Godzilla vs. Kong is the kind of movie where you need to question what your qualifications would be for its true entertainment value. Four films into the fledgling MonsterVerse, we’ve set up its Batman vs. Superman, its Infinity War, its climax, the biggest names on the biggest stage to settle the score once and for all. With indie director Adam Wingard at the helm, best known for peculiarly violent genre-defying movies like You’re Next and The Guest, the results with G vs. K (I’m not writing the full name every time) strictly fall into the realm of dumb fun. It’s up to you which of those categorical designations will reign supreme, the dumb or the fun.
The gigantic 100-foot tall ape Kong is being kept in a caged atrium by the Monarch organization. Godzilla is running amuck and attacking a shady company that may have a shady conspiracy afoot. Kong and Godzilla are two alpha predators, the last known titans, and it’s believed that Godzilla is seeking out Kong to put him down for good. The government is trying to protect its great ape, figure out why the big lizard is acting up, and maybe explore this kooky Hollow Earth theory. There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned any human character names because, once again, they don’t really matter.
This movie is going to entirely depend on how much your love of monster brawls can, essentially, push aside crazy, incoherent plotting and meaningless human characters. If you’re the kind of fan going to G vs. K and expecting nothing else than bruising knockdown fights that decimate the landscape and ensure untold death, no matter how many times we’re told the entire city of Hong Kong has miraculously evacuated in minutes, then the movie delivers. There are three big brawls and each one of them is satisfying and has a weighty quality to them; they really do feel like heavyweight title fights, with each side giving it their all and then some. It’s an epic showdown and we demand the best from this clash of the titans, and Wingard comes alive during these sequences, finding stylish ways to demonstrate and develop the carnage so that the brawls feel unique rather than stale. Each of the three major battles takes place in a different location and uses that environment to its advantage when developing its action particulars. The first bout is at sea and Kong is chained to the galley of a warship, so Godzilla capsizes the ship, attempting to drown Kong. The water is also a far more friendly place for Godzilla, with Kong forced to jump from ship to ship like platforms in an old school video game. The rematch takes place in downtown Hong Kong and offers the traditional metropolitan cataclysm we’ve come to expect from disaster escapades (again, with vague reminders that somehow all these buildings are empty). Godzilla’s fire breath becomes a laser field that Kong must avoid with drastic escapes. Wingard’s camera finds fun ways to communicate the back and forth, at one point seemingly attached to the monsters as they pummel and move, like an arty Darren Aronofsky film. He finds ways to make two age-old creatures fighting still appear visually fresh and exciting. When the creatures are slugging it out, G vs. K is at its best as big-budget popcorn escapism.
I also must applaud that filmmakers that, four movies in, we finally have monster fights where the audience can see what is happening. 2014’s Godzilla reboot kept teasing the big lizard and giving glimpses, a foot there, a closing door here, that built anticipation but also tried audience patience. My biggest complaint was I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie, and 2019’s King of the Monsters answered this complaint, providing four different monsters to duke it out for monster supremacy. However, the supernatural slug-fests were undercut by sequences that were hard to see. Whether it was in the rain, at night, in a blizzard, in the fog or smoke, it was hard to tell what was happening because of all the annoying visual obfuscation. We had more monster fights, yes, but they weren’t that much easier to see than in 2014. Thankfully, this movie seems like a direct response to that chief criticism. The big fights take place entirely during the day, and not only that, it’s clear and even sunny, making sure we can soak up every loving CGI detail of these two giant pretend creatures having their big pretend rumble. It may sound like I shouldn’t be too congratulatory for a franchise that dares to allow its paying customers to actually see the spectacle that they paid to see, but after several other films of mitigating results, I’m happy we at least can enjoy the big brawls after so much build-up and delayed gratification.
But if you expect more from a versus film other than predicated pugilism from your preferred participants, then G vs. K is going to disappoint. It is a vast understatement to say that this movie is extremely loony. It is so goofy that you will either shrug and go with the silly twists and turns, or you’ll be like several of my friends, and my girlfriend, who just stared stupefied and shook their heads, muttering how much more crazy-pants bananas things could possibly get.
For a franchise that started fairly grounded in 2014 from a science standpoint, and whose sequels have more or less hewn to that tonal vision, G vs. K says, “Hey, what if we…,” and injects whatever it deems might be insane and awesome, like an improv game that never meets resistance. Whatever you may be prepared for, this movie goes deeper and crazier. It literally goes to the center of the Earth and back. If I were to describe the parameters of the final fight, it would sound like I was drunk or needing of mental check-ups from concerned loved ones. It feels like the Asylum version of what a Godzilla and Kong match-up would be, and by that I refer to the low-budget studio known for its schlocky knockoffs and crazy all-you-can-eat buffet-style sci-fi plotting. There’s one solution that literally involves dumping alcohol onto a computer. Again, maybe your exact sensibilities will be a match for this wilder, sillier tonal wavelength; maybe you felt the earlier MonsterVerse entries took themselves too seriously. I’ll readily admit that they devoted far too much time to human drama I felt was, no pun intended, irritatingly small-scale. 2017’s Kong: Skull Island is the high watermark for this monster cinematic universe, and definitely better than you remember, and it didn’t take itself too seriously but found an agreeable baseline that allowed the film to have its spectacle while holding the human drama to be meaningful and entertaining itself. The movie was stylish, fun, and your brain didn’t melt when the big creatures were off-screen for long duration.
With G vs. K, any sense of established connectivity with the other movies is thrown out the window. Sure, there are faces that reappear (hey, Millie Bobby Brown), but they might as well be new characters. Even more than that, the tone of the movie is shifted so forcefully into self-parody, cheesy ludicrousness, including a spaceship serving as a moving defibrillator and psychic skulls, that it’s hard to take anything remotely seriously. I can already hear some detractors saying why should a movie about a giant ape fighting a giant lizard ever be taken seriously, and maybe you’re right you detractor you, but every movie needs an established baseline to provide a foundation of what is real, what is meaningful, and what is exceptional. If everything is crazy, it makes the monster action seem more mundane, and if anything can happen at any moment, it makes the plotting less important of careful setups and development, and satisfaction will be capped.
If you’re just looking for a movie about a giant ape punching a giant lizard with top-notch special effects, well Godzilla vs. Kong has that aplenty, and if that’s enough for you, then enjoy. It’s far more of a Kong sequel with the occasional special appearance from Godzilla, so if you’re more a fan of the big lizard you may be a little miffed at the big guy being a second banana. The action is fun and splashy, and I wish I watched this titanic title match on the big screen where it belongs, and I’ll admit that likely has dulled some of my experience. The sharp tonal shift for the MonsterVerse, and the escalating silliness that climaxes into insanity is either going to be selling point or a breaking point for every viewer. You’ll either rock with glee and happy that this franchise has finally evolved into the schlocky spectacle you’ve been dying for, or you’ll be trying to hang on to the silly, over-the-top plotting to orient your staggered senses. Godzilla vs. Kong is everything the title suggests and little else, and for many that will be enough. For me, I think it kind of lost me somewhere between here and Albuquerque.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Midnight Sky is really two sci-fi survival movies in one. In 2040, the world is experiencing a planet-killing ecological disaster. A team of astronauts, lead by a pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones), is returning from a multi-year mission to check if a moon of Jupiter is habitable. On Earth, Augustine (George Clooney with a Santa beard) is the lone scientist left at an Arctic research station. He has cancer and sees his life as having run its course, that is, until he finds a small girl (Caoilinn Springall) who missed being evacuated. They band together to brave the wintry, poisonous elements to travel to another outpost to better communicate with the returning astronauts and possibly secure an escape from this dying world. It sounds like it should be a very exciting and interesting movie. There are even sinking ice floes, space walks amidst deadly asteroids, and Augustine having to stop at points lest he overtax his frail body. In practice, the movie isn’t so much exciting as it is ponderous, grasping for a larger philosophy and existential meaning that seems entirely elusive. We’re treated to several flashbacks of a young Augustine (different actor but still voiced by Clooney) that seem superfluous until a grand reveal that made me audibly groan so loud I thought my neighbors would complain. I kept waiting for the relevancy between the stories to be demonstrated, and when it happened it was not worth the two-hour wait. The realization was so hokey that it retroactively made me dislike the movie’s moments that had been working earlier. As far as direction, this might be one of Clooney’s strongest turns as a visual storyteller, even if he borrows liberally from other recent sci-fi movies, notably Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar. There are moments of stark beauty and terror. Ultimately, the whole movie amounts to a sad man taking stock of his life and legacy (is he a metaphor for the Earth? Is the Earth a metaphor for him?), and I’m still wondering how something this glum could also be so maudlin. The pacing is another issue. I was always eager to jump to the other storyline to see what they were doing (a cinematic “grass is greener” mindset). The acting is fine and I wish I could have spent more time getting to know the crew of this space mission (including Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone) or conversely gotten to feel more of bond between Augustine and his near-mute charge that felt like it was providing insight into this man. Looking back, there’s a reason for some of the stilted characterization, but having an excuse for why your characters aren’t better developed is like preparing an excuse why you did something self-sabotaging. The rest of The Midnight Sky doesn’t better compensate for this storytelling choice, and so the movie feels too dull, frustrating, opaque, and overly manipulative, aided and abetted by Alexandre Desplat’s sappy score. No more than the sum of its parts, you can soon watch The Midnight Sky on Netflix and fall asleep to it on your own couch.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the sequel to 2014’s American re-launch, and the biggest complaint I had with that other film was how frustratingly coy it was with showing Godzilla. I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie, and King of the Monsters at least understands this need and supplies many of the most famous kaiju in the franchise, like Mothra, Rodan, and the three-headed King Ghidorah. The human drama is just as boring with characters I have a hard time caring about. Vera Farmiga plays a scientist who lost a child during the 2014 monster brawl in San Francisco. She develops a sonar device to communicate and domesticate the giant monsters (now totaling 17 plus). She and her teen daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by eco terrorists that want to… destroy the world and leave it back to the ancient monsters? It’s a bit jumbled. I felt more for a monster than I did any living person. The plot does just enough to fill in time between the monster battles, which can be fun but are also lacking a few key items. Firstly, the sense of scale is lost. That’s one thing the 2014 film had in spades, the human-sized perspective of how enormous these beasts are. Also the fight scenes are shot in pretty dark environments that can make things harder to watch. There is a simple pleasure watching two giant monsters duke it out on screen, and King of the Monsters has enough of these to satisfy. It’s still a flawed monster mash but at least it sheathes the itch it was designed for, and if you’re a Godzilla fan and feeling generous, that might be enough to justify a matinee with a few of your favorite fifty-story pals.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.
What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.
Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.
I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.
As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.
First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.
Nate;s Grade: B-
Very funny and surprisingly satisfying, Game Night is a comedy thriller that further cements my appreciation for the comedic prowess of writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Horrible Bosses). The premise about a group of couples on a wild “game night” they don’t know is real seems like it could go wrong in so many different ways, chiefly being unable to sustain its premise. Fortunately, the film is filled with strong characters who are each given a moment to shine. Jason Bateman and a loose Rachel McAdams are fun as our lead couple, and they’re even better when they’re bouncing off one another, but the real star of the movie is a hilarious Jesse Plemons (Hostiles) as a creepily intense neighbor. Plemons will hold onto certain jokes, taking something that was funny and pushing it into an even funnier, more awkward place. The comic set pieces are well developed and clever, set up earlier and allowed to go in unexpected directions to better complicate matters. While the movie is clearly a riff on David Fincher’s The Game, with some sly visual nods to Fincher’s signature style, the jokes don’t get lost when the action heats up. A good action-comedy makes sure that the action or suspense sequences are still constructed through the prism of comedy. I was laughing often and surprisingly hard throughout the whole movie. Game Night is a wickedly fun movie that has plenty of rewards and enjoyable surprises.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Trauma and grief are common colors in the palette of screenwriting. Wounded men and women overcoming loss and sorrow allow us all an opportunity to learn and heal through someone else’s personal pain and suffering. It’s the movie theater as therapist’s office with art serving as catalyzing event to help those in need. When 2006’s United 93 was released many critics thought it was too soon for a dramatic recreation of the events of 9/11. First, there’s never a right estimation for how long the world of art should wait to respond to shared tragedy, but I argued that United 93 could function as a facilitator for healing for select moviegoers. It helps to be able to live vicariously through fictional characters on screen, and it makes us smile when they overcome those obstacles and give hope to the rest of us. Two new movies have taken very different paths to explore responses to trauma onscreen. Collateral Beauty is a star-studded affair built from a screenplay that sold for an estimated three million dollars. Manchester by the Sea premiered at the Sundance film Festival and blew away audiences with its understated and unsentimental portrait of loss. One of these movies goes big and miscalculates badly and the other delivers one of the better, more emotionally involving films of the year. I think once you hear the premises it’ll be clear which is which.
In Collateral Beauty, Howard (Will Smith) is an advertising guru still reeling two years later from the unexpected death of his six-year-old daughter. He’s become a hermit who furiously rides his bicycle into traffic to tempt fate. He shuns his old friends and minority partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena). He also writes angry letters to the concepts of Death, Time, and Love to note his general displeasure. Major accounts are lost because of Howard’s seclusion and now it looks like the whole company might go under unless they accept a stock buyout. Howard refuses to sign off on the purchase, which forces his trio of friends to hire struggling actors to play “Death” (Helen Mirren), “Time” (Jacob Latimore), and “Love” (Keria Knightley). These three personified concepts will converse with Howard to provide an unorthodox therapeutic breakthrough. The actors will be paid handsomely and they relish the challenge. If that doesn’t work, they will record his public feuds with the actors, digitally erase the actors, and make it seem like he’s gone crazy with grief. Along the way, Howard gets closer and closer to talking about his loss in a support group run by the saintly Madeleine (Naomie Harris), a woman also suffering the loss of her child. If the universe is all about making connections, Howard is on a collision course with the fates.
Few films have dropped in estimation so precipitously in my mind as Collateral Beauty. To its credit, while you’re watching the movie you don’t notice as many of the misguided manipulations from prolific screenwriter Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, Just Go with It). You’re aware of their presence but they don’t remove you from the movie, that is, until you extend further thought on the full implications. Allow me to simply vocalize in print the Christmas Carol-esque premise of this “feel good” holiday movie.
“A group of wealthy advertising executives scheme to get their grieving mentor and friend declared mentally incompetent so they can sell their company. They hire duplicitous actors to pose as metaphysical concepts, engage with Howard in public, and then they will digitally erase the presence of the actors, making it look like Howard fits the lazy man’s definition of crazy. And these people are the heroes.”
The characters give plenty of rationalizations for why they’re forced to set up their supposed friend, mostly about saving the company and saving jobs. Simon especially needs the money and medical insurance with where he’s headed. Howard is spiraling and they worry that he will take down everyone with him. That’s fine, but why do they resort to the outlandish and ethically dubious practices that they do? The hiring of actors seems like a helpful therapeutic exercise on the surface, unless you stop and think about a grieving man badgered by an antagonistic universe. Howard is already exemplifying mentally unsound behavior so I don’t know why the public spats are required. The digital erasure constitutes explicit fraud and it feels so much grosser. It’s an expensive step to provide visual evidence of a man having a nervous breakdown. They could have simply recorded Howard in his office for a week while he builds elaborate domino structures just to watch them topple (symbolism!). Even the characters call-out one another for this gaslighting trick. On another note, won’t Howard eventually find out? What if some enterprising digital effects editor has a moral crisis and confesses? This is the equivalent of false documents forged to push the rich old lady into the booby hatch so her scheming relatives could abscond with her vast fortune. It’s even more egregious when Collateral Beauty presents these characters as the heroes. Yes they have different degrees of guilt but that is tamped down by their moral relativism justifications. It makes it a little harder to swallow all that outpouring of cloying sentiment later. These murky and misguided manipulations will symbolize much that is wrong with the movie.
I hope the audience is prepared for Smith to be sidelined for much of the movie because Howard is more a supporting character in someone else’s story. Howard is really more a catalyst than a fully developed character. He grieves, he suffers, but his point is how his grief and suffering affect others, which is a strange tact to take. His journey is quite similar to Casey Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea. He must come to terms with loss, accepting the cruelty of that reality in order to move forward and let others in. Moving on doesn’t mean we forget, especially when that trauma is a loved one’s loss, and Howard holds onto that pain for so long as a means to still feel his daughter’s presence. It’s an acceptable character conceit but it flounders in the movie because EVERYONE simply talks at Howard. Smith’s asked to be teary-eyed and mute for most of the picture. Any significant breakthroughs, developments, or even passing of information occurs from others applying meaning to this sad silent man who must not remain sad.
As a result, the movie pumps up the supporting characters and pairs them with one of the actors. “Death” relates with Simon for him to accept his declining health and to allow his family to know. “Time” relates with Claire over her worry that she’s sacrificed starting a family by prioritizing her career (this is another film world where nobody puts serious consideration into adoption). I need to stop and question this particular storyline. Doesn’t it feel a bit tacky and outdated? It’s also, by far, the storyline with the least attention; we literally see Claire glance at a sperm donor brochure and website for a scant few seconds and that’s it. Then there’s “Love” who relates with Whit to try and get him to repair his relationship with his rightfully angry young daughter after Whit cheated and broke up his marriage. “Love” literally just goads Whit to actually try being a parent and accept some responsibility for his failings. That’s it, and she has to use the incentive of a date to convince him to try and be a better father (Whit sloppily hitting on “Love” definitely lays a plausible peak into why exactly he’s divorced). “Death” and Simon play out the best mostly because Mirren is impishly amusing, and also benefits from naturally being Helen Mirren, and Pena’s character is given the most sincerity. He has the most at stake personally and setting things right for his family is taking a toll. Loeb has given each actor something to do, and the talents of the actors are enough that I was distracted from the overall machinations at least until the very end.
For most of its relatively brief running time, Collateral Beauty has kept to its own form of internal logic and avoided blatantly manipulative calculations for heightened drama. Sure Pena’s first instance of movie cough is an obvious telegraph to more astute members of the audience, but it makes some sense since this is less our real world and more the well-sculpted Movie World. Then the final ten minutes play out and the movie doesn’t just skid, it steers into this skid of counterfeit sentiment. I’ll refrain from spoiling both of the major reveals but they both serve to make you rethink everything. It’s not one of those eye-opening twists but more something my pal Eric and I were dreading in our seats, mumbling to ourselves, “Please please don’t.” These final two reveals are completely unnecessary. They disrupt the tenuous reality of the movie and the balance of tones becomes a mess. It also divulges how overly constructed the screenplay really was, designed to lead an audience to these chosen end points that don’t engender catharsis. It’s about pointing out how clever the screenplay was rather than the emotional journey, a movie in service of its twists. Neither twist serves strong narrative purpose other than to be out-of-the-blue surprises.
Let’s get to that ungainly and clunky title. It’s a nonsense pairing of words that’s meant to sound profound but is really just confusing and remains so even though the characters repeat this clumsy phrase like eight times. There’s a conversation where it appears in every sentence, as if repetition alone can make this phrase/idea successfully stick. It doesn’t. I think I understand what it means, or at least what Loeb was going for, but I’m not sure. Madeleine talks about making sure to see all the collateral beauty in the universe, but is this merely a more obtuse way of restating Wes Bentley’s floating plastic bag declaration in American Beauty? Is it a more pretentious way of saying to stop and smell the roses? Here’s where I thought it was going with its meaning: “collateral” in this sense means accompanying and instead of accompanying damages we’re focused on the accompanying beauty, therefore a contemplation of the possible unintended helpful ramifications. This was going to make sense for Madeline since she uses her personal tragic experience to reach out and help others heal through their own tragedies. It’s the long ripples of human kindness reaching out far beyond our initial actions. And maybe, juts maybe, Howard and Madeleine would become romantically linked through coping with their similar heartache and find one another. However, the movie’s real ending torpedoes this interpretation. What we’re left with is a clunky pairing of words that still makes little sense by film’s end.
Collateral Beauty is probably the best-looking Hallmark movie you’ll see at the theaters this holiday season. It’s a gauzy and manipulative endeavor packed with movie stars doing their sad and redemptive best before hopefully cheering you up. There’s nothing that can’t be overcome with a good group of friends who only want what’s best for you while they take part in a criminal conspiracy to defraud you of your business stakes. That’s because even the most nefarious of behaviors can be forgiven with the right actor to provide a twinkle of the eye, a little swooning musical score to tell the audience how and when to feel, and the backdrop of lightly swirling snowfall. It’s a universe that refuses to allow Will Smith to stay sad and so it intervenes. Collateral Beauty has its draws, namely its core of great actors who each find some point of emotional grounding to their character’s plight. The finest actor in the movie is Harris (Moonlight) who radiates tremendous empathy and a bittersweet serenity. I’d watch the movie from her perspective. To Loeb’s credit, the movie is more grounded and less fanciful than its premise could have lead. It doesn’t sink to the depths of a Seven Pounds (“Do not touch the jellyfish”). Waterworks are shed all around, hugs are evenly distributed, and I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a lump or two in my throat by film’s end. However, its emotional journey doesn’t feel anywhere as revelatory as Manchester by the Sea.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is living out an ordinary existence as a Boston apartment complex maintenance man. His routine is rudely interrupted when he receives news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has fallen deathly ill. On the car ride north to Manchester, Joe passes away. Guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is entrusted to Lee much to his shock. “I was just supposed to be the back-up,” he says to himself to little avail. Lee wants to move back to Boston with his new ward but Patrick refuses, pleading that he already has a life in town he enjoys. Lee is itchy to leave because of his painful associations with his hometown, tracing back several years to a fateful night of tragedy he shared with his current ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee takes on the mantle of parent while trying to ignore the trauma he’s doing his very best to ignore with every fiber of his working-class Bostonian being.
The first impression from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s movie is just how achingly authentic it feels. We drop in on the lives of these hardscrabble folks and glean important details as we progress, better forming a clear picture as to why they carry such pain with them as penance. In simplistic terms, it’s a two hour-plus journey to reach a point where the main character can openly cry. It’s also much more than that. It’s an incisive character piece on grief and tragedy, a surprisingly funny movie, and an effortlessly engaging movie that swallows you whole with its familiar rhythms of life. There is no formula here for Lonergan. Each fifteen-minute sequence opens the movie up again for further re-examination, especially a middle passage that is truly devastating. It provides compelling evidence why Lee has decided to become a recluse drifting through life. It’s not that Lee is lonely; he’s actively disengaged from all communities and connections. There are three different potential openings with women who seemed flirty and interested that Lee could have capitalized upon, or at least pursued, but he does not. A woman spills a beer on his shirt and squeezes closer to apologize, pleading to buy him a drink. He coolly looks away, ignoring her, and instead chooses to wait until closing time so he can get into a drunken fight instead. Lee would rather feel pain than momentary pleasure.
The movie is also a poignant father/son relationship told in waves, with as much humor as emotional breakdowns. Lee is trying to fix the situation the best way he can as if it was another clogged drain. He’s thrust into a parental position that he doesn’t feel fits. It’s not that he’s actively evading responsibility as he does try to accommodate his nephew, even driving him back and forth and covering for one of his two girlfriends to sleep over. Lee cannot work in his hometown because of his own lingering pain and also because nobody will give him a job thanks to the reputation he carries. For a long while it feels like Patrick isn’t even registering the death of his father except for his distress at the thought of his father’s body remaining in a freezer until the ground thaws for a burial. He’s trying to live a normal teenage life filled with activity like band practice, hockey practice, and juggling some alone time with his two girlfriends. He seems like a normal teenager with a normal teenage attitude, and that flies in the face of our expectations. Hedges (Kill the Messenger) provides a nice dose of awkward comedy to keep the movie from drowning in sadness. The burgeoning relationship between Lee and Patrick takes on new familial elements and dynamics and each is feeling out that new role. This movie is more than an elegant bummer.
Lonergan has only directed two movies prior to Manchester, both of them insightful, complex character studies with meaty parts for game actors. 2000’s You Can Count on Me cemented the wide appeal and remarkable talents of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Then his follow-up, the criminally underseen Margaret, ran afoul with producers who wanted to trim its near three-hour running time. It was kept in limbo for five long years until 2011 where it met with a degree of fervent critical fandom, including yours truly. Manchester began as a starring vehicle for producer Matt Damon, but when scheduling conflicts got in the way, the project was reworked with Affleck in the lead and Lonergan told the story his creative impulses desired without studio interference. As a big fan of his previous directorial outings, I’m not surprised by the gripping results. He lets an audience draw conclusions from the impressions and pieces he offers, notably with Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) who he refers to as “not an alcoholic anymore.” There isn’t one big obvious scene but we’re given enough pointed clues about Patrick’s history with his mother and why Lee is adamant that his nephew does not live with his mother. The history of characters and their relationships follow this model, layering in further meaning as we continue at a safe distance in our seats. Things aren’t spelled out as they are allowed to breathe, the furtive connections becoming perceptible in time like a message written in the fog of a window. Lonergan has great affection for his characters and their flaws, insecurities, and struggles. This was evident in Margaret where the title character (vividly played by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin) was a teenager exploding with emotions, opinions, and thoughts and Lonergan celebrated her for this fact. I appreciate Lonergan’s refusal to paint in broad strokes with all of his characters.
This is Affleck’s (The Finest Hours) movie and while good the more extroverted performers around him overshadow him. Affleck can be a gifted actor as evidenced with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He has a quiet intensity and a habit of burrowing inside himself to discover something raw and different. His performance feels like he’s trapped in a PTSD shield that saps the life from him. He’s drifting through his life and waiting to die, simply put. Because of his taciturn nature he doesn’t garner any sizeable monologues to spill out all his feelings. He has to use little moments and the nuances of choosing his words carefully. When he tells Patrick “I can’t beat it” those words are loaded with meaning that he can only convey in subtext. When he stops to process that Randi has gotten pregnant from another man we notice the subtle registration of pain and regret, a twinge of memories he’s trying to hold back. Affleck’s performance is very subdued for most of the movie but it’s in the final act where he cannot maintain his well-manicured bubble of resistance to the outside world. When Lee does start to cry, it will earn every ounce of your sympathy.
Williams (My Week with Marilyn) is more presence than character in the movie, but when she does stay long enough she leaves an emotionally gut-wrenching impression. I understand that “gut-wrenching” is a pejorative term but it’s really one of the more uplifting moments in the movie. That’s because her character’s reunion with Lee isn’t one of enmity but reconciliation, allowing her to make amends and say plenty of things that she’s been holding back for years. It’s an unburdening and once Williams starts it’s hard not to feel the flow of tears coming from your own eyes. She is a one-scene wonder, reminiscent of Viola Daivs in 2008 for Doubt, nominated for Best Supporting Actress and well deserving a win for one brilliantly acted scene. Fitting then that Davis looks to be Williams’ chief competition for Supporting Actress this year. I invested even more in this scene because the power of Randi’s emotional honesty almost pulls Lee out. He’s shaking, his voice cracking, and trying to stick to saying the customary conversational tokens that have gotten him through to this point. He’s avoiding confronting reality but the sheer emotive force of Randi almost pushes him to that genuine breakthrough.
If there is one noticeable drawback to such an exquisitely rendered film, it’s that it follows the narrative structure of real life perhaps a bit too faithfully. Life doesn’t normally follow a three-act structure with clearly defined character arcs and a carefully orchestrated system of measured payoffs. While Manchester by the Sea isn’t exactly an automatic entry in mumblecore paint drying, it’s certainly less indebted to familiar story structure, which does affect the overall motor of the story. You don’t have a strong sense of its overall direction, an end point, and while the pacing isn’t glacial it can start to feel bogged down in those wonderful New England details of everyday mundane life (how many times do we need to see Lee driving?). There are also probably more flashbacks than necessary to flesh out the characters in an implicit manner. If the movie wasn’t 137 minutes I might accuse it of padding its running time. It doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film but you feel a certain loss of structure and payoff. In contrast, Collateral Beauty is entirely reliant upon plot machinations and a formula serving a very Hollywood-styled ending. Sometimes maybe an audience would prefer a little more of a driving force and a little more oomph for an ending. While certainly lacking in just about every factor, I’d say that Collateral Beauty does feel more climactic with its conclusion than Manchester, which sort of rolls to a close that makes you say, “Oh, I guess that’s it then.” Sometimes realism can profit from a judicious nudging. Then again with Manchester it’s more the journey and Collateral Beauty is all about the destination.
While ostensibly being about two men overcoming the loss of someone close to them to function in everyday society once more with meaningful personal relationships, there’s quite a wide divide between Collateral Beauty and Manchester by the Sea. One represents a more calculated and morally dubious reflection of trauma as a theatrical game leading to Big Twists that are meant to leave an audience swooning from the magic of reconciliation. While fairly grounded on its own terms for a far majority of its time, Collateral Beauty can’t help itself and steers into a ditch of bad plotting, made even worse by the fact that it puts so much significance on its preposterous final destination. It manages to cheapen the movie as a whole in retrospect as an elaborate parlor trick that rivaled what the ethically challenged heroes of the tale were perpetrating. On the other side, Manchester by the Sea is a carefully observed and intimate portrait of grief and the consequences of self-destructive detachment from a larger world of compassion. The acting is terrific and lived in, authentic to its core and stuffed with meaningful details that Lonergan leaves to his audience to formulate. However, some of its indie auteur sensibilities do have a somewhat negative impact on the pacing and ultimate conclusive nature of the movie. It’s not that the film is open-ended; it’s just a “life goes on” kind of ending that doesn’t exactly inspire the strongest feelings of satisfaction. Grief will always be a topic that attracts filmmakers and especially actors because of its inescapable drama, stakes, and general relatabilty. I only implore any readers that if you’re trusting filmmakers with two hours of your emotion, make sure they earn that privilege.
Collateral Beauty: C
Manchester by the Sea: A-
Have you ever watched a movie that was so understated you wanted to jump into the onscreen world and push the characters around? That’s exactly how I felt with Carol, an unrequited lesbian romance set against the closeted and intolerant era of 1950s America. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a rich wife who meets Therese (Rooney Mara), a department store employee who assists with her Christmas shopping. They are both drawn to one another in the strange way that love works, and their possible relationship could jeopardize Carol’s custody of her young child. Because of the time period, so much of this romantic liaison is internalized and thus we get longing looks, small gestures that are meant to speak volumes, and plenty of starting and stopping, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks. I don’t have an issue with unrequited romances but Carol is one that feels like its entire world, painstakingly recreated, has been placed under glass for study. There’s no passion evident throughout the movie and I was left wondering what exactly Therese saw in Carol and vice versa. Neither woman has a particularly strong personality, though that could be a side effect of having to live publicly as a different person. I couldn’t get into them as characters and so felt little interest in seeing them together, which made the constant circling and nervous indecision even more belabored. Blanchett and Mara are quite good and director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There) handles the material with respectful subtlety, I just wish that Carol could have shaken off some of that subtlety and given me a better reason to care about these women. It’s understated to death.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Martin Scorsese. The greatest living filmmaker on the planet. Enough said. When his latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, was pushed back due to an editing crunch, the rumor mill started as it normally does. Are there problems? Is it any good? Will it be forgotten this late into the awards season? While I can’t speak for the Academy, but for me The Wolf of Wall Street just about blows every competing movie out of the water this season. It’s brash, exhilarating, uproarious, mesmerizing, and just about every other adjective you can fetch from a dictionary. This is first-class filmmaking from a master, and consider Wolf of Wall Street the white-collar companion piece to Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece, Goodfellas. It’s that good, folks.
Based on his memoirs, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rises on Wall Street from a rookie stock trader to the king of his own empire. From the late 80s to the 90s, Jordan assembles a cutthroat team that knowingly sells lousy stocks to gullible investors and stuffing their pockets with hefty commissions. “Better there money was with me. I knew how to spend it better,” he admits. His closest friend and business partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), literally quits his job to work for Jordan after spying one of his pay stubs. The guys start their own firm, specializing in high-pressure sales and on penny stock commissions. From there, they expand and expand until they’re making their own noise on Wall Street. The trading floor more closely resembles a frathouse party, complete with chimp, strippers, marching bands in their underwear, midget tossing, and other objectionable behavior. Jordan easily succumbs to the sex and drugs of the high-finance world of money, leaving his plain wife for Naomi (Margot Robbie), a gorgeous underwear model. He’s got a giant estate, a huge yacht, his own helicopter, and more money than he can spend. He’s also got the attention of the FBI and Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). With the feds circling in, Jordan has to take extra steps to keep the good times rolling.
With a running time exactly one minute shy of three hours, it’s easy to call The Wolf of Wall Street self-indulgent and excessive, except that’s exactly the point. The movie is an orgy of unchecked male ego, a perverse bacchanal of Earthly pleasures that Caligula might blushingly admire. They are literally two orgies depicted in the movie and plenty of thrust-heavy sexual congress (I counted eight walkouts in my theater, most of them the little old lady variety). Here is a tilt-o-wheel of madness. These people were living like there was no tomorrow, had more money than they knew what to possibly do with, and would figuratively dance while Rome burns (in this instance, the stability of the U.S. economy). What’s important is to communicate that these individuals were having the time of their lives. It wasn’t just the hedonistic pleasures and the mountains of drugs; it was the power, the uninhibited embrace of a life available via poorly regulated capitalism. Many of those brokers in Jordan’s company were people from ordinary backgrounds. Their self-made success (that wasn’t so much earned as swindled) is a point of pride that fills them with purpose. They are seizing their full potential. There is no doubt in my mind that every broker in this movie would do it all again in a heartbeat. There is no remorse on display anywhere. The only remorse is having the ride unceremoniously end. “Was it obscene? Yeah it was obscene. In the normal world,” Jordan narrates. “And who wants to live there?”
I won’t say that there aren’t scenes and moments that could have been trimmed, but I was enjoying myself way too much to care about the bloat. This is the fastest three hours you’ll ever experience in your life. There’s some fat, yes, but man does this picture just move along like a freight train. The screenplay by Terence Winter (creator of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is impeccably drawn. The movie just courses with energy and watching it is often an exhilarating rush, communicating the highs the characters are undergoing. The supporting players are used to great effect to punctuate the comedy moment to moment. I loved Rob Reiner’s exasperated and profane performance as Jordan’s father. Naturally the bad behavior is entertaining in how absurd and over-the-top it can get, but one key sequence ranks up there with the finest sequences Scorsese has ever put to film. It’s the “Lemon” sequence, named after a legendarily potent batch of Quaaludes. It is a sequence of pure movie bliss, brilliantly edited and staged, as Jordan is placed in a precarious position when the drugs kick in, and his comic floundering is riotous. Winter and Scorsese have taken what, in other hands, could have been a modern American tragedy and decided to portray it as a darkly comic fantasia. I laughed long and hard throughout the movie. There are numerous scenes I can think back on and start laughing again. The ridiculous nature of moments, like discussing the logistics of tossing midgets at a dart board (“This is their gift”) is to be expected, but it’s the overall degenerate lifestyle these clowns chase after with impunity that kept me laughing.
I’ve read cantankerous critiques of the film, chastising Scorsese for celebrating the lavish lifestyle and excessive hedonism of his characters. I could not disagree with this appraisal more. The error is assuming that witnessing Jordan behaving badly is akin to celebrating it, as if adopting the perspective of our lead is the same as excusing his actions. Scorsese makes it clear early, and often, that Jordan Belfort is not a good person. Hopefully you don’t need him hitting his wife for this point to stick. This guy is fleecing people out of their life savings, living high off the fat of the land, and openly admitting to the camera how deeply illegal his activities are. But you’re under his spell, much like his brokers that worship him with unflinching zeal. Jordan, especially as portrayed by DiCaprio, is a volcano of energy and single-minded determination. He whips his troops up like a religious revival, manipulating you with every tactic in his employ. Early on, he’s defrauding ordinary middle-class and low-income clients, but because we’re all addicted to the adrenaline rush of the sale, of the con, we push this troubling reality from our minds. When he moves onto wealthier clients, we adopt a similar attitude of Teresa, Jordan’s first wife, mainly that these people can afford the losses and therefore get what they deserve from a silver-tongued shyster. It’s the audience that proves to have a selective memory because we’re drawn to Jordan’s charisma, expertise, and talent, so we ignore the pesky details of who gets stuck with the bill. Don’t pin that on Scorsese. He makes it abundantly clear that Jordan is a bad man, and the depths of his greed is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Wall Street. Jordan’s firm was a tiny player. Think of what horror stories Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers would offer if ever exposed.
This is my favorite Scorsese film since Goodfellas, and they have plenty of similarities. It makes sense because these men of finance take their cues from movie gangsters, styling themselves as tough guys. At one point, brokers hold a guy over a building to intimidate him. There’s also certainly as much cocaine as there may have been in Scarface. But like that classic of the gangster cinema, Scorsese propels us into the hidden world of the financial institution run amok, allowing us a backstage pass to the people profiting from wrecking the economy. It’s a fascinating perspective that confirms some of our worst fears about stockbrokers. It’s a misogynistic boys club and the few women that do participate have to play by their hyper masculine, juvenile rules. These are people that find any number of ways to skirt the law, rip off their clients, and live in luxury until they can find another sucker. It’s a system built for the entertainment of the few on the backs of the many, and it’s just as relevant today as it was in the 90s. With Jordan’s inside knowledge, we’re educated on the many corrupt ways of Wall Street.
Marking the fifth collaboration with Scorsese, this may be the finest DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) performance yet. The man sheds his vanity, easily fitting into the shark that is Jordan Belfort. He’s ruthless in one moment and completely inept in another, at the whim of his vices. DiCaprio taps into Jordan’s leadership qualities with the dynamite sales speeches, but he also shows what an insecure man he is at heart. He’s got a taste for the good life and is reinventing himself, including trading up in wives to attain that proverbial American Dream. He’s living empty pleasure to empty pleasure and he doesn’t care. DiCaprio acts as our ringmaster through his own circus, and you’ll be delighted and horrified by his actions (and also his peculiar, bird-like dance moves). There’s not a bad performance in the whole cast, and this is one huge cast. Hill (This is the End) is a becoming more and more credible as a dramatic actor, though he excels at the blustery outrageousness as Jordan’s number two. He’s a treat. Robbie (About Time) nails her New Yawk accent but more importantly nails the portrayal of a trophy wife who recognizes and eventually resents her lifestyle. And oh does she just exude sexual heat.
I want to focus on the very end of the film, so there will be some mild spoilers in this paragraph but nothing I feel that would ruin the viewing experience. You have been warned, spoiler phobes. As expected, Jordan eventually winds up in jail for his felonious misdeeds. Ordinarily this would be the end of our traditional law-and-order morality tales; the bad guys are locked away to pay for their crimes. Jordan tells us how nervous he was on his first day of prison, that is, until he remembered one very important fact: he’s rich. White-collar prison is not the same as other penitentiaries, and we see Jordan loftily playing tennis. His sentence is only three years as well, which seems like an insult given the thousands of lives he may have instrumentally ruined. But that’s the ultimate condemnation in the end: the system is rigged for people like Jordan, people with money. In the end, he wins. He goes to prison, his family life is torn asunder, and his personal relationships are strained, but the guy wins. He continues his speaking engagements motivating everyday saps how, with his cherished expertise, they too can rake in wealth. The final shot of the movie tells me everything I need to know. It’s a slight pan out to the crowd in attendance of Jordan’s speaking session. We see the collection of faces, each person hanging onto Jordan’s every word, each filled with idolatry. They want to be him. Despite everything, the bad behavior, the crimes, the waste, they all want to be him, and that’s why people like Jordan will always succeed, will always prevail, will always have the last laugh. There will always be a healthy supply of suckers that want to believe whatever nonsense he’s peddling. That’s the point. He won.
Recently I watched the very good crime caper American Hustle and noted that its director looked to be fashioning a loving Martin Scorsese homage. Well, after watching The Wolf of Wall Street twice (not back to back, mind you; I’m not nuts) I can say that there is no Scorsese like the source. This is vintage Scorsese. This is brilliant filmmaking, a bold movie that practically sings, it flies by with exhilarating force and acumen, daring you to keep watching. The fact that 71-year-old Scorsese could make a movie this highly energetic, this debased, this brash, this borderline indecent, and this awesomely entertaining is encouraging. It’s even more hilarious to me that older Academy members at a recent screening of the film accosted Scorsese, essentially being termed a “debauched scoundrel.” That’s got to count as some badge of honor. Yes, at three hours the movie can get long but it’s never dull or taxing. The propulsive narrative, the hilarious humor, the shrewd characterization, the wanton excess, the filmmaking bravado that hums, it all coalesces into a disturbing and disturbingly enjoyable condemnation of greed and our inherent celebration of this lifestyle. There is not one aspect of this movie that falls flat. The Wolf of Wall Street is an invigorating piece of cinema. The choice of music, the swinging cinematography, the wide ensemble of actors, the feverish editing, it all comes beautifully together to form a whole that surpasses everything else in cinema this year. Dig in.
Nate’s Grade: A
The reinvention of Ben Affleck as movie director took a big step forward with the critical and commercial success of the 2010 Boston cops-and-robbers thriller, The Town. While I’d argue Affleck’s first outing as a director, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is still his best, The Town won over plenty of doubters. Here was an actor-turned-director who could deliver smart drama, intense suspense, and coax Oscar-caliber performances from his brilliantly assembled casts. Have you seen Blake Lively half as good in anything as she was as a tragic junkie single mom in The Town? She’ll be able to get work for years just from the demo reels of that performance. But with two sturdy, complex, taut genre movies under his belt, Affleck still had doubters. The political thriller Argo takes Affleck far out of his Bostonian comfort zone. The creative stretching proves fruitful because Argo is a stirring, fascinating, and engrossing true-life story that should at last silence the remainng doubters concerning Affleck’s talents behind the camera.
In 1979, The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken by a storm of Iranian protestors. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for an exasperating 444 days. During the takeover, six Americans escapes through a back alley and found asylum with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). There they waited for months, trying to work out a plan to escape. If caught by the mob, it’s very likely they would be deemed spies and executed. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his scheme. His idea is to pretend the six American hostages are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for their sci-fi movie. His superiors seem dubious but Mendez gets the green light. He heads to Hollywood and puts together his team, a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and an established producer (Alan Arkin) on the outs with the industry. They settle on the screenplay “Argo” and have to build a credible cover story. From there, Mendez travels into Iran to meet with the hidden hostages to sell them his scheme. They were all coming out together or nobody was getting back home.
Argo is a fascinating story that seems like it could only exist in the movies, and yet it’s a true story and one hell of a story. It’s a mission movie, so we know the familiar flow of the film even as the details seem fresh (unless you’re Canadian). The very idea is one of those “so crazy it might work” plans; one State department official asks, “You don’t have any better bad ideas than this?” Even though we know it was a success, that doesn’t stop the movie from being engrossing. Argo flies by like a caper film as the CIA gathers the resources and experts to try and put together a ramshackle rescue mission. There’s feeling out the Hollywood angle, gathering the pieces to create the illusion of an actual film production, and the urgency of the façade. Even though it’s a bit outlandish, the fake movie plot seems worlds better than the other possible plans being pitched by the government agencies (smuggling in bicycles and maps?). I thought it was genuinely interesting just to be granted access to a room where people where debating rescue options and picking them apart. The film is consistently intriguing watching smart people come up with smart solutions to challenging problems.
Argo really is three movies expertly rolled together into one; a Middle East thriller, a Hollywood satire, and a D.C. procedural. It’s a bonus that every one of these segments works but it’s even more surprising, and rewarding, that the different segments all snap together without breaking tone. Credit Affleck the director for making sure his movie parts don’t overpower one another. We can go from a tense Middle East sequence where the hostages might have just risked exposure, and then we’ll cut to Hollywood and laugh at the cantankerous Lester. It’s a delicate balancing act that Affleck superbly handles. The humor of Hollywood doesn’t detract or minimize the seriousness of the Middle East chapters; it allows room to breathe, to let off steam. The D.C. segments are the biggest expository moments but they give scope and meaning to the danger. Each of these segments is compelling and each one could have been a captivating movie all its own. We’re fortunate that Argo gives us all three.
Audience ignorance aside, we may know how this story ends but that doesn’t stop the film from being completely nerve-wracking. Affleck showed remarkable skill in The Town when it came to building exciting sequences that felt like they would explode with tension. When it came to Argo, there were moments that literally kept me on the edge of my seat, a rarity with action films. The beginning sequence of the American embassy is rapt with suspense, as the security system deteriorates and the people inside realize the inevitable. They start destroying classified state evidence but really they just have to sit and wait, hearing the footsteps, knowing what is near. The sharp screenplay from Chris Terrio (Heights) does a tremendous job of developing clear suspense sequences. There’s the tension of the precarious subterfuge, of the hostages hiding behind enemy lines, so to speak. If one wrong person were to discover their identity, it could quickly unravel. There’s a whole team of children being paid to piece together shredded documents and photos like they were jigsaw puzzles. Knowing this, it makes the scenes where the group ventures out of the embassy thrilling. The group has to visit a marketplace as part of their cover and it’s terrifying. We know the steps of escape, and each one could easily blow up and get everyone killed. Just when you think you can breathe a sigh of relief we’ve moved onto the next challenge and the tension washes over you again. The climax is so tense that your audience will likely erupt in applause when the hostages eventually escape, relieved and proud of the accomplishment.
The maturation of Affleck as a bonafide directing talent continues. There’s a growing confidence in his direction. The man doesn’t have to rely on flashy visual artifice nor does he seem to be hewing to one notable style. He’s directing each movie as its own beast, be it crime thrillers or true-life suspense story. The man knows where to put his camera in the thick of the action. Affleck also eschews the popular shakycam docu-drama approach that too many filmmakers automatically does all the work of establishing realism. Docu-drama visuals can work when properly utilized, but too often I find it to be self-consciously arty and an annoying distraction. Affleck’s camera remains steady but holds on his actors, giving them space to emote. Three movies into his directing career, Affleck has established himself as one of the best men to direct actors. He’s already lead two actors to Oscar nominations and might just earn a third for Arkin. Plus there’s the fact that Argo, top to bottom, is cast with great character actors. You have people the likes of Michael Parks (Red State) who are there for one line. It also helps Affleck the actor to have Affleck the director.
The only nagging problem with Argo is that it’s rather light when it comes to character development. The caper is the star of the movie and sucks up most of the screen time. The film does an excellent job of recreating the anxiety that the hostages felt. I can’t say we get to know any of them well as people. I can’t say we get to know much about Tony Mendez either, beside the de rigueur parts of being a CIA agent like divorce, child custody, and long nights of loneliness. The best-developed character in the movie is Lester Siegel, and while he’s terrifically entertaining, it’s something of a misstep for the cranky Hollywood producer to win that title. He’s a man who knows his value in the ever-changing currency of Hollywood; bitter, crabby, but hopeful of making a difference. Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is a natural fit for the character and brings more dimensions to the role. I wish the same care were given for the other people in the story, particularly those in harm’s way. The nuanced approach to character with Gone Baby Gone and The Town is just absent. Thankfully, the story is so engrossing that it’s not a mortal wound, but you do wish there was a greater emotional involvement in the film rather than a generic empathy of rescuing those in danger. Also, the Canadian involvement seems curiously downplayed even though their ambassador was the one hiding them for months. His role in the movie plays like he’s Guy #8. I know we tackle the CIA’s involvement but Canada could use more recognition for their integral contributions.
Argo establishes Ben Affleck as a dependable, versatile, actor’s director; someone along the likes of a Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack (I swear I don’t have a “Sydney” key lock in my brain). Affleck has proven to be a director who immerses himself into his stories, and his fingerprints are on every frame, every performance. He just nails it. The pacing is tight, the suspense builds to near unsustainable levels, and the tones are expertly juggled to prove complimentary rather than distractions. Best of all, Affleck lets Terrio’s terrific script take center stage. The incredible true-story of Argo is the biggest selling point for the movie, and Affleck doesn’t try to gussy up a whopper of a tale. The film has even more unexpected resonance given the recent spur of violent protests in the Middle East, notably the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Argo doesn’t sensationalize the hostage crises for cheap popcorn entertainment. Nor does it glorify or denigrate the Iranian’s outrage over the U.S. giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah. For a very political subject, the movie takes a very muted political stance, relying on the facts of the situation. The movie finds a rare poignancy in its appeal to the power of international cooperation. By the end of the movie, you might even tear up when you hear the actual hostages and government officials recount their struggle and ultimate triumph. Argo is that rare breed of a movie that seems to have everything. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that Affleck is here to stay as a top-level director.
Nate’s Grade: A-
In 1979, a small Ohio town, 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is reeling from the death of his mother in a factory accident. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is a police officer who doesn’t know how to raise his boy. He even tries to convince his son to spend the summer at a baseball camp. “It’ll be good for you to spend some time with kids who don’t run around with cameras and monster makeup,” he says. That kid is Charles (Riley Griffiths), a self-possessed amateur filmmaker. Charles is writing and directing a short Super 8 film and all his friends are helping. Joe’s specialty is makeup, given his attention to delicately painting models. Being the makeup guy comes in handy when the gang invites the local pretty girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), to be in their movie. Joe gets to apply her zombie makeup. One night, the gang sneaks out to a train yard to film a scene in their movie. A U.S. Air Force cargo train is passing by and suddenly derails, in grand apocalyptic fashion. Strange things start happening all over town shortly after the train crash. Car motors and electrical equipment go missing, dogs run away to neighboring communities, and people start to go missing. The Air Force comes into town and takes charge. It seems that train was carrying something and that something has escaped.
What Super 8 does best is replicate a time, place, and mood. The movie is successfully awash in nostalgia, and that childhood nostalgia is the best aspect of an otherwise ordinary film. Abrams has fashioned the greatest film tribute to Spielberg in history. But its limited ambition makes it feel like the greatest cover band of all time. You’ve assembled al your talent and energy into replicating someone else’s original work. Congratulations, Super 8 is a glossy tribute to Spielberg. Now what? Well, the movie works well at finding that unique, infectious spirit of being young and full of ideas. Filmmaking, and movies in general, has a magic to it, the synergistic creativity and the sheer possibilities that can abound. Translating the imagination into a communal artistic experience. I’m sure Abrams was just as excited about the possibilities of a camera in his childhood as Spielberg was. That feeling of discovery, that rambunctious creativity, and the endearing clumsiness of amateur productions, it all rings completely true. I made silly movies with a camera and my friends when I was younger; my group of friends and I became known for our video projects in high school. So I could have readily watched an entire movie about kids and cameras and their artistic aspirations (as long as it was better than Son of Rambo). The highpoint of Super 8 for me was, surprisingly, the children’s short film “The Case” that plays over the closing credits. It’s funny and charming and sweetly affable. Finally seeing Charles’ finished film is the ultimate payoff.
Abrams as a director is quite capable of delivering big summer moments. He’s a genre specialist and a geek’s best friend. I’ve even compared his style to that of a young Spielberg in my review of 2006’s Mission: Impossible III. Abrams has a natural feel for putting his camera in the right placement. While Abrams can do exciting action with the best of them, crafting compelling screen compositions to ignite the senses, it’s the smaller touches that connect to his storytelling that impress me most. The very opening shot tells you so much and grabs you. It’s a slow zoom into a factory’s sign proclaiming how many days have gone by without an accident. A man takes down the number plates and the count drops from 750 to 1. There’s a small moment where alice imitates a zombie, cocking her head, lurching, going in to bite Joe. And you see her, in that moment, as Joe does: a lovely young woman who makes your heart melt. With the aid of Michael Giacchino’s very John Williams-esque score, you effectively feel Joe’s burgeoning young love. Then when we pull back there’s a trace of Alice’s red lipstick along Joe’s neck, indicating she made actual contact. It’s a small detail that makes you smile all over. It’s these small details that often play to plot or character that affirm for me that Abrams is a director of fantastic promise, a true Spielberg protégé. Now if Abrams could lay off his excessive use of lens flairs (though it’s not as prevalent as Star Trek; you could make a drinking game into every time there was a lens flair).
The young actors are pretty good despite the somewhat hollow characterization by Abrams. These kids are defined by one-note traits (the kid obsessed with explosives, the wuss, etc.). I was going to be more upset by this until I remembered that movies like The Goonies, deemed a nostalgic classic by my generation, also had flimsy, one-note characterization (the fat kid is fat, the Asian kid has funny gadgets!). The scenes where all the kids are assembled make for some of the best entertainment. The young actors have a great rapport with one another and feel like a true makeshift band of friends. Their camaraderie, uncertainty, and hopes seem entirely genuine. They seem like real kids with real kid problems and worries. Courtney is a strong emotional center for the film. It’s hard to believe this is his first role on the big screen. Fanning (Somewhere, Curious Case of Benjamin Button) has been acting ever since she was the two-year-old version of her famous big sister in I Am Sam. I’m on the record as saying that Elle is a superior actress to her sister, and I feel like that claim bears fruit with Super 8. There’s a scene where Fanning’s character is asked to practice some feeble dialogue. Her cohorts think of her as a pretty girl and a source of transportation. But in this one scene, she turns on a dime, bringing out real emotions that leave the boys breathless and the audience too. It’s reminiscent of the audition scene in Mulholland Drive where Naomi Watts, at the flip of a switch, transformed into a different person, coursing with vibrant life. Consider it the toned-down kiddie version.
Truthfully, the monster stuff is actually the weakest part of the film. Super 8 works best as an endearing, nostalgic trip about being young. It works best as a coming-of-age tale and a somewhat touching first romance between teenagers. It does not work well as a sci-fi monster movie. You can tell that the monster/alien stuff has been grafted on to a separate storyline; the plots have little to no bearing on one another. If the kids happened to never go to that train stop that one night, their storyline would be almost entirely unaffected. It’s like parallel movies that pass each other occasionally but have little shared resonance. I found the human stuff, about being young and hurt and with your friends, to be affecting and interesting. The big-budget explosions, the monster mystery teased far too long, the subterranean third act that ends in a gob smack of logic issues, the heavy-handed metaphor about “letting go” (after only fours months? I think you’re still allowed to be sad four months after your mom dies) – that stuff plays well in trailers, but it’s far less interesting. The monster/alien conspiracy fails to lead to anything ripe in the narrative; the Air Force antagonists are more furtively empty than menacing. They don’t seem to care so much about a group of kids filming around the crash site. They’re pretty ineffective antagonists. The monster is hidden for so long, the film builds to an expectation level that it could never meet. The creature design of the monster/alien looks exactly like a smaller version of the Cloverfield creature (also produced by Abrams). When Super 8 is a poorly mimicking other B-movies, trying to wring tears by the film’s somewhat forced ending, I kept thinking, “The Iron Giant did this much better.” I guess once again aliens or a supernatural encounter helps people heal their family strife, which is something M. Night Shyamalan has been selling for years. This is one monster movie that would have been infinitely better without its monster.
Super 8 is obviously a personal film for Abrams, harking back to his boyhood days of monster movies, amateur filmmaking, and young love. This nostalgic time warp will likely succeed with many audience members. Nostalgia is a powerful narrative weapon. It taps into our warm memories of old. But nostalgia is easy to pattern. What’s difficult is creating a work of art that people will be nostalgic over a generation hence. Super 8 is not going to be an inspiration to a new generation of budding young filmmakers; it reconfirms the joy of monsters, movies, and creative possibility. But the elements don’t gel. The monster stuff feels tacked on to an affecting coming-of-age tale about a group of kids working together to make a movie. Rarely will the two plots really have much traction with one another. I think Super 8 would have been an even better movie had the “summer movie” elements been stripped. No monster. No sci-fi thrills. No military intervention. No train crash. Just kids, a camera, and the emotions of growing up.
Nate’s Grade: B