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World War Z (2013)

101070_galNo movie this summer has had such a dark cloud of bad buzz like Brad Pitt’s World War Z. Based upon Max Brooks’ 2006 novel, it’s a global zombie action adventure that Pitt, as producer, has developed for years. He hired director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball) and after a very protracted shoot, according to reports, neither was on speaking terms. A Vanity Fair article highlights the fascinating challenges World War Z endured, the biggest being a third act that, while filmed, did not work. The movie’s release date was pushed back twice, from summer 2012 to December 2012 to finally summer 2013. That sort of talk usually raises critic hackles, anticipating a bomb that all parties are trying their best to salvage some investment. It’s something of a small miracle then that the finished film actually kind of sort of mostly works. It still feels lacking and under developed but World War Z is not the fiasco many had feared.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is an ex U.N. inspector pulled back into the field to do nothing less than possibly save humanity from the undead. The world is under siege by a new sort of pandemic, one that reanimates the dead. Gerry and his family barely escape Philadelphia alive and find refuge on a U.S. aircraft carrier offshore. Gerry bids his family goodbye and zips around the globe looking for Patient Zero. If he can crack the mystery of how it all began perhaps mankind can develop a cure.

102796_galFor fans of the book, it’s best to come to terms with the fact that the only thing World War Z has in common with its source material is the fact that there are zombies. There is one reference to Israel’s response to zombie rumors, but that’s it. Believe me, I know the book is excellent but allow me to play devil’s advocate here. Would a strict adaptation of Brooks’ book work as a movie? Perhaps, but it takes place years after the titular World War Z. I understand the producers’ wishes to set the movie in the middle of the crises, adding urgency and an immediate sense of suspense. Once you go that route, there are certain limitations to your storytelling. Unless you were going to go the Crash-style ensemble route, you’re going to need a central character/hero to tie it all together, and that too limits your storytelling options. Gerry can hop around the globe but we’re still only following one man’s personal experiences. While in the air, we see in the distance below a mushroom cloud rising. Who detonated an atomic bomb and why? We never know, and it’s that sort of in-the-moment fog of war madness that helps the movie operate. I enjoyed watching the small moments of society breaking down. Factoring in all that, I’d say that the big-screen edition of Brooks’ book is a passable starter, an appetizer that gets you hungry for more.

This movie is one of the first global-scale zombie outbreak films I can recall. Usually the zombie subgenre is told in confined spaces, remote locations, intimate settings. Danny Boyle had some larger London set pieces with 28 Days Later but that was still a film about dark corridors and small places. The scale of World War Z is what sets it apart. There is a degree of fascination watching the world come apart, and watching it fall apart in so many places adds to that. Gerry hops from one hotspot to the next in his quest and we watch as each new location goes to hell. It gives a greater sense to the dire threat out there. In the information age, and with Gerry’s U.N. connections, he can get global reports, and to learn that nowhere is safe helps maximize the pandemic threat and sense of urgency. I didn’t even mind Forster’s decision to present the teeming armies of the undead like there were a swarm of bees, rolling and tumbling over one another, forming formidable human pyramids. It’s a fairly spooky image and relates back to the nature-undone alchemy that makes zombies tick, plus it gives an extra sinister edge to the zombies. High-walled structures are not the sanctuaries we might have assumed. The true terror afforded by zombies, beyond the fact that the monster is us, is its inevitability; it doesn’t matter what you do, they will get you. There are more of them, and they don’t require food, water, sleep, and have only one goal. Adding to that sense of doom I think is a good move, and the raging sea of human bodies also helps Forster keep the PG-13 rating the studio dictated. I didn’t really miss the blood/gore, though one sequence where Gerry slices off a soldier’s infected arm seems a bit too clean and precise.

I criticized Forster’s skills directing action after 2008’s deeply disappointing Bond misfire, Quantum of Solace. The man showed no real feel for action sequences. Perhaps the man found a greater appeal to World War Z because there are some genuinely thrilling action and suspense sequences here and Forster deserves credit. The Israel sequence degenerates at a horrifying speed, and I loved the touch of caged passageways being erected through streets as a last-second defense from falling zombies. The initial stop in South Korea is at night and in the rain, thwarting Gerry and his team from seeing too far into the distance. It makes for a rather suspenseful sequence that makes good use of darkness and cover. The zombie actors in this movie deserve some recognition. They really get into all their clicks and clacks and add some creepy authenticity to the proceedings. Then there’s the airplane attack, zombies on a plane, that is all over the film’s advertising blitz. It’s a rather entertaining sequence, though one can’t help but provide some class subtext when the first class passengers barricade themselves while the coach passengers are torn apart. I still think Forster would be more at home with smaller dramas but he shows much more prowess for larger material.

brad-pitt-world-war-z-467The reshot third act, thanks to added writers Damon Lindelof (TV’s Lost, Prometheus) and his pal Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), drastically scales down the scope of the pandemic. After two acts of all-out global chaos, we retreat back to the zombie film roots: a small, secluded place. The third act is almost like its own little separate movie. Partly because it’s something different, more horror/suspense than action, as well as being in the confined space, but also because Lindelof and Goddard do a fine job of structuring this concluding chapter. When Gerry gets to a World Health Organization outpost in Wales, he has a simple goal: get from one end of a lab to another. Oh, there are zombies all over the lab. Its narrative simplicity, as well as the clear focus, is a satisfying way to close out a movie that was sort of all over the place. Forster seems to really enjoy the suspense setups that he gets to have fun with in the third act, things like ducking around corners, avoiding zombie detection. The very end provides a ray of hope for humanity… until you fully think out what the consequences are for that hope (the first line of defense shall be hookers). Anyway, it sets up a sequel where mankind can begin fighting back. How do I know this? None other than Gerry’s closing lines are: “This is only the beginning. This war isn’t over.” A bit of hope on Pitt’s part as well there.

And yet with the world falling apart and Pitt our savior, I found myself from the outset very emotionally unengaged with the film. Pitt’s performance is perfectly suited for the material. It’s just the whole family man angle that doesn’t work. I understand it gives Gerry some personal stakes in doing his job but wouldn’t, I don’t know, saving the world be enough when it comes to motivation? It’s your standard reluctant hero’s tale, but the family stuff just kept dragging down Gerry’s character. To begin with, a man looking like Brad Pitt who voluntarily makes pancakes for his kids every morning… sounds like the stuff of fantasies for many. However, it almost keeps him away from his mission, the greater good, and there’s actually a sequence in South Korea where his family literally endangers Gerry’s life by making a phone call. Then the movie keeps cutting back to their existence on an aircraft carrier like I have equal interest in this storyline. One storyline involves Gerry flying the world over and escaping zombies. The other storyline involves whether Karin and the kids will be kicked off the ship. Which would you rather spend time with an as audience member? I didn’t really care about Gerry’s sad wife, played by Mireille Enos from the sad TV show The Killing. I had more invested in the Israeli soldier (Daniella Kerteesz) Gerry teams up with. My father even wanted them to run off together by the end and ditch Karin. I won’t even speak to the awkward storyline where Gerry’s family unofficially adopts a Hispanic kid after his parents die. If only those poor souls had listened to the knowledgeable white man who they took care of.

world-war-z-featurette1The big-screen version of World War Z bears little resemblance to the book of the same name, and that’s okay. Some adjustments are necessary in adapting, like bringing the actions of the story into the present, centering on a major character. As a book fan, I was somewhat disappointed in the unfulfilled potential presented, but as a movie fan I’m more disappointed by the film’s overall execution. There’s a lot of money in this production, the most expensive zombie film of all time, and a lot of talent on both sides of the camera. And yet after even pulling off a mostly effective ending, World War Z is more middling than it ever should be. Brad Pitt is saving the world from zombies; that should be enough, but it’s not. The movie shows flashes of intelligence, of socio-politico commentary, of something greater, but those moments are fleeting and ground down to make way for a mass-appeal action blockbuster. There’s nothing wrong with those sorts of movies (Roland Emmerich does them exceptionally well), but World War Z doesn’t have the brain-headed flair to pull it off. It’s thrilling, in spurts, interesting, in spurts, and entertaining, in spurts, but it fails to coalesce into something truly worthwhile. My allegiance to the book, as well as zombies in general, guarantees I’ll be there for more if World War Z spawns sequels. Hopefully there will be more because there are so many great stories from the book yet to be told (namely, everything).

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Quantum of Solace (2008)

We pick up things almost immediately from where we last left James Bond (Daniel Craig). He’s been wounded by being betrayed by his deceased lover, Vesper (Eva Green). A shadow organization known as Quantum kidnapped Vesper’s boyfriend and threatened to kill him if she did not get close to Bond and then betray him. So now Mr. 007 is on the hunt for anyone associated with this secret club responsible for his lover’s demise. Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) is a slimy businessman who fronts an environmental company but really wants to control world resources. He’s a bigwig with Quantum and Bond follows along, leaving a trail of bodies behind that makes his agency believe he’s gone rogue. But Bond isn’t alone when it comes t seeking vengeance. Camille (Olga Kurylenko) is out to avenge the murder of her family by a Bolivian general, a close ally to Greene. She and Bond form a partnership that naturally extends into the bedroom.

Quantum of Solace feels less like a sequel than a plot hangover. Nothing remarkably new is thrown into the mix, and the story is drilled down to the brass tacks of finding whoever was responsible for Vesper’s betrayal and untimely death. Revenge is a fine motivating factor, and many great movies have been developed around the idea of vengeance, but Quantum of Solace barely takes a breath from the action because it really doesn’t have anything else holding together its tale. By the end of this caper we know precious little more than what we started with. We know there is a big bad shadow organization that “has people everywhere,” as big bad shadow organizations are wont to do in the Bond universe, and we know it’s name is Quantum and that it does bad things. That’s just about it, people. There’s even one plot point that is such a huge rip-off of an iconic image from Goldfinger that I’m baffled that either nobody caught it or they were naïve to think it would be a well-received homage (you’ll know it the instant you see it). The movie is the shortest Bond film ever, barely cracking 100 minutes, a full 40 minutes shorter than Casino Royale. It’s as if the filmmakers are expecting everyone’s good feelings from Casino Royale to cover up for the fact that the story is a leftover. It’s like the plot for Quantum was accomplished by the previous movie; therefore, this flick can be nothing but brawn and steely nerve. I’m not expecting my Bond movies, or even my action movies, to dazzle me with nuanced screenwriting, but I do expect there to be a little more something going on than, “Man chases intel. Gunshots and explosions occur. End.”

Naturally any hiccups or lapses in plot would be overlooked if the action sequences were something to get excited about. Quantum has taken the Bourne mantra to heart, far more so than its Bourne-flavored predecessor, and that means lots of bursts of action but told through quick-cuts that assault the senses. Now, I’m not one of those who complain about the Bourne fighting style and its infamous editing, but imitators generally fail to find the same pizzazz. The flick is front-loaded with 45 minutes or so of solid action but there’s never really any set-up to the action; it just sort of happens. What really hurts the movie is that none of the action sequences is truly memorable. I can easily recall three or four sequences from Casino Royale, but the only sequence in Quantum that I think will stick in my mind is a fight sequence over scaffolding where the camera follows the plunging actors. There are car chases, boat chases, airplane chases, foot chases, and it all has a more realistic vibe without the assistance of technological wizardry. The stunt work is still sterling but it?s fleeting moments of awe in a landscape of forgetful action sequences.

Making the franchise more closely mirror our own world is an interesting and mildly refreshing decision; it sure has helped the Batman franchise. But there are problems when the typical over-the-top fantastical Bond elements sneak back into the movie. The villainous organization Quantum is pretty vague. They look to rule the planet by some means, but then again if the Bond franchise is taking a more realistic approach then having a world-wide secret organization that can infiltrate loads of covert agencies is pushing it. The baddie of this go-round is an effete Euro trash businessman, fine, but don’t give him an axe and pretend that he’s going to be an effective force against Bond. Also, what’s the point of having a glass hotel in the middle of a desert? Why to blow it all to hell, of course. It reminded me a bit of the ridiculous ice palace in 2002’s Die Another Day.

Craig is still one of the best decisions the Bond producers ever made. He brings the same level of intensity he did to his blockbuster introduction to the series. Craig is all bruises and determination, doing whatever he can to get his answers. He does his best to show the humanity beneath the brutality, but the script fails him. He’s more reactionary this time and seems to behave like a missile that’s in search of its target ready to explode. The caged fury is still there but it seems put to less good use. Kurylenko (Max Payne) is less a Bond girl than an ass-kicking sidekick. She’s given some minute amount of back-story but she’s essentially the pretty face that gets to handle the big guns. Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) can be a sleazeball thanks to his natural bug eyes and he doesn’t get much more to do than sneer. He never comes across as being a fierce threat. Gemma Arterton (RocknRolla) is a fairly pedestrian Bond girl with a fairly tame name, Strawberry Fields. She plays the role like a hot librarian coming alive after being seduced by the sexiest man on the planet. Her time in the movie is so short that I question what significance she had other than supplying a requisite sex scene. Dame Judi Dench is still holding her head high amongst all the spy hijinks.

I think I have figured out a way to make Quantum of Solace feel like its own movie, though it does require some creative license. Pretend that Casino Royale ended shortly after Bond was freed from his naked genital torture (it still hurt to think about it). Now, imagine that the opening of Quantum of Solace is the last twenty minutes of Royale, where Bond and Vesper are canoodling in Venice before the bad stuff happens. That sets up Qauntum‘s conflicts and provides a plausible plot trajectory that makes the movie more its own entity; Vesper establishes the conflict, the conflict is resolved by the end of minute 100 (though it would be minute 120 if we’re adding and subtracting parts). Wouldn’t that be a better Bond movie? At least the film would then have one memorable action sequence, albeit the sequence was stolen from another movie.

I suppose my disappointment is coming across more than I intend, because Quantum of Solace is a rather solid action caper with exotic locations, some nifty camerawork, and a brutal efficiency when it comes to pacing out the action. I certainly was entertained and had a fun time with Quantum of Solace, and I?m sure most filmgoers will echo that experience. But in the age of a realistic James Bond cribbing from the Bourne franchise, I was expecting more than a leftover from an earlier albeit terrific movie.

Nate’s Grade:C+

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Ever think your life would make for a good story? Be careful what you wish for. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is hearing voices. They aren’t telling him to kill or do anything subversive. In fact it’s just one voice, an English woman, and she isn’t instructing Crick to do anything. No, she’s more so just… narrating. She comes in and out and expresses the doldrums of Crick?s life. He’s an IRS agent whose life revolves around order, repetition, and numbers. We can even see his inner tabulations thanks to some snazzy onscreen visual effects. Crick is sent to audit Anna (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker with a disdain for civil servants and authority. Crick is stricken by this shrewd beauty and finds himself wanting her, something the Narrator affirms for him. Crick’s life takes a dour turn when the Narrator lets on that Harold Crick had set in motion his “imminent death.” Crick is confused and seeks advice from Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) an expert on literature. Then they figure out the Narrator is Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a famous writer who has the unfortunate habit of bumping off every one of her main characters.

Make no mistake, Stranger than Fiction is funny, but it’s a different kind of funny than most people are accustomed to with Ferrell. In my theater, I kept an eye on a gaggle of teenagers sitting several rows in front of me. I just wanted to observe their body language and what I saw was a lot of fidgeting, getting up for trips to bathrooms and popcorn, and lots of whispery talk. I can only imagine the disappointment of those teenagers expecting Ferrell to rip his clothes off and run around like a buffoon. They were likely busily thumbing away at their ever-present cell phones, text messaging their friends. People that are looking for a wild, sidesplitting, slapstick comedy are going to shaking their head. Stranger than Fiction is funny, but it’s in a very dry, witty way, much like British humor; it’s a humor you can admire for being clever but might not make you roll in any aisle.

The biggest fans of Stranger than Fiction will be bookworms. This is a very literate movie that works better for those with an appreciation or outright love of literature and storytelling. Professor Hilbert doesn’t initially believe Crick until he learns that Crick’s narrator said, “Little did he know.” That, ladies and gents, is all a professor of literature needs. He has to rule out what kind of story Crick may be apart of, so he subjects Crick to a series of hilarious questions along the lines of treasure-inheriting, nemesis-making, and magical-creature befriending. Crick keeps a notebook to tally examples in his life that may point to whether he is part of a Comedy or a Tragedy. Professor Hilton even explains the difference: in grand Shakespearean tradition, a comedy ends with people getting hitched and a tragedy ends with people getting snuffed. This is all fabulously witty and extremely fun, but I can think you’ll see why hard-core fans of Old School and Talladega Nights might be heading for the exits.

Writer Zach Helm has created a wonderfully whimsical tale that’s trippy but manages to still have warmth and a firm heart. It’s far more embraceable a movie than, say, Adaptation, and less smug. He has a smart sense of humor and loves deconstructing literature, like the Jasper Fforde (The Thursday Next books) of screenwriting. We are really sucked into the movie from the moment we can hear Thompson. The story has an innocence to it and this existential comedy feels out there but still grounded; it’s surprisingly poignant and full of dramatic revelations. Even better, Helm has done something that few have achieved: he wrote a story-within-a-story that works. Kay’s narrative voice is highly droll in her observations on Harold Crick’s life. It sounds like a genuine novel, and on top of that, a novel I would enjoy reading. Stranger than Fiction is all the proof I need that Helm is a talent to keep track of.

The performers all seem to have the same affection for the material. Ferrell is making that leap from funnyman into leading man, the same dramatic territory Robin Williams first tiptoed in Good Morning Vietnam and, likewise, Jim Carrey approached in The Truman Show. Ferrell won’t turn any heads but he underplays his performance maturely, playing a sad but sweet drone of a human being finally taking charge of his life under very insane circumstances. There’s a quiet moment toward the end where Ferrell is told he must accept his fate and he sits, shell-shocked, tearing up, his voice getting softer with every word. It’s only a moment but it piques my interest in what Ferrell may have in the tank. The comedy he can do in spades, including a desperate moment when he tries narrating his own life to coax his Narrator out of hiding.

Who will turn heads, however, is Gyllenhaal. I can already see a nation of teen boys falling in love with her tattooed, punky baker. To them I say, get in line pals, Gyllenhaal has made me dot my I’s with hearts ever since her star-making performance in 2002’s kinky romantic comedy, Secretary. She’s easy to fall in love with and expresses a fragile compassion to her role. The romance between Anna and Crick is unexpected but these two people need each other, and you feel that need as you watch their eyes light up as their relationship blossoms. Late moments between them add to the tenderness of the film and you will be on your knees pleading Crick is spared so he can return to loving Anna. I think Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” will become a potential staple on romantic teenage mix CDs sent to their sweethearts from now on.

Thompson and Hoffman have appealing supporting performances. Thompson has marvelous fun thinking of different grisly outcomes in store for Crick. Her interaction with the hospital staff to see the “not gonna make it people” is a howl. But Thompson is too good of an actress to play it straight. Once she discovers the life-altering implications of her writing she is crushed by guilt, obsessed over killing good people cruelly. Frankly, if I had anyone narrating my life, Thompson’s voice would definitely rank high. Hoffman plays a dedicated literary professor like a straight man, and everything seems on the level for him, even the fantastic. It’s a nice touch for a film that doesn’t require broad strokes.

The movie doesn’t have the depth of feeling or dark turnarounds that I know Charlie Kaufman would have done. Stranger than Fiction has a lot of fun with a very ripe premise, and is very intellectually stimulating, but you do feel like it could have gone further, exploring the reaches and implications of its metaphysical setup. What if someone who read Kay’s manuscript thought it was such a masterpiece, a shining light of literature that could move mountains, that they knew Crick must die, and that they must kill him to make certain of it. Or what about the relationship between author and character, and the role each has over the other and perhaps a battle over the future, a typewriter, and a happy ending at the end of a tunnel. However, while all of these options would further explore the novel premise, it would betray the movie’s whimsical tone. This isn’t a very dark movie. It has an authentic sweetness to it, and Crick is a gentle and kind man, and to do anything too heavy would work against the film’s tone. The movie explores existential queries and the topics can be grim, but ultimately Stranger than Fiction is life affirming.

Stranger than fiction also has a buoyant, unexpectedly pleasing romance to it. Again, it doesn’t show the depth of love and human feeling that Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine could, but this is an unfair comparison. This romance is more a subplot that carries increasing weight thanks to heartwarming performances and the winsomely adorable Gyllenhaal. The romance in Eternal Sunshine was the story, and everything else was outside variable coming into contact. It might sound dismissive to call Stranger than Fiction as decaf Charlie Kaufman, but it really is a compliment. Kaufman is the most exciting, brilliant, creative, insightful, and whacked out screenwriter working today. I would give one of my kidneys to write even one story that could be described as decaf Kaufman. Stranger than Fiction may not examine as many themes, conflicts, or relationships as Kaufman might with the material, but this movie is a sweet fable that floats by like a fluffy cloud on a sunny day. It’s just so damn pleasant you sort of soak it in and fall in love, not wanting to leave.

Stranger than Fiction is strange, all right, but gloriously so. Scribe Zach Helm has concocted an existential fairy tale aimed for bookworms and outsiders. The premise is clever but the film doesn’t stop there, and Helm explores the implications of his premise with whimsy, charm, and a sweetness that is hard to rebuke. The wacky story seems reminiscent of Kaufman’s works, but it has a more heartwarming and embraceable appeal. Great performances from a game cast help to push the material even further into excellence. It has a small handful of flaws, perhaps a too limited scope, but that doesn’t stop Stranger than Fiction from being one of the best stories of 2006 and one of the best movies too.

Nate?s Grade: A-

Stay (2005)

This is a movie that piles on the mystery and clues but once the finish does arrive I was left saying, “That’s all there is?” There’s so little to this film that, in retrospect, it’s simply blowing off the dust on An Occurrence at Owl Creek (I may have said too much). The trickery Stay throws at you is slightly intriguing but mostly confounding and, once the reveal tidies everything up, wholly unsatisfying. Part of the problem is that I didn’t care about any of the characters, so I didn’t really care about their plight. Yes I get it that there is a reason for how shallow they are, but the only thing Stay had to keep me going was my waning interest in what the hell is going on with everything. I’m not the biggest fan of Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) as a director, and he serves Stay to good and harmful effect. Forster gooses the film with all sorts of visual trickery like jump cuts, using twins and triplets as extras in backgrounds, repeating scenes, playing around with blocking, and lots and lots of spiral staircases (hello, Vertigo). And you do realize that most of these disorienting stylistic decisions have a seemingly coherent reason in retrospect, but it also effectively pushes the audience away from the story, aided by the fact that no one can get into the characters. The entire affair seems pointless and empty but it is pretty to look at. I’m sure I’d garner more from a second look, but I really just don’t want to see Stay again.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Finding Neverland (2004)

My friend George Bailey and I came to a similar conclusion during a recent conversation. There are a handful of movies, usually released around this time of year, that are packed to the gills with awards hype and general goodwill. Then I see them and feel underwhelmed for whatever reason and I walk out and feel that I should like the movie more than I do (if I do at all). I don’t know what to call it, societal guilt, elitism, but this is exactly what I felt when I left Finding Neverland.

J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is in search of his next play. It?s 1903 London, and the financier (Dustin Hoffman) of his last play has taken a financial bath. Barrie’s also emotionally closed off from his wife (Radha Mitchell). One day in the park, Barrie stumbles across Sylvia (Kate Winslet), a widow managing four boys by her lonesome. Barrie takes a shining to her children and delights in spending long days with Sylvia and her boys. From his encounters with Sylvia and the boys, Barrie works up the inspiration to write a new story, called Peter Pan. Of course the public has its own gossip about a married man gallivanting about with a widow and her boys (think recent Michael Jackson scandals). Then there?s Sylvia?s mother (Julie Christie), who is set to put her house back in order starting with removing Barrie from their lives.

The message of the movie is about the need for adults to slow down, open their imagination, and become bewitched by the power of believing. Because it’s not like there aren’t any other Hollywood movies out there that teach us to loosen up and enjoy life. Thank you Finding Neverland, I never would have found this out by myself. The message of belief overpowering all is also a bit naive, but then it works into the whole cross-stitching of sap the movie is generating.

Not even Depp can save the film. Long established as one of the most versatile and exciting actors, Depp finds ways to disappear into his oddball characters. In Finding Neverland, Depp sports an impressive Scottish brogue, but, sadly, this is the most impressive aspect about his performance. There had been much talk about Finding Neverland being Depp’s next opportunity at finding Oscar, but it would be a shame if Depp won for such a lackluster, artificial performance especially when he’s been brilliant so consistently in other movies. J.M. Barrie was somewhat eccentric, but in Finding Neverland he comes off as mostly vacant. The film tries to show that Barrie didn’t really fit in, but instead of becoming a showcase for Depp’s acting it becomes a showcase for Depp’s silence. The performance is so subtle that it doesn’t even come off as a performance. If Depp stood in the background of a movie, it would be akin to this performance.

Winslet has also been a very versatile actor. Her role in Finding Neverland never really deepens beyond Disadvantaged Woman. She’s been hit by adversity, she’s beset by four rambunctious kids and an icy mother, but that’s about all the film does for her characterization. Winslet is a tremendously talented actor, as evidenced by her Oscar-worthy performance in this year’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So why strand her in a role where her character’s greatest acting moment is coughing fits?

Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) has the frustrating habit of having two shot styles he shoots in. He decides between medium shots which usually involve two or three people, or large close-ups. While I was watching Finding Neverland I never once thought to myself that something was filmed in a visually interesting way. Some of Forster’s decisions seem unnecessary, like when he has to visually show us scenes of imagination instead of allowing the audience to, gasp, use their own imagination (hey, isn’t that the message of the movie?).

Finding Neverland tries so hard to be a three-hanky movie (and truth be told I heard a lot of sniffling in my theater during the last half hour), but what stops the film short is how unbelievably transparent everything is. Finding Neverland could have explored the rich complexity of an enigmatic figure like J.M. Barrie, but instead it settles for goopy sentimentality at every opportunity. Barrie becomes sugar-coated into an earnest father figure, and in the process key facts are sugar-coated as well. What do you mean? Well, Sylvia’s husband didn’t die until several years after Barrie wrote Peter Pan. Barrie’s wife didn’t have her affair until long after Peter Pan. Also, the original Peter threw himself in front of a train because of how upset he was about his connection to the famous character. I guess that’s why this is a biographical movie merely “inspired” by true events, much like Hidalgo.

The filmmakers rely on cloying tricks to make an audience care about its characters. The movie paints in very stark black and white tones, mainly “adults = shortsighted” and “children = special.” This is a film that is proud to take the easy road and makes little effort to cover its pride. It plays toward audience expectation and thus loses any long lasting magic.

Finding Neverland takes the easy road for audience-friendly sappiness. Barrie insists that 25 orphans be strategically placed around the theater on opening night of Peter Pan. Sure enough, the theater is full of old white men with monocles, and apparently they just don’t get the spirit of theater. The orphans laugh and squeal from the stage antics, and somehow this triggers all those old curmudgeons to learn to laugh once again. You see, all it takes is strategically placed orphans to make us laugh at life again.

When Sylvia is hanging laundry she starts to gently cough. If you’re smart, you’ll instantly figure out what trajectory is in store for her, but even if you miss this single cough don’t worry, because Sylvia will be doubled over with coughing later to spell it out for everyone. You can all but see the strings being pulled (the audience will cry… now!). All can be overcome in the end, those who didn’t understand will, and we’ll all be happier and live life to the fullest, in theory of course.

Finding Neverland wants to be Shakespeare in Love, another whimsical movie that shows how a writer utilized the people and events around them to pen a masterwork. Except in Shakespeare in Love there was a romance to fall back on, as well as some ripe comedy, but with Finding Neverland there isn’t anything to fall back on. It’s a Hallmark card mass-marketed to the largest possible audience.

Everything about Finding Neverland is disappointingly under whelming. The direction is shabby, the actors are marooned by their weak roles, and nothing is sacred in the film’s pursuit of that tearjerker ending. This is a movie for people that ask little of their movies, and yet I can reasonably see Finding Neverland becoming an audience favorite and riding good word of mouth all the way to awards season. Finding Neverland is a film that never takes flight because it’s too content to stay grounded by going the easy route.

[Nate’s Grade: C

Monster’s Ball (2001)

Monster’s Ball has already garnered two Oscar nominations, including one for the lovely Halle Berry for Best Actress, and received numerous end of the year accolades. Is Monster’s Ball the startling ruminations on race that you’re being told? Well… yes and no.

Set in the South, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are prison guards at the state penitentiary and preparing for an execution. The man to die is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) who will be leaving behind an overweight young son and making a widow out of Leticia (Halle Berry). The tension in the Grotowski home escalates especially as Hank has chosen to care for his own ailing father (Peter Boyle), who still finds the time to spout out racist rhetoric through an oxygen mask. One last confrontation leaves a permanent mark of emptiness on the family.

Leticia is struggling to just make ends meet and fight an impending eviction. Her car keeps breaking down on her, she’s been let go from her job as a waitress and she has to raise a son by herself all the while trying to encourage him to lose weight. Leticia is breaking down and her world around her is crumbling. One night Leticia gets into an accident walking home along the roadside and needs assistance badly. The one who pulls the car aside to help is actually Hank. As time goes by he helps Leticia however he can whether its giving her a ride home from the diner or just staying with her so she won’t be alone.

Hank and Leticia come together out of mutual need and grief. They are two people entirely wrong for each other that kindle a passion that seems to transcend race. Leticia needs someone to take care of her, after having a husband on death row and fighting to stay above the poverty line. Hank needs someone to take care of, out of a mixture of compounded loneliness and grief.

Thornton reprises the repressed protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There with his portrayal of Hank. His lips are pursed, looking a tad like Mr. Limpet, and he expresses more with a furrowed brow and stare than words could manage. Thornton’s performance is good, and the audience does really end up rooting for Hank, but the performance doesn’t resonate, possibly because of the writing for the character. I guess one could say Monster’s Ball is Halle Berry’s legitimization as an actress. Berry gives the performance of her career and has moments where she’s on the verge of ripping your heart out.

Monster’s Ball is not exactly the scorching portrait of race relations that it has been hyped to be. It’s really more of a story about two characters with race being underscored except for a convenient occasion where it can become the catalyst to a fight.

The film also takes some of its metaphors rather simply. The connection between father and son includes Hank and Sonny using the same prostitute. Hank eats every night in the same diner and always orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream (get it?) and black coffee (get it?).

All the ballyhoo over the explicit sex scene (thank you so much news-fluff) is undeserving. The sex scene is no different than a hundred seen before and many on Showtime during the late hours. The scene serves its purpose thematically in the story for its characters but it really isn’t “hot and steamy” as it’s been dubbed to be. Move along, folks.

Besides the acting Monster’s Ball has some other accomplishments up its sleeve. The cinematography is gorgeous and uses lights and darks to an incredibly effective degree. There are many scenes where you might be paying more attention to how the scene looks than the scene itself. The music is also commendable for the simple task of not becoming intrusive and actually enhancing the story. This is what scores are intended to do.

Monster’s Ball may be the biggest suck-in-air-uncomfortably movie to come out in a long time. I found myself enacting this measure every time someone did something horrible, said something racists or surprisingly died. This may be because I had the entire theater to myself for my own amusement. Monster’s Ball is certainly a well-written and well-acted film. It’s just not up to snuff when it comes to Best Picture speculation.

Nate’s Grade: B

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