Talk about a film’s back story. Tom Cruise signed on to do a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) which was directed by Alejandro Amenabar. During the filming the romance between Cruise and Penelope Cruz (no relation) got a little hotter than expected onscreen and broke up his long-standing marriage to Nicole Kidman. At the time she was finishing filming The Others which is the second film by Amenabar. This, by the way, is much more interesting than Vanilla Sky unfortunately.
Cameron Crowe’s remake starts off promising enough with Tom Cruise running around an empty Times Square like a Twilight Zone episode. Afterwards the film begins to create a story that collapses under its own weight. David (Cruise) is a rich boy in control of a publishing empire inherited through his dear old deceased dad. He has the time to throw huge parties where even Spielberg hugs him, and even have crazy sex with crazy Cameron Diaz, whom he tells his best friend (Jason Lee) is his “f*** buddy.” David begins to see a softer side of life with the entrance of bouncy and lively Sophia (Cruz) and contemplates that he might be really falling in love for the first time. But this happiness doesn’t last long as jealous Diaz picks up David in her car then speeds it off a bridge killing her. Then things get sticky including David’s disfiguration, his attempts to regain that one night of budding love and a supposed murder that he committed.
Crowe is in over his head with this territory. His knack for wonderful exchanges of dialogue and the perfect song to place over a scene are intact, but cannot help him with this mess. Vanilla Sky is an awkward mish-mash of science fiction. The film’s protagonist is standoffish for an audience and many of the story’s so-called resolutions toward the end are more perfunctory than functional. The ending as a whole is dissatisfying and unimaginative. By the time the wonderful Tilda Swinton shows up you’ll likely either be asleep or ready to press the eject button yelling “cop out!”
Seeing Vanilla Sky has made me want to hunt for Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos and see what all the hype was about, because if it is anything like its glossy American counterpart then I have no idea why world audiences went wild for it.
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Movies have long resorted to being interactive puzzles, inviting audiences to unravel the mystery and hunt for clues as detectives. That’s essentially what Vanilla Sky is at its best, a messy mishmash of a movie that aims a little too high and pins its hopes with a generally unlikeable lead. This psychodrama is meant for dissection, not in a dreamy, obtuse way that David Lynch films invite but more in a canny re-calibration of pop-culture homages and fantasies. The big twist of the movie is that David (Tom Cruise), a rich publishing scion recovering from a savage accident, has elected to live in a simulation, a lucid dream that has been his home for the last hundred-plus years (how kind of the multiple generations of knob-turners to keep things operating). Other stories have followed a similar Twilight Zone-esque twist on the same territory, including the beloved “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror (that’s right, spoilers, spoilers all around for older sci-fi). Writer/director Cameron Crowe has stated there are over 400 pop-culture connections and references to be had with this movie. The movie is wall-to-wall cultivated jams, as expected from a Crowe picture, but the homages and recreations go beyond simply placing a piece of music to a scene or name dropping an artist. The visual language of the movie is intended to be deconstructed, built upon twentieth-century album covers, music, movies, and plenty more. It’s a dense artistic gamble and, ultimately, I question who is even going to care enough to dive into this movie? Who is going to want to watch Vanilla Sky as a detective?
This American remake of a 1997 Spanish movie was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end of Crowe’s career as a major director of studio movies for adults. Crowe had just experienced the apex of his career with 2000’s luminescent Almost Famous, a warm hug of a movie, and he had won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It makes sense to try for something big, reunite with his Jerry Maguire star, and go outside his comfort zone with a wide artistic berth of freedom. The 2001 movie just did not work, though not strictly because of Crowe’s game efforts. This is not a miscalculated folly, an artist flying too close to the sun and getting burnt by their arrogance. I think the major flaw comes down to pinning the mystery on the recovery of the romantic and social life of a disagreeable lead character. Early on, David is established as rich, careless, and smug. He keeps his responsibilities as fleeting as his relationships with women. When his on-again-off-again paramour, Julie (Cameron Diaz), drives off a bridge with David inside, part of you might be thinking he deserves what he got for being so callously indifferent with other people. That’s harsh, I realize, but people will not like David, and this is amplified by the general public’s diastase for Cruise himself. Therefore, watching a movie where he tries to overcome him disfigurement and disability and stop being a jerk to everyone in his life is not a journey that invites the viewer to come aboard. He’s just not that interesting as our centerpiece. What’s happening to him can prove interesting, especially as the movie plays with our mind, but at no point will the extended pity party for poor rich David feel compelling as its own drama.
This is the problem with movies that are built around Big Twists: limited replay value. After you know the super twist, very often these movies fail to justify another two-hour investment. Take for instance 1997’s The Game, the forgotten David Fincher movie. It’s a thriller where Michael Douglas is on the run and doesn’t know who is responsible for chasing him. Then the movie says, “Surprise, it’s [blank],” and then it ends. Not every twist unlocks a new and exciting prism of how to view the preceding hours, like a Sixth Sense or Fight Club. Most movies built upon a big reveal as their conclusion tend to deflate immediately. There’s no real reason to watch The Game a second time if you already know what is happening. There’s no real reason to watch 2003’s Identity again once you know all the ridiculous secrets. There’s no real reason to watch Vanilla Sky once you know the explanation for all the strange little hiccups along David’s fraying mental state.
Look, tons of movies are built around extended mysteries, from Agatha Christie to Knives Out, but the pleasure goes beyond simply solving of the puzzle. It’s the characters, the red herrings, the inspectors or detectives or chief solver of mystery. There is more there for entertainment. With Vanilla Sky, what we’re left with is a lackluster romance of a former pretty boy moping over his slightly adjusted privilege. It’s not like David’s character arc is illuminating or insightful. It’s not like we’re watching the battle over his soul here. He’s just kind of an affable jerk, and then David becomes a scarred jerk, and then he decides to wake up and be a jerk in real life. Progress?
There is a discussion to be had about how much of the movie is a dream, or where real life ends and the dream begins, and apparently even Crowe has determined there are six general interpretations, from the movie’s true and when Tech Support (Noah Taylor) says he switches over is when the dream occurs, to the unfulfilling “it was all a dream” interpretation. I suppose this could be fun for others but again I don’t think there are enough enjoyable components in the movie to incentivize the debate.
In some ways, this is one of Cruise’s most vain-free performances, yet there is an undercurrent that only seems even more vain. First the obvious; he plays a womanizer who also wears a mask for half of the movie to cover his scarred Phantom of the Opera visage. There’s a lack of vanity playing an annoying, arrogant, unpleasant person, something Cruise has done before and quite well, especially in his extraordinary Oscar-nominated turn in 1999’s Magnolia. He’s even played characters with physical disabilities before, like 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. However, this “lack of vanity” really plays out as a vain attempt to be even more impressive as a respected thespian. The movie was positioned for a mid-December release, and with Crowe and Cruise on board, it seemed like a legitimate awards contender, until that is it opened wide. While Cruise’s performance is fine, his time under the mask doesn’t proverbially unmask his character for our better consumption.
Vanilla Sky is mostly known as the big American debut of Penelope Cruz. She was already a muse for Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and known well in the indie circuit, but from here she became Hollywood’s newest It Girl, only to be stranded in mediocre studio movie after mediocre studio movie (Does anyone remember Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?). It wasn’t until Almodóvar’s 2006 film Volver that studio execs seemed to finally understand how best to utilize her great talent. She won an Oscar for 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona and was nominated the following year for the musical Nine. She recently reunited with Almodóvar for 2021’s Parallel Mothers and again is wowing audiences. From early on, she definitely has a spark, an effervescence to her performance in Vanilla Sky. She’s also fighting against being forcibly elbowed into the swampy Manic Pixie Dream Girl category, a term that was originally coined for Crowe’s follow-up film, 2005’s Elizabethtown. Crowe loves writing women under these quirky conditions, however, the movie is told from a flawed male dream perspective, so it also makes sense if its portrayal of David’s idyllic dream woman happens to flatten her down.
It’s true that the story behind the scenes of Vanilla Sky proves more intriguing than the film itself. Cruise and Nicole Kidman were the Hollywood power couple. The ensuing tabloid feeding frenzy over their breakup and Cruise/Cruz relationship outlived the legacy of Vanilla Sky. This was the most ambitious and experimental movie in Crowe’s tenure as a writer/director, and he would never again return to science-fiction as a genre, keeping to the familiar lane of prestige dramas declining in prestige with each new film. My original review in the closing weeks of 2001 was pretty minimal in analysis. I knew this movie didn’t quite work then and it still doesn’t work now. If you’re eager for a dissertation-level analysis on its pop-culture fantasia, then God’s speed to you and your infinite free time.
Re-View Grade: C
It turns out we went to war in 1941 not because of Japanese aggression, Hitler’s dominance in Europe, or the protection of freedom and democracy. Sorry kids. The real reason we went to war was to complicate and then clear up Kate Beckinsale’s love life. At least that’s what director Michael Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace would tell you with their indulgent epic Pearl Harbor.
We open in Tennessee in the 20s with two boys who dream of being pilots. Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) grow into strapping young lads who flash their hot dog flyin’ skills at basic training, which brings them chagrin from superiors but admiration from peers. Rafe falls in love with a young nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), who goes against ARMY rule and passes Rafe in his eye exam portion when he has a slight case of dyslexia. But he’s just so cuuuute. The romance builds but Rafe feels like he’s grounded when all he wants to do is fly, and volunteers to fight in the RAF over in Europe. He promises he’ll be back to see his lovely Evelyn. Of course he gets into an accident and everyone assumes that poor dyslexic Rafe is fertilizing a lawn somewhere with his remains. Hence Danny slowly but surely develops something for Evelyn in their periods of mourning, and the two consummate their puppy love with a tango in parachute sheets.
All seems well until Rafe returns back from the dead throwing a wrench into Evelyn’s second date parachute plans. Thus the Hollywood favorite of the love triangle endures until the end when the two fly boys enlist in the Doolittle attack against Japan, months after the ferocious attack on Pearl Harbor. The real purpose of the Doolittle attack was not militarily but merely for morale. The real purpose it serves in the movie is to shave off an end on our love triangle.
Pearl Harbor allows us to follow a group of youthful and innocent starry-eyed kids from training to combat. Each seems pretty much exactly the same to each other. It’s near impossible to distinguish which character is which. It’s like the screenwriter didn’t even have the gall to resort to cliche supporting character roles, and he just made one character and duplicated it. The only one who was noticeable for me was the character of Red (Ewen Bremner, julien donkey boy himself), but that was simply because the man had a speech impediment. We also have our handful of young nurses alongside Beckinsale, and I had an easier time distinguishing between them; everyone had different hair colors.
If you look in the pic, or the credits, you’ll see that two of the nurses would turn out to be Jennifer Garner (Alias) and Sara Rue (Less than Perfect), both stars of ABC shows, and ABC is owned by, yep, Disney. Coincidence? Probably. When they ran this on TV they actually advertised Jennifer Garner above Kate Beckinsale. That reminded me of when Seven ran on TV shortly after Kevin Spacey had won his well-deserved 1999 Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty, and they gave him second-billing in the advertisement over Morgan Freeman, the movie’s true main character.
Affleck has a hayseed Southern twang, but seems to mysteriously disappear for long stretches. Hartnett seems to talk with a deep creak, like a door desperately trying to be pushed open. Beckinsale manages to do okay with her material, but more magnificently manages to never smear a drop of that lipstick of hers during the entire war. We could learn a lot from her smear-defying efforts. Gooding Jr. is pretty much given nothing to work with. I’m just eternally grateful he didn’t go into a usual Cuba frenzy when he shot down a Zero.
Michael Bay has brought us the ADD screenings that are the past, loud hits of The Rock and Armageddon. Teamed up with his overactive man-child producer Jerry Bruckheimer once more, Pearl Harbor is less Bay restrained to work on narrative film as it is Bay free-wheeling. His camera is loose and zig-zagging once more to a thousand edits and explosions. Bay is a child at heart that just loves to see things explode. When he should show patience and restraint he decides to just go for the gusto and make everything as pretty or explosive as possible. This is not a mature filmmaker.
Despite the sledge hammer of bad reviews, Pearl Harbor is not as bad as it has been made out to be. The love story is inept and the acting is sleep-inducing, unless when it’s just funny. It doesn’t start off too badly, but twenty minutes in the movie begins sinking. The centerpiece of the film is the actual Pearl Harbor bombing that clocks in after ninety minutes of the movie. The forty-minute attack sequence is something to behold. The pacing is good and the action is exciting with some fantastic special effects. The movie is bloated with a running time a small bit over three hours total. Maybe, if they left the first twenty minutes in, then gave us the forty minute attack sequence, followed by a subsequent five minute ending to clear up our love triangle’s loose ends… why we’d have an 80 minute blockbuster!
Pearl Harbor doesn’t demonize the Japanese, but it feels rather false with their open-minded attempts to show both sides as fair minded. It gets to the point where they keep pushing the Japanese further into less of a bad light that it feels incredibly manipulative and just insulting. It seems like the producers really didn’t want to offend any potential Pacific ticket buyers so the picture bends backwards to not be insulting. The only people who could be offended by Pearl Harbor are those who enjoy good stories. Oh yeah, and war veterans too.
The cast of Pearl Harbor almost reads like another Hollywood 40s war movie where all the big stars had small roles throughout, kind of like The Longest Day for the Pepsi generation. Alec Baldwin plays General Doolittle and is given the worst lines in the film to say. Tom Sizemore shows up as a sergeant ready to train the men entering Pearl Harbor. He has five minutes of screen time but does manage to kill people in that short window. Dan Akroyd is in this for some reason or other, likely because Blues Brothers 3000 has yet to be green lighted. John Voight is easily the most entertaining actor to watch in the entire film. He gives a very authentic portrayal of President Roosevelt. I still find trouble believing it was Voight under the makeup.
The blueprint for Pearl Harbor is so transparent. They took the Titanic formula of setting a fictional romance against a disaster, with the first half establishing characters and our love story, and then relegating the second half to dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. It worked in Titanic (yes, I liked the film for the most part), but it doesn’t work here. Pearl Harbor is a passable film, but the mediocre acting, inept romance, square writing, and slack pacing stop it from being anything more. Fans of war epics might find more to enjoy, especially if they don’t regularly have quibbles over things like “characters” and “plot.” To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: “Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Believe it or not, there was a point in time where people actually considered the possibility of Michael Bay making an Oscar contender. It seems mostly absurd now but at the time there was a benign sense of hope with the production of Pearl Harbor, the most expensive movie greenlit at the time ($140 million) and whose ultimate costs would exceed $200 million. The blueprint for the movie is easy to spot, borrowed heavily from the success of another risky and very expensive movie about sinking ships, James Cameron’s Oscar-winning blockbuster Titanic. If you’re looking for a movie to follow, you could certainly do worse than the highest grossing movie ever (at the time). There was great speculation and buzz about the movie, for its immense production scope, for the reported ambitions, for the prospect of Bay trying to make a serious movie, albeit a serious movie that still included a healthy helping of his usual explosions. There were similar rumors of disaster courting Titanic, then the first production to go over $200 million, and that turned out fine. Well, as should be obvious especially twenty years after its initial release, Michael Bay is no James Cameron in the realm of filmmaking and action storytelling.
Upon its release Memorial Day weekend in 2001, Pearl Harbor opened to a critical drubbing and general audience indifference. It failed to live up to whatever hype or hope had been attached, though it did snag a Guinness World record for most explosions if you value that honor. Bay has never since attempted a “prestige picture” again, resorting to the comfort of doing what he knows he can do well, showcasing large robots punching each other in between pretty explosions. I don’t know what the real legacy of the Pearl Harbor movie should be but I think, twenty years later, it’s a mediocre attempt to recapture something of a past, whether that was the movies of the 1940s or a very very specific movie from 1997 that rhymes with Smitanic. It’s too bad Pearl Harbor is still a three-hour shrug of a movie.
A full 90 minutes is devoted to setting up the nascent characters and history before that fateful attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and that’s the first major misstep for the film. Much of the emotional involvement is built upon a romance that simply does not work in any capacity. Ben Affleck plays Rafe, a dyslexic pilot who charms Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse who decides to help him cheat his medical exams. The first 45 minutes demonstrates their abbreviated courtship and romance through a series of cute moments that fail to coalesce into something more meaningful. And if you think that was rushed and abbreviated, after Rafe is believed to be dead, it’s about ten minutes before his best friend and fellow fighter pilot Danny (Josh Hartnett) is starting to fall in love with her and impregnating Evelyn in no time at all. Then Rafe returns, shocker, and everyone is upset with each other and confused, which is exactly what the Japanese military was waiting for, now knowing this is the ultimate time to strike its big assault.
I read that Bay rebuffed some of the more persistent criticism about the fetid romance, saying he and screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiers) were aiming to replicate the romances of 1940s movies. To me this sounds like an inartful dodge. The romance in Pearl Harbor is not a throwback to a decade of movies that brought us Casablanca and The Shop Around the Corner and The Lady Eve, classic romances that knew how to pull your heartstrings and still register emotions to this day regardless of being over 70 years old. I think when Bay says he intended the romance to be older, nostalgic, he means simpler, and that’s just an insult to modern audiences as well as film audiences from the 1940s. This romance is just poorly written, not simple. Part of it relates to the chemistry between the three actors, which seems waterlogged, but most of the failure falls upon the shoddy character interactions. This is a movie devoted to having characters exclaim and explain things on screen rather than show you. Instead of watching characters fall in love over time, loosening and relaxing, flirting and deliberating, we just have characters declare feelings over the course of a few months of time. We’re supposed to feel conflicted when Evelyn finds comfort with Danny, but why should anyone care? Was anyone deeply invested in the relationship she had with Rafe? The other problem is that Danny is never even given a chance. His courtship is ridiculously short on time, and in fact his character drops out of the movie for what feels like twenty minutes before coming back to mourn Rafe’s loss. One of the guys says about Evelyn, “She’s got to be with someone, so it might as well be you.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement there, and also that’s pretty misogynistic thinking, my man.
So much hinges on the romance and yet so little of it seems to carry as soon as the explosions kick in. Once the Japanese aerial assault begins, it’s all chaos until it’s over, and then it becomes about getting some measure of retaliation with the Doolittle raid for Act Three. The romance is, for all intents and purposes, put on hold for over half of the movie. It’s like the movie cannot make up its mind so it leaves it to the Japanese to clarify who Evelyn should end up with. When the entire emotional investment of the movie is predicated on a romantic triangle, and you don’t feel any semblance of human emotions for any combination, you might as well scorch the whole thing and have every participant make the ultimate sacrifice for God and country. This is why Pearl Harbor staggers because its love story does not put in the necessary work. I felt no more tension for Rafe or Evelyn in the bombing than any other nameless extra running for their lives.
As far as spectacle, Pearl Harbor can keep you entertained. Bay still knows intimately well how to stage scenes of multitudinous violence and chaos (his real lifelong romantic partner). The Pearl Harbor bombing is the absolute highlight of the movie and impressive in its scale. The shot of the bombing of the six American warships took six months of coordination to merely rig the 700 sticks of dynamite and cord for a shot that lasts all of 12 seconds. The production built the world’s largest gimble to simulate the top of the U.S.S. Oklahoma capsizing. The scale and scope of the attack is impressively massive and gives a real sense of how overwhelming this surprise attack was on the isolationist American military. The chaos that normally follows a Michael Bay action scene, where geography and mini-goals are lost, can actually be a virtue when communicating the surprise attack. You can get lost in all the noise and smoke. There are some moments that are just strictly movie silly, like a squadron of Zeroes chasing after individual people to shoot, or Tom Sizemore firing a shotgun while fighter planes zoom overhead. It’s little reminders that you’re watching a big screen entertainment of war rather than a realistic and jarring portrayal of the horror of combat. Bay only has one viewpoint when it comes to the military, to sacrifice, and to masculinity, so the tragedy of lives lost is only ever served upon the altar of a jingoistic reverence for military power. I would have preferred an entire half of the movie following the plight of the nurses trying to triage all the wounded and save who they could with dwindling supplies and even less time. That movie doesn’t get made by Bay. There aren’t enough explosions in that kind of movie and too much emphasis on realistic human suffering.
I’m also confused about the movie’s political apprehension. It bends over backwards to portray the Japanese generals as honorable and morally conflicted, which is better than mustache-twirling stereotypes, but this is still the aggressor country that had already invaded and occupied China. All of the good intentions of being more even-handed with the Japanese, perhaps to fight against anti-Asian demagoguery or even solely from money reasons, get supremely muddled when Bay decides to make the Pearl Harbor bombing even worse than it was in reality. The Japanese took great offense that in the movie their planes are seen attacking hospitals and civilian targets, something that never happened according to history and witnesses on both sides. Bay reportedly included the extra attacks because he wanted the attack to seem more “barbaric.” What is the point of better trying to represent a group of people and make up extra barbarism?
Looking back at my original review from 2001, I believe this was a watershed review for me. I wrote over 1200 words and it’s more in keeping with my current reviews than my early reviews. I find the analysis to be more critical than my early reviews where I was more likely to settle for puns and scant broadsides. This review has a few of those, but I also found myself nodding along with much of it even twenty years later. There are some marvelous turns of phrases, like “A Longest Day for the Pepsi generation” and Harnett’s voice sounding like a stubborn door refusing to stay open. There’s a punchiness to the writing that I recognize and admire, and it’s like I can see myself developing and finding my critical voice at this early juncture, which was almost two years into my beginnings as a fledgling film critic in Ohio. This one feels like a step above. I couldn’t end this analysis better than I did back in 2001, so I’ll quote my then 19-year-old self to close out both reviews: “To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: ‘Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’”
Re-View Grade: C
The Current War has been on the shelf for two years and now finally getting a release, strangely subtitled “The Director’s Cut.” Can a movie that has never been released to the public, outside of some festival screenings, really declare its first impression a director’s cut? Aren’t these supposed to be different, and generally longer versions of the original edit? Regardless, the movie acts like a 19th century version of The Social Network with the battle over the nation’s electrical grid up for stakes between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). You may think Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) is a big player in this game, but you’d be mistaken as he’s more a glorified cameo. I appreciated how the history came alive under director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me, and Earl, and the Dying Girl) and his overwhelming sense of style. This is a period film that feels excitedly modern in its presentation, with lots of clever transitions, stylish camera angles, and wide angle photography to go along with a churning score that even reminded me of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ Oscar-winning music. The characterization of these Great Men of Industry also finds ways to humanize them, especially Westinghouse who shuffled his employees into his burgeoning and debt-ridden electrical gambit so he wouldn’t have to fire anyone. Edison’s portrayal is decidedly charitable, positioning him as a principled family man who rebuffed a shameless J.P. Morgan (a great movie bastard) and easy money for military contracts because he refused to participate in any endeavor that would take life. There’s an ironic subplot where Edison, forced into desperation, cooperates with New York state’s implementation of a new “more humane” way of executing prisoners, and pinning the deadly results on Westinghouse’s alternating electrical current. This is certainly not the Edison of litigious infamy. I enjoyed immersing myself in this older world where the men of science and vision were akin to magicians creating miracles that dazzle. Their competitive race is doomed to be a bit one-sided if you know the history of AC versus DC (it’s hard to compete when one option is both better and cheaper) but I was still entertained by their tit-for-tat and how each man responded to pressure and expectations. The screenplay by Michael Mitnick is judicious with its information and very accessible for a lay person. The acting is solid even if many side characters are glorified extras (Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton). The Current War has been getting some pretty dim reviews, with even dimmer puns, and I don’t quite follow why critics are turning out the lights on this movie (sorry). It might not have the stuff of greatness but it’s a perfectly enjoyable period piece with attention to character and a panache of style to liven up the dustiest of history.
Nate’s Grade: B
You haven’t seen a romance like director Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash (monster smash?), The Shape of Water. del Toro, an aficionado of cinematic creepy crawlies, has swerved from big-budget studio fare into a smaller, stranger period romance between a woman and an amphibious creature who already arrives pre-lubricated (I apologize already for that joke). I was compelled to watch The Shape of Water twice to better formulate my thoughts, mostly because I was not expecting the movie to be so enthusiastically whimsical, adult, and romantic, and the best beauty and the beast tale of this year.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working on the cleaning staff at a classified government laboratory. Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man. Her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is supportive but thinks they should mind their own business. An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) from the Amazon is confined to a cell and repeatedly beaten by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the vile head of security at the station. They believe the creature’s ability to breathe underwater and on land will be the key to winning the space race. The scientist in charge, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is secretly a Russian spy, though his allegiances are more to the fragile creature than any country. Elisa teaches the creature sign language, the joys of hard boiled eggs, and lots of cheery music. She also falls in love with the creature and grows determined to save the Amphibian Man by breaking him loose.
From the get go, del Toro drops us into a world that is not our own, as he’s so skilled at doing. This version of 1960s Baltimore feels as though it’s the twentieth century equivalent of a fairy tale village, and our monster is also the princess in need of rescue. Our heroine has a strange scar that foreshadows her place of belonging. The entire film bristles with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there isn’t anything explicitly magical. The supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance, as they would be in any storybook legend of old. When Elisa discovers the Amphibian Man in his tank, it’s literally at the ten-minute mark or even earlier, and she is unfazed. She immediately accepts the existence of this scaly mere-man, establishes a line of communication, and befriends the creature. It’s as if del Toro is trying to prime the audience for what’s to come and hoping to skip over the intermediate waiting period of incredulity. For del Toro, the real fun is once the characters connect, and belaboring that necessary connection is not in the audience’s best interests or time.
The movie glides by on effusive outpouring of charm, given such vibrant, sweeping life thanks to del Toro’s repertoire of pop-culture influences and his passionate love of cinema. The Shape of Water feels like del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) took one of the old Universal horror B-movies and decided to make it into one of the most personal, delightful, and curious filmgoing experiences of the year. It’s film as escape for society’s outsiders. The sense of whimsy is ever-present without being overpowering or diluting the drama. It never feels quirky for its own sake of satisfaction. You’ll recognize several of del Toro’s artistic references, the re-purposing of cultural artifacts, but the magic suffused within every frame is thanks to del Toro and his team of filmmaking artists. If Amelie was going to fall in love with a sea creature, it might look something like this The Shape of Water.
The movie is also surprisingly, refreshingly adult in its depiction of human beings. Again the opening minutes set a standard of what to expect. We get a sense of Elisa’s daily routine before leaving for work, and one crucial component involves furious masturbation in her bathtub (set to an egg timer for sport?). This is a far more sensual movie than I was ever anticipating. There are multiple sequences of Hawkins disrobed and offering herself to the Amphibian Man. We never see any underwater action but we do hear about some of the mechanics of how the coupling is even remotely possible physically (“Never trust a man,” Zelda chuckles upon hearing those dirty details). It’s not all sexy time indulgences. There’s a sharp undercurrent of very real and very upsetting violence, typified by Strickland’s ruthless determination to break the creature. He’s a Bible-thumping sadist generally dismissive of those he finds different and lesser and yet he’s drawn to Elisa. Why is that? Because she’s a diminutive woman who cannot talk, and this sexually excites him like nothing else. He even comes on to her, thinking his interest is a form of masculine charity. There are some shocking moments of very real violence and its lingering effects. Strickland’s on-the-job injury becomes a metaphorical moral gauge for the putrid character’s state of being. The Shape of Water is a movie that does not blunt anything, whether it’s the sexuality or violence of its story (beware pet lovers: this is the second 2017 entry where an amphibian being hidden from the government eats somebody’s house cat). This is a fable for adults, a grimy Grimm’s tale with a sprinkle of Old Hollywood sparkle.
The Shape of Water is also a deeply romantic and earnest love story about two outsiders finding a connection in the most unlikely of places. Engineering a story that pushes two oddball characters together, each finally finding a kindred spirit, is an easy recipe for a satisfying conclusion; however, their romantic connection has to feel rightly earned. If we don’t believe the characters have fallen for one another, that this potential relationship elevates their existence, that the colors of the world seem brighter when around this person, then it doesn’t work. You have to buy the love story and it must be earned. Amazingly, del Toro is able to craft a love story with a mute woman and an Amphibian Man that checks most of the boxes of Hollywood romantic escapism. Elisa has an openhearted way of looking at the world, and her acceptance provides her with a bravery few others have. The creature presents somebody who views her not as a woman with a disability, as something lesser, but as something whole and wholly fulfilling. Everyone wants to be truly seen by someone for who they are rather than what they’re not.
While del Toro is supremely skillful at making Elisa’s romantic yearnings felt, there is one inherent weakness in this girl-meets-fish dude tale of love. The Amphibian Man isn’t really much of a character and far more of a symbol to the other characters. To Elisa, he’s her hope. To Giles, he’s a wild animal. To Strickland, he’s a defiant challenge to be tamed. To Zelda, he’s the questionable new boyfriend for her pal. To Hoffstetler, he’s a beautiful creature. To the U.S. government, he’s a potential scientific breakthrough. To the Soviets, he’s a liability and a potential future weapon. We’re told the indigenous people of the Amazon worshiped the Amphibian Man as a god but ultimately he remains a cipher others project onto. The love story feels a little too one-sided from an audience investment perspective. Still, the romance works and that fact alone is incredible considering the unique pairing.
Hawkins (Maudie) is the beating heart of the movie and delivers a wonderfully expressive portrait of a woman finding her voice, so to speak. She’s relatively upbeat and that fits the whimsical tone of the picture. Hawkins plays a woman excited by the possibilities of the world. She reminded me of Bjork’s tragic heroine from 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a woman who saw the extraordinary in ordinary life, who could perceive a symphony of music just on the outer edges of everyone else’s hearing. Going completely wordless for the movie, save for one very memorable fantasy sequence, requires a lot of daunting physical acting from Hawkins, and she’s more than up to the task. I guarantee a scene where she tearfully forces Giles to say out loud her signing will be her Oscar nomination clip.
When we talk about the weird and wild promise of cinema, it takes a controlled, assured vision and precise execution to bring together the dispirit elements and allow them to coalesce into something that feels like a satisfying, mesmerizing whole. The Shape of Water is del Toro’s gooey love letter to monster movies while stepping outside of homage and into the realm of something daring and different. I could talk about the Busby Berkley musical number as declaration of love, or that the story is told from socially marginalized voices finding an affinity together, or the small character moments that give generous life to supporting figures like Zelda and Hoffstetler, or that it leaves implied stories to be chewed over for extra richness like Giles likely being outed at his work to the dismay of his closeted superior, or the perfect casting for secondary antagonists, or the exquisite cinematography that seems to utilize every shade of green the human eye is capable of seeing, or the stunning production design, or the sweetly eccentric whistling musical score by Alexadre Desplat, or the grace of Doug Jones’ performance in the amphibian suit, or just how funny this movie can be, even the sadistic villain. I could talk about all that stuff but I’ll simply condense it all to a plea to give The Shape of Water a chance. It’s rare to see a storytelling vision this precise that’s also executed at such a high degree of difficulty. In other hands, this could have been an unholy mess. With del Toro, it’s a lovely mess.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Fashion designer Tom Ford made a big splash with his debut film, 2009’s A Single Man. It was a gentle and introspective character study of a middle-aged gay professor determined to end his own life. It was lush, full of feeling, and anchored by a deeply humane performance from Colin Firth. In short, it is everything that his follow-up Nocturnal Animals is not. This is a movie overflowing with vacant artifice that is mistaken for profundity.
Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner and living a posh life with her second husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). She gets an unexpected present in the mail from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s sent her his newest manuscript, a departure from his usual works. It’s dedicated to Susan. With Hutton away on business, and philandering with a mistress, she dives into the story. It tells the story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Isla Fisher) and teen daughter (Ellie Bamber) traveling through west Texas. They run afoul of some contemptuous locals lead by the sadistic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter. Left for dead, Tony teams up with a terminally ill police officer, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), to hunt down Ray and make him suffer for his crimes. As Susan continues reading, she goes through a mixture of emotions trying to determine what her ex-husband is trying to communicate to her within the subtext and metaphor of his sordid story.
I grew increasingly restless with Nocturnal Animals because it failed to justify its excessive dawdling and vapid artistic pretensions. This is a movie that doesn’t really know what it wants to be so it dabbles in many different genres, none of them fully convincing or worth the effort. It’s a high-gloss erotic thriller, it’s a gritty exploitation film, it’s a morally compromised revenge thriller, and it’s a subtle relationship drama amidst the upper crust of the L.A. art scene. It’s none of these. It’s two primary stories, neither of which justifies the amount of time spent on what amounts to so little. The worst offender is the frame story with Susan, which amounts to watching Amy Adams read for two hours. She takes a lot of baths and showers in response (symbolism!) but most of the cutaways and time spent with Adams is to merely watch her react. It’s like she’s a nascent studio audience handcuffed to tell us how to feel with her reactions. Would you have known that you should feel bad during onscreen death if we didn’t cut back to Susan also feeling bad and concerned? It amounts to emotional handholding and it’s grating, also because Susan is an terrible character. She’s conceited and thinks she is owed better, which is why her mother successfully pressured her to dump Edward, a man well below her self-styled station in life. Her second marriage is crumbling apart and part of her sees Edward’s out-of-the-blue note as a potential romantic rekindling. That’s right, this is a person who reads a revenge opus that may be all about seeking cosmic vengeance against her, and she thinks to herself, “Ooo, I think he like likes me after all.” Her self-involvement is rewarded in the end but the ambiguous ending is more just missing in action. Ford’s film just peters out and leaves you hanging, just like its heroine.
Edward’s manuscript is easily the best story and even that is only by default. It’s an easier story to get involved with because of the simple story elements that naturally draw an audience in, namely a revenge fable. The initial altercation with the family and Ray’s crew lasts almost a half hour. Specifically the roadside confrontation itself is a solid ten minutes and it just goes round and round, repeating its overdone sense of menace. I wasn’t dreading the horror to come but more so getting impatient for it to be over. Without depth to the characters or escalating stakes and complications, it all just amounts to a Texas hillbilly repeatedly threatening a cowering family for ten solid minutes. The vengeance in the second half of the movie is just as predictable and too drawn out. Edward schemes with Bobby Andes to take justice into his own hands, but the movie takes far too long to reach its predictable conclusion, which still manages to be so drawn out that I was screaming at the screen for the inevitable to finally happen. When the movie ended I felt a rush of relief to go along with my general sense of perplexity.
Nocturnal Animals has the illusion of highbrow art mixing with lowbrow thrillers but it lacks the substance of the former and the courage of its convictions for the latter. Ford’s mercurial taste in costuming and set design shows in every moment with Susan, as the sets feel exquisitely designed and the cinematography designed to encapsulate this. It’s a good-looking movie but there’s not enough under the surface. It’s all empty window dressing to disguise the vapid whole at its center. Let’s tackle the opening credits, which will most certainly capture your undivided attention. It’s a foursome of overweight women dancing naked and in slow motion, their large bodies bouncing and jiggling to the self-serious musical score. Eventually it’s revealed that these women are part of an installation exhibit in Susan’s art gallery, and that’s when you get a tip-off just how hollow and attention seeking the movie will be. The gallery consists of overweight women lying face down on raised platforms. That’s it. No wonder her gallery isn’t doing that well (note: not a fat-shaming comment but more a comment on the lazy application of its sense of “art”). You get a sense that Ford comes most alive in the scenes where he can arrange figures and images, not so much the demands of storytelling.
I can already hear supporters saying I just don’t get it; no, I got it because there’s very little to understand with Nocturnal Animals. It’s a story-within-a-story so we’re already training our brains to look for parallels but they aren’t obvious so they’ll be more metaphorical. I kept waiting for it all to tie together in a substantial way by film’s end, and sorry but it just doesn’t (spoilers ahead). Edward has a whammy of a day when he discovers 1) his wife is pregnant, 2) she’s aborted his child, and 3) she’s in the arms of her new boyfriend, and he discovers all of this standing in the rain for further symbolism. He has a grievance against Susan, though we’ve been suspecting it for some time. His manuscript is a revenge thriller about a family murdered and how a weak man finds the strength to seek justice and retribution. The parallels are fairly obvious there, and the fact that there are only so many characters in the story-within-a-story means there are few options to play the analogue guessing game. I’ll just claim that Ray is meant to represent Susan since he/she is the murderer of Tony/Edward’s family. There’s a reason that Tony’s family all share Susan’s red hair. He dedicated the book to her, after all, and said she was who made it all possible. From there you could argue whether Tony represents Edward’s real past, weak and remorseful, whereas Bobby Andes is meant to represent how he wishes he could be, decisive and strong (end spoilers). That’s about all the parallels you’re going to find because the story-within-a-story only involves a very tiny number of characters. There just isn’t much to go on here and yet Ford’s movie stretches and drags and just keeps going until it reaches its predictable destination. There isn’t any more depth here than straightforward avatars and even those are lean.
I was debating a question with my friend Ben Bailey while we watched this movie, and that’s whether the stakes are removed somewhat when you know that a storyline within a movie is fictitious. Knowing that Tony is a pretend person, does that eliminate some of the tension and investment in his storyline? I recognize this is a distinctly meta question considering that a majority of film characters are fictitious by nature, but I do think there’s a different set of standards for the people of the story-within-a-story. I don’t remember feeling less for the characters in A Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, or Adaptation. My only conclusion is that I just did not care a lick for any of the characters in Nocturnal Animals, whether they were fictional or twice fictional. They didn’t deserve my attention just because pretty people were playing them. They didn’t deserve my attention because Big Bad Things caused them to experience Big Emotions. Combined with the ponderous plot and the emaciated substance, the dull characters and the overwrought acting they inspire are a recipe for audience detachment. I can’t help but shake my head as other critics trip over themselves to shower this film with overly enthusiastic plaudits. Nocturnal Animals is a tiresome exercise in lazy symbolism, patience-demolishing pretension, and emptiness masquerading as contemplation.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Jeff Nichols should already be a household name after Mud and Take Shelter, and with his new movie Midnight Special, the man has done nothing to break his incredible record of success with making deeply personal, ruminative, thrilling, and brilliant films. Midnight Special is a better and more earnest love letter to the cinema of Spielberg than Super 8 was. A young boy exhibits strange and supernatural powers. The religious compound he came from looks at him as a prophet. The government thinks he might be a weapon. Two different groups are on the hunt for this boy, and that’s where Nichols drops us right into the middle of, respecting the intelligence of his audience to catch up and figure things as they develop. In some ways it reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road, an expert chase film that establishes its characters naturally as it barrels onward. The acting is wonderful all around and Nichols does a great job of finding small character moments that speak volumes, giving everyone time in the spotlight. The various twists and turns can be surprising, heartwarming, funny, but they stay true to the direction of the story he’s telling and grounded in the simple, unyielding anxiety and love of parents for their child. Michael Shannon (Nichols go-to collaborator) is directly affecting as a humble but determined father risking everything for the well-being of his son. The concluding act left me awed and felt something akin to what I think Brad Bird may have been going for with Tomorrowland. This is a thoughtful science fiction movie that allows its characters space to emote, its plot room to breathe, and yet still thrills and awes on a fraction of a Hollywood budget. It shouldn’t be long before some studio finally taps Nichols to jump to the big leagues of a franchise film, but if he wanted to keep making these small, character-driven indies on his own terms, I’d die happy.
Nate’s Grade: A
I think I began my review for 2006’s Superman Returns the same way but I don’t care. Does Superman have any relevant appeal in today’s society? I understand being a moral pinnacle has been his MO from the start, and I understand that today’s generation likes its heroes dark and broody and tortured. I know you can make Superman into an interesting figure (the man just celebrated his 75th anniversary, so there have to be some people who identify), though it is a bigger challenge, surely. I think taking a darker tack can be achievable but needs finesse. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, having fashioned the highly successful Dark Knight trilogy, seem like a formidable pair to shepherd a darker Superman into the twenty-first century. Combine that with director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), and you’re guaranteed a pretty movie. Where does Man of Steel go wrong?
You know the drill at this point: Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) was originally born on the doomed alien planet Krypton. His biological father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), sent his son to Earth with the hope that he could survive and achieve great things. Raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), he then accepts his destiny to be mankind’s protector, butting heads and flirting with dogged reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Except now Superman has the entire genetic code of Krypton’s history (?) transported into him via a “codex” (whish resembles a charred baby skull). General Zod (Michael Shannon), imprisoned off planet when Krypton was destroyed, is determined to retrieve that code and start his race anew. He and his crew travel to Earth and demand superman turn himself in, or else Earth will suffer.
Where this movie gets into deep trouble is that it fashions Superman into an inactive loner, turning him into a super bore. He has such superhuman strength at his command but his doubtful dad has taught him that humanity would lose its mind if he revealed himself. And so Superman goes through half this movie hiding his super ability. He actively avoids conflict and confrontation. It’s basically the same formula as the Incredible Hulk TV show, where Bruce Banner would drift from town to town, warning others not to make him angry, then mournfully have to leave yet again. He can’t help himself save lives but, in flashback, dearly departed dad admonishes him for it (Clark: “Should I just have let them die?” Pa Kent: “Maybe.”). I think the isolation the character endures is essential to understanding his heavy burden, but at the same time this was compensated by Clark Kent, Superman’s opportunity to blend in with the natives, assume a frail phony identity, and to flash some much needed personality. In Man of Steel, he doesn’t become Clark Kent, news reporter, until the very last scene. It’s not a movie about a man becoming Superman but Clark Kent, experience-free reporter.
Two of the chief complaints about Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman movie were that it was too reverent to its source material, namely the Richard Donner films, and it lacked sufficient action. Well, both of those issues are tackled in the very opening of Man of Steel. Goyer reworks plenty of Superman mythology from a science fiction angle, and so we get stuff about alien invaders, genetic bloodlines, clone baby labs, teraforming, and all sorts of spaceships. The characters keep referring to Superman as “the alien,” and dad worries that the knowledge of his super son will upset people’s worldviews about humanity and God (have no fear, there’s still messianic imagery to sledgehammer you with). I’m fine with Goyer playing fast and loose with Superman’s history but his alterations need to have solid reasoning. Nolan played around with Batman’s history and it worked because, in the context of the world and characters he developed, it fit. Does Jor-El riding a dragon like a live-action Heavy Metal fit? Does a billion people’s DNA transposed into Superman’s cells fit? Do Superman’s actions during the quite controversial ending fit? Does Clark’s stepdad, Jonathan Kent, willingly dying in a tornado fit? Does Lois Lane immediately knowing who Superman is, before he even adopts the Clark Kent disguise, fit? I doubt it, though it still could have worked. However, Goyer’s script is a mess structurally, preventing the story from gaining serious traction. First, we start with twenty-something minutes on Krypton, which could be condensed in half, then we slam into the present and this new formula appears: present, flashback, present, flashback, present. That happens for another twenty minutes. Then there’s 40 minutes of Superman dithering as the reluctant hero. Then the last hour plus is a nonstop barrage of meaningless action that squeezes out room for character growth.
I’ll credit Snyder and company for likely tripling the action quotient of any previous Superman movie (maybe even all of them combined), but I never thought such action would be so boring. Oh sure, it delights for a while with advanced special effects and Snyder’s eye for visuals, but the action sequences drag out far too long. A long action sequence? Isn’t that what you’re always demanding, critic Nate? Well anonymous and theoretical detractor, yes, I enjoy a well-developed and sustained action sequence. The problem with action sequences is that they have to matter. They have to accomplish something even if it’s just there are less enemies or the hero got from point A to point B. There has to be, at bare minimum, something that is accomplished. Sadly, this is not the case with the action in Man of Steel, which is why the sequences drag and feel like they are twice as long as their already bloated length. There’s a brawl between two evil Kryptonians and Superman and after a whole 10-15 minutes of sparring, the bad guys get on a ship and leave. Come on, Zod has like a crew of twelve henchmen. Can’t one of them at least die in a preliminary battle? Worse, the final confrontation between Zod and Superman could just as easily been eliminated. They punch and yell and punch and yell and stuff gets all smashy, but by the end of the fight, nothing has substantially changed, except the foundational surroundings (more on that below). Having two invincible beings punch each other for a half hour is not engrossing. For a lengthy action sequence to work there need to be complications, organic to the situation, and the stakes should escalate. James Cameron and Steven Spielberg are masters at crafting escalating action. J.J. Abrams is pretty good himself. Even Michael Bay has his merits. I don’t know whether to lay the crux of the blame on Snyder or the screenplay he had to give life.
As the plodding action continued to pound me senseless, I was left to seriously ponder just how epic the scale of Superman’s collateral damage truly is. At one point, when Supes is fighting in the small-town center of Smallville, he tells the residents to, “Stay inside. It’s not safe.” What then proceeds to happen is a fight that rips up almost all the pavement in town, takes down a helicopter, a few fighter jets that crash in town, exploding, as well as a train car, plenty of ricocheting gunfire, and debris everywhere. But have no fear because those citizens stayed away from the windows and locked their doors! More than likely they are dead. The concluding clash in Metropolis is like 9/11 times eight. I counted three different skyscrapers that came tumbling down, and this is after the Krypton gravity field has ripped up the city and smashed it to dust, as well as missiles exploding around the city and Zod’s various spaceships. Then there’s the fight where Zod and Superman are blasting through just about every high-rise office building, and even when they collide outside it creates such force that buildings crater. They even fly into space, destroy a satellite, which then comes down as fiery debris that rains down on poor Metropolis. The final plan to foil the bad guys involves, get this, opening a black hole above a major city. It’s not like that sounds as if it will have catastrophic blowback.
The 9/11 imagery is unmistakable and I don’t care if it has been 12 years now. Couldn’t Superman at least react to the desolation he was causing? I really hope some enterprising soul via the Internet tallies the number of estimated deaths because I sincerely believe it would reach into the millions (Update: Ask and ye shall receive). Superman decimates the city and I thought less about the gee-whiz factor of the special effects and more about the innocent lives being lost amidst the CGI devastation. It looks like an atomic bomb went off. Perhaps a sequel will start with Lex Luthor rebuilding Metropolis.
And that’s the problem when you try and make sense of Man of Steel’s more realistic, grounded approach. This is a Superman that came of age in the 80/90s. While touches like young Clark experiencing sensory overload with his powers, like a scared autistic child, are clever and nice avenues toward relatability, you still have to square the more bombastic, over-the-top, and downright stupid moments that clash with that refined tone of greater realism. Nolan wanted Batman to exist in a recognizable world, so it makes sense that he and Goyer would attempt to do likewise with DC’s other champion. The prospect of an invincible alien among us is a potent source for some thoughtful and topical drama. It’s just not going to happen when Superman can demolish cities without blinking an eye or when anyone else fails to register the scale of this tremendous trauma. We don’t even have outside reactions or opinions to the earth-shattering revelation that we are not alone in the universe.
Then there are just the little things that annoyed me. Jonathan Kent dies in an effort to save the family dog. This comes off as lame, especially when Superman could save dad but has to hold back, per pa’s wishes, so as not to expose himself. Except, by the end, when the United States accepts Superman, doesn’t this invalidate all of Pa Kent’s worldview? If so, then the man died for nothing. Also, General Zod wants to transform Earth into Krypton. Except… on Earth all Kryptonians have godlike powers. Wouldn’t the man just want to keep that? Also, why does Zod never dispatch more than two Krypton lackeys to fight Superman? He has all these godlike warriors and decides to just keep them locked away in his spaceship. That just doesn’t make sense from a tactical standpoint. Also, Pa Kent tells his son to do his best to blend in, but in one scene bullies harass Clark as he’s reading from Plato. Yes, because your typical teenager can’t rip himself or herself away from the likes of Plato. Careful: Plato is a gateway read to Epicurus. Then there’s the overbearing product placement. Usually I give movies a pass if they’re not obnoxious with product placement; however, Man of Steel stages entire action sequences so we can get long-lasting looks at the logos for Sears, 7-11, and IHOP: “This callous destruction brought to you by the good (surviving) people at Sears.”
Cavill (Immortals, TV’s The Tudors) sure has the look for the part. He’s appropriately bulky but because the role is too often inactive loner, always holding back, that makes his performance somewhat bland and more reticent than necessary. Part of this is also that Snyder has historically been a poor actor’s director. You can tell throughout the film as talented, Oscar-nominated and winning thespians like Crowe and Shannon will just give off deliveries, little tinny trills that clunk, moments that a director should have stepped in for. Shannon (Take Shelter, Premium Rush) is one of our best working wacko actors, but even he comes across as a bit too unrestrained and stiff, especially when he has to scream “I will find HIM” half a dozen times in a row. I thought Zod’s second-in-command played by German actress Antje Traue (Pandorum) had more personality and better moments. Adams (The Master, Trouble with the Curve) is a good choice for a plucky Lois Lane, especially one sharp enough to see through Clark’s disguise. The movie is packed with good character actors like Laurence Fishburne, Harry Lennix, Christopher Meloni, Michael Kelly, Richard Schiff, Mackenzie Gray, and two actors from Battlestar Galactica. That’s nice. The best actor in the movie is Dylan Sprayberry as teen Clark.
Snyder’s reworked Superman for our modern age just doesn’t cut it as popular entertainment. Its misshapen structure, heavy with exposition, doesn’t provide enough space for the characters to develop, and the general edict to make Superman an inactive loner on the fringes of society is a surefire way to keep an audience at bay. The CGI-heavy action sequences feel like they go on for an eternity, straining and struggling to keep your attention because the stakes fail to escalate or have consequences outside ridiculous amounts of collateral damage to rival the worst of Mother Nature. The over-amped sci-fi reworking tries to make a clean break from the demands of Superman’s mythology, and while some revamps work, most feel needless and ham-fisted, like Pa Kent’s somewhat pointless death. But the worst charge is that the movie is just too boring. I know people have levied this charge against Superman movies in the past, particularly the 2006 Singer film that I will still stand by my positive review for. Man of Steel is a good looking movie for certain, often a great looking movie, but all those pretty pictures are for naught because of a flawed approach and overindulgence with tedious action sequences. Given its box-office riches, I expect this Superman retread will garner the sequel that Singer’s film did not. I just hope the next chapter in the new adventures of Superman experiences a Dark Knight-level rise in quality.
Nate’s Grade: C+
We’re fascinated by hired killers. Chalk it up to morbid curiosity or perhaps perverse, secret wish fulfillment, but we’re all titillated a tad by the murderous for hire. The Iceman is all about Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), who worked as a contract killer for the mob from 1966 to 1988. He’s estimated to have killed over 100 people. A mob middleman (Ray Liotta) is impressed that Kuklinski shows no fear with a gun in his face, and so the guy gets hired to rack up the bodies. At the same time, Kuklinski has a wife (Winona Ryder) and two daughters, all of whom have no clue what daddy does for a living until he’s finally brought to justice.
The main issue at play with The Iceman is that it’s trying to draw out a character study for a rather impenetrable person. It’s hard to get a solid read on the character of Richard Kuklinski. The compartmentalizing of these two very distinct lives is a fascinating psychology to explore, one I wish the filmmakers had spent a majority of the screen time upon. The internal justifications, struggles and compromises would make for an excellent and insightful look into the psychology of killer rationalization. However, I don’t know if this movie would even be possible from this subject. Kuklinski is by all accounts a pretty detached guy. There just doesn’t seem like there’s a lot to him. His circumstances are interesting, beaten into an emotionless cipher by his father, brother to a fellow sociopath, and trying to make a reasonable life for himself while keeping his inner urges at bay. The sociopath-tries-to-make-good storyline is reminiscent to fans of TV’s Dexter, and there’s plenty of room to work there. It’s an intriguing contradiction, the man who cares for so little protecting his family. In the end, we don’t really get a sense of why beyond the illusion of the American Family that Kuklinski wants to hold onto, to make himself seem normal, to prove to his family he could break free from their influence. Even typing this I feel like I’m giving the film more depth than it actually illustrates. Even though he tries to play the part of devoted family man, we rarely see any evidence of devotion. He provides, yes, puts his kids in private school, but he puts his family at risk and doesn’t seem to have affection for them as much as propriety. They are his things and nobody will mess with them. Your guess is as good as mine if he genuinely loves any of them.
Too much of the film gets mired in standard mob clichés. This guy upsets that guy; this guy wants the other guy dead. It all becomes the focal point of the movie, Kuklinski getting caught up in, essentially, office politics. Even the true-life details of the grisly methods of death feel like wasted potential for a better story. He goes on a job, he botches a job, he gets let go, so to speak, he strikes up a new partnership with another contract killer, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans in a bad wig). That last part could have been a movie unto itself, watching an odd couple of hitmen plan, execute, and then dispose of their targets. The Iceman nickname comes from their process, freezing the dismembered corpses for months so that coroners cannot get a read on when the bodies were slain. While Evans is entertaining, this entire portion of the movie could have been eliminated, its bearing on the plot minimal. Likewise, the movie has several small roles populated by recognizable actors, which become a series of one-scene distractions. Kuklinski goes out on a hit and it’s… James Franco. Then there’s Friends actor David Schwimmer as a sleazy, ponytailed, nebbish mob screw-up. Stephen Dorff has one moment as Kuklinski’s angry, desperate, murderous brother in prison. The actors are all fine, with the exception of Franco, but many of them are just another reminder of the film’s disjointed attention.
I mentioned in Pain and Gain the notion of portraying true-life criminals as sympathetic figures, and the queasy nature of this complicit interpretation. The Iceman never really tries to make Kuklinski sympathetic or some form of an antihero, and I think the movie is better for it. One of the earliest moments in the film is Kuklinski slitting the throat of a guy who harassed him and defamed his lady. This is BEFORE the guy is even hired as a contract killer too. It seems like when the guy can’t murder he becomes a worse family man. Even in the end, he’s testing a new batch of cyanide on the neighborhood cat. The movie presents Kuklinski as he is, though you’ll be forgiven for feeling some initial pings of sympathy when you seem him try and protect his family. Granted his family could also very well use protection from him.
Shannon’s (Premium Rush) performance is what keeps you watching. There are few actors who are as intense as this guy, though I’m used to seeing him play unhinged psychos bouncing off the walls. Kuklinski is just as troubled as his other roles but he’s all reserve, steely nerves, and anger that eventually bubbles over into violent rage. Shannon is still such a good actor that even with a thin character, or at least thin characterization, he can be completely compelling to watch onscreen. One of the more peculiar, inconsistent elements of the film is Shannon’s constantly-changing facial hair. I think I lost count at about nine or ten different facial topiary variations. There were times where it will be different in consecutive scenes. I guess that’s a tipoff of a time jump, but his morphing, period-appropriate facial hair also became a point of amusement.
What makes The Iceman so disappointing in retrospect is how much potential it seems to squander. There’s a great story to be had with a contract killer by night and a family man by day. That contradiction, the struggle, the psychology is all rich material to work with. It’s just that Kuklinski is not necessarily that guy; he’s not too deep, at least not in this version, and his killer work problems are just not that compelling. If this is what the filmmakers were going to do with their real-life subject, then they might as well have just used Kuklinski as inspiration. Take the best parts and then compose a different lead character, someone more emotionally transparent or relatable or just plain old interesting. Just because it’s a real story doesn’t mean you’re indebted to telling every true facet of it, especially when a better story is within sight. Shannon is a terrific actor and does his best to make the film worth watching, but from distracted plotting to unmet analysis and emotional exploration, it’s hard to walk away from The Iceman and not feel a bit chilly.
Nate’s Grade: C+
If you aren’t familiar with writer/director Jeff Nichols, do yourself a favor and get acquainted and fast because this guy is headed for indie stardom. Nichols’ last movie, the somber and unbearably tense thriller Take Shelter, was my top film of 2011. Mud, in contrast, is a harder sell, something akin to a modern-day Mark Twain fable about romantic outsiders, fugitives, friendship, and boys coming of age. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular character, a wanted man hiding out on a small island along the Mississippi River. He befriends two teens that help him rebuild a boat so that Mud can escape with his lady (Reese Witherspoon) and evade a team of dangerous bounty hunters seeking vengeance. Nichols is truly gifted at his ability to craft wholly believable characters regardless of circumstance. There is a great sense of setting here, without nary a judgment to the lower class moorings and difficulties, just as Nichols expertly showcased rural Midwestern life and day-to-day anxieties in Take Shelter. His new film is admittedly slow and takes a while to rev up, but the performances are just so good and richly delivered, from top to bottom, that you’re happy to go along with the somewhat loping ride. It’s such a pleasure to witness McConaughey fully engaged with a role, pushing him to utilize new and exciting acting muscles. Nichols also doesn’t soft-pedal the hardships of his characters. While it’s poignant and satisfying how the various plot threads come together for a thrilling conclusion, Mud also has the grace to leave several storylines absent tidy bows. There’s real heartbreak, real disappointment, and recognizable people of all walks trying to do good and find their place in this complicated world. If Mud is playing near you, it should shoot to the top of your must-see list.
Nate’s Grade: A-
It looks like the silliest movie of the summer, and that includes a film where people travel through the center of the Earth as part of their daily commute. Premium Rush is going to have some inherent silliness given that it’s an action movie about bike messengers, plus there’s the whole title that seems like a time warp to the addled surfer-speak of the early 90s (radical, dude!). There’s just something silly about the world of bike messengers in a technologically advanced world. However, once the film gets started, silliness and all, I got completely caught up in it and went happily along for the ride.
Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bicycle messenger in New York City. He lives on the speed and rush of the job, riding a bicycle with fixed gears and no brakes. He’s still trying to get in good graces with Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), a fellow bike messenger and his ex-girlfriend. At the end of his shift, Wilee gets one last mission. He’s to deliver a very important envelope by 7:00. That envelope happens to carry a receipt for a very lot of money, which is the equivalent of a bank notice in some criminal circumstances. Police detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) tracks down Wilee and insists that he hand over the package. Monday, you see, has some very deep gambling debts to some very angry people, and he needs that package. Wilee refuses, races off, and Monday gives chase, using his police connections to try and snag the plucky cyclist.
Your presumptions of how silly the realm of bicycle messengers are get dashed quickly when you realize how insanely dangerous this profession can be. These guys, and gals, are speeding through downtown New York City traffic, careening around vehicles, and flying through lights. We see a few high-speed accidents but I wouldn’t be surprised if nearby hospitals have an entire organ donation pile labeled “bike messengers.” Director/co-writer David Koepp (Ghost Town) does a great job of making the audience feel the adrenaline rush of all that speed. You will get swept up in the thrills and forget all about the silliness. For a man who hasn’t directed action before, though written plenty of it, Koepp has a natural feel for developing his action and showcasing the cyclist’s impressive skills. Simply put, this is one movie where the action really speeds along.
The high-speed navigation of New York City is entertaining in and of itself, but Koepp goes one further and places Wilee in a series of dangerous predicaments where he has to determine his next split-second route. He mentally plays out the different scenarios, most of them involving him getting creamed by a car. It’s a fun visual quirk and a great opportunity for physical humor as well since some of the potential outcomes are quite worrisome. Koepp gooses his story with plenty of visual flourishes that gives Premium Rush an added degree of fun. The narrative also jumps back and forth linearly, fleshing out characters and giving us a better sense of how the pieces of the plot all snap together. It’s flashy and fun and thrilling with some great practical stunt work, and that’s more than enough to make you forget any misgivings you may have had with the premise.
Tonally, the film has a nice tongue-in-cheek sense of humor; it’s not enough to be self-aware or veer into meta territory, but it’s a concerted lightness, a springy attitude that further elevates the fun quotient. No more is this sense of humor better realized than with the villainous Bobby Monday. He’s a corrupt cop but he’s also hilariously off, just like every Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) character it seems. He’s a horrible gambler, and even he knows it, but he still comes back to the math-heavy Asian games that he’s not suited for. This character’s entire crazed demeanor has a comic desperation to it, which does temper his predatory danger. But you’ll never know what he’ll say next, or what strange, over-the-top delivery will accompany the next bon mot. In one scene, he complains about the trashy nature of primetime TV, bemoaning that he heard, during the family hour, some kid say “suck it.” He also laments how prevalent the term “douchebag” has become as an insult. It’s these little oddball touches that reminded me of the excellent 2003 action movie The Rundown, specifically Christopher Walken’s whacked out bad guy. Now there’s nothing that approaches the absurd poetry of Walken’s tooth fairy speech, but Shannon and his offbeat rhythms add another level of enjoyment.
I salute Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s rise in Hollywood circles, now among the ranks of spry action heroes. Gordon-Levitt has long been one of my favorite actors, delivering tremendous performances in films like Brick, Mysterious Skin, (500) Days of Summer, and of course last year’s cancer dramedy 50/50. He’s got a natural charisma to him that doesn’t seem manufactured, that isn’t overworked, and he delivers committed performance after committed performance. It’s easy to like this guy and be impressed with his performances. Now, Premium Rush isn’t going to going to shoot to the top of this guy’s resume, but he makes a credible action lead that’s easy to root for. He has an affable, devil-may-care attitude, and flashbacks to his early romance with Vanessa give a peak at how overwhelmingly charming the man can be when he turns it on. I will not admit whether I have a shrine devoted to Gordon-Levitt (or “Jo Go-Lev” as I prefer to call him).
My only major complain with the film is that it becomes a tad repetitious leading into its final act. All of this effort is spent on tracking down a ticket, so you are comfortable with it changing hands repeatedly. The good guys have it. The bad guy has it. And so on. I think the film would feel less repetitious if these changes in ownership didn’t happen so frequently. It feels like nobody can hang on to this thing for more than a few minutes.
For a summer awash in disappointment, it’s nice to come across a modest action movie that’s well-executed and just plain fun. Premium Rush delivers an end-of-summer blast of fun and some neat visual whimsy. Gordon-Levitt carries the film well and the great Michael Shannon punctuates the movie with such entertaining weirdness. I was laughing routinely, getting caught up in the rush of speed, and even coming to enjoy the various silly detours, like when an army of bicycle messengers is called out for action like some gang. This is not a movie to take too seriously, but much like Battleship, it’s a summer formula action movie that sticks to its guns and finds plenty of enjoyment. I never would have thought at the beginning of the summer that an action movie about bike messengers would be one of the most entertaining offerings, but there you have it. Koepp has crafted an enjoyable, thrilling, and just plain fun movie and a fine way to close out the summer.
Now back to my Jo Go-Lev shrine.
Nate’s Grade: B+