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Hidden Figures (2016)

hidden-figures-posterAfter the end of 2012’s Red Tails, I said to myself that those men of history deserved a better movie. By the end of Hidden Figures I was thinking the same thing for the unheralded African-American women of NASA in the 1960s Space Race. It’s an inherently engrossing story that the public knows precious little about, and the biggest problem with director/co-writer Theodore Melfi’s (St. Vincent) film is that is rarely breaks free from its formula for feel-good mass appeal. Rather than allowing us to absorb the complexities of the three women featured (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae) the movie wants us to just know about their struggles over injustice and inequality. That’s a fine starting point but rarely do these women become fully fleshed out. They’re kept as symbols, put-upon figures, and less as people. That allows them to have their Big Acting Moments where they uncork a snappy retort to institutional prejudice that is the kind of stuff meant for Oscar clip packages. Henson is given the most significant part but even her math genius feels like a crude Hollywood extrapolation of a stereotypical movie nerd. Monae was the one who left me most impressed with her feisty attitude and swagger. It’s all a pleasing and moderately entertaining package but the presentation and artistically stilted character development hinder the movie’s message. I would have preferred a documentary on the same subject, something that would allow further depth as well as the direct testimony of those women involved. I believe Henson’s character is still alive and in her 90s, so there’s no time to waste. Hidden Figures is a safe yet still appealing biopic that hits some of the right notes but lacks greater ambition. Not all films have to try and redefine their genre, but when you’re giving the titular hidden figures of history their much-deserved spotlight, maybe a little more effort is deserving and necessitated.

Nate’s Grade: B

Midnight Special (2016)

midnight-special-poster-600x889Jeff Nichols should already be a household name after Mud and Take Shelter, and with his new movie Midnight Special, the man has done nothing to break his incredible record of success with making deeply personal, ruminative, thrilling, and brilliant films. Midnight Special is a better and more earnest love letter to the cinema of Spielberg than Super 8 was. A young boy exhibits strange and supernatural powers. The religious compound he came from looks at him as a prophet. The government thinks he might be a weapon. Two different groups are on the hunt for this boy, and that’s where Nichols drops us right into the middle of, respecting the intelligence of his audience to catch up and figure things as they develop. In some ways it reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road, an expert chase film that establishes its characters naturally as it barrels onward. The acting is wonderful all around and Nichols does a great job of finding small character moments that speak volumes, giving everyone time in the spotlight. The various twists and turns can be surprising, heartwarming, funny, but they stay true to the direction of the story he’s telling and grounded in the simple, unyielding anxiety and love of parents for their child. Michael Shannon (Nichols go-to collaborator) is directly affecting as a humble but determined father risking everything for the well-being of his son. The concluding act left me awed and felt something akin to what I think Brad Bird may have been going for with Tomorrowland. This is a thoughtful science fiction movie that allows its characters space to emote, its plot room to breathe, and yet still thrills and awes on a fraction of a Hollywood budget. It shouldn’t be long before some studio finally taps Nichols to jump to the big leagues of a franchise film, but if he wanted to keep making these small, character-driven indies on his own terms, I’d die happy.

Nate’s Grade: A

Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia opens with a bang. Literally. Lars von Trier, film’s most polarizing and famous sadist, begins his movie with the ultimate spoiler alert, destroying the entire planet. Lars von Trier’s grandiose exploration of annihilation, both personal and species-level, can be maddening in how tedious the whole affair can become for long stretches. What’s even more maddening is that the movie flirts with being magnificent for other, regrettably smaller, stretches.

We open with the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard). Hours late, the couple arrives at their reception at the palatial estate that belongs to her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her husband, amateur astronomer John (Kiefer Sutherland). Over the course of one very late night, Justine will quit her job, sleep with a random wedding guest, alienate her family, and end her brief marriage, putting Kim Kardashian to shame. Several months later, Justine has been released from a hospital for clinical depression and is now living with Claire and John’s along with their young son, Leo. A tiny star in the sky has gotten larger over the ensuing months, and scientists have determined that this new planet is heading straight for Earth. Named Melancholia, this rogue space rock is predicted to pass by, but the calculations are getting closer and closer. Eventually, the truth is evident and Melancholia is on a cataclysmic collision course with Earth.

From a plot standpoint, the movie is completely lopsided. Melancholia opens with beautiful images that…. just…. keep…. going…. on…. and… on… set to thunderous Wagnerian overtures. It lets us know right away that von Trier is performing at an operatic level of melodrama. After this spoiler sequence, we jump back to the last months of Earth. The first hour of this movie is a boring wedding sequence that just seems to stretch for an eternity. You may wish that the rogue planet would show up and smash everyone to bits so we could get on with it. Justine and her groom are already several hours late because of the precarious route their limo had to take, so the fact that Justine takes frequent breaks and needs to be constantly retrieved can be draining. The hour of wedding blahs would be better time spent if I felt von Trier was laying the groundwork for characters. Little of the first hour seems to matter at all or has any lingering ramifications, which is bizarre considering the amount of personal nosedives Justine takes. It’s plain to see that Justine is unhappy and going through the motions, pretending to be happy for everyone’s benefit and maybe, just maybe, she can trick herself. What’s not plain to see is why we have to spend so much time on a room full of characters that will never be seen again. We learn so little about the characters, their relationships, and why any of this matters. The first half of this movie could have easily been condensed to 20 minutes. If the point was to test the audience’s patience, much like Justine does to her family, then bravo.

It’s that second hour where Melancholia flirts with the profound. The second half only concerns four principal characters. Unlike the first monotonous hour, there are events that actually matter and have substance to them, namely the encroaching obliteration of Earth. Having seen the pre-credit preview, we already know every life on the planet is doomed, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling the same pangs of anxiety as Claire discovers what we already know. Depression may be an elusive personal experience that not everybody can empathize with, especially when the depressed individual becomes overly taxing, but coming to terms with the end, not just your own, but of all of human history? That’s something every person can identify with. This confrontation of the inevitable can lead to some thoughtful soul-searching. This is an extinction event. There is no escape, unless you’re an astronaut (it’s now or never, lunar colonists).

Like most of us would be, Claire is terrified to die, to have all her loved ones die, but Justine is eerily placid. She feels that the Earth is evil and that “nobody will miss it.” To further drive von Trier’s bleak pessimism, Justine says there is no other life elsewhere in the universe. This is it, and it’ll all be over soon. “I just know,” she adds, unhelpfully. We watch Claire go through different stages of grief, fighting for some sense of closure, but von Trier will not allow any comforts. Gainsbourg was put through Trier’s typical emotional wringer in 2009’s unpleasant Antichrist, and here she’s really the entry point for the audience, and as such we sympathize the most with her since her reactions are so believable. It’s hard to feel like there’s any bond between these two sisters, which limits the impact of the end. Still, the end is fittingly devastating and makes me wish I had seen the beautiful destruction on the big screen, bathing in its apocalyptic splendor.

The dread of that final hour is extremely palpable, with the presence of Melancholia in the sky played almost like an art-house existential horror movie. At first we’re told by John that the scientists predict it will fly-by at roughly 60,000 miles per hour, but slowly the realization becomes clear that Melancholia is coming back with a vengeance. There’s a terrific plot point where John introduces a way to judge the planet’s movement. A wire circle is held out at arm’s reach, designed to trace around the perimeter of Melancholia. Then five minutes later the wire ring goes back up and, voila, the rogue planet has shrunken in size or gained. It’s a smart device that helps establish the momentum of doom, and it’s practical enough for the characters to perform. As Melancholia comes closer to collision, it gives off an unnerving blue glow. I started joking with my friend Alan that the movie was going to descend into a slasher-style stalker movie, with Melancholia chasing to get you like a spurned and dangerous lover (“We’ve traced the phone call. The planet is calling from inside the house!”). These attempts at levity are inevitable when the subject matter is so depressing and the nature of von Trier’s film lends itself to operatic pomposity.

von Trier’s film is quite a departure from the most disaster cinema, but sometimes its Big Statements can seem inartful and obvious. The very idea that the planet of doom in this dance of death is called Melancholia… come on. Maybe this whole thing would have been avoided had those egghead astronomers had given this rogue planet a happier name (My suggestion: “Doug.”). The metaphorical connection to Justine’s own melancholy is just inane. The planet is but a tiny speck in the sky at her wedding, and Justine is desperately trying to hold it together, and then in the second half the planet is much bigger and, surprise, so is Justine’s melancholy.

I found it hard to care about Justine and her personal demons. Depression and mental illness can be exasperating conditions, but that doesn’t mean I sympathized with her any more than the other seven billion souls destined to be incinerated. Her rejection of niceties can seem cold when all her sister wants to do is find some level of reassurance before the end is near. Dunst (Marie Antoinette) won an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance, and it’s hard for me to see why. It’s a darker, somber, more serious role for the actress, but looking tired, sullen, and impassive doesn’t come across as a fully rendered performance, more of a bad mood swing. My feelings are likely tempered by the fact that I found her character to be unbearable and agonizingly opaque

Melancholia is half of a great movie, but only half. The movie can feel a little too isolated, a little too leisurely paced, a little too pretentious. The beginning wedding sequence is like a minor endurance test, but rewards await those who carry on to the bitter end. This uneven art-house disaster movie has stunning imagery, numbing dread, and an apocalyptic grandeur, the likes of which could only come from the perverse mind of Lars von Trier. It’s beautiful and lyrical in its best moments, a cold, surrealist nightmare. The boldness of von Trier’s vision is inescapable, but I only wished he had fashioned a better story and sharper characters for his experiment in nihilism. If we’re going to spend the last few hours on Earth, I’d rather it be with people I gave a damn about.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Who the hell are you Spider-Man 3 and what have you done with the franchise I loved? After the massive financial and commercial success of first two Spider-Man chapters, my expectations had been raised fairly high. The more time that passes the more I reflect on how disappointing Spider-Man 3 sadly is. Part of my dashed hopes are because the 2004 Spider-Man sequel was a wonderful follow-up to a pretty swell introduction, and I placed that movie in my Top Ten list for the year and consider it one of the best comic book movies of all time. There’s some great popcorn entertainment to be had with Spider-Man 3, but man is this film just beside itself in wasted potential, a lack of focus, and some really poor choices.

Things are going pretty well for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). He plans on asking Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to marry him and New York City is planning a parade out of appreciation for Spider-Man. But the good times can’t last long. Harry Osborn (James Franco) has accepted his fate and become a second generation Green Goblin villain, out to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Spider-Man. But Peter also has to be on the lookout for his job at the newspaper. Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is an unscrupulous photographer out to replace Parker and nab a picture of Spider-Man caught in a bad light. An alien substance has also hitched a ride to Earth via meteorite and sought out Peter Parker. The black goo attaches itself to Peter and forms a black Spidey suit, one that gives him intoxicating power and a slimy menace. The new Peter cavalierly flirts with bouncy lab partner Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), hurts his friends, and loses his do-gooder ways.

Meanwhile Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from prison. It seems the police got it wrong and now inform Peter that Marko confessed to being the one who killed Peter’s uncle. While on the run Marko happens to tumble into an open pit that is a science experiment and becomes fused at a molecular level with sand. He uses this new power to rob banks in order to save his sick daughter at home. Peter, with the power of the alien suit, hunts the Sandman to get his own slice of sticky vengeance.

The film has way too much on its plate. There are too many characters, too many undeveloped storylines, too many coincidences, too many contrivances (Amnesia? Really? Really?), and too many aborted moments of drama. Spider-Man 3 is an undisciplined mess. The film practically stumbles from one scene to the next and lacks the coherency and intelligence of the earlier entries in the series. The third film tries to do too much and please too many interests, and as a result it may end up pleasing few fans. I had some trepidation when I learned that there was going to be upwards of three villains for this movie, but I swore that it could work since Batman Begins confidently worked around a trio of big bads. Three villains do not work in Spider-Man 3. Let me dissect this rogue’s gallery and where they fall short.

1) The Sandman is kind of a lame idea from the start. His power seems to limit his available locations, and I’m surprised that he wouldn’t stick to beach areas as a means of playing to his sandy strengths. Regardless, the character plays no part in almost anything that happens, and the Sandman is given one note to play. He’s got a sick daughter and he robs to try and pay for her medicine. That’s great on paper but it never really seems to give the character any sense of urgency or frustration. If he got special sand powers why not sneak into banks through cracks in walls instead of forming as a giant sand monster? Church attempts to imbue the character with a sad soul but he just comes across as being wooden. If he was really on the hunt for money to save his daughter then why does he just slouch around all the time? Wouldn’t it be easier to rob a city not patrolled by a web slinging super hero? How can he say he’s a misunderstood victim of luck just minutes after he tried killing Peter? He seems like a dull lunkhead. The Sandman is given a tiny wisp of character detail (sick kid!) and that’s it. He doesn’t get any other characterization and is kept on the run and pops up whenever the film needs him. He becomes a token character until the very end where Church is given 2 minutes to pour his heart out to Peter. Two minutes of character at the start, two minutes at the end, and a gaping center. The Sandman isn’t so much a character as the ideal of some issue that the filmmakers want to have Peter work through.

And what is that issue? Why vengeance and forgiveness. You see, Spider-Man 3 foolishly rewrites its own history and now it was the Sandman hat killed Peter’s Uncle Ben. This revision does not work at all and actually legitimately damages Spider-Man. Just like Bruce Wayne is tackling crime to alleviate his guilt, so too is Spider-Man, who can never shake the fact that he could have prevented his uncle’s death had he done the right thing moments before. By introducing a new killer it means that Peter has no responsibility for his uncle’s death. This completely strips away the character’s guilt and rationale for what compels him to swing from building to building to fight crime.

2) Eddie Brock/Venom is wasted as well. Director Sam Raimi has said before he’s not a fan of Venom and doesn’t get the character, and I feel that his contempt carried over into the film. Venom and the black alien goo are given about the same abysmal care as other half-baked plot points. Eddie Brock has about three total scenes before he gets to transform into Venom thanks to the alien substance, and none of these scenes fully flesh out who the character is or justify his relationship with Peter Parker. When we do see Venom in the finale its all too rushed and hokey. The effects make him look less like alien and more like a wax figurine (I suppose there could be intelligent wax life amongst the stars). For whatever dumb reason the alien suit has to retreat so we can see Grace’s face while he taunts and mocks with bad vampire teeth that are meant to inspire what exactly? The character is rushed and underdeveloped and should have been saved for the next sequel instead of being given lip service in this one. Venom is supposed to be the evil doppelganger to Spider-Man, not some smart-alleck with frosted hair that gets about 15 minutes of screen time. I like Grace, I really like him a lot and envision him as his generation’s Tom Hanks, but he does not work in this movie. He could, but I get the sneaking suspicion that Raimi sabotaged the Venom role on purpose or at least subconsciously. The villain goes out with a whimper and it feels like a giant, foolish wasted opportunity that becomes more maddening the more I discuss it. The presence of Venom feels like a shallow attempt to placate a younger generation of comic fans and to sell more action figures.

The alien goo suit is supposed to tempt Peter and bring out his wicked wild side. So what does he do? He acts like he’s auditioning for the lead in The Mask. This embarrassing sequence is painfully goofy and will make you cringe and shield your eyes. Peter flirts with girls and dances at a jazz club, and this is supposed to be the dark side of Spider-Man? What the hell? I acknowledge that Peter has always been an unpopular dork and would be a dork even if he ventured to the dark side, but how does this square with the more serious and edgier tone the film is grasping for? Evil Peter seems more like a broody emo kid, with shocks of black hair in his eyes and traces of eyeliner. The dark side of Spider-Man, much like the rest of the film, is given little time or thought. Peter’s trials with the symbiotic suit last about a reel or two and then it’s abruptly finished.

3) Harry should have been the main focus of this sequel and it?s a shame the filmmakers had to cram so much crap into a story already heavy with plot leftovers. Harry has the most obvious arc through the three movies and deserves better than to be knocked out of commission by amnesia. The conflict between Peter and Harry is where the film finds its emotional core and it would have been wise to expand this section and eliminate one of the other underutilized villains (my vote: both Venom and Sandman). Harry’s vow to avenge his father is far more interesting than what the other two villains have as motivation, and plus Harry requires no extra time-consuming setup to slow the pacing down. I’m glad the final battle encouraged Harry to come out and play; the film finally gives Franco the screen time he deserves, but it should have been more. The worst plot device in the film involves Harry’s all-knowing butler who has some vital information he most certainly should have shared years ago. So much time is spent on storylines that go absolutely nowhere, and the musical chairs of villains, that the film resorts to having a freakin’ butler tap someone on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me sir,” just to tie things up in the most awkwardly shrift way possible. And even if what the man says is true, how does his perspective add any clarity to the situation? Think about it. I have.

The romance between Peter and Mary Jane feels awfully trite and meandering. Spider-Man 3 lacks the tight focus of the second film. It throws contrivances to place a wedge in their relationship, like the fact that Mary Jane is fired from her Broadway gig but doesn’t tell Peter, or the fact that they never seem to answer the phone on time when the other person is apologetic. Gwen Stacy is less a character than simply a dimwitted blond tool to make Mary Jane jealous and sulk. The ups and downs in this relationship feel pretty forced and some moments defy all human understanding. At one point Mary Jane is forced by Harry to break up with Peter to spare both their lives. So she breaks the news in a park, and Peter is devastated, but why in the world does she never say anything again? Why would she not clear things up after time had passed to explain her actions? Spider-Man 2 ended with Peter finally getting the girl but also on a hint of doubt, and it was marvelous. Spider-Man 3 just sort of ends with everyone presumably in the same place they started.

Spider-Man 2 really succeeded on how focused it was and how it related its action with character. Spider-Man 3 has to resort to cheap and lazy devices to cover its storytelling pitfalls. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the film has to resort to a newscaster narrating our final battle where he actually asks, “Is this the end of Spider-Man?” This might be the end of the quality associated with Spider-Man.

After having spent a whole slew of words detailing in length where the film goes wrong, allow me to illustrate some of what the film does right. Whenever it sticks to action, that’s when Spider-Man 3 works, and Raimi has cooked up some wonderful whiplash-inducing action sequences. The first battle between Peter and Harry is intense and sets the film on the right path, but the action as a whole isn’t as closely tied to Peter’s domestic life and emotional troubles as it was in the other films. A high-rise rescue from a crumbling office building will stir some 9/11 memories but it is awesome to behold. The effects have improved and the swinging shots through New York look the best they ever have. The greatest moment in the film is perhaps the birth of the Sandman as he rises grain by grain from a pile of sand and attempts to reform himself. Aided by some lovely music, the moment takes on a beautiful and unexpected poignancy. This is where Raimi and the CGI wizards hit it out of the park. Nothing rivals the train sequence in Spider-Man 2, though.

It might be dangerous to say, but I feel jilted from this film and either new blood needs to be brought in or the filmmakers need more time and control to make a Spider-Man sequel worthy of its name. This is the gold standard for super hero movies and its been tarnished and sullied. Spider-Man 3 has moments to dazzle and excite but it also feels battle fatigued from carrying the dead weight of extraneous characters and half-baked storylines. There are too many balls in the air for Raimi to juggle. This Spidey chapter squeezes too many ideas in too short a space. After obliterating box-office records, Sony has stated that they plan on three more Spider-Man sequels. If this film is the tipping point, then I’m afraid of what will be swinging down the pipe in years to come.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Marie Antoinette (2006)

From its opening 80s New Wave soundtrack, you know Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a period piece like none other. The famous daughter of Francis Ford Coppola has long been planning a movie around the famous queen that lost her head during the French Revolution. She premiered it at the Cannes film festival where it was booed by the homeland critics. This cast a shadow of doubt over Coppola’s dreamy pop confection of a biopic. Maybe the French don’t like having one of their most iconic historical individuals turned into a bouncing, troubled teenager. Too bad because this is the most interesting and, later, the most frustrating accomplishment Coppola achieves.

Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is a young Austrian girl married away by her family with the hopes of strengthening an alliance between France and Austria. She’s intended to wed Louie August (Jason Schwatzman, Coppola’s cousin), a rather goofy young man more comfortable with hunting than women. Their marriage is arranged by Louis XV (Rip Torn) with the intent on keeping the family line with a male heir. Trouble is, Marie’s husband is more interested in locks than her in a nightie. She’s warned in letters by her family at home, and by a caring ambassador (Steve Coogan), that her only leverage is a child. Without a child her marriage could be annulled. Life at the Versailles palace is a vortex of gossip and attention, and the idea that the queen cannot interest the king is most stressing.

Marie Antoinette is a feast for the eyes, and that’s saying nothing about Dunst. The costumes are gorgeous, the multitudes of food look delectable, and the sets are the real deal, filmed at the actual Versailles palace for that extra oomph. I’d let them eat cake too if I got the stuff she had. Expect Marie Antoinette to at least get several Oscar nominations for its lavish technical merits; it very well might win too. There’s a really neat sequence that informs the audience through a series of family portraits about a death in the family.

Anyone looking for a strict biography on the famous queen will be left scratching their head. Coppola has thrown historical accuracy to the wind and produced a movie less about plot and character and more about an impression. She really nails the insular palace life, from its ridiculous and rigid traditions to the importance placed on blind formality. There’s a very amusing scene where Marie has to be dressed by handlers, and her clothes must keep getting swapped to the current highest-ranking person in the room. Coppola also smoothly handles this extravagant, opulent world from the point of view of her young teenage girl, betrothed by the age of 14. The world of royals and Versailles was one of constant gossip where everyone’s eyes were glued to the new girl. In many ways, Coppola’s world mirrors high school existence, just with far better clothes. When Marie is ignored yet again by her clammy husband, she goes on a wild shopping spree with fabulous shoes and fabrics in bright, sticky colors. She stays up late with a close circle of friends to watch the sun rise over the palace. Coppola firmly reminds us that Marie Antoinette was still a teenage girl and perhaps was still fighting to be one. The movie is good at stripping away the context of history and showing us the awkward lives of two kids selected to be leaders of their country. Better yet, the film is good at exploring what it?s like for teenagers to have the world at their fingertips and have no clue what to do with it. Besides shoe shopping, that is. The film is an excellent mosaic that reiterates the breezy sensation of being young and trapped in the world that never seemed big enough.

But, alas, the trouble with establishing an impression is that we get the idea pretty quickly, and yet the movie keeps going on and on without anything else to interest us. You can watch Marie lay in the field, host a tea party in her garden, marvel at sumptuous food, try on different clothes, play with her puppies, and, hell, the woman even sings an opera in one moment. I don’t know if Coppola intended to establish the tedium of life in Versailles but the audience will definitely start to feel suffocated by it. At least she never steers into a Terrence Mallick danger zone (the man would have sat in a forest with a camera in his lap and called the results a “movie”). That’s the issue with the movie. Like her 2003 Oscar-winner Lost in Translation, Coppola is more interested in mood and silence than character and plot. This approach worked splendidly in the sparely beautiful and moving Translation, but it cannot fully save this film. After a while it just all gets too repetitious and feels slight, like Lizzie McGuire’s Fabulous Versailles Vacation.

The figure of Marie Antoinette is too big to just be dressed up and put in a room. Coppola doesn’t seem to care about the politics or historical anxieties of the time. That’s a shame since France was going through one of the most amazing turnarounds in all of history. There’s no social commentary and the last quarter of the film seems to go off track. When the peasant mob does appear at the very end it feels like a misplaced subplot instead of a world-changing event. Likewise, the affair Marie Antoinette embarks on feels all too shrift and meaningless, like a high school crush of the week (might she doodle his name on her diamond-encrusted notebook?). Marie Antoinette is an interesting, ambitious period drama trying to be a youthful fantasy turned nightmare. It just doesn’t have enough going on to justify a prolonged experience.

Dunst is an actress I’ve been really hot and cold with. Sometimes she dazzles me but more often she bores me. As the title monarch, Dunst totally comes across like a vibrant teen girl still feeling out the world. She seems impetuous, sensual, and naive, all hallmarks of a growing girl that just so happens to be the queen of France. She does a lot of communication with her face. Sometimes she comes across like a silly, vapid little girl playing dress-up, but then that seems within the scope of Coppola’s aim.

Schwartzman’s portrayal makes the king look like an aloof adolescent, but he make me laugh very easily at his pained awkwardness. Judy Davis is a hoot as the palace’s liaison of policy and manners, tsk-tsk-ing whenever etiquette is broken. The rest of the cast mostly have moments but it’s surprising to me that I’d see Marianne Faithfull, Rip Torn, Molly Shannon (!), and Asia Argento in a period piece movie. Like I said, Marie Antoinette is a costume drama like none other.

Much was made about the anachronistic soundtrack of 1980s tunes set amongst the pomp and circumstance of 18th century France. I like it because it works in engineering the breezy, bubbly youthful impression Coppola wants. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal because the music is not incorporated into the story unlike 2001’s tandem Moulin Rouge and A Knight’s Tale. It provides some of the more fun moments in the movie, though at times the lyrics become all too transparent; “I Want Candy” during a spending spree, “Fools Rush In” when Marie goes to her affair, The Strokes screaming “I want to be forgotten,” as Marie runs off.

Coppola’s luscious period piece feels more like a dreamscape in a daze. Her focus relies less on linear storytelling and character than on creating an impression of youthful decadence and emptiness. Marie Antoinette manages to simultaneously be fluffy and vague. After a while it all just gets repetitious and a bit dull watching scene after scene of Marie being indulged and bored. Perhaps some of that boredom will translate over to the audience. Coppola reminds us that Marie Antoinette was still a teenage girl beneath her powdered wig and bustle, but after two hours you might wish Coppola had more on her agenda.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Elizabethtown (2005)

Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker I generally admire. He makes highly enjoyable fables about love conquering all, grand romantic gestures, and finding your voice. His track record speaks for itself: Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous (I forgive him the slipshod remake of Vanilla Sky, though it did have great artistry and a bitchin’ soundtrack). Crowe is a writer that can zero in on character with the precision of a surgeon. He’s a man that can turn simple formula (boy meets girl) and spin mountains of gold. With these possibly unfair expectations, I saw Elizabethtown while visiting my fiancé in New Haven, Connecticut. We made a mad dash to the theater to be there on time, which involved me ordering tickets over my cell phone. I was eager to see what Crowe had in store but was vastly disappointed with what Elizabethtown had to teach me.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) opens the film by narrating the difference between a failure and a fiasco. Unfortunately for him, he’s in the corporate cross-hairs for the latter. Drew is responsible for designing a shoe whose recall will cost his company an astounding “billion with a B” dollars (some research of an earlier cut of the film says the shoe whistled while you ran). His boss (Alec Baldwin) takes Drew aside to allow him to comprehend the force of such a loss. Drew returns to his apartment fully prepared to engineer his own suicide machine, which naturally falls apart in a great comedic beat. Interrupting his plans to follow career suicide with personal suicide is a phone call from his sister (Judy Greer). Turns out Drew’s father has died on a trip visiting family in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Drew is sent on a mission from his mother (Susan Sarandon) to retrieve his father and impart the family’s wishes. On the flight to Kentucky, Drew gets his brain picked by Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a cheery flight attendant. While Drew is surrounded by his extended family and their down homsey charm and eccentricities, he seeks out some form of release and calls Claire. They talk for hours upon hours and form a fast friendship and stand on the cusp of maybe something special.

I think the most disappointing aspect of Elizabethtown for me is how it doesn’t have enough depth to it. Crowe definitely wears his heart on his sleeve but has never been clumsy about it. Elizabethtown wants to be folksy and cute and impart great lessons about love, life, and death. You can’t reach that plateau when you have characters walking around stating their inner feelings all the time, like Drew and Claire do. They might as well be wearing T-shirts that explain any intended subtext. Crowe squanders his film’s potential by stuffing too many storylines into one pot, thus leaving very little attachment to any character. Elizabethtown has some entertaining details, chiefly Chuck and Cindy’s drunk-on-love wedding, but the film as a whole feels too loose and disconnected to hit any emotional highs. If you want a better movie about self-reawakening, rent Garden State. If you want a better movie about dealing with loss, rent Moonlight Mile.

This is Bloom’s first test of acting that doesn’t involve a faux British accent and some kind of heavy weaponry. The results are not promising. Bloom is a pin-up come to life like a female version of Weird Science, a living mannequin, possibly an alien with great skin, but he isn’t a real compelling actor. He has about two emotions in his repertoire. His whiny American-ized accent seems to be playing a game of tag. He’s not a bad actor per se; he just gets the job done without leaving any sort of impression. To paraphrase Claire, he’s a “substitute leading man.”

Dunst is chirpy, kooky and cute-as-a-button but is better in small doses. Her accent is much more convincing than Bloom’s. Sarandon deserves pity for being involved in Elizabethtown‘s most improbable, cringe-worthy moment. At her husband’s wake, she turns her time of reflection into a talent show with a stand-up routine and then a horrifying tap dance. Apparently this gesture wins over the extended family who has hated her for decades. Greer (The Village) is utterly wasted in a role that approximates a cameo. Without a doubt, the funniest and most memorable performance is delivered by Baldwin, who perfectly mixes menace and amusement. He takes Drew on a tour of some of the consequences of the loss of a billion dollars, including the inevitable closing of his Wildlife Watchdog group. “We could have saved the planet,” Baldwin says in the most comically dry fashion. Baldwin nails the balance between discomfort and bewilderment.

Elizabethtown wants to be another of Crowe’s smart, feel-good sentimental field trips, but it falls well short. I was dumbfounded to see how little the story progressed. It lays the groundwork for a menagerie of subplots and then, in a rush to finish, caps everyone off with some emotionally unearned payoff. To put it simply, Elizabethtown wants credit and refuses to show its work. The film is packed with characters and ideas before succumbing into an interminable travelogue of America in its closing act, but what cripples Crowe’s film about opening up to emotional growth is that the movie itself doesn’t showcase growth. We see the rough and tumble beginnings of everyone, we see the hugs-all-around end, but we don’t witness that most critical movement that takes the audience from Point A to Point B. The results are beguiling and quite frustrating. Take the subplot about Drew’s cousin, who can?t connect to his father either and wants to be friends to his own son, a shrill little terror, instead of a father. Like most of Elizabethtown‘s storylines, these subplots die of neglect until a half-hearted nod to wrap everything up. Father sees son perform and all is well. Son does little to discipline child but all is well. Elizabethtown is sadly awash in undeveloped storylines and characters and unjustified emotions, and when they’re unjustified we go from sentiment (warm and fuzzy) to schmaltz (eye-rolling and false). I truly thought Crowe would know better than this.

Crowe has always been the defacto master of marrying music to film. Does anyone ever remember people singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” before its virtuoso appearance in 2000’s Almost Famous? Crowe has a nimble ear but his penchant for emotional catharsis set to song gets the better of him with Elizabethtown. There’s just way too many musical montages (10? 15?) covering the emotional ground caused by the script’s massive shortcomings. By the time a montage is followed by another montage, you may start growing an unhealthy ire for acoustic guitar. Because there are so many unproductive musical numbers and montages, especially when we hit the last formless act, Elizabethtown feels like Crowe is shooting the soundtrack instead of a story.

Elizabethtown is an under-cooked, unfocused travelogue set to music. Crowe intends his personal venture to belt one from the heart, but like most personal ventures the significance can rarely translate to a third party. It’s too personal a film to leave any lasting power, like a friend narrating his vacation slide show. Elizabethtown is gestating with plot lines that it can’t devote time to, even time to merely show the progression of relationships. The overload of musical montages makes the movie feels like the longest most somber music video ever. Bloom’s limited acting isn’t doing anyone any favors either. In the end, it all rings too phony and becomes too meandering to be entertaining. Elizabethtown is a journey the film won’t even let you ride along for. This movie isn’t an outright fiasco but given Crowe’s remarkable track record it can’t help but be anything but a failure.

Nate’s Grade: C

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

No other movie had higher expectations than Spider-Man 2 and no other movie met and trounced those expectations than director Sam Raimi’s high-flying webslinging sequel. Spider-Man 2 was that rare sequel that excelled in near every way. The action sequences were lively and highly exciting, but what made Spider-Man 2 so thrilling was its success in building strong emotional characters. After all, how many superhero films are written by the writer of Ordinary People? (One wonders what he would have done with Catwoman) Alfred Molina, as Doc Ock, made for a great formidable foe and brought surprising humanity to the dastardly part. Spider-Man 2 was a momentous crowd-pleaser that also dazzled the hardest critics. It reaffirmed exactly what a summer popcorn film can make us feel.

Nate’s Grade: A

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

No other movie this year captured the possibility of film like Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic collaboration. Eternal Sunshine was a mind-bending philosophical excursion that also ended up being one of the most nakedly realistic romances of all time. Joel (Jim Carrey restrained) embarks on having his memories erased involving the painful breakup of Clemintine (Kate Winslet, wonderful), an impulsive woman whose vibrant hair changes as much as her moods. As Joel revisits his memories, they fade and die. He starts to fall in love with her all over again and tries to have the process stop. This labyrinth of a movie gets so many details right, from the weird physics of dreams to the small, tender moments of love and relationships. I see something new and marvelous every time I watch Eternal Sunshine, and the fact that it’s caught on with audiences (it was nominated for Favorite Movie by the People’s friggin’ Choice Awards) reaffirms its insights into memory and love. I never would have thought we’d get the perfect romance for the new millennium from Kaufman. This is a beautiful, dizzingly complex, elegant romance caked in visual grandeur, and it will be just as special in 5 years as it will be in 50, that is if monkeys don’t evolve and take over by then (it will happen).

Nate’s Grade: A

Spider-Man (2002)

Hollywood take note, Spider-Man is the prototype for a summer popcorn movie. It has all the necessary elements. It has exciting action, great effects used effectively, characters an audience can care for, a well toned story that gives shades of humanity to those onscreen, fine acting and proper and expert direction. I recommend movie execs take several note pads and go see Spider-Man (if they can get in one of the many sold out shows). What summer needs are more movies in the same vein as Spider-Man, and less Tomb Raiders and Planet of the Apes.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a dweebish photographer for his school yearbook clinging to the lowest rung of the popularity ladder. He lives with his loving Aunt and Uncle who treat him like a son. Peter has been smitten with girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) ever since he can remember, but he’s been too timid to say anything.

At a field trip to the genetically altered spider place (there’s one in every town) Peter is snapping pictures when he is bitten by one of the eight-legged creatures. He thinks nothing of it and awakes the next day to a startling change. He has no need for his rimmed glasses anymore and has a physique that diet ads would kill for. He also discovers he can cling to surfaces, jump tall building in a single bound and shoot a sticky rope-like substance from his wrists. Hairs on his palms and shooting a sticky substance from his body? Hello puberty allusion! Peter tries to use his new abilities to win the girl and when that doesn’t work out he turns to profiting from them. He enters a wrestling contest in a homemade costume and proceeds to whup Randy Savage. Following the fight Peter’s Uncle Ben is dying after being involved in a car jacking Peter inadvertently let happen. Haunted by grief Peter becomes Spider-Man and swings from building to building as an amazing arachnid crime stopper.

But every hero needs a villain, and that is personified in the Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), scientist and businessman. Osborn is experimenting with an aerial rocket glider and a dangerous growth serum. When the military threatens to cut his funding and shop elsewhere Osborn haphazardly undergoes the serum himself. What it creates is a duality of personalities; one is Norman, the other is a sinister and pragmatic one. The evil alter ego dons the glider and an exoskeleton suit and calls himself the Green Goblin. The Goblin destroys all that are in his way, and has his yellow eyes set on the pesky Spider-Man.

The casting of mopey-eyed indie actor Tobey Maguire over more commercial names like a DiCaprio or a Prinze Jr. (I shudder to think of a Freddie Prinze Jr. Spider-Man) left some people scratching their heads. Of course the casting of Mr. Mom to portray the Dark Knight likely got the same reaction in the 80s. Maguire plays the nerdish and nervous Peter Parker to a perfected awkwardness with his sensitive passivity. When he explores his new powers with exuberant abandon then begins crime fighting, we as an audience are with him every step of the way pulling for Peter.

Kirsten Dunst was also a surprising casting choice but works out very well, and I’m not even talking about how she looks as a redhead. She fills out the character and allows the audience to fall for her along with Peter. Her chemistry with Maguire is great and could be a major reason why rumors have surfaced about the two leads taking the onscreen romance off screen.

Willem Dafoe is one of the creepiest actors in the business (though he made an effective creepy-free Jesus) and delves deliciously headfirst into the cackling menace of Spider-Man’s nemesis. Dafoe, with a face that looks like hardened silly putty and jutting rows of teeth, relishes every maniacal glare and endless evil grin. But instead of being one-note he adds certain amounts of sympathy and understanding as Norman Obsorn. No one could have done this role better than Dafoe.

Director Sam Raimi was most known for his cult splatter house Evil Dead series, but he’s got a new resume topper now. Raimi was chosen over a field of directors because of his passion for the character and story. Raimi brings along integrity but with a joyous gluttony of spectacular action sequences. He expertly handles the action and daring-do all the while smoothly transitioning to the sweet love story. He has created the movie Spidey fans have been dreaming of for 40 years.

Spider-Man swings because of the respect the source material has been given, much like 2000’s X-Men. The story follows the exploits of the comic fairly well but has some stable legs of its own. The multitudes of characters are filled with life and roundness to them, as well as definite elements of humanity. You can feel the sweet romance budding between the two young stars, the tension and affection between Osborn and son, but also the struggle with Norman and his new sinister alter ego.We all know villains are the coolest part anyway. Isn’t that the only reason the last two Batman films were made?

There’s the occasional cheesy dialogue piece but there is that one standard groaner line. In X-Men it was Halle Berry’s query about what happens when lightening hits a toad. In Spider-Man it was the response to the Green Goblin’s offer to join him, to which he asked “Are you in or are you out?” (Obviously channeling George Clooney). The dreaded response: “You’re the one who’s out Goblin. Out of his mind!” Sigh. Maybe a well placed “freaking” before “mind” would have made the line better.

Spider-Man is the best kind of popcorn film: one that leaves me anxiously anticipating the sequel (which will come out two years to the day the first one was released).

Nate’s Grade: A-

Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

Satire can be a tricky mistress. It’s like a flower, you have to water it just right. Too much and it dies, too little and it dies. So if you fail to do it just right it can become a catastrophe. Drop Dead Gorgeous flirts with disaster but comes out of nowhere to become one of the funniest and dead-on movies of the summer.

The mock documentary unspools its tale of a Midwestern beauty pageant and all the action behind the scenes of small town life. The story is rich in eccentric and hilarious characters that seem to be delved straight out of the Coen brothers’ twisted imagination. Much of the humor is subtle but still very funny. Some people have said it’s too mean spirited, but all they do is poke fun at mentally handicapped people, physically handicapped people, anorexic and bulimics, pedophiles, gun owners, religious fanatics, high school cheerleaders, dog lovers, lesbians, tomboys, stage mothers, trailer park families, farmers, the deaf, police officers, news reporters, beauty queens, Asian-American families with the American dream, the deceased, sexual harassment, swans, and a world of other lampooning I’ve failed to pen.

In the grand tradition of Fargo the Minnesota accent here is thicker than your grandmother’s jam. The movie does lose a little steam toward the end 10-15 minutes that could’ve been trimmed, but I still readily enjoyed the movie. A complete surprise for myself. If you like your comedies as black as your coffee then check this one out.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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