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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Walking out of Brad Bird’s hotly anticipated sequel to The Incredibles, I was convinced there wouldn’t be a better-animated film for the rest of the calendar year. Then I saw Ralph Wrecks the Internet and felt the same conclusion. What could top these two incredible movies from Disney? I wasn’t expecting a parallel world Spider-Man animated film to contend with that heralded echelon, but after watching Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, I am now certain. This is the best-animated film of the year and one of the best films of the year, full stop. It’s rich, imaginative, exciting, satisfying, and way too much fun.

Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is an ordinary teenager starting a new school he’s eager to leave. His police officer father, Jefferson Davis (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry), is pushing him and can be embarrassing. His cooler uncle Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali) encourages Miles to express himself through his graffiti art. One night, Miles encounters the famous Spider-Man, a particle collider, and a special spider from another dimension that bites him. He develops super powers and seeks out Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson) as the only other person who might understand what he’s experiencing. Except there happens to be multiple Spider-laden heroes, including Spider Gwen, a.k.a. Gwen Stacy (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Pig (voiced by John Mulaney), Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage), and an anime heroine Peni Parker with a giant spider robot friend. They’re all from alternate dimensions, dragged into Miles’ world thanks to Kingpin’s (voiced by Liev Schreiber) particle collider. If they don’t get back to their original worlds they’ll glitch out of existence, and Miles’ own world, and everyone inside it, is threatened by the instability of that collider.

Into the Spider-Verse is bursting with color, imagination, kinetic energy, and a real celebration of the art form of animation and comics. Once that super spider bites Miles, the visual mechanics of the movie alter as well as him. Suddenly his thoughts are louder and appear in floating boxes (only we can see), in addition to thought bubbles, sound effects, and the occasional panel shifting transition device. It gets far closer than Ang Lee’s Hulk at recreating the experience of a living comic, and it’s joyous. The animation style too recreates the cross-shading effect of comic artists and the fluidity of the animation has purposely removed frames, giving it a slight stutter-step more often found in stop-motion animation. This distinct style might be off-putting to certain audience members accustomed to the smooth movements of modern animation mimicking real life, but for comic fans, it better approaches the captured stills of comic panels being connected into a whole. The different animation styles of the new Spider characters, Looney Tunes to anime to stark noir Frank Miller riffs, become reminders of separate universes with their own visual rules that keep things fun. The film is vibrantly colorful and gorgeous to watch on the big screen where a person can best luxuriate in that flamboyant palette. The finale feels like an explosion of splash pages and graphic designs merging together, even mimicking the sprawling graffiti art of Miles. It’s a spectacular visual feast that manages to be that rare treat of something new yet familiar.

The action of Into the Spider-Verse is delightful when it’s comedic and thrilling when it’s serious, but at every turn its fun, well developed, and wonderfully rendered. Early on, as Miles learns the tricks of his new and confusing abilities, the action is wildly funny. Take for instance a sequence where he becomes attached to an unconscious Peter Parker through the Spider-Man webbing. Soon after, the police approach Miles, and now he has to make a break for it while still attached to another body, forcing him into a series of comic escapes. It’s highly spirited and filled with enjoyable jokes. Later, as Miles gets more centrally involved in Kingpin’s scheme, the action becomes harsher, more violent, and dangerous. A battle between Miles and The Prowler gets more and more extreme, especially after some twists an audience may or may not see coming depending upon their source material knowledge (this is a parallel universe, after all). The action is frenetic, inventive, and visually engaging, easy to follow and filled with wonderful organic complications that allow each scene to feel vital and different from the last.

Into the Spider-Verse is also brashly hilarious from beginning to end. Being co-written by the writers responsible for The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street, I was expecting a combination of clever and antic, and that’s what they delivered and then some. There are brilliantly conceived and executed jokes but, and this is what separates the professionals, they do not distract from the larger work of the characterization. Often the humor is built through the characters, their personality and motivation differences, and the unique circumstances, so even when its zany it feels connected or grounded. There’s a silly joke about getting more bread from a waiter that works on multiple levels and they keep going back to it for further meaning, and it’s one example of many that shows the work put into their funny is meaningful and smart. After six movies and several animated series, audiences are well versed in the origin of Spider-Man, so Into the Spider-Verse even turns that knowledge into a source of humor itself, laying a formula for each new Spider character to introduce themselves with the same fill-in-the-blanks origin speech. The alternate universe Spider heroes do not overstay their welcome and, miraculously, even find themselves with some potent small character moments, which is an amazing feat given the 100-minute running time. The laboratory break-in with Peter Parker and Miles is a comic highlight with plenty of complications, and there’s a smart, sly joke about personal biases that just slides by nonchalantly that had me howling. The post-credit scene had me laughing so hard that I was crying. Please, I implore you, stick around for it and go out laughing with the biggest smile on your face.

Besides being a great comic book movie and a great action movie, Into the Spider-Verse is also just a great movie. The Spider-Man character is so familiar that the film easily could have gone on autopilot yet it puts in the work to build characters we care about, give them arcs, and provide setups and payoffs both big and small to maximize audience satisfaction. Miles is a terrific new character with a voice all his own, and his teenage foibles are both recognizable and refreshing. He’s a hero worth rooting for, and his more personal family issues can be just as compelling as the end-of-the-world adventures. That’s the core of what makes Spider-Man still an invigorating character 50 years later, and Into the Spider-Verse taps into that essential element even with an alternate universe Spider hero. It’s got the DNA of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original creation and given a welcomed jolt of relevancy thanks to the onscreen racial diversity and youthful perspective.

There are two relationships at the core: Miles and his father and Miles and Peter Parker. The latter is an unexpected mentor/pupil relationship that provides the enjoyment of watching both members grow through their bond, and the former allows a familial baseline to come back to and demonstrate how far we’ve come. The Peter Parker/Miles relationship has that big brother/little brother angst that keeps things sharp while still maintaining an undercurrent of emotional need. There were genuine moments where my eyes welled up. The film can be that affecting because it is so well structured and developed from a characterization standpoint. Even the chief villain, the Kingpin, has a motivation that is personal and effectively empathetic. Everyone involved gets careful consideration, even the bad guys.

Let me cite one prime example that showcases how great the storytelling can be (minor spoilers). At one point, Miles is bound and gagged by the other heroes to prevent him from joining them in a dangerous activity they do not believe he is ready for. They’re removing him from the team for his own good. Then, at this low point, his father comes to visit him and tries talking to him through the other side of his dormitory door. They’ve had some challenging moments between them and what Mr. Davis has to say is extra challenging. He’s trying to connect with a son he feels he’s losing touch with, and it’s a one-sided conversation where Miles is unable to respond to his father’s pleas, who eventually walks away knowing his son is there but not ready to talk. Right there, the screenwriters have gone from the fantastic to the personal, finding a way to bring Miles even lower but in an organic fashion that plays right into his ongoing communication problems. It’s a simple moment to start with, standard even, but then having it contribute to the father/son estrangement is beautiful and handled so well. The sparkling screenplay for Into the Spider-Verse is packed with moments like this.

The voice acting is perfectly suited for their roles. Moore (The Get Down) is an expressive and capable young actor that brings a terrific vulnerability to Miles, selling every emotion with authenticity. Johnson (Tag) is the absolute best choice for a slacker Spider-Man who has become jaded and self-indulgent. His laid back rhythms gel nicely with Moore’s eager breathlessness. Henry (Widows) is so paternal it hurts your heart. Steinfeld (Bumblebee) is poised and enjoyably spry. Cage (Mandy) is doing everything you’d want a Nicolas Cage-voiced crime fighter to be. Schreiber (Ray Donovan) can be threatening in his sleep with that velvety voice of his. Plus you get Katheryn Hahn as a villain, Zoe Kravitz as Mary Jane, and Lily Tomlin as Aunt May, and they’re all great.

As the credits rolled for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, I tried searching my brain for any flaws, minor quibbles, anything that would hold the film back from an entertainment standpoint. The only thing I could think of is that animation style, but different people will either find that look appealing or irritating. This is a glorious and gloriously entertaining movie replete with humor, heart, surprises, payoffs, and a great creative energy that bursts from the big screen. This really is a movie to see on the big screen as well, to better feast on the eye-popping visuals and pop-art comic book aesthetics that leap from the page to the screen. It’s the second best Spidey movie, after 2017’s impeccably structured solo venture, Homecoming. The late addition of the other alternate universe Spider heroes keeps things silly even as it raises the stakes. The film is a wonderful blending of tones and styles, from the different characters and universes to the heartfelt emotions and vicarious thrills of being young and super powered. This is a movie that even Spider novices can climb aboard and fall in love with. Into the Spider-Verse is a film for fans of all ages and nothing short of the bets animated film of 2018. It’s as good as advertised, folks.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Isle of Dogs (2018)

The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.

Nate’s Grade: B

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-poster-1Before I begin my review, I feel the need to come to the defense of Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious). Despite what Internet message boards and detractors may have you believe, it was never the man’s intention to insert his name into the title of his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Warner Brothers claimed copyright ownership over the title of The Butler. The MPAA mediates title discrepancies in cases where one movie could clearly be confused for another. However, Warner Brothers’ claims a 1915 silent short film in their vault by the same name. Is anyone in the year 2013 really going to pay a ticket for the Butler and reasonably expect a silent short that’s almost 100 years old? Rather than pay a financial settlement, The Weinstein Company decided to alter the original title, adding the director’s name. This isn’t The Butler. Now it’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. So before I get into the thick of my review, I’d like to absolve Daniels of Tyler Perry-levels of hubris. You’ll excuse me for just referring to it as The Butler throughout the duration of this review, not to be confused with a 1915 short film.

From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, one man served them all and his name is Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). He was a White House butler for over 30 years, even attending a state dinner at the behest of Nancy Reagan. Cecil grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation and moved up the ranks in high-class service. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), wishes her husband would worry more about his own home than the White House. Cecil’s two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), have very different views of their father. Louis feels like dear old dad is too close to the men of power, and Louis is going to do what he can on the frontlines of change.

105174_galI’m sure everyone had good intentions with this movie, but I walked away with the overwhelming impression that The Butler was too heavy-handed, too corny, and too mishandled with its plot construction for it to be the effective drama all desired. I also know that my opinion is of a minority, but that has never bothered me as a critic. Let’s start with the biggest handicap the film has going, and that’s the fact that its central character, the titular butler, is too opaque for a biopic. Early on, Cecil rises through the ranks of black service workers because of his skill, and that skill is none other than “having a room feel empty with [him] inside it.” I’m not downplaying the man’s dedication, or the culture he grew up in that preferred their black workers to be silent, but here is a movie where the man’s claim to fame is that he served eight presidents but he was in the background for all that history. I wasn’t expecting Cecil to lean over and go, “Mr. President, that Voting Rights Act might be a good idea, and I’ll help ya with it.” He is just sort of there. I was expecting him to have some larger significance, especially in his own life, but here’s the kicker: by the end of the movie, you’re left with the impression that all of his years of service were for naught. Cecil comes to the realization that his son, who he has sparred with for decades, was right and he was wrong. Is this the intended point? My colleague Ben Bailey will argue this is Daniels’ subversive intent, to undermine the tenets of typical biopics, to fashion an anti-biopic. I am not as convinced.

The problem is that Cecil is a passive character, which makes him the least interesting character in his own story. He served eight presidents, yes, but what else can you say about him as presented? What greater insights into life, himself, or politics does he have during those years with seven different presidential administrations? I cannot tell. I was thoroughly astounded that Cecil, as a character, was boring. I suspect this is why screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) chose to split Cecil’s story with his son, Louis. Here is a character on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, getting chased by mobs, beaten, sprayed with firehouses. Here is an active character that wants to make a difference. He also happens to be mostly fictional.

While the film opens with the phrase “inspired by a true story” you should be wary. Upon further inspection, very little is as it happened. I think all true stories, when adapted to the confines of a two-hour film narrative, are going to have to be modified, and pure fidelity to the truth should not get in the way of telling a good story, within reason. I don’t have an issue with Louis being fictional, but it points to the larger problem with the biopic of such an opaque man. The real-life Cecil, Eugene Allen, had one son who went to Vietnam and married a former Black Panther. Strong splits the difference, supplying two sons with different paths. Because of his invention, this means Louis has the benefit of being present at a plethora of famous Civil Rights events, like the Woolworth counter sit-in, the Freedom Rider bus burning, and the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Seriously, he’s in the same motel room with MLK in Memphis. With the exception of the Woolworth sit-in, the Civil Rights events feel like minor pit stops, barely spending any time to develop. It ends up feeling like a facile Forrest Gump-like trip through the greatest hits of the Civil Rights movement.

This narrative expediency also translates to the supporting characters in The Butler. Beyond Cecil, Louis, and Gloria, there aren’t any characters that last more than one or two scenes. Cecil’s White House co-workers, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) and Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games), provide amiable comic relief but little else to the narrative. Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) has an affair with Gloria and then is never seen again. That affair, by the way, is also never referenced again nor does it have any further ramifications with the relationship between Cecil and Gloria. So then what was the point? There is a litany of famous faces playing real people, but they’re all in and out before you know it. The actors portraying the presidents are more an entertaining diversion than anything of real substance. Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) as Reagan gets the closest in the physical resemblance game, though I strongly doubt Reagan, as presented in the film, sat down and openly admitted he was wrong to his African-American service workers. John Cusack (The Raven) as Nixon is a hoot. The movie speeds right through the Ford and Carter administrations, so I’ll play my own game of casting (Ford: Dan Akroyd; Carter: Billy Bob Thornton). The presidents, like the clear majority of supporting players, don’t stick around long enough to leave an impression. It’s as if our prior knowledge of these famous faces is meant to serve as characterization. Beyond the immediate Gaines family, you don’t feel like you’re getting to know anyone.

105665_galThen you bring in Daniels as director and the man has not shown much of a penchant for, let’s call, subtlety. This is, after all, the same man who directed Nicole Kidman in the ways of urinating upon Zac Efron. A coherent tone has often been elusive in Daniels’ films, which veer into wild, loud, sometimes clashing melodrama. The most clashing thing in The Butler are the matching 1970s and 80s fashion that will burn your eyes. He tones down his wilder sensibilities but The Butler is an especially earnest movie; but overly earnest without earned drama usually begets a corny movie, and that’s what much of The Butler unfortunately feels like. The significance of the Civil Rights movement and the bravery of the ordinary men and women, and children, fighting for equality cannot be overstated. These were serious heroes combating serious hate. I expect a serious movie, yes, but one that isn’t so transparent about its Staid Seriousness. The Butler is very respectful to history (fictional additions aside) but too often relies on the historical context to do the heavy lifting. It also hurts when the film is so predictable. At one point, I thought to myself, “I bet Cecil’s other son gets shipped to Vietnam and probably dies.” Mere seconds after this thought, young Charlie Gaines says he’s going to Vietnam. I’ll leave it to you to discover his eventual fate.

Daniels’ true power as a director is his skill with actors. The man nurtured Mo’Nique into an Academy Award-winning actress. From top to bottom, no actor in this film delivers a bad performance, which is a real accomplishment considering its stable of speaking roles. Whitaker (Repo Men) is the anchor of the movie and he puts his all into a character that gives him little to work with. He brings a quiet strength and dignity to Cecil, able to draw you in even as he’s presented so passively and ultimately perhaps in the wrong. Winfrey hasn’t been acting onscreen since 1998’s Beloved. Gloria is an underwritten part but she does the most with it and I’d like to see more of Oprah the actress more often. Another highlight is Oyelowo (Jack Reacher) as the defiant son fighting for what he believes is right. I want to also single out former America’s Next Top Model contestant Yaya Alafia as Louis’ girlfriend and eventual Black Power participant, Carol. She’s got real potential as an actress and if she gets the right role she could breakout and surprise people.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (just one last time for feeling) is an earnest, emotional, but ultimately unsatisfying picture and it’s mostly because of its title figure. The figure of Cecil Gaines is not the kind of man that the entire perspective of the Civil Rights movement can be hung onto as an allegory. He’s treated as background of his own story. If the filmmakers wanted to highlight the life of a man who grew up on a cotton plantation, worked in the White House, and who lived long enough to see an African-American be president, well then tell me that story. But they don’t. I think Daniels and Strong knew the limitations of their central figure, which is why the son’s role was invented to provide a more active perspective outside the hallowed walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the end, I really don’t know what the message is, because the one I’m left with is that Cecil Gaines realizes late in life how wrong he was, not just with his son, but his faith in the office of the presidency. I doubt the majority of filmgoers are going to walk away with this message. While well acted and with a sharp eye for period details, The Butler is earnest without having earned your emotions.

Nate’s Grade: C

Salt (2010)

Congrats to the Columbia marketing team for what is by far the most imaginative advertising campaign ever. Weeks before Salt was going to open nationwide, the most bizarre story broke this summer. A dozen American citizens were revealed to be deep cover Russian agents. Apparently, their purpose, as given in the mid-to-late 1980s, was to infiltrate American society and get cozy with policy makers (and yet not one became a lobbyist). Instead they mostly raised families and lived in the suburbs of New Jersey. It’s unclear exactly what they accomplished. This hearkens back to a simpler age where we had clearly identifiable “enemies” that existed as nation states. Things are just too complicated in the post-9/11 age of the War on Terrorism. The dozen Russian spies were deported to Russian in an exchange for three American spies. I feel somewhat sad for these dozen Russian spies, especially Anna Chapman, the red-haired femme fatale that became the face of the scandal. These people grew up in the United States and for many that’s all that they know, and now they have to live in picturesque Russia. I wonder how long before they themselves defect back to the States.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA agent who?s just about to go home after a long night of CIA stuff. An old Russian agent has defected, and Salt is the best interrogator they have to separate the real from the nutso. As she?s about to leave, the Russian talks about a plot to assassinate the Russian president, and the killer will be a Russian spy posing as an American, Evelyn Salt. Her superior (Liev Schreiber) wants to clear things up with nervous government officials, but Salt bails. She’s concerned that her German national husband (August Diehl from Inglorious Basterds) has been abducted. She races to find her husband, outrun U.S. agencies on her trail, and maybe assassinate the Russian president as foretold.

Believability is a fluid reality. When it comes to action thrillers, if they’re hitting the right numbers hen you give them a bit of a pass. What might normally kill a mortal can merely incur a flesh wound. Salt is packed with thriller absurdities, especially toward the end, but I posit that this movie is no less believable than most of what we see in the Bourne trilogy. The trick with Salt is that the pacing doesn’t ever let up; as soon as she?s slotted as a potential Ruskie spy, she goes on the run and the movie doesn’t slow down. It hops from action sequence to chase sequence to real-life Frogger sequence on a busy highway, all the while Evelyn performs miraculous feats of derring-do, impervious to normal rigors that would severely injure the rest of humanity. But you see, she’s a trained spy, and therefore can handle it all with aplomb. She can create her own missile thanks to an office desk and a fire extinguisher and some ordinary household chemicals (don’t try this at home, kids). In the opening seconds of the movie, Evelyn is being harshly tortured and interrogated in a North Korean prison (in her bra and panties for extra exploitation value). If she can survive that, surely this Superwoman Spy could survive escaping a batch of really lousy guards and National Security agents who seem bewildered by such art of deception like the masterful Putting on a Hat, or the more dangerous Dying One’s Hair a Darker Color (that can stain, you know).

Let?s briefly talk about the entire premise of Salt. Before this summer, naturally, this Cold War holdover plot device would seem ludicrous. Such deep cover Manchurian Candidate-like operations that take decades upon decades of time seem like a crapshoot. As proven by this summer’s most bizarre story, people who go deep under cover for extended periods of time are rarely able to snake their way into the corridors of power. It’s not like these people are planted to marry ambassadors or up-and-coming politicians. It’s essentially like a horse race, except you have to bet on which pony 25 years down the line will be the winner or spawn the winner. The odds of success seem remote at best and a waste of resources. This Cold War program also stipulates that these sleeper agents would still hold allegiance to Mother Russia nearly 20 years after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. It’s this same mistaken idea of delayed national allegiance that surfaces when Chinese politicians try and justify how they will solve the guy/girl population disparity in their country. The Chinese politicians feel that the men of their country will come to America and find all those Chinese orphans that were adopted by American parents. Somehow these former Chinese orphans who have grown up in a different culture, in a different family, and with different gender rights and freedoms, will suddenly say, “Of course I will go back to the country that gave me up as valueless!” It’s this same basis at work for the Russian sleeper agent plan. But yet these super sleeper agents have miraculously found their ways in high positions of power. Maybe that’s the secret to educational reform. Students are more likely to be self-starters when they’re determined to bring down the infrastructure of another country.

What saves Salt is that the action sequences are good. Director Phillip Noyce has extensive experience in Hollywood and working with large stars. Noyce directed the stellar Jack Ryan thrillers Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger; he even has experience with Jolie, having helmed 1999?s boring Bone Collector. Noyce has a great presence of mind and knows how to fill the frame up to please the senses. He knows how to compose a nice action sequence and, here?s the shocker given modern action cinema, allows the audience to fully understand what is going on. The chases have genuine excitement and the escapes come across as organic instead of contrived, which is something of a compliment for a spy film. Evelyn Salt hopping from car to car across a highway is cut together into one smooth sequence to rattle the nerves. There are some spectacular car crash images in the film, particularly when Salt escapes from police custody by driving off an overpass. Noyce finds a way to make the screen both frenetic and oddly pretty, without being self-conscious about its popcorn purposes.

Jolie has proven herself to be more than capable when it comes to handling action. She doesn’t look as spookily thin as she did in 2008’s Wanted, which is good when you want to believe that she can be a world-class brawler. She’s tough as nails and plenty easy on the eyes. The role doesn’t require much of Jolie’s exceptional sex appeal. In fact, she’s rather maternal and her driving motivation is to rescue her husband. There are all sorts of needless flashbacks to her wedding day, little snippets to remind you that she loves her husband, in case you forgot. Jolie’s character is a bit of an enigma by design. Obviously given the star power and the fact that it?s a summer movie, you expect Jolie and her character to be in the right by the time the end credits roll. And yet the movie and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Thomas Crown Affair, Equilibrium) spends about half of its running time letting you fully believe that Evelyn is a turncoat (though if she was originally Russian, would she be a turncoat?). The most interesting aspect for me regarding Salt’s character was when we flashed back to the 11-year-old version (Cassidy Hinkle) of her after a car accident. Her head is bandaged, and because the girl is the younger version of Jolie, her lips look like those wax novelty lips to match Jolie’s signature pillowy pout.

Salt is a rather nuts-and-bolts thriller that balances absurdities with efficient action. With pacing so swift, you don?t have time to start nit-picking the small things, and the big things you just swallow as part of the overall package. Salt needs you to be caught up in the moment, in the chase, and not second-guessing all the plot fallacies. The film pretty much follows Jolie’s lead and is straight-faced nerve. It provides the thrills you’d want in a summer popcorn blockbuster without getting too serious. As a spy thriller it goes down like a shamelessly entertaining beach read. After all, what are the odds that your friends and neighbors of twenty years could actually be decades-in-the-making Russian sleeper agents? Well, do they look like Anna Chapman?

Nate’s Grade: B

Repo Men (2010)

It’s not unheard of for different writers to independently create similar projects. Remember back in 1998 when there were two animated bug movies and two apocalyptic asteroid flicks? Granted, those were big budget studio movies and the final films had little in common other than concept or premise. Repo Men takes place in a world where people open contracts on new organ transplants, but if the buyer is late on the payment then a repo man will come and take back the merchandise. This gory premise might sound familiar for fans of the Goth opera, Repo: the Genetic Opera, which was released a whole 18 months earlier. The makers of Repo Men and Repo have engaged in a he-said/she-said argument over who originated the idea. Repo Men‘s screenwriters claim they came up with the concept in 2003, though the book the film is based was only released in 2009. The Repo team point out that their funky little musical began as a theatrical show that was first performed in 2002. The songwriters behind Repo say that the idea itself goes back to 1999 and began as a 10-minute opera experiment. I suppose we’ll never know who really had the idea first, though I’m inclined to side with the Repo musical fellas because they can back up their claims with evidence. It seems like a whole lot of squabbling over so little, but hey, that’s Hollywood for you.

In the not-too-distant future, one corporation, The Union, seems to hold sway in the world of organ transplants. Remy (Jude Law) is an expert repossessions officer who will slice open anybody 90 days late on his or her payment. His wife wants him to transfer to sales; it’s less messy. Remy’s partner (Forest Whitaker) is an old childhood friend and doesn’t want to lose his butcher buddy. One night, Remy is sidelined by some malfunctioning equipment that fires his heart. He has no choice but to get his own organ transplant. Following the operation, Remy finds that he no longer has the stomach for his old line of work. Remy’s newfound moral compass comes at a cost. He quickly falls behind in his payments and his old bosses plead for Remy to refinance. Reluctantly, they sic the repo men, including Whitaker, on Remy to retrieve company property.

Repo Men takes some nice commentary on predatory lending, pushing the hard sell knowing that the customer can never stay ahead of the mounting fees and payments. The allegory has some sharp moments. However, the movie would have benefited from being pushed further in pretty much every regard. The side characters are horribly shallow. I’m fairly certain that Carice van Houten (electrifying in Black Book), as Remy’s beleaguered wife, could have been replaced with a cardboard cutout boasting a disapproving look. She gets to glare and complain and talk about family issues and then she’s gone, replaced entirely by Beth, a mysterious organ replacement junkie. Beth could have an intriguing back story, and the concept of surgery addiction could dwell upon the human cost of beauty and “upgrading,” but alas, her real purpose is to become an oddly implacable love interest for Remy. She gets to hold his hand while they run. That’s her main contribution (except for one key scene detailed below).

The entire concept of a future world held hostage by a greedy health care corporation could use more contemplation. What is happening with society? No epidemic is ever mentioned, so why do people start contracts on million dollar organs? Do the heavy debts pass on to the next of kin? What is the legality of organ repossession? What level of competition is there out there in the market? What does the government have to say about all this? Does this mighty company supersede the U.S. government? How come Remy can’t even get an employee discount on the merchandise? Has anybody had enough surgeries to become the six million dollar man? There is a wealth of questions born from this premise, but the movie only scratches the intellectual surface and sets its standard change-of-perspective morality storyline into gear. I actually would have found the life of an organ salesman to be more dramatically appealing. What kind of ethical rationalizations take place in the mind of a man who makes his living signing saps into modern indentured servitude? I find that story direction to be more compelling than following the guys who bring back the company merchandise.

But then something weird happens. The movie gallops to a satisfying close, and then it somehow gets even better in its closing moments. I was certain that I was going to write off Repo Men but then 4 things happened to make me sit up straight in my chair (I’ll refrain from any large spoilers):

1) In a film relentlessly aping the visuals of other, superior dystopian films, there’s not much new to look at. You’ve seen this future society thing before, just with more flying cars or jet packs. I came to terms with this; it’s not every movie that reinvents how we interpret the future short of some calamity. Then when Remy breaks into the Company HQ, which is awfully easy by the way, he stumbles into the genetic organ hatchery, if you will. Rows and rows and rows of scientists tinker with organ replacements. The entire environment is a strikingly sterile white, including the scientists wrapped in bulky white biohazard suits. Then Remy and Beth make a run for it, and they are covered head to toe in black. It’s a fabulous visual image, watching the color contrasts. It’s debut director Miguel Sapochnik’s high point.

2) Once Remy and Beth move beyond this laboratory, they get caught in a hallway, and Remy proceeds to take out a mob of employees. The fight sequence is several minutes long and a clear nod to the memorable extended hallway fight in Oldboy (Remy takes out a hammer as his final weapon). Weirdly, Remy’s opponents are suit types, middlemen, office employees, numbers crunchers, but they all leap into battle to take out the corporate intruder. The fight sequence is bloody and stylish enough to please the senses, like when Remy swings a hacksaw and we get Swinging Hacksaw POV as characters duck out of the way lest their jugulars get sliced.

3) Following this, Remmy and Beth must deposit their corporate-licensed organ replacements. This involves cutting each other open, taking a bar code scanner (think a grocery check-out), and digging inside each other to get those subcutaneous scans. What’s amusing is that the scene is blatantly juxtaposed as a sex scene; Remmy and Beth intimately penetrate each other, the editing cuts to close-ups of moaning, and the other tries to soothe the pain with physical assurances, and it’s all set to a slow jam. It’s something of a bizarre sequence, especially upon further review (how effective can scanning for bar codes be inside the gook-filled human body?), but man is it interesting.

4) Just as I had come to terms with the movie settling for a conventional conclusion, the movie pulls the rug out from under you. It offers up a last-minute ending that upends the conventional framework, and, actually, presents the easy coast to a conventional stop in a new light. This is one of those rare instances where a last-minute ending twist actually improved the film. More often than not, a last-second twist is forced and the nail in the coffin of lasting entertainment.

Repo Men is a competently looking, competently entertaining sci-fi thriller that miraculously stumbles into a final act that not only works, it elevates the rest of the movie. My mild boredom vanished and I started wondering why they made me wait so long for the good stuff. Repo Men is a mixed marriage of overall tone. One second it will be darkly humorous, the next it will be satirical, the next it will pine for serious drama, and occasionally it goes for Guy Richie-styled slapstick. A sequence where Remy describes the three occasions he’s been knocked out, with visual interludes, feels like a deleted scene from an entirely different movie. The movie never really settles, touching upon a lot of areas but mostly poorly. The script desperately needed to be fleshed out to make any lasting impact. Now that I’m living in a two-Repo world, I’ll probably stick with the campy musical fun of Repo: the Genetic Opera. At least that movie left you humming.

Nate’s Grade: C+

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine has been slashed from all sides. First, the movie has not been able to shake bad buzz, from extra reshoots to rumors about conflicts between the studio and the director. There was even one rumor that the head of 20th Century Fox Studios ordered a wall repainted a happier color. Then in early April it got even worse. A DVD-quality print of Wolverine was leaked onto the Internet and spread like crazy, and once something finds itself inside the realm of cyberspace it cannot be put back. The reaction to the leaked copy was mixed, at best. The studio went into damage control mode, stating that the leaked copy was an unfinished work print, that they too were not thrilled with this version and paid millions for reshoots, and the final version that would be released in theaters had 20 minutes of new stuff and 10 minutes additionally edited out. But guess what? The wolverine’s out of the bag, it’s the same exact version minus some completed special effects shots. What amuses me about this whole situation is that the studio is on record trashing the movie, saying they were unhappy with this version, and yet this is the final release. After having seen Wolverine, at least I can say that those Fox execs know mediocrity when they see it.

We get to witness the storied history of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), which goes all the way back to the pre-Civil War era. Born James Logan, and a mutant, the kid had the unusual ability to produce three jagged bone claws from his knuckles. Logan also had the ability to miraculous heal like his older brother, Victor “Sabertooth” Creed (Liev Schreiber). The two of them make use of their primal, animal instincts and near invulnerability by fighting in every major U.S. war, from Civil to Vietnam. Eventually that kind of thing gets noticed, and General Stryker (Danny Huston) recruits the brothers to be apart of a mutant mercenary group. The group also includes the likes of William “Deadpool” Wade (Ryan Reynolds), “The Blob” (Kevin Durand), and some other unimportant mutants (one of them played by a Black Eyed Pea, will.i.am). Wolverine walks away from the group when he decides that he isn’t cut out for a cutthroat life.

The man finds a quiet place to live along the Canadian Rockies. He’s found a hard-working job, lumberjack, and a good woman, Kayla (Lynn Collins), who loves him. All of this is ruined when Sabretooth comes back around, intent on eliminating the former mercenary members one by one. Stryker appeals to Wolverine to apply for the Weapon X program. He says he can give Logan the tools for his revenge. Wolverine then undergoes the famous procedure that bonds his skeleton with adamantium, an unbreakable metal, and his bone claws become extra sharp metal. Stryker has other plans, naturally, and Wolverine breaks out of the facility. Stryker tells his assassin, “Bring me back his head.” Sorry pal, but you’re the one that just spent half a billion dollars giving Wolverine an unbreakable spinal column.

Is this origin tale worth telling? Short answer: no. The mysteries behind Wolverine’s back-story aren’t too involving and the answers make the character less interesting. I don’t really care why Wolverine got his metal skeleton or how he came to be an amnesiac, I just accept that the man has some mystique to him. I care even less that one of the answers to those mysteries is a murdered lover. The plot is incredibly thin; Wolverine meets one mutant who tells him to meet another mutant who tells him to meet another mutant, etc. Eventually the film heads for a mutant showdown that plays out like a lame video game, specifically the mid-90s Mortal Kombat (the Final Boss super villain resembles the blade-handed Baracka). What are Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and Emma Frost doing in this? That?s not the end of the mutant cameos, either. I feel like the only thing we learn about Wolverine is that his super sense of smell cannot detect the difference between real blood and stage blood. The filmmakers think character development involves someone saying no to slaughtering innocents, and then other characters keep telling him, “You’re not an animal.” The movie meanders from one unimaginative special effects set piece to another, stopping at points to shove in various mutants that serve little purpose to the story other than diehard comic fans will be more forgivable.

Oh, but what to do when your main character is indestructible, your main villain is also indestructible, and your other lead villain cannot be killed because he?s due for an appearance in X-Men 2? Why you bring in a third, nigh indestructible being into the stakes, however, this being doesn’t already play into the established X-Men onscreen mythos, so this guy’s okay to kill off, that is, until he too gets a movie built around his character and then that movie has to backtrack to fill in on time before its capped ending. We already had a healing ability mutant with super claws vs. a healing ability mutant with super claws smackdown in X-Men 2, where Lady Deathstrike fought Wolverine. That fight was brutal and well staged. The fights in Wolverine’s big show are uninspired; how much stabbing can you watch between people who instantly heal? Also, apparently another side effect of the Weapon X program is that these metal claws are self-cleaning, because every single damn time Wolverine stabs someone there isn’t a droplet of blood to be found on his claws. It?s hard to get emotionally involved in characters that are fearless and have little at stake. Which, of course, is why Logan had to be given a cruddy romance where he gets to hold his dead lover?s body in his arms and bellow to the heavens for what feels like the 80th time. Seriously, twenty percent of all the dialogue in this movie is some combination of growling, spitting, and bellowing.

Wolverine isn’t a terrible movie but it’s rather shoddy and thoroughly mediocre. I never thought I’d see this character do the beyond-cliché action movie motif of strutting in slow-mo while an explosion sizzles in the background. This is the kind of film that involves a super team standing shoulder-to-shoulder to walk down like they’re from The Right Stuff. This is the kind of movie that opens with a needless family squabble about Logan finding out the pointless identity of his real father. What was that about? (After killing his father, I remarked to myself, “I guess that he gets that whole healin’ thing from his mother’s side of the family.”) This is the kind of movie that hires Ryan Reynolds and then disarms the man of his greatest asset, his smart mouth. This is the kind of movie that theorizes the only thing to kill an adamantium-skeleton man is with an adamantium bullet, like a sort of werewolf. This is the kind of movie that sends a super assassin, with super bullet-bending powers, out to kill Wolverine but does not arm the super assassin with those special adamantium bullets. Why not shoot this guy in the eye? That is an open body cavity. This is the type of movie where the final super villain is controlled by, get this, key commands like “Engage.” This is the kind of movie where an assortment of characters refrain from killing super bad murderers out of the morally pretentious idea that they, too, would be no different from the super bad murderers. Excuse me, executing super bad murderers would be doing the world a favor here. This is the type of movie that fills the running time with pained dialogue like, “You wanted the animal, you got him,” and, “Nobody gets to kill you but me,” and the best line of them all: “I thought you were the Moon and I was your Wolverine. Turns out you’re the Trickster and I’m just the fool who got played.” Top that, screenwriters.

Whatever the budget was for this movie, well, apparently it wasn’t enough. The adamantium effects looked perfectly reasonable in the first X-Men film and that was nine years ago, so I cannot understand why the claws look astoundingly fake this go-round. They look like direct animation, like Wolverine is holding cartoon claws a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit? When did they become so thick too? These claws are like the size of the steak knives you get at restaurants.

Jackman deserves some of the blame here since he is listed as a producer and he hand selected director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition) who does not have the interest or the eye for this kind of material. Hood lacks the finesse and vision to stage exciting action sequences, which explains why he falls back on tired genre tropes like the slow-mo strut in front of fireballs. I am dead certain that this stupid super assassin was pushed into the movie after film producers saw how much money the bullet-curving Wanted made the previous summer. The movie borrows heavily from recent Marvel Origin comics, or so I’m told, which is where the whole “Wolverine through the ages” storyline comes from. Personally, I don’t much care for the idea that Wolverine’s healing ability also deters aging until you hit that agreeable, desirable Hugh Jackman age range, but fine, whatever. The movie takes great effort to showcase Jackman’s flawless physique, and this dude is ripped to the point that you can see bulging veins. I just wished Jackman made more use of his acting muscles in this movie. He snarls and glares, and even has a softer moment or two with Collins, but rarely does Wolverine get to prove why he is such a beloved comics character.

Thank goodness for Liev Schreiber (who actually also co-starred with Jackman in the forgettable romantic comedy, Kate & Leopold) because this man entertained me from start to finish, which is more than I can say about his movie. Schreiber has fun with his role and totally buys into the character’s animal instincts. He relishes the kill. The bizarre sibling rivalry between he and Wolverine is the best part of the movie, and the interplay between the two actors is when the movie has its few moments of life. Like Watchmen, the film finds its creative peak during the opening credits, as we watch Jackman and Schreiber claw and bite their way through American battlefields.

Here’s an easy solution to the Wolverine amnesia issue that doesn’t involve the use of admantium bullets. Kayla (Silverfox) has the power of hypnosis through touch, so why not in the emotional climax have her touch her dear lover Wolverine and wish, “Forget me. Forget all about me.” There, problem solved, and this way it works emotionally and organically with the story. It took me an hour after seeing X-Men Origins: Wolverine to come up with a better ending, so just imagine what more time will allow. Jackman and company are lost thanks to a mediocre script that sacrifices character for action beats, and even then the action is fairly mundane. There are a handful of cool moments, like Wolverine propelling himself onto a helicopter from an exploding car, but after four movies nothing has come close to producing the adrenaline rush that was the X-Men 2 sequence where Logan unleashes his berserker rage on the commandos in the mansion. By the end of his first solo outing, Wolverine is left without any memory. I won’t say we should all be so lucky but the X-Men filmmakers would be better off paying little attention to this origin tale, unless they want to bring Schreiber back, which they should do at all costs.

Nate’s Grade: C

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