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Shazam! (2019)

It seems like the secret to the success of the DC movie universe is making fun, lower stakes adventures with the characters the public has the least knowledge about. Shazam actually begun as a “Captain Marvel,” and now comes on the heels of the MCU’s Captain Marvel. We follow Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenage orphan trying to find his missing mother. He stumbles into a wizard’s realm and is given a special power whereupon he turns into a square-jawed, broad-shouldered superhero (Zachary Levi) by saying “Shazam.” What follows is like a superhero version of Big and it’s goofy, charming, and reminiscent of an 80s Amblin movie, where children’s movies were allowed to be a little creepy and weird. The movie is light, cheerful, and heartfelt with its doling out of family messages to go along with the slapstick and personal growth. It’s very much envisioned from a young boy’s fantasy perspective of being a super-powered adult, where the first things to be done include buying beer, going to a “gentleman’s club,” in between testing out bullet invulnerability and flight. Levi (TV’s Chuck) is excellent at playing an adult version of a kid. I was initially dismissive of his casting but he’s perfect for this part. There’s a satisfying sense of discovery for Shazam and his excitable foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer) that doesn’t get old. The movie is more concerned with how the superpowers are affecting Billy’s relationships and sense of self than any larger, planet-destroying danger. The film even sets up its villain (Mark Strong) by giving him a decent back-story and opening the movie to explain his crummy family. It’s not a three-dimensional villain by any means but the attention given to make him something more is appreciated. The other foster kids in Billy’s new family are more archetypes but amusing, and their involvement in the final act raises the joy level of the finale. Shazam! is a movie where people are genuinely excited to be superheroes or associated with them, and that gleeful, buoyant revelry is downright infectious.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I’ve written before that director Matthew Vaughn is the best big screen filmmaker when it comes to making the most of studio money. This is the man who made Daniel Craig Bond, rejuvenated the dormant X-Men franchise, and gifted Fox a twenty-first century James Bond of its own. The first Kingsman movie was one of the best films of 2015 and was bursting with attitude, style, and perverse entertainment. It was my favorite James Bond movie that was never a Bond movie. Success demanded a sequel, and now Kingsman: The Golden Circle is upon us and proof that Vaughn may be mortal after all.

Eggsy (Taron Eagleton) is living a charmed life now that he’s earned his place within the ultra-secret, ultra-powerful Kingsman spy organization. In between battling villains and the riffraff, Eggsy tries to maintain some semblance of a normal life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), who, yeah, happens to be the princess of Sweden. Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug baron in the vein of Martha Stewart. She’s tired of lurking in seclusion in the jungles of Cambodia and wants the credit she deserves as the most successful businesswoman. She locates the homes of the remaining Kingsman and blows them up, leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong). Poppy takes aim at the war on drugs. She infects her own product with a deadly agent and holds the world hostage. Unless global leaders decriminalize drugs, millions of infected people will die. In the meantime, Eggsy and Merlin travel to Kentucky to seek out help from their American brethren, the Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry), a clandestine spy organization that also doubles as a gargantuan bourbon distillery.

With Vaughn back at the helm I expected the best, and while Kingsman: The Golden Circle has plenty to like there is noticeably less to love. Being a sequel means that what once felt fresh will now lose some measure of its appeal and charm, and Vaughn and company do falter at times under the pressure to live up to what they established with their rip-roaring spy caper of an original. The brilliant structure of the first movie (mentorship, spy camp competition, class conflict themes) cannot be readily duplicated. There are interesting story elements here but Golden Circle doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, including with the titular Golden Circle. The villains never really feel that threatening. Poppy’s scheme is great and the 1950s diner iconography of her home is an eye-catching lair worthy of a demented Bond villain. It’s just that it feels like we never get a villain worthy of their wicked scheme. Where did she get all of this tech? Her henchmen are lackluster and a lackey with a cybernetic arm (Edward Holcroft) is no competition for Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) and her slashing blade legs. When the bad guys don’t feel like much of a challenge, it deflates the stakes and enjoyment factor of the big finale. It’s a series of ideas that need to be pushed further, refined, revised, and better developed. The first film was packed with surprises and payoffs both big and small, and the sequel feels lacking in payoffs of any kind.

The Statesmen are more a pit stop than integral plot element. You would think a majority of the film would be the international clash between Yanks and Brits, supplying some of that class friction that energized the first film. With the exception of Pedro Pascal (Narcos), you could eliminate them from the movie with minimal damage to the story. Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) has gotten large placement in the advertisement but he is literally put on ice for a majority of the movie. The exaggerated cartoon nature of the Statesmen feels like Vaughn’s goof on American hyper machismo, but they stay at that same cartoon level throughout. They feel like parody figures, and Vaughn sidelines their involvement. The spy missions are a letdown. There’s an enemy compound atop a mountain in Italy, and all they do is walk inside, immediately grab the thing they need, and immediately run away. It all adds up to a two-hour-plus movie that’s still consistently enjoyable but also consistently unmemorable.

There are things in The Golden Circle that feel like they’re here just because of fan response rather than narrative necessity. The biggest offender is the return of Harry (Colin Firth). He served his purpose bringing Eggsy into the clandestine yet dapper world of the Kingsman, modeling as a father figure, and dying to push our protagonist onward. Bringing him back to life doesn’t serve the story except to bring back a character we genuinely liked. In this sequel, his return and subsequent amnesia doesn’t force Eggsy to retrain his former mentor. Instead he’s mostly a tag-along as another character to shoot the bad guys. Harry simply shouldn’t be here, and resurrecting him takes away from the shock of his death and the weight of his loss. They even recreate the “manners maketh man” bar fight, except the inclusion is so contrived that I thought it was all some kind of Statesman plan to ease Harry back into fighting shape. Nope. Another aspect that feels forced is Eggsy’s relationship with the princess of Sweden. This feels like an apology for the crass joke from the first movie that upset people’s delicate sensibilities (apparently this was worse than a montage of people’s heads exploding). The relationship feels forced and every time the movie cuts back to his troubles with Tilde, they feel small and annoying. It’s like Vaughn is trying to salvage a risqué joke by turning them into a committed couple. Then again the “mucus membrane” moment in Golden Circle (you’ll know it when you see it) seems like a renewed attempt at being transgressive.

The action set pieces have their moments but like everything else there are few that stand out or will stand the test of time. The film starts off strong with a brutal fistfight inside a speeding car. Even with the cramped quarters, it feels easy to follow, creatively inventive, and exciting. As the fight continues, the sequence loses its creative verve and becomes indistinguishable from any other silly Bond car chase. The big finale where the remaining Kingsman storm Poppy’s jungle compound has some cool moments, like Eggsy taking cover behind a giant rolling donut. Regrettably, the action sequences lack the snap and imagination that have defined Vaughn’s films, proving to be yet another underdeveloped aspect. The hand-to-hand fight choreography is still strong and stylish. The final fight between Eggsy and the metallically armed henchman has the fluidity, vision, and fun that were missing from the other scuffles. I’ll credit Vaughn with finding ways to make a lasso and whip look badass and integrating it elegantly with fight choreography (no easy task, right, season five of Game of Thrones?). I kept patiently waiting for any sequence that grabbed my attention like the insane church massacre.

There are two elements in The Golden Circle that rise to the level of entertainment of the first film, and one of those is literally Elton John. It starts off as a cameo with John being kidnapped and forced to perform for Poppy’s private audience. Then he just keeps appearing. He passes over from cameo to downright supporting actor, and just when you think you’ve had enough and that Vaughn has overindulged his Elton John fandom, here comes a climactic solution that is inspired and completely justifies the repeated John appearances. I howled with laughter and wanted to clap in appreciation. It was the best setup-payoff combo in the entire film. The other creative highpoint is a treacherous left turn into the politics of the war on drugs. Poppy argues how legal consumables like alcohol and sugar are far more deadly and addictive. I’ve heard all those arguments before about the hypocritical nature of the war on drugs from every armchair philosopher. Where the film really surprised me was when it gave voice to a nasty perspective I’ve heard in response to the rising opioid crisis in America. Some view drug addicts more as criminals needing to be punished rather than victims needing a helping hand and treatment. When Poppy makes her demands, there are government representatives that openly cheer her ploy, believing they can wipe out the junkie scum. This unsympathetic yet eerily resonant response felt like Vaughn and company finding organic ways to raise the stakes and bring in more sinister forces.

The movie never addresses one holdover from the original Kingsman that I think deserves at least a passing mention, and that’s the fact that every government leader or head of state in Western democracy had their head explode. That kind of public service vacuum would sow plenty of chaos and controversy, especially when people discovered that their elected leaders were complicit with the plan to kill the world’s remaining population. I feel like this was such a huge event that it at least deserves a cursory mention of some sort.

With the glut of disappointing and alternatively maddening action cinema this year, I’ll still gladly take Vaughn’s reheated leftovers. Kingsman: The Golden Circle feels like it’s succumbing to the bombastic spy hijinks it was satirizing before, losing some semblance of its identity and wit to crank out an acceptable though unmemorable sequel. It lacks the sense of danger and genre reinvention that powered the first film. Vaughn’s signature style is still present and there are fun and intriguing story elements available; however, the development is what’s missing. The cool stuff is there but Golden Circle just doesn’t know what to do with it, and so we gallop to the finale feeling a mild dissatisfaction. Apparently the studio execs at Fox want Vaughn to get started on a third Kingsman as soon as possible. I just hope he hasn’t lost his interest in the franchise he birthed. It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Miss Sloane (2016)

timthumbMiss Sloane is an intelligent and exacting political thriller that should appease fans of the genre who enjoy a good arm-twisting from a powerful manipulator, in this instance the towering and intimidating full force of Jessica Chastain. She plays the titular Sloane, the best lobbyist inside the beltway, and a woman who leaves the comfort of her firm for the challenge of taking on the gun industry to help pass a reform bill. From there it’s an underdog tale powered by the winds of moral righteousness and given a tough-talking yet flawed hero that will burn down whatever she can, including her own reputation, to win. The biggest draw is the performance from Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) as she gets to yell at people for approximately two hours and look good doing it. It’s a game of persuasion and leverage and D.C. voter politics, and she makes the constant stream of information accessible while providing a focal point for our interest. It’s a pretty information heavy film with a minimal of supporting characters that stand out (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a school shooting survivor-turned-team member is the notable exception). With her victory never in doubt no matter the odds, the movie establishes that it exists in a parallel world where actual gun control reforms can be advanced. In the wake of doing nothing from Sandy Hook, this must be a fantasy world. Director John Madden (The Debt) keeps the tone as cool and calculated as his heroine. The script by Jonathan Perera is plenty smart though the final act relies upon some unbelievable shenanigans that betray its sense of pragmatic realism. Still, the cunning gamesmanship of a pro working the levers of power for a worthy cause allows for some liberal fantasy indulgence. Miss Sloane is a suitably entertaining thriller that whisks you away and says even “bad people” have a purpose in our broken political system.

Nate’s Grade: B

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

indexDirector Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service is my favorite James Bond movie. It’s everything you’d want in a spy thriller while charting its own edgy direction. It’s a combination of Bond and My Fair Lady, and I never knew how brilliant that combination could be until Vaughn got his hands on the graphic novel source material. Newcomer Taron Egerton lays on plenty of star-making charm as a spy-in-training under the guidance of a dapper gentleman brawler Colin Firth. The spy hijinks are fun and stylish but what Vaughn does just about better than any other big-budget filmmaker is pack his movie with payoffs small and large so that the end result is a dizzying rush of audience satisfaction. The action sequences are exhilarating, in particular a frenzied church massacre made to appear as a single take. I never would have thought of the tweedy Firth as an action hero, but he sure plays the part well. There’s also an awesome villainous henchwoman who has blades for legs, and the film makes fine use of this unique killing apparatus. Kingsman explodes with attitude, wit, dark surprises, and knowing nods to its genre forbearers. Vaughn is a filmmaker that has become a trusted brand. He has an innate ability to fully utilize the studio money at his disposal to create daringly entertaining movies that walk to their own stylish beat. This is a cocksure adrenaline shot of entertainment that left me begging for more.

Nate’s Grade: A

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

1902Director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, Oscar winners for 2009’s Best Picture-winner war film The Hurt Locker, were hard at work on their next movie when fate intervened. They were about to start production on a film about a 2001 incident where U.S. Special Forces almost nabbed Osama bin Laden, the notorious mastermind behind 9/11. Then on May 1, 2011, the world learned that Seal Team Six stormed bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan and executed the most wanted man in the world. Bigelow and Boal scrapped all plans and rewrote their movie from scratch. Now they had the ending we’d all demand; isn’t a movie where we get bin Laden way better than one where he narrowly escapes? Zero Dark Thirty (military terminology for well after dark) is the stunning result of Boal’s impressive reporting and condensing, Bigelow’s masterful direction, and a great supporting cast that brings history to vivid life. If you’re like me, you’ll walk out of the theater whistling to yourself, speechless at the spellbinding artistic achievement of the movie. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what essential, invigorating, quality filmmaking is all about.

We may know about Seal Team Six and the lead presented from tracking the courier, but few people know of the CIA analyst at the heart of the manhunt. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young agent stationed in Afghanistan who desires nothing more than to be the one who helps ensure that bin Laden gets killed. We follow her decade-long quest as she chases down leads, interrogates prisoners, and successfully presses the CIA brass for action, resulting in the fateful raid that took out bin Laden.

96597_galYou can tell early on that Zero Dark Thirty is going to be an excellent film. Given the pedigree of is creators, my expectations were enormously high. I rated their previous collaboration as my top film of that year. I knew I was in capable hands when the film opens on September 11, 2001 but skips any visuals. We sit and watch a minute of a blank screen while the sounds of desperate 911 calls become a wall of sound. It’s enough to reassert the stakes while still being restrained. Bigelow’s directorial command is astonishing, pitting you in the thick of the action. There are a lot of moving parts with a movie like this, wheels within wheels, and Bigelow keeps everything moving and focused. It helps that the bigger manhunt is broken up into a series of mini-missions over the ten years. Bigelow and her talented production team have recreated the ends of the world to bring this story to life. That added sheen of verisimilitude gives every moment a sense of magnified power, an electric sense of relevancy. You’ll get goose bumps as they start circling the actual location of bin Laden. Bigelow, who won an Oscar for her virtuoso work on The Hurt Locker, still knows how to play every one of your nerves. There’s a clandestine meet up with a possible turncoat that is stuffed with dread. Every checkpoint, every safety procedure waved, you’ll be biting your nails, the voice in your head clearly saying, “Oh no, this isn’t going to go well.” Zero Dark Thirty is more crime procedural than the action thriller. Even so, Bigelow’s direction is top-notch and brings an intense, churning verve to the film, down to the smallest detail.

The film plays out like an absorbing, hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism, recreating the steps and false turns over the ten-year manhunt for bin Laden. There is a lot of information to process and over 100 speaking roles, and Boal and Bigelow do not stoop to pander to the less intelligent in the audience. You will be expected to catch up or fall behind. It can get confusing at points but Boal does an exceedingly articulate job of narrowing the particulars of the bin Laden case and presenting a clear through line. It’s a story that hops around the globe through a series of mini-missions, from a meet up with a possible al Qaeda spy to locking down a phone number to trace a courier in Pakistan. You see every step, every deal, and every effort that it takes to land the big break, namely tracking down bin Laden’s trusted courier to his Abbottabad compound. Boal even separates his narrative with titled sub-sections like a lengthy piece of journalism. We all know where the story is going to end up, but Boal’s supreme talent is making every step meaningful and tense leading up to that fateful raid May 1, 2011. The level of reportage detail is completely enthralling and will be relatively unknown to most filmgoers. Beyond 9/11 and the London bombings, I confess to being ignorant of the other al Qaeda attacks highlighted throughout. Therefore, not only is Zero Dark Thirty an exciting manhunt, it’s also an educational endeavor for most Americans.

92973_galThe proceeding two hours are an engrossing manhunt, but when Zero Dark Thirty gets to the raid sequence, that is when the movie ascends to a level of cinematic excellence unsurpassed this year at the movies. There is nothing else in 2012 that comes close to matching the 30-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound. My heart was in my throat the whole time. I was physically shaking. I was pinned to my chair. The conclusion, nabbing bin Laden, is one of the most riveting sequences in film I have ever seen. It’s like Bigelow has complete control of your senses, and even though we all know how this story ends, you’ll be glued to the screen, pulse racing, anticipating every step. After the film ended, I told my friend Eric that I felt like I needed to start smoking, thus was how exhilarated I felt leaving the theater (message to kids: don’t smoke, even if you see Zero Dark Thirty). My head was bustling afterwards. All I could think about was the masterful conclusion to a very good movie. The raid sequence is brilliantly recreated and just about portrayed in exacting real time; you feel like you’re right there along with the members of Seal Team Six. For a civilian, it’s fascinating jut to watch the minutiae of what went down, but under Bigelow’s taut direction, it’s the moment every American has been waiting for since September 11, 2001. Bigelow is also careful not to portray the death in any sort of jingoistic, fist-pumping context. She sticks with her docu-drama approach, avoiding sensationalism, and you don’t even see the shot that takes down bin Laden. The film is also very careful not to linger on bin Laden’s dead body or even reveal his face; she doesn’t, as President Obama said, “spike the football.” Bigelow deserves a second Oscar just for her superlative handling of those unparalleled 30 minutes of pure filmmaking bravado. Plus, it’s the best ending of the year at the movies.

Let me address the brewing controversy ensnaring the movie regarding its depiction of torture. Zero Dark Thirty does demonstrate torture but it never glorifies it or presents it as anything less than dehumanizing and morally repugnant. But torture did happen (I’m sorry Dick Cheney… “enhanced interrogations”) and to whitewash this regrettable period of time from the historical record is a disservice to the truth. This country, as well as any other, engages in extreme and detestable measures; we only hope that our leaders have the moral clarity to make these ethical lapses as few and far between as possible. Now, the politicians and bloggers have attacked Bigelow’s movie as tacitly condoning torture, indicting that it was successful in getting that big break. This is not the case. Zero Dark Thirty shows a variety of methods being used, and yes we get a heavy helping of torture and humiliation, but it’s when Maya and others start treating the detainee like a human being again, offering food and conversation, is when the progress is made. The film does not explicitly declare one interrogation method successful, however, I can see where people will draw their own (wrong) conclusion. If anyone wants to read my exact stance on torture, just check out my lengthy review of the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side. In short, torture does not work and Zero Dark Thirty does not purport that it does, though many may conclude otherwise. It seems to me that the critics don’t have enough faith in the audience to accept ambiguity.

2011’s breakout actress, Chastain (The Help), is the focal point of the movie and she delivers. Her character has no life outside of doggedly hunting for bin Laden. She’s completely driven by the goal of killing him, and as such she gets to uncork some dandy angry monologues dressing down her colleagues for their failing dedication. Chastian does a fine job of keeping a veneer around Maya, shrouding her emotions into a mysterious calm, which seems realistic given the nature of the character but also makes it tricky to connect with her emotionally. This movie is not the great character study that The Hurt Locker was, and so Maya gets some rather shrift characterization: she’s a workaholic fighting for credibility. The real star of the movie is the story so all the characters take a back seat to Boal’s journalism. While Chastain is quite good, I have to shrug my shoulders at the various critics groups throwing Best Actress accolades her way (go Jennifer Lawrence).

92974_galThe supporting cast doesn’t have a weak link amongst them, from Kyle Chandler (Super 8) as an outpost boss, Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a CIA superior screaming at the bin Laden team to “find me targets to kill,” Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) as Maya’s closest friend in a hostile land, James Gandolfini (TV’s Sopranos) as CIA director Leon Panetta, Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones’ Stannis Baratheon) as a skeptical NSA head, and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) as a member of Seal Team Six. That’s right America, TV’s Andy Dwyer helps cap bin Laden. But the real standout is Jason Clarke (Lawless) as an interrogator who eventually leaves the field for an office but still makes headway for Maya.

Much like The Hurt Locker, here is a movie that transcends politics and genre. Zero Dark Thirty is a nerve-wracking thriller, it’s an intelligent crime procedural, and it’s an engrossing and powerful work of relevant art. It operates on such a high level of artistic achievement that little else from 2012 even comes close. This thorough, intense, provocative, thought-provoking, morally ambiguous, thrilling, and generally tremendous movie is taken to a whole other level with its concluding act, brilliantly recreating the raid that took down Osama bin Laden, the most cathartic and satisfying ending of the year. You’ll be liable to whistle in awe at how accomplished Zero Dark Thirty is. Of course audiences should not accept every thing they see in the movie as unimpeachable gospel, as dramatic license is needed to help shape a formidable narrative. This is still a movie that desires to entertain and yea does it entertain. I look forward to the American public getting a chance to experience the same riveting theatrical experience that I had with my critical brethren, as well as the sense of catharsis and relief by film’s end. Zero Dark Thirty forgoes sensationalism for modulation, eschews moral righteousness for ambiguity, and expects the audience to keep up with its retinue of information. And you’ll be grateful to be given the chance to tag along. Run out and see this remarkable movie when you have the chance. Movies don’t get much better than this, folks.

Nate’s Grade: A

John Carter (2012)

John Carter has been in the longest development hell of any movie project in the history of cinema. If nothing else, that’s at least an accomplishment. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs first published his tale of interplanetary adventure in “A Princess of Mars” way back in 1912. It was his first published work, even before the phenomenon that would make him a star, Tarzan. Ever since 1931, filmmakers have been trying to realize Burroughs’ grandiose sci-fi vision but have never been able to finish. In the last decade, the movie has gone through different stages of development, with Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), and Jon Favreau attached as director at different points. Then Disney snatched up the rights and hired one of its own, Pixar director Andrew Stanton, to do what nobody has been able to do for 80 years –bring Burroughs’ vision to the big screen. It doesn’t hurt when Disney gives you a reported $250 million to spend.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran haunted by his past. He’s chased by a group of bandits and stumbles into a cave that transports him to Mars, known as Barsoom to the natives. Carter discovers that he’s found himself in the middle of another civil war, this time between the cities of Zodanga and Helium. The Tharks are a race of 10-foot tall four-armed warrior creatures, and their leader, Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe), sees Carter as the turning point in getting his people’s lands back. Carter will also help solidify Tars Tarkus’ place as leader to his people. John Carter is a coveted free agent on the red planet. Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) wants John to help her people survive against the Zodangans, lead by Sab Than (Dominic West). Dejah’s father (Cirian Hinds) has brokered a shaky peace on the promise that she and Sab Than will marry. The mysterious Therns, lead by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), are the real power players on Mars. They have offered a powerful new weapon known as the “ninth ray” to give Sab Than the upper hand. All John really wants to do is return home, but first he has to find a way back.

John Carter is an amusing, entertaining throwback to old-fashioned B-movies. Even the depiction of life on Mars is charmingly retro, what a future would look like to a man from the early twentieth century perspective. As a result, the aliens fight with Bronze era weapons and guns that behave like trinkets from a Western. Even the minimalist alien design, the Roman-esque costumes, the fact that everyone can breathe air, and low-grade technology of these advanced species (flying machines that look like Da Vinci designed them) come across as nostalgic, vestiges of the past more so than insights into the future. It’s like watching those old sci-fi TV shows from the 1950s and how they predicted man would have colonized the solar system by now and already have a working lunar colony (Newt Gingrich is trying his best). The movie channels the spirit of old adventure serials and captures a certain gee-whiz, childlike sense of fun. There are moments where Stanton has a playful sense of storytelling, like a near montage of Carter’s determined escapes from officer Powell (Bryan Cranston? Why not?). While being PG-13, there is still a feeling of the Disney-fication of the tale, complete with tamer outfits for Dejah Thoris (do a Google image search) and an adorable alien “dog” sidekick that befriends John.

The best moments are easily the scenes where John integrates into the indigenous Thark tribes, finding a sense of community and a bonding with Tars Tarkas. If the movie had only featured this alien race instead of all those warring people-who-have-red-henna-tattoos-on-so-they-must-be-aliens-right, I think the movie would have succeeded better. One alien race focuses the narrative but instead we get four (three?). When our climax does come into view, the pieces have all fallen into place and the action is suitably thrilling. Stanton’s live-action debut isn’t the homerun that Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible 4 was, but the large-scale action is satisfying and imaginative enough. The payoffs work and Stanton has nicely intertwined his storylines so that everything comes to a head. The Earthbound framing device, with Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reading the diary of his rich departed Uncle John, enriches the narrative once the full context is revealed, gearing up the audience for a long-awaited reunion to end the movie on a perfect high note.

What John Carter also has going against it is the pull of time. It’s hard not to see how derivative the story and characters are; Burroughs’ original novels were hugely influential to science fiction writers, and you can see similarities in Star Wars, Avatar, and other works. Scenes in this movie will feel like rip-offs from other movies, like an arena battle with giant alien hordes from Attack of the Clones, riling up a native alien species against its imperial antagonists in Avatar, Deja Thoris clearly has her DNA all over Princess Leia, and the dynamics of jumping through space travel via gateways made me think of how excellent a movie Stargate was (watch it again; it’s terrifically executed). Carter can easily be credited as the predecessor to superheroes. Now it’s unfair to say that John Carter rips off these other sci-fi movies when every one of them was released long after Burroughs’s novels had been widely published. It’s unfair, but you can’t help but feel the way you feel, and I was feeling a fairly resounding sense that I had seen much of this tale before and better. The actual terrain of Mars is a little less than inspiring. Its rocky vistas don’t make it feel too noticeably alien. We don’t ever really get a good view of alien culture outside of the Tharks. John Carter’s one big addition is that the character, given his physiological makeup and Mars’ gravity, can leap to impressive heights that were only previously known by Italian plumbers in video games. This means we get a lot of John Carter jumping up, jumping around, jumping like a Martian jumping bean. But just because you can jump really high, doesn’t that mean you’d be plummeting at a high rate of force? Wouldn’t John seriously break his legs leaping 500 feet in the air and then landing?

The script, credited to Stanton, Mark Andrews (co-director of Pixar’s upcoming Brave), and Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, is weighed down with expositional slog that it cannot break until the third act. I was expecting a better and more graceful story given Stanton’s previous film, WALL-E, which could be taught in film classes as a textbook example of elegant visual storytelling. With John Carter, it feels like we’ve been hit with the Martian phone book. We’re inundated with unfamiliar names and given scant time to adjust. While a gamble that the audience intelligence will catch up, it also makes for a confusing half of a movie. It’s hard to keep track of all the different names; Tharks this, Hellium that, Zodanga this, Jeddak that, Therns here, Barsoom there, etc. The movie doesn’t gradually expand its Martian history, it just plops us, along with Carter, right into the middle. The opening structure is also a bit confusing, as we’re jumping around time without any proper setup. Still, the movie cannot be accused of being stupid; hokey and convoluted, yes, but not stupid.

And boy do we get a lot of talking for an action movie set on Mars. The middle section is quite heavy with yapping. Kids who came thank to their trust of the Disney name will probably be bored as the movie explains to us things we already know and things we don’t care about knowing. For a two-hour plus film that has a lot of political infighting, I’m surprised that the movie is pretty pedestrian when it comes to its politics. It all really comes down to an arranged marriage to broker peace. That’s not very complicated. The main villains, the ghostly Therns, are completely incomprehensible when it comes to motivation. I have no idea what they stood to gain. If they have a gateway that can take them to Earth, or they have their own copies on Earth, why aren’t they using this to their advantage? Why aren’t they grabbing more Earthmen to form an army of jumping Jacks? Why the significance of the “ninth element” when we all know the fifth element is love? But more importantly, as last year’s Green Lantern proved, it hurts your movie when your hero can’t be bothered to be heroic. It takes far too long for John Carter to seem like he gives a damn about anything. I understand he’s a war-weary vet, but the movie feels like 90 minutes of him shrugging while everyone on Mars desperately pleads with him to save them.

Kitsch (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is going to be having a fairly big breakout year given his mug appearing in several high-profile, high-budgeted movies. The guy has already proven with steady work on TV’s Friday Night Lights that he can act, though the results are not so convincing with John Carter. I think he was going for some sort of gruff, Clint Eastwood-esque loner but he just comes across as wooden. Add his character’s reluctant nature, and it makes for a pretty uninvolving hero. Fortunately for Kitsch (what an unfortunate last name), the supporting cast is there to pick up the slack. Collins (TV’s True Blood) is the real breakout star of the movie. She’s feisty and strong and passionate and altogether easy on the eyes she could give Leia a run for her money in a metal bikini competition. Collins’ performance is filled with urgency, like she’s compensating for our taciturn lead actor. When she’s on screen you feel engaged in the story. Dafoe (Spider-Man) finds the right mixture of humor and pathos as the leader of the Tharks. West (300) has such a slimy sneer to him, it’s magnificent to watch. I’m starting to think that Strong needs to take a break from playing villains (I count eight bad guy roles sine his breakout in 2008’s RocknRolla) except that he’s so good at playing them. I think if Mark Strong ever plays himself in a movie about his own life, he’ll inevitably be the bad guy.

John Carter is an entertaining throwback to the adventure serials of old, a retro sci-fi action film that falters somewhat from a talky, uneven, exposition-laden script. When this movie works, it works quite well. There’s just too much stuff in this movie, too many alien races, too much exposition, and too many other movies that make John Carter feel derivative. What was once amazing and imaginative in 1912 will not have the same effect on audiences in 2012, especially those who have grown up on pop culture inspired by John Carter. I don’t think anyone can say the final product was worth the wait, but John Carter is a modestly fun adventure. I wouldn’t mind taking another trip to Mars, just as long as it doesn’t take 80 years.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Billed as one of the most dense films of the holiday season, I was startled to discover that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not nearly as puzzling as people have protested. The adaptation of John le Carre’s famous novel follows retired British spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) performing a clandestine investigation to flesh out a mole in the highest level of the agency. Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), condensed form a 7-hour BBC miniseries, and stuffed with a wealth of terrific Brits, the movie is tricky, clever, and rather brainy, ultimately coming to the conclusion that these little communities of intelligence knew little. The movie has a rich array of characters and teases out back-story in flashbacks, meaning the film hops around time wise and will also take turns with different perspectives. It demands your attention but, honestly, I found it easy enough to follow. But in the end, what does all that narrative trickery and obfuscation get you? It’s a fairly dispassionate film about dispassionate people played out in a dispassionate manner. For some this will be hailed as a virtue, communicating the duty-first sacrifices and compartmentalization of these secret spies. For me, that just sounds like a cop out. Beyond the mystery, it’s hard to get involved in the movie. The reveal of the mole is anti-climactic, though the resolution, set to the tones of Julio Iglesias, is aces. The meticulous production design is stellar, including an agency meeting room that looks like it was wallpapered with checkerboards. The details of the ins and outs of the agency are absorbing. I’m debating whether I should watch the movie again, looking for nuance I must have missed. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an espionage thriller with a bit too many stiff upper lips.

Nate’s Grade: B

Green Lantern (2011)

To quote that sage Kermit the Frog and his words of wisdom concerning Green Lantern: “It ain’t easy being green.”

Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a cocky pilot working for his ex-girlfriend, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). Hal never takes anything too seriously and seems to freeze up in moments, recalling his own father’s crash. Then one day a purple alien crash-lands on Earth and seeks a replacement. This alien belongs to the Lantern Corps, a group of intergalactic policemen for the universe. He was mortally wounded by Parallax, a creature that grows stronger on fear but looks like a big rain cloud. The alien’s ring chooses Jordan as the replacement. Next thing you know, the guy is training on the alien world Oa and meeting lantern officers from all over the universe led by Sinestro (Mark Strong). Jordan is unsure of his heroic destiny, though we are reminded many times “the ring does not make mistakes.” In the meantime, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is dissecting the dead purple alien and gets infected with the fear cloud/Parallax. He lashes out at his father (Tim Robbins), at Jordan, and signals to the giant evil rain cloud that Earth is an all-you-can-eat fear buffet ready for the binging.

For starters, he power is a bit silly and hard to explain. I fall in with the majority of the public when I say, “Green Lantern who?” So the guy’s super duper power is to channel his imagination into green-tinted reality? It’s a bit vague and hard to quantify. So when a helicopter is falling to earth, instead of, say, picking it up or steadying it, Jordan creates a green Hot Wheels racetrack for it to zoom around to a stop. When the evil rain cloud fires its energy projectile, Jordan conjures a catapult to catch the projectile and fire it back. And of course at some point he materializes a green gun to use in combat. I’m sorry but for me this just seems silly. It’s one thing to say, “His strength is the power of his imagination,” and I can see where young kids would gravitate to this stuff, but when it’s realized on the big screen is seems infantile. What are the rules here exactly? It just seems dumb. I can better accept a magic ring that allows Jordan to fly or shoot sparkly lasers. If a healthy imagination is key, then the rings should be choosing some of the world’s greatest living authors and artists. Can you imagine Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) with a lantern ring, or Neil Gaiman (Sandman)? Surely those guys would come up with something more interesting than catapults and racetracks. But you see, the rings, and the lantern world itself, runs on the power of will. Will power is their energy resource (talk about going green). The enemy, the cosmic rain cloud, runs on the power of fear, which is represented by yellow energy. What are the other colors of the rainbow? Is the power of love red? Is the power of envy a darker green? Is orange the color of hunger? Is brown the color of painful bowel movements? Is the power of apathy… forget it.

The biggest misstep is all the time the screenplay squanders on boring old Earth. Just like Thor, the alien worlds are the best part of the movie. But in Green Lantern, we see the training home world (Oa) and the thousands of weird, fun-looking aliens staffed to police the universe. We get a taste of the lantern life and the heavy responsibilities. We get a sense of the powers. And… then… Hal… quits. He up and quits. He says, after about five minutes of training, “You got the wrong guy,” and we head back to Earth. What the hell? We then get to spend the majority of Act II with this guy moping over whether he should or shouldn’t be a superhero. Memo to Hollywood: no one spends this kind of money on a movie where the main character can’t be bothered to accept being a hero with amazing super powers. I can’t be bothered with a hero who can’t be bothered. The screenplay structure should have been: Act I spent on Earth, Act II spent on Oa and in space, Act III return to Earth to save the day. Instead we get about ten minutes spent on Oa. And while I’m on the subject, whenever we see this alien planet it’s like a non-stop Green Lantern convention (does Oa host other conventions? Is next week the semi-annual gathering of amateur ornithologists?), so who is left policing the universe? I understand that a majority of the universe is empty space, but if the lanterns keep getting together for pep rallies on Oa, what’s to stop a universe full of criminals from stealing everybody’s car stereos? Also, lanterns intervene in the universe when evil is afoot, but nobody seemed to give a damn about planet Earth until we got lantern representation with Hal Jordan.

So the bad guy here is a semi-formless rain cloud with a head that sucks people’s fear. It feeds on fear. That is its energy source (get a job in the media, son). Like much else in the film, the rules concerning the villain are never fully explained. At times, this rain cloud thing seems invincible. Most of the time it’s never explained what exactly this thing could do. See, if you explain things then you box in your characters. So if you don’t establish rules for your villain, your heroes, their respective powers, the history of the universe, etc., then they are limitless. It also means that everything onscreen lacks any sort of logic, internal or otherwise. So the villain is really just a fuzzy concept of fear. Hal Jordan and the lanterns have nothing to fear but fear itself. That means that the screenplay falls prey to a plethora of hackneyed messages that feel ripped out of some Saturday morning cartoon series. Everyone feels fear. Accept your fear. Courage means rising above. It’s the same patter that’s been rehashed for hundreds of episodes of people in tights teaching schoolchildren it’s okay (take a drink every time a character utters the word “afraid” or “fear”). The simplistic moralizing on fear and courage made me yearn for a ring so that I could imagine a better villain. Lastly, there’s a scene where our dastardly cosmic rain cloud descends to Earth and starts sucking away people’s fear/energy/souls. There’s a shot of a school bus screeching to a halt and children dashing away. I imagine children’s fears are more heightened since their healthy imaginations and lack of world experience would exaggerate scary things that adults would try and simply deny. Their fear has to be like a delicacy. I guess what I’m getting at is, if I were a giant space cloud that fed on people’s fears, I’d go for the children first.

Director Martin Campbell has crafted some truly spellbinding, breathless action sequences in movies like Goldeneye and Casino Royale, but you can tell that he seems to be straining against the onslaught of computer effects. Campbell is more at home with the open world of practical effects and the tangible. Being confined to the realm of green screen and CGI seems like a shackle for this guy’s own imagination. He constructs solid action sequences, admittedly, but nothing worth bearing the name of Campbell. It’s a special effects bonanza without a hint of realism, like a computer start vomiting onto the screen. It feels weightless and formless, like a giant evil rain cloud. The film reportedly cost over $200 million, which is a high figure for a movie that spends so much freaking time on Earth! Here’s an example of a costly filmmaking expenditure – the suit. Hal Jordan has a skin-tight green suit that is complete a computer effect. That means that every second Reynolds is seen onscreen in his signature outfit, it’s another effect that people labored over for months. Why? I’m pretty sure that in this day and age we have the technology for clothing. Campbell succumbs to the limitations of the material and Green Lantern ends up feeling more like a TV pilot with a runaway budget than the beginning of an epic franchise for its parent company.

Reynolds (The Proposal) is an extremely likable actor whose biggest drawback is that he rarely seems serious, last year’s Buried a notable exception. He’s got this carefree attitude, practically bobbing his head and winking to the audience, and you like the guy even when he’s being a cad or a wimp. His character’s arc is supposed to be the guy who accepts responsibility, learns to accept and move beyond his fears, and it’s a character track that has been long journeyed and will continue to be. It makes for a simplistic hero’s journey storyline that seems to do the least work necessary to move things along. The movie did not fail on Reynolds’ shoulders; you can blame the four screenwriters and a ballooning budget for that one. Lively showed that she really could act in The Town. She shows no proof of this ability in Green Lantern. She speaks every line in a flat, monotone delivery, so much so you start to think she has like an inner-ear infection and can’t hear her own modulation. Her character is the weak love interest/damsel in distress role that regularly peoples these kinds of movies. Her monotone delivery does nothing for the lukewarm chemistry between her and Reynolds. Only Sarsgaard (An Education, Orphan) comes away mostly unscathed. His underwritten villainous character undergoes a monstrous transformation that would elicit sympathy from the Elephant Man.

Green Lantern is a movie that will thrill twelve-year-old boys and few others. It’s full of special effects, noise, and little clarity or wit. It’s not even a particularly fun movie. It repeatedly tells the audience things it should be showing, and it can’t help showing the audience character points (like Hal’s dead dad) that could have been handled with smoother nuance. The movie never feels like it can trust its audience for anything subtle. This is the kind of movie that needs to spell out everything. Green Lantern is muddled, tonally disjointed, the rules are not established, the villain is abstract, the messages are simplistic, the powers are ill-defined and also silly, the action is lackluster and overly dependent on often needless CGI, and the hero can’t even be bothered to accept his super powers. Apparently Green Lantern has about 60 years of comic history and a rich sci-fi universe, and this is the best four screenwriters could come up with? This is the best stuff they pulled from? Green Lantern is a movie that feels dimmed from start to finish.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Eagle (2011)

In 140 AD, the Roman Empire has spread its reach across the European continent. Commander Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is stationed in northern Britain. 20 years earlier, Marcus’ father led a legion of Romans into the northern British territory. The natives attacked them and Rome’s golden eagle, a significant idol under the guidance of Marcus Senior, was lost to history. Marcus has endured shame and vowed to redeem his family name. After surviving a nightly attack at the fort, Marcus displays great bravery but is injured. He’s honorably discharged from the Roman military. While he regains his strength, Marcus plans on venturing into the northern British highlands and finding that missing eagle. He teams up with Esca (Jamie Bell), a slave whose life he saved, and the duo goes beyond the wall that separates civilization (Rome) for the wilderness (native Britons).

Too often The Eagle feels like its wings were clipped. With such life and death stakes, the movie feels curiously adrift and prosaic. It never feels like it has any rush to go anywhere. In some regard, that makes the film feel like a product of the Hollywood of old, where a plot was allowed to meander and marinate to build to something worthwhile. But The Eagle is hardly worthwhile. It begins with some amount of excitement but that quickly dissipates with an interminable middle that feels like it’s still going on even as I write this. The plot is far too lean to cover a wide canvas, and the characters are far too shallow and incurious. They say so little, and what they do say means so little. It’s general variations on the idea of honor and sacrifice. They’re just focused on retrieving the prize. Meaningful conversation would just get in the way of things. The character dynamics between Marcus and Esca is stilted and kept at a distance. The class struggle and history of foreign occupation is never really addressed beyond a superficial nod. It’s like being stuck with two boring guys on a long, uninteresting road trip. Director Kevin Macdonald (State of Play, Last King of Scotland) gives the proceedings a docudrama touch thanks to his background in nonfiction films; too often this means he goes on half-baked Terrence Malick-like asides to admire a grain of wheat or some old artifact. The docudrama approach seems to conflict with the relatively old fashioned feel for this film, like Macdonald is trying to do his best to lift up material in want. There’s just so little at the core of this movie.

Tatum (G.I. Joe, Step Up) tries some form of an accent, though I’m not exactly sure what region of the Roman Empire the man is hailing from. He still has an imposing presence that manages to fill in the gaps of his acting ability, much in classic Hollywood tradition. And yet the man seemed more masculine in a Nicholas Sparks movie from last year. Bell (King Kong, Jumper) takes his haunted, submissive character to heart and gives a performance that confuses submission with understatement. He main mode of acting is the power of serious staring. The two actors don’t ever develop any onscreen sense of camaraderie or warmth. Even during the climax, you never feel like these guys have anything more than a civil employer/employee relationship. That’s why the laugh-out-loud, tonally jarring ending seems so out of place. Instead, Marcus and Esca strut through the halls of Rome, music triumphantly rocking out, and says, “What do you want to do now?” like they’re lining up weekly wacky adventures to be had. You’ll be surprised to see actors like Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare, and even A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim littered among the cast. Why are they in this movie when they have such insignificant parts compared to their bland leads?

The colonial perspective also started rubbing me the wrong way. Now colonial tales have long been featured in pop culture. I don’t on the surface have an issue with a storyteller utilizing a massive horde of natives to stand in as an antagonistic force. But sometimes that dynamic creates a skewed rather culturally tactless portrayal. Are the overpowered, conquering empires always blameless? Do the natives, who have been displaced and killed, not have a respectable grievance? Do they not have a right to fight for the lands that have been taken? Too often, the natives are viewed as blunt brutes (just watch the “cowboys and Indian” pictures from the 1950s) and the figures of expansion are viewed as heroic pioneers. The Britons come across as, essentially, the Indians. The filmmakers always want us to side with our hunky hero Marcus and his quest for honor at every turn, but the movie takes great turns to make the natives seem extra villainous. For a while they just come across like another culture. They have community, customs, and the like; it’s just not the dominant culture’s community and customs. And then, in an appalling moment of cheap melodrama, the Briton chief kills a child to send a message to Marcus and his Romans. This material is handled so indelicately that an unsettling undercurrent emerges and gains steady traction.

So what if the Britons stole one gold eagle 20 years ago? “It’s not just a piece of metal. The eagle is Rome,” we are reminded by Marcus. Symbols are great, but a one-man search in a land as large as Scotland seems impractical so many years hence. And then you have to take into account the time passage. It’s been two decades seen this beloved bauble went M.I.A., and damn near anything could have happened to it. It could have been thrown into the ocean. It could have been buried. It could have been smashed to smithereens. It could have been taken to another land. It could have been melted down into smaller, gift-shop sized eagles on sale to the general public. I’m just saying that in the ensuing 20 years anything could have happened to this bird. The fact that one guy can traipse on foot through Scotland and the first group of natives he runs into happen to possess the artifact that went missing 20 years prior is just insulting. First chance and he lucks in? I was eagerly waiting for an ending where Marcus, brimming with pride at having returned the eagle to Rome, is informed by one of the politicians that it’s the wrong eagle (“Here we go again!”).

The Eagle is dressed up to be an old time adventure story, but it’s just too slovenly paced and generically plotted to work. The lead characters are bland, distant, and noble to the point of annoyance. When a character is defined entirely as forward thinking, exceptionally lucky, ethically straight figure of honor, excuse me when I start to yawn. And when all he’s tasked with is finding an old relic that miraculously happens to be with the first freaking group of people he finds, then excuse me for eyeing my watch. The Eagle has some workmanlike action and suspense to it, brief moments of activity over what is in essence two hours of silent walking (it’s like somebody cut out the middle of a Lord of the Rings movie and sold it). The Eagle, both the film and the titular hunk of metal, are simply not worth the effort.

Nate’s Grade: C

Robin Hood (2010)

So what happens when you make a Robin Hood movie that doesn’t have any Robin Hood? What’s the point of revisiting the legend when you don’t even bother incorporating the elements that made it legendary to begin with? It’s not like they sacrificed familiarity for historical accuracy. Director Ridley Scott’s film spends more time setting up the various pieces of a Robin Hood tale; it’s a prequel at best. This is mostly a historical drama about the English faring off French invasions (the opening text also identifies the setting as the wrong century). The film still manages to be relatively entertaining. The production design and cinematography are top-notch, the acting is robust, Russell Crowe makes a good, if aged, Hood, and the action sequences are thrilling and visually striking. The problem is that there are few action sequences and way too much yakking about foreign policy and Medieval politics and debt. I don’t think people were clamoring for a big-budget Robin Hood revival that explores in depth the financial consequences of an overextended military on the English treasury. This is just not an appealing origin story. The movie resorts to having Hood pose as Maid Marion’s (Cate Blanchett) husband, and it’s as eye-rollingly contrived as any sitcom setup. Originally, the film was designed so that Crowe would play both Hood and the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham (barely seen in the movie). While that is a terrible and senseless idea, at least it would have made the film worth watching from morbid curiosity. Robin Hood isn’t a bad film, but it barely ranks as a Hood outing, and it’s steps behind the delightfully cheesy Kevin Costner version.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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