material into a fictional narrative. I would have preferred an actual documentary detailing the men, women, and goats involved in the real Pentagon program. If truth can be stranger than fiction, why dress it up and then dull it through fiction?

Nate’s Grade: C

Moon (2009)

David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, directs two Sam Rockwells in this steely mood piece. Rockwell plays a lunar astronaut about to complete his three-year tour of duty when he finds another him. Is he hallucinating? Is this other Rockwell a clone? Who is the clone? The mystery unravels at a nice pace and Rockwell a pair of great performances, fully giving each character a different personality. Jones uses his small space to great use, multiplying the feeling of cabin fever more so than claustrophobia. Some will chafe that Moon doesn’t spell everything out, but the movie is smart enough to leave other things to the imagination. Moon tells a very specific, very select story and it does so with great economy that serves the story. This is Rockwell’s showcase and he carries the movie and nails the nervous breakdowns. For people let down by Hollywood’s slate of sci-fi duds, here is a satisfying small-scale sci-fi story told with intelligence and subtlety.

Nate’s Grade: B+

21 (2008)

Glitzy, breezy, and 100 percent predictable, 21 is a simple con movie that goes through the motions with hyper realism. The most interesting part of the film, by far, is learning the systems that help these coeds fleece Vegas for thousands of dollars. In fact, the true story is far more interesting than this typical tale about a good kid who gets a big ego, pushes his true friends away, is humbled, and then learns a lesson while getting the girl too. What’s a MIT engineer want to go to Harvard med school for? And for that matter, you’re telling me there are no scholarships out there to brainy MIT students? Whatever the case, 21 will pass the time nicely without damaging your brain. The card games are ramped up with zooming camerawork and flashy special effects by director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), but it’s all window dressing to an interesting story that was white washed into a bland but undeniably commercial movie. It’s a fine time but, like Vegas, will leave you empty in the end. Still, you could do worse than overly stylized con movies about math whiz card sharks.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Superman Returns (2006)

It’s been a total of 19 years since we saw Superman grace the silver screen in the mega-bomb Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The big question is… did we miss him at all? I know a lot of people that say they just can?t get into Superman as a character. He’s always been a do-gooder, someone with infinite power but too great a sense of nobility to abuse it. Does the Man of Steel still hold relevancy in today’s more erratic, cynical, fearful world? Is it possible to make an indestructible alien relatable or empathetic? Director Bryan Singer is interested in finding out, and he brought nearly his whole X-Men 2 team with him. Instead of retooling the franchise Singer has adopted the idea of starting shortly after the events of 1980’s Superman II. (Yes, I know Richard Lester is credited with directing Superman II but it’s still contentious that Richard Donner, who helmed the first super outing, directed a majority of the sequel. From here on out, Donner will cited as the director of Superman and Superman II).

Superman (Brandon Routh) has been absent for five years trying to look for pieces of his home world, Krypton. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and his moll (a cheerfully batty Parker Posey) have got some big plans up their villainous sleeves. Using crystals from Superman’s home world, they plan on building a new continent of land to prosper with. He also has a nice supply of kryptonite to make his own fortress with. When Clark Kent does arrive back in town, coincidentally along the same time Superman rescues Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in a plane crash, he’s shaken by the changes that have taken place in his absence. Lois is engaged to Richard (James Marsden), nephew of The Daily Planet‘s editor in chief, Perry White (Frank Langella). She’s also won a Pulitzer Prize for her article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” (a kiss-off letter to a lover if ever there was one). To top it all off she also has a five-year-old son, which would put him within the realm of having a super dad (Lois and Supes took a roll in the hay at the Fortress of Solitude in Superman II). The Man of Steel has a lot on his plate, obviously.

This is rumored to be the most expensive movie of all time, with budget predictions going as high as $260 million. If that?s true than Singer let’s you see every dollar onscreen. As a movie going experience, Superman Returns has little to no equals. The special effects are astounding and the imagery is simultaneously iconic and awe-inspiring. We now exist in a world where we can see a man in a red cape zoom through the sky and have it become believable. Singer, after two X-Men flicks, has a terrific eye for glistening visuals and boy does he know how to conduct Hollywood bombast with equal parts genuine character. His loss was considerably noticeable with X-Men 3, which wilts in direct comparison as unfair as it may be (it’s like the difference between a Van Gogh and a third grader’s imitation of a Van Gogh). The difference is that you can feel the respect the filmmakers had for superman; not so much with X-Men 3. But alas my countrymen, I come here to praise Superman not to bury X-Men 3. The sheer breathtaking visual artistry of Superman Returns demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible. Singer has crafted a wonderful tableau for the eyes and ears, filled with religious symbolism, opening the wonderful possibility of the movies just a little wider.

Singer’s film is a show-stopping pop spectacle, which is good, because the story itself, upon fresh perspective and distance, is good, but not great. The story doesn?t pursue character as strongly as last year?s fellow franchise reboot, Batman Begins, nor does it interlace themes as well. The characters in general are pained but left with little other expressions. Lex Luthor’s evil scheme is grand in cataclysmic scope but at the end of the day it’s still a real estate scam. It’s like if Donald Trump was human or less evil (he’s definitely got the same hair stylist as Luthor). How exactly is Luthor planning on keeping control of a new continent of land? I would think the world would have some way of establishing order. Once again a villain’s scheme is ruined by the less dastardly, more squeamish baddie in the entourage. In fact, the villains are on their own for a long while, embarking on their own tangential movie to play alongside the return of superman. The first hour is slower paced and the final climax could have used an additional boost, but these are quibbles. Superman Returns could have done a lot more with their characters, especially considering their take-off point is two films hence, but this movie is more about reassembling the pieces. To that end, Singer’s satisfying retread is forgivable for its shrift characterization.

Do not let any misgivings about character and story betray how awesomely entertaining Superman Returns is when it turns on the magic. Even at a bladder-unfriendly 2 hours and 40 minutes in length, the film has little drag and a great sense of confidence of a crowd pleaser that knows how to play to an audience while respecting their intelligence. The movie is self-indulgent (how many slow-mo shots do we need of Superman in the air?) but it never falls short on thrills. Between plane crashes, bank robberies, sudden explosions, and spontaneous, cavernous land masses, you’ll likely be glued to your seat waiting for the outcome, which even with a nigh indestructible being isn’t always a given.

The action is grand in scale but Superman Returns also has the unmistakable stripes of a chick flick. Lois is jilted, moves on to a good man, and suddenly the man of her dreams, the one she thought was gone for good, reenters her life. The film’s sharpest plot point is the complication of its love triangle with Richard and a child in tow. The romantic yearning and interplay give the film its biggest emotional involvement. Even though the filmmakers are deliberately vague, the answer of who’s the father should be rather easy to deduce. Still, the audience has an increasing desire to know the paternal truth.

Singer’s louder, brighter Superman is a loving tribute to the Richard Donner Superman films, you know, before Richard Pryor, evil twins, and the rather rash, though very effective, decision of hurling the world’s supply of nuclear weapons into the sun (the less said about The Quest for Peace the better). It even exists in the same universe so we don’t have to go the origin tale route, though we do get flashbacks to Clark’s past. Marlon Brando’s original performance as Jor-El, father of Superman, is reused and John Williams’ theme gets a new polish. Even the opening title graphics, so horribly dated like a “cutting-edge” Atari game, are the same from the Donner era. There’s such reverence for nostalgia and a fondness for what makes Supes Superman, and that’s why it gets closer than even the Donner flicks, which are good but have weathered with age and can come across as too silly or cheesy.

Even Routh looks uncannily like Chistopher Reeve. Routh is an interesting choice; he’s chiseled, handsome, and questionably appealing. He comes across more like a being finding his place, like a kid fresh out of college, than a being of incalculable power protecting our blue planet. At any rate, Reeve played the comedy better, being both suave hero and clumsy earthling. I wish Superman Returns would go further exploring the perils and expectations of being Superman, a life devoted to servitude and always being an outsider. There’s a small scene where he orbits the Earth listening to 1000 overlapping voices crying for help before zeroing in on one. Otherwise, the movie doesn’t pay much notice to the burdens of Superman, which may unfortunately keep many at a distance.

Bosworth is just too young for her role; she resembles Lois Lane’s baby sister, not the feisty Margot Kidder incarnation that left such an impression. This Lois Lane doesn’t so much bicker as she does harrumph. It’s like they took the role, dolled her up, muted her, and then told her to play Lois Lane as if she had stayed up all night binging on Sex and the City reruns. Bosworth is at the mercy of her character, a figure pressed into danger more than she is into emotion. There are some nice moments, like a midnight stroll through the atmosphere with her knight in blue tights. I just wish there were more.

But at least there’s two-time Oscar winner Spacey, who’s terrific as the infamous Lex Luthor. He’s got a funny quirkiness and a perfectly deadpan sarcasm. The opening that reveals how Luther earns back a sizeable fortune is hilarious and perfect to a T. Everyone else seems a bit dour but Spacey is having a ball; he’s even employed Kumar as part of his muscle (you’re a long way from White Castle, Kumar). However, Spacey’s spirited take is a lot more menacing than Gene Hackman’s version, which always came across as an oily used car salesman, more huckster than arch villain/evil genius. Spacey has a really strong disdain for the Man of Steel and his eyes sparkle at the opportunity to get vicious. I’m all for a darker, angrier, down-and-dirty villain to better torment Superman. Not to be out done, used car salesmen have their moments of intimidation.

The story may be good, not great, but Superman Returns is a first-rate cinematic spectacle. Singer and his X-Men 2 team have crafted a nostalgic, reverent movie that smartly addresses whether today’s world has outgrown a big blue Boy Scout. The action sequences and special effects are astounding, and, for the first time in a Superman movie, they are wholly believable. This helps when the main guy wears his underwear on the outside and shoots lasers from his bullet-proof eyeballs. The film stalls when it comes to characterization and the interplay of strong unified themes, but much is forgivable because Singer has worked his ass off getting a storied franchise back on its feet with dignity.

After three super hero films in a row, each with an escalating budget and running time, I’d say the man needs a break, perhaps a tiny independent movie to rejuvenate the batteries. But after watching Superman Returns, what I really want is for Singer to get right back to work as fast as possible. We’ve got this world back in order. Now it’s time for Superman to truly take flight.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Beyond the Sea (2004)

I really don’t think a lot of people know Bobby Darren. It seems that today most people would recognize him from singing “Beyond the Sea” over the closing credits of Finding Nemo. He wasn’t supposed to live past 17 but went on and wrote 400 plus songs including “Mack the Knife,” “Splish Splash,” and “Dream Lover.” Seems like there could be some interesting ground for a biopic. Kevin Spacey is one of our most celebrated actors and earned two very well deserved Oscars. Spacey has a strong passion for Darren and has been dreaming of portraying his life story for years. Passion is good for a role, right? Sam Raimi had passion for Spider-Man and look how those movies turned out. Well, with Beyond the Sea it seems that Spacey is less passionate about Bobby Darren and more passionate about his love of Kevin Spacey.

The film opens with the 37-year-old Darren (Spacey) reliving his life via a biographical movie he’s filming (yes, it’s a movie-within-a-movie). With the help of a younger movie self as a guide, Darren traces his rise from the streets of Brooklyn to headlining the Cococabana club. As a young child, doctors feared that Darren wouldn’t outlive his teens with his weak heart. Bedridden often, he found inspiration in music with his flamboyant yet supportive mother (Brenda Blethyn). Darren is driven to succeed and soon lands on top of the charts with a string of hits. Next he?s starring in movies with Rock Hudson and Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), a chickadee that Darren is just as determined to succeed with. They marry, have a child, but Darren doesn’t feel fulfilled. He needs to push his music further whether or not it alienates everyone around him.

If you thought Beyond the Sea was the story of Bobby Darren, you’d be pitifully wrong. It’s really the story of Kevin Spacey, actor/writer/director/singer/dancer. That’s why we get to see flashy, superfluous dance numbers, that’s why we get to watch Spacey sing 12-15 times, and that’s why Spacey went to the trouble of re-recording all of Darren’s songs so that?s it?s Spacey belting out the tunes. Because, remember, this is a film about Spacey, not Bobby Darren.

Spacey is also much too old to be playing Darren, who died suddenly at age 37. He comes off lechery, especially during his courtship with the young Sandra Dee. Spacey isn’t unaware of this problem because in the opening minutes of Beyond the Sea someone accuses Bobby Darren of being to old to play himself in his movie. The response: “He was born to play this part!” There you go folks, case closed.

The acting in Beyond the Sea isn’t really an issue. Spacey has a genuine bounce to his song renditions and proves to be a capable dancer. John Goodman plays yet another gruff but lovable sidekick. It’s always good to see Bob Hoskins onscreen, no matter what the role may be. Bosworth comes away the best as she shifts from stars-in-the-eyes naiveté to a harder edge (you may rethink that whole song from Grease).

The dialogue is played so straight that it’s often hilarious: “Memories are like moonbeams, we do with them what we like.” With all due respect, what the hell does that mean?! I think I get the idea but what can anyone really do with moonbeams? If this line isn’t bad enough it becomes a central idea for Beyond the Sea which Spacey/Darren uses to excuse his flagrant gaps in time and fact.

Beyond the Sea gets so caught up in the Kevin Spacey Variety Hour that it fails to tell its audience why they should even care about Darren. Was he an inspiration because he outlived doctor expectations? Did he liven up old songs? Was he a remarkably versatile talent? Who knows? You’re on your own. Spacey’s too busy singing and dancing to explain the relevancy of Bobby Darren or why this movie should even exist.

There must be some interesting facts about Darren. I did not know that he wrote “Splish Splash” let alone that he wrote the whole song in 20 minutes. I didn’t know Darren required a toupee at such a young age. That stuff is interesting. It’s too bad it all takes a back seat because Spacey wants to emphasize his singing. Seriously, I get it; you can sing, Kevin Spacey. Can I see more of Bobby Darren and less of Spacey now?

Beyond the Sea portrays Darren so single-mindedly. He’s always focused on his music and nothing else, whether that be a budding acting career (he was nominated for an Oscar), the advice of his friends, or the love of his family. Darren kind of comes across as a self-centered jerk a lot of the time in Beyond the Sea.

I don’t know which is worse, Spacey the director or Spacey the writer. It’s not that he’s inept at either end but he just makes decisions that kill the material. There has to be a better framing device than having Darren star in a movie about his life. There have to be better transitional ideas than having New York City explode into choreographed dances. To top it off, when the movie reaches its very protracted climax, we see the adult Bobby Darren in a tap duet with his younger self. Beyond the Sea loses whatever earnest intentions it had and melts away into one strange metaphysical song and dance revue.

Beyond the Sea has been a pet project for Kevin Spacey for so long that the focus has shifted from Bobby Darren to Spacey himself. This movie exists so that Spacey can celebrate himself. To say Beyond the Sea is a showcase of megalomania would be an understatement. Many scenes exist for no reason other than to give Spacey another opportunity to dance or sing. Re-dubbing all of Darrens songs seems a tad unnecessary and a whole lot about ego. Die-hard fans of Darren or Spacey may enjoy Beyond the Sea, but most people will grow tired of seeing Spacey congratulate himself for being an autuer. This is a self-indulgent nightclub act posing as a film. Memories are like moonbeams, and I’m forgetting this movie as fast as possible.

Nate’s Grade: D

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