A return to the world of Divergent yields little forward momentum, in fact just enough to end on the point that I thought where a sequel would naturally begin. Turns out we needed a whole other movie, Insurgent, to arrive at this obvious narrative next step. Insurgent picks up with Tris (Shailene Woodley) and company on the run following the coup of two of the five social factions. Tris is a Divergent, able to apply herself to multiple factions, and she and her kind are the only ones who can open a secret box left behind by the founders of this post-apocalyptic civilization. The film does enough to hold your attention and we get to visit the other two factions we missed the first time, providing further shape to what is still a confusing world. I think the Divergent series will always fall short of the YA pacesetter, The Hunger Games, but they offer their escapist moments of entertainment. The second film is a bigger, louder, and more heavily coated CGI affair, especially the magic box’s mental trials that amount to a repeat of the first movie’s psychological trials of fear. Woodley is the strong center of the film and she processes her own PTSD over being forced to kill friends in order to survive; you do start to sense that Woodley is growing restless with the franchise. The third book is, as required by the mandate of milking YA franchises, being split into two movies, and while it served little to the Hunger Games, I hope better for the Divergent series, a group of movies inferior and somewhat mystifying but still interesting enough. For now.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Expecting a comedy from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu would have preposterous. The man was known for his cinema verite of suffering, notably Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful, and his best film, Amores Perros, roughly translated to Love’s a Bitch. Perhaps there isn’t much of a shift going from tragedy to comedy. Inarritu’s newest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), has been wowing critics and audiences alike, building deafening awards buzz for its cast, Iarritu, and the superb cinematography, but will it fly with mainstream audiences? This may be one of the weirdest Oscar front-runners in some time.
Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an actor best known for playing the superhero Birdman in the early 1990s and walking away from the franchise. He’s still haunted by that role (sometimes literally) and struggling to prove himself as an artist. He’s brokered all his money into directing, adapting, and starring in a theatrical version of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The show is in previews and about to open its run on Broadway but it’s already got a rash of problems. The leading man needs to be replaced immediately. The supposed savior is famous actor Mike (Edward Norton), an undeniably talented but temperamental actor who pushes buttons to find some fleeting semblance of “truth.” Mike’s girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), is growing tired of his antics and desperate for her own long-delayed big break. Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s “girlfriend” and co-star and may be pregnant. Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s personal assistant and also his detached daughter, is fresh from rehab, and spiteful against her neglectful dad. Toss in Riggan’s best friend/manager/play producer (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and a feared theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is determined to kill Riggan’s show to send a message to the rest of Hollywood polluting the integrity of the theat-tah. Oh, and throughout all this, Riggan hears an ominous voice that alternating encourages him and humiliates him.
It’s an industry satire, a bizarre comedy, a father/daughter drama, an examination on identity and the complicated pulls of affection and admiration, and a stunning virtuoso technical achievement. As a movie, Birdman is hard to pin down or categorize. It’s a movie that you definitely need to experience on your own rather than have described (don’t stop reading, come back…), and that is a reason enough to see the film, a rare aspect among modern movies. It’s an artistically offbeat movie and yet it ultimately is about one has been actor looking back on his career and coming to terms with his own impact with pop-culture, art, and his family. It’s about a man struggling to find his place in his own life, beset at all odds by doubters and traitors and obstructionists. The refreshing aspect about Riggan is that he’s a has-been but not a sad sack; he’s fighting from the beginning, sometimes pathetically and sometimes in vain, but the man is always fighting to regain his dignity, to reclaim his life’s narrative, and to fight for his legacy. Riggan, after all, set the stage for the modern superhero industry that currently dominates Hollywood bean counters. He was too just soon, and the parallels with Keaton (Batman) are superficially interesting but there’s more of an original character here than a reflection of the actor playing him. He’s neurotic, egotistical, hungry, and fighting for respect, like many actors, and the film flirts with the façades people inhabit. Many of the characters are emotionally needy, desperate for validation wherever they can find it.
Another strength of the film is that it finds a moment for each of its talented ensemble players to shine, chief among them Keaton. The actor hasn’t had a showcase like this in some time and he is a terrific guiding force to hold the entire story together. Whether it’s marching in his tighty whities or working through his complicated degrees of neuroses, Keaton is alive in a way that is electrifying. We see several highs and lows over the course of two hours, some moments making us cheer on Riggan and others making us wince, but he comes across more like a person than just the butt of a joke. It’s also just fun to watch him adopt different acting styles when he steps on stage, including one early on where he’s purposely too stilted. It’s so comforting to watch Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel) get to be great again, not just good but great. Early on, you see the appeal of Mike, his allure, and Norton keeps pushing the audience, as well as the characters, back and forth with his wealth of talent. Stone (Amazing Spider-Man 2) spends most of the film as the sulky daughter but she gets to uncork one awesomely angry monologue against her loser dad. The thawing father/daughter relationship ends up supplying the film with its only degree of heart. Watts (The Impossible) is comically frazzled for the majority of her time but gets a memorable character beat where she breaks down in tears, realizing her dream of “making it” might never materialize. Riseborough (Oblivion) also has moments where he sadness and vulnerability cut deep. The supporting characters aren’t terribly deep but they all have a moment to standout.
It’s a decidedly offbeat film that dips into the surreal though never dives completely inside. The movie is rather ambiguous about whether or not the fantastical flourishes are a result of Riggan being mentally ill, or at the least overtaxed with stress. Is there really a Birdman or is it a voice in his head, a manifestation of his ego or a ghost to remind him of the past when he was a star? Does Riggan really have the powers he seems to believe he does, including the ability to make objects move with his mind? Innaritu playfully keeps the audience guessing, treating the bizarre in an offhand manner reminiscent of magic realism. The bizarre embellishments blend smoothly with the film’s darkly comic tone. It’s a funny movie but one that you laugh at between clenched teeth.
Is it all the unblinking camerawork a gimmick? I don’t think so. While the story can engage with its weirdness and surreal unpredictability, the long tracking shots bring a heightened reality to the unreal, they bring a larger sense of awe to the proceedings, watching to see the magic trick pulled off to the end. If anything, it’s an extra thrill to the script and greatly compounds the artistic audaciousness of the film, but I think it also channels the live-wire energy of theater, of watching actors have to walk that tightrope of performance and blocking, weaving together to pull off the ensemble. It makes the film medium feel more like live theater. Thematically I think the style also connects to the anxious mentality of Riggan. In the end, I don’t truly care that much whether it’s a gimmick or not (though I vote it is not) because the camerawork is rapturous. Made to resemble an entire two-hour tracking shot, it is a joyous thrill to watch these technical wizards do their thing, to watch the best in the business perform a visual magic trick over the duration of two hours. Even if you don’t care for the overall movie you can at least be entertained by the imaginative and thoroughly accomplished cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh from his Oscar for Gravity and who should be clearing shelf space for the next bushel of awards he’s destined to win with this film. It’s an intoxicating experience to behold, though the film is structured into 10-minute or so chunks for feasibility. If you want to watch a real cinematic magic trick, check out the film Russian Ark, which is an entire movie, performed in one uncut single tracking shot.
I’m still wrestling with the debate over whether Birdman is an artistically ambitious romp or a truly great movie. Much like the characters in the film, I’m wrestling with whether I have confused my admiration with adoration. It’s a movie that I feel compelled to see a second time, and maybe a third, just to get a handle on my overall thoughts and feelings. That may be a sign that Birdman is a film for the ages, or maybe it’s just a sign that it’s not as approachable and denied a higher level of greatness by its obtuseness. Inarritu’s surreal showbiz satire is plenty entertaining, darkly comic, and a technical marvel thanks to the brilliant camerawork. The percussion-heavy musical score is another clever choice, naturally adding more urgency and anxiety to the proceedings. Birdman is a strange and beguiling movie, one that deserves to be seen, needs to be experienced, and stays with you rolling around in your brain. That sounds like a winner to me.
Nate’s Grade: A
On December 26, 2004, an underwater earthquake triggered one of the deadliest tsunamis on record, devastating coastal cities along the Indian Ocean. Over 230,000 people are believed to have perished from the waves and resulting damage. The Impossible tells the harrowing and ultimately inspiring true-story of one family and their vacation from hell. We follow Marie (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) as well as their three sons, from oldest to youngest, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). They’re vacationing in Thailand for the holidays and then the tsunami hits, separating Marie and Lucas from the group. They are swept away by the punishing waves and Marie is badly hurt. Henry is desperately searching for his loved ones, Lucas is desperate to get his mother proper medical attention, and there are thousands just as desperate and just as in need.
It’s nigh impossible to watch this movie and be unmoved. It’s not very subtle when it comes to its themes and messages, but man is it ever effective. The family struggle could have easily descended into melodrama with a sappy, maudlin reunion, punctuated with swelling music to hit you over the head. It’s a fairly simple story with little to its plot. The family gets separated and then they desperately search for one another and, surprise, they reunite. It is after all based on a true story and they all lived, so there’s that. It’s the startling level of realism, the exceptional performances, and the poignant moments of human kindness and grace that suckered me in big time. I was an emotional wreck throughout this movie but in the best way possible. I cried at points, sure, but my tears and my emotions always felt genuinely earned. There’s no doubt that this is one manipulative movie. It knows what strings to pull, what buttons to push, and it does so with finesse. Last year I decried Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for being overly manipulative and overdosing on false sentiment. However, with this movie, my investment was never in jeopardy. I was completely absorbed by the story and felt great empathy for the array of characters as they persevere. The horror of that 2004 tsunami is told in one small story, personalized, and giving an entry point for an audience to engage without feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of destruction and death.
Let me go into further detail about that wall of destruction, given astonishing, terrifying realism. The recreation of the tsunami ranks up there as one of the most frightening sequences I’ve ever seen in film. It’s a solid ten minutes of chaos, and you will feel the frenzy of that chaos. You’re put in the middle, floating along with mother and son as they helplessly try and cling to one another. The scope of the disaster will leave you gasping. I know they must have used sets and water tanks but I’m left stupefied how it all came together to look so seamless. It sounds macabre to compliment the marvelous recreation of mayhem, but director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) and his team have turned disaster into world-class drama. It’s not just the powerful waves as well, there’s the field of debris just under the surface to contend with. When the first wave hits Maria, we experience her complete disorientation. The sights and sounds are blurs, the water oppressive, and the debris sudden, jolting, unforgiving. It’s the closest any person would ever truly want to get in the middle of a tsunami.
The majority of the film is about the family coming back together, and while their reunion is indeed a tearjerker, I found the film littered with many small moments that just soared emotionally. When a disaster of this magnitude hits, I’m always struck by the wealth of human kindness and cooperation that emerges in response. There’s something deeply moving about helping your fellow man in need, even if you cannot understand his or her language. Maria is aided by the Thai locals who do not treat her differently because she’s a white woman. She is just another person in need.
Whenever disaster strikes, we think of the people who plunge into the middle as heroes, but simple acts can be just as comforting and thoughtful. There are small moments of kindness, like lending a stranger your cell phone to call home, that speak volumes. In that one instance, Henry is so distraught, the weight of everything hitting him as he tries to put it into words, and his call is abrupt and somewhat incomprehensible thanks to his rising emotions. Henry is urged to call back, not to leave it at that, to leave his relatives dangling with such precious little and the alarm in his voice. So he’s given the phone again, and in a more measured demeanor, Henry is able to talk about the situation and promise to find his wife. It’s such an everyday gesture made invaluable to Henry. There’s a woman talking to Thomas about the stars in the sky, how we don’t know which are dead but they continue to live on, and the subtext is a bit obvious but it’s still heartfelt. Then there’s Lucas’ mission of organizing the triage center, scouring the grounds looking for missing family members. He takes it upon himself to make a difference rather than sitting idle. It’s that human connection in the face of adversity that proves most uplifting.
Watts (J. Edgar) gives a performance of tremendous strength and fragility. The tenacity and resilience she has to keep pushing through is remarkable. She’s so strong but vulnerable at the same time, showing you the fine line she walks to stay above the fray for her child. She endures great physical trauma, a gnarly gash in her leg peeling off like tree bark. Then there’s the emotional burden of trying to be a mother to a child desperately in need of a sturdy parent. Watts could have readily played to the heights of the emotions, resorting to hysterics, but the quiet strength of her character makes her underplay the burdens she endures. She can’t simply just break down. You don’t get a true sense of the toll she has suffered until her life-and-death struggles at the very end.
The supporting team around Watts also deserves accolades. McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) has several heartbreaking and heartwarming scenes, striving for hope. Lucas has to rise to maturity when his mother is wounded, protecting her, supporting her. Acting novice Holland rises to that challenge with great courage, though there are moments that still remind you he’s only a boy, like when he bashfully turns his back upon seeing his mother’s exposed breast. That awkward, indecisive moment where a young boy doesn’t know how to handle the sight, seeing his mother so exposed and vulnerable, is quite effective. The other actors who round out the family (Joslin and Pendergast) are quite superb as well. The family feels like a cohesive, loving unit, and every performance feels believable.
The Impossible is based upon the true experiences of a Spanish family, and yet the onscreen family we follow is white, so what gives? It’s not surprising for Hollywood to whitewash a story to appeal to a wider audience. Should we have any more sympathy for this family’s plight because they are white? Would we feel less if they were Spanish? I think the perils and victories would be the same regardless of language or ethnicity, but I can’t fault the producers for snagging talent like Watts and McGregor. If you have actors of this caliber that wish to come aboard, then by all means change the ethnicity of the characters. I was too consumed in the story to care that much about this facet.
Watching the unflinching and stunning events in The Impossible, you will likely shed some tears, be they from horror, sadness, or happiness at the family’s reunion. While the ending is never in doubt, the movie has plenty of other potent and poignant small moments to keep your emotions safely stirred. It’s a visceral experience that will shock and exhilarate. There were moments where I felt like I had to cover my eyes. But The Impossible is not disaster porn, ogling over the suffering and endurance of the misfortunate. It’s as much about the response to tragedy as it is the wallop of that cruel tragedy in 2004. The perseverance, the open-hearted help of one’s fellow man, the strength of human connection, the long ripples of kindness, it all comes together to form one compelling, often moving, and quite memorable film experience. Add some formidable performances, top-notch direction, and tremendous technical achievement, and The Impossible is a rousing drama that speaks to the best of us even in the worst conditions (think of it as the antithesis of Ayn Rand’s philosophy). It may be manipulative, it may be somewhat straightforward, and it likely climaxes too soon, but when the results are this powerful and emotionally engaging, then I’m happy to have my buttons pushed.
Nate’s Grade: A-
There were two driving reasons why I chose to go see Movie 43, the collection of 13 comedy sketches from different writers and directors. First, the red band trailer made me laugh, so I figured it was worth a shot. If one sketch didn’t work, there was always another ready to cleanse my comedic palate. The other reason is that I have been compiling sketches written by myself and my friends with the intent to make my own sketch comedy movie in 2013. Part of me was also concerned that something so high-profile might extinguish my own project; maybe we came up with similar material with sketches. After watching Movie 43, a tasteless, disconnected, and ultimately unfunny collective, I have renewed hope for my own project’s success.
Like most sketch comedy collections, Movie 43 is extremely hit or miss. This ain’t no Kentucky Fried Movie or even the Kids in the Hall flick. Rating this worth viewing depends on which side racks up the most. Unfortunately, there’s more terribleness than greatness on display, but allow me to briefly call out the film’s true highlights. The best segment in the movie, the one that had me laughing the longest, was a bizarre fake commercial that does nothing more than presuppose that machines, as we know them, are really filled with small children to do the labor. Seeing little urchins inside a copy machine or an ATM, looking so sad, with the faux serious music welling up, it made me double over in laughter.
With the actual vignettes, “Homeschooled” and “Truth or Dare” where the standouts that drew genuine laughter. “Homeschooled” is about a mother and father (real-life couple Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber) giving their son the total high school experience, which amounts to degrading humiliation. Dad makes fun of his son’s penis in the shower. Mom and Dad throw a party with the cool kids but don’t invite their son. Dad tapes his son to a flagpole. The kid gets his first awkward kiss thanks to his mom. It’s outrageous without falling victim into being crass for the sake of crass, a common sin amongst many of the vignettes. “Truth or Dare” starts off innocuously enough with Halle Berry (Cloud Atlas) and Stephen Merchant (Hall Pass) on a blind date. As the date progresses, they get into an escalating game of truth or dare that each has them doing offensive acts, like blowing out the candles on a blind kid’s birthday cake. This segment knows when to go for broke with it silliness and it doesn’t wear out its welcome, another cardinal sin amidst the other vignettes.
But lo, the unfunny sketches, or more accurately the disappointing sketches, outnumber the enjoyable. Far too often the sketches are of the one joke variety and the comedy rarely leaves those limited parameters. So a sketch about a blind date with a guy who has testicles hanging from his chin (Hugh Jackman) is… pretty much just that. There’s no real variation or complications or sense of build. It’s just that. A commercial about an iPod built to model a naked lady is… exactly that and nothing more. A speed dating session with famous DC superheroes like Batman (Jason Sudeikis), Robin (Justin Long), Supergirl (Kristen Bell) and others should be far cleverer than what we get. While I laughed at the sports sketch “Victory’s Glory,” it really all boils down to one joke: black people are better than white people at basketball. That’s it. “Middleschool Date” starts off interesting with a teen girl (Chloe Grace Moritz) getting her period on a date and the clueless men around her freaking out that she is dying. However, this is the one sketch that doesn’t go far enough. It really needed to increase the absurdity of the situation but it ends all too quickly and with little incident. “Happy Birthday” involves two roommates (Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott) interrogating an angry leprechaun (Gerard Butler) for his gold. It pretty much just sticks to slapstick and vulgar name-calling. That’s the more tiresome aspect of Movie 43, the collective feeling that it’s trying so desperately to be shocking rather than, you know, funny.
The worst offenders of comedy are the scathingly unfunny “Veronica” and “The Proposition.” With “Veronica,” Kieran Culkin tries to woo his lady (Emma Stone) with a series of off-putting sexual remarks, delivered in an off-putting “bad poetry delivery” manner, while the film is off-puttingly shot with self-conscious angles that do nothing for the comedy. It’s a wreck. “The Proposition” is just one big poop joke. It’s far more gross than gross-out.
The frame story connecting the varied vignettes is completely unnecessary. Well, I suppose there is one point for its addition, namely to pad out the running time to a more feature-length 94 minutes. The wraparound storyline with Dennis Quaid pitching more and more desperate movie ideas never serves up any good jokes. Its only significance is to setup an ironic counterpoint that gets predictable and old fast. Example: Quaid says, “It’s a movie with a lot of heart and tenderness,” and we cut to a couple that plans on pooping on each other. See? You can figure out its setup formula pretty quick. I don’t understand why the people behind Movie 43 thought the perfect solution to pad out their running time was a dumb wraparound. These sketches don’t need a frame story; the audience is not looking for a logical link. For that matter why is the guy also pitching commercials? I would have preferred that the frame story was completely dropped and I got to have two or three more sketches, thus perhaps bettering the film’s ultimate funny/unfunny tally.
There will be a modicum of appeal watching very famous people getting a chance to cut loose, play dirty, and do some very outrageous and un-Oscar related hijinks. The big name actors do everything they can to elevate the material, but too many sketches are one joke stretched too thin. I suppose there may be contingents of people that will go into hysterical fits just seeing Hugh Jackman with chin testicles (I think the Goblin King in The Hobbit beat him to it), just like there will always people who bust a gut when a child or an old person says something inappropriate for their age, or when someone gets kicked in the nuts (the normal ones). I just found the majority of Movie 43 to be lacking. It settles far too easily on shocking sight gags and vulgarity without a truly witty send-up. It wants to be offensive, it gleefully revels in topics it believes would offend the delicate sensibilities of an audience, but being offensive and being funny are not automatically synonymous. You have to put real work into comedy. Movie 43 isn’t it.
Nate’s Grade: C-
J. Edgar has all the qualities you’d want in a high profile, awards-friendly movie. It charts the life of legendary FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio in its title role, and it has Oscar-winner attached as screenwriter (Dustin Lance Black) and director (Clint Eastwood). The only way this movie could be bigger awards bait was if Hoover personally challenged Adolf Hitler to a duel. At a running time of 137 minutes, J. Edgar misses out on explaining why this complex man was who he was, a difficult prospect but I would have at least appreciated some effort.
J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was, at his height, said to be the second most powerful man in the United States. The first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations served under eight presidents and for over 50 years. The man rose to power fighting against radicals and Bolshevik terrorists in 1919. Hoover successfully arranged for America to deport foreigners with “suspected radical leanings.” He was appointed to head the, then, Bureau of Investigations, where Hoover remade the agency in the image he desired. His agents were going to be clean-cut, college-educated, physically fit, and God help you if you had facial hair. Hoover also fought to bring modern forensic science into investigations and trials, proposing a centralized catalogue of fingerprints, which at the time was dismissed by many as a “speculative science.” Hoover also amassed an extensive system of confidential files on thousands of American citizens he felt were potential threats or if he just didn’t like them. Hoover wasn’t afraid to bully presidents with this secret catalogue. On a personal level, Hoover was admittedly without any friends or interests outside the agency he felt responsible for. His life was defined by three close personal relationships: his mother (Judi Dench), whom Hoover lived with until the day she died; Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his loyal secretary and confidant of 40 years; and Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), an FBI agent that Hoover shared a decades-long unrequited romance with. Upon Hoover’s death in 1972, Tolson was given Hoover’s burial flag, and Tolson’s own grave is a mere couple plots away from J. Edgar’s.
The movie feels trapped in a closet alongside Hoover. The guy was rather enigmatic and hard to nail down, but I would have appreciated Eastwood and Black at least trying to figure the guy out. They treat the subject with such fragility, such sympathetic stateliness about his more salient personality points. It feels like Eastwood doesn’t want to get his hands too dirty, so the provocative material, like the gay stuff, is kept to very period appropriate acts of discretion. A handholding in the backseat of a car is practically scandalous given the treatment on the gay material. The oft rumored cross-dressing aspect is hinted at but explained, in context of the scene, as Hoover’s way of mourning the loss of his mother. With Hoover, there was only his public persona of a moral crusader, a face that he never removed even in his private moments. The guy could never embrace happiness, only duty. It feels like Eastwood couldn’t decide on what stance to take, and thus the film settles on a bloodless examination that won’t upset any of the, presumably, delicate sensibilities of the older audience members. A towering figure of moral certainty, extreme paranoia, righteous conviction, a vindictive streak against his mounting collection of enemies, and a shaky hold on the truth, all in the name of protection against America’s many real and imagined enemies – I feel like the blueprint has been established for the eventual Dick Cheney biopic. It’ll just be slightly less gay.
Let’s talk more about the gay factor. It feels like this area is where Eastwood definitely could have pushed much further, but the old school director seems to be of the opinion that a biopic need not pry nor speculate. Excuse me, but you’re telling me about a man’s life, the least you could do is dig deeper. A domineering mother, who said she’d rather have a dead son than one of those “daffodils,” and the moral restraints of the time, are easy enough to identify why Hoover was a repressed homosexual. That doesn’t separate him from probably a far majority of homosexual men in the first half of the twenty-first century. What makes Hoover, a repressed homosexual, tick? This is no Brokeback Mountain style whirlwind of untamable emotion. Eastwood keeps things chaste, choosing to view Hoover as a celibate man. Hoover and Clyde becomes inseparable “companions,” eating every dinner together, going away on trips, and enjoying the pleasure of one another’s company – the life of the lifelong “bachelor.” But that’s as far as the movie is willing to go (remember the scandalous handholding?). There are hints about how socially awkward Hoover can be, a guy who seems downright asexual at times. He proposed to Helen on a first date where his attempts to charm included showing off his card catalogue system at the Library of Congress (“I bet you show this to all the girls…”). You get the impression he’s not comfortable with this necessary area of human biology. That’s fine room to start, but J. Edgar doesn’t do anything but start its characterization ideas. It gives you ideas to toy with and then moves along. The relationship with Clyde hits a breaking point when Hoover discusses, during one of their weekend getaways, the prospect of finally choosing a “Mrs. Hoover.” Naturally Clyde does not react well to this development, and the two engage in a brawl that ends in a shared bloody kiss. This is about as passionate as Eastwood’s movie ever dares to get.
I expected more from the Oscar-winning writer of Milk. Black’s lumpy script can often be confusing, lacking a direct narrative through line. Some leaps in time can just be confusing, like when J. Edgar is asking his junior agent typist what figure was most important in the 20th century thus far. The agent answers, “Joe McCarthy,” and then we have a new agent sitting there, and Hoover asks again. Finally we have another agent who responds with Hoover’s desired answer, “Charles Lindbergh.” I suppose we’re left to assume that Hoover fired his typists until he found one who mirrored his own thoughts. There is also far too much time spent over the Lindbergh baby case. I understand it’s the so-called Crime of the Century and, as Black sets up, a situation for Hoover to prove his bureau’s value when it comes to modern criminal science. It just goes on for so long and rarely offers insight into Hoover. Sans Clyde, the majority of the supporting characters offer little insight as well. Hoover’s mother never goes beyond the domineering matrimonial figure. Helen seems like a cipher, rarely giving any explanation for her decades of loyalty despite clear objections to certain choices. She’s too often just a “secretary” there to move the plot along by introducing more characters of minimal impact. With Hoover being such an enigmatic and closeted figure, the supporting characters could have been the areas we found the most insight into the man. Nope.
The entire plot structure feels like a mistake. Hoover is dictating his memoirs so we primarily flash from the 1930s, when Hoover was making a name for himself, to the 1960s, when Hoover is fighting a secret war against, of all things, the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. (he was convinced King was tied to communists). The back-and-forth nature of the story can lead to some confusion over facts and timelines, but the concept of Hoover dictating his memoirs means that the movie becomes a greatest hits compilation, a showcase of Hoover’s finest hours in an attempt to win public support back. He can explain his obsessions and justify his overreaches. That’s why Hoover’s entire catalogue of secret files on thousands of American citizens, including presidents, is given such short shrift. Why would he want to discuss his own subversive tactics hunting subversive elements? The only time the screenplay discusses this secret catalogue is when Hoover and Clyde want to have a good laugh over Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian paramour (irony?). Richard Nixon covets these files, so Helen swears that upon the death of her boss that she will shred every page before Tricky Dick can get his hands on them (J. Edgar is rated R for “brief strong language,” and they are all provided by potty-mouthed Nixon). Black attempts something of an Atonement-styled ending with an unreliable narrator, but the effects are slight and only superficial and too late.
At this point it’s probably going to be rare for DiCaprio (Inception, Revolutionary Road) to give a dud performance. The actor isn’t the first name you’d think of for a Hoover biography. Regardless, the guy does a great job especially with the emotional handicaps given to him by Black’s script and Eastwood’s direction. Given all the emotional reserve, it’s amazing that DiCaprio is able to make his character resonate as much as he can, finding small nuances to work with. Hoover’s clipped speaking style, likely the most readily recognizable feature of the man, is here but DiCaprio does not stoop to impression. He’s coated in what looks like 800 pounds of makeup to portray Hoover in the 1960s. The old age makeup looks good on DiCaprio, though the same cannot be said for his inner circle. Older Clyde looks like he is suffocating behind a gummy Halloween mask; the man looks like he is mummified in his own liver-spotted skin. Older Helen just looks like they powdered her face and added some gray to her hair.
The movie seems to take its emotional cues from its subject; far too much of J. Edgar is reserved, hands-off, and afraid to assert judgment on what was a highly judgmental man of history. What makes Hoover compelling is his array of contradictions. He’s defined by three personal relationships (mother, Clyde, Helen), all of whom he could never have. That’s got to mean something. Instead of exploring these contradictions in any meaningful psychological depth, Eastwood seems to take his hand off the wheel and the film just casually drifts along, steered by the self-aggrandizing of Hoover himself, given so much room to explain detestable behavior in the name of protecting America. J. Edgar is a handsomely mounted biopic with some strong acting, but from Eastwood’s impassive direction (his piano-trinkle score isn’t too good either) and Black’s lumpy script, the finished work feels too closed off and arid for such a controversial subject worthy of closer inspection.
Nate’s Grade: B-
How much does one fantastic sequence count? Can it save an otherwise so-so movie? This is the case with The International, a plodding conspiracy thriller that is shockingly action-free sans two sequences. One sequence is a lackluster foot chase that serves as a frustrating anticlimactic climax. The other is a gripping shootout inside the Guggenheim museum in New York City between Clive Owen and some mercenaries. It is a fantastic piece of action cinema, expertly handled so that the geography is clear, the stakes get more fraught, and the twists and turns arise naturally. It feels like something out of one of the Bourne movies except with extra firepower. It is a terrific ten-minute sequence; the trouble is that is comes at about minute 70 and there isn’t much worth watching afterwards. The International is slow and fairly uninteresting. The flick thinks that by taking its time the movie will be more intriguing and involving. It?s not. The movie has one good sequence and it places it directly in the middle, just enough to snap you out of a stupor and get your hopes up that something equally entertaining will reemerge later. It doesn’t. The International is a snooze-worthy conspiracy thriller that just careens toward an incomplete ending. Take my advice: zip to the 70-minute mark and enjoy what you can.
Nate’s Grade: C
Director David Cronenberg is an idiosyncratic director who explores Big Ideas through the context of creepy horror movies where the body is violated. He’s covered everything from evil gnome-like children, ravenous monsters in Marilyn Chambers’ armpit, and Jeff Goldblum’s face unfortunately peeling away. But then Cronenberg struck it big with 2005’s A History of Violence, giving him the highest profile of his long Canadian career. The auteur of ick is now back in a similarly themed tale of the true impacts of bloodshed with Eastern Promises, a gripping and thoughtful work.
Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife working in London and come across a young Russian girl who dies in childbirth. She leaves behind a diary that Anna seeks to have translated so that she can find family members to contact about the newborn. This brings her unknowingly to the doorstep of Senyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who runs a restaurant in London’s Russian district. She inquires if Senyon or any of the employees knew the dead girl, and as soon as Senyon hears about the reality of a diary he becomes more concerned. And he should be since he is the head of one of London’s most notorious organized crime families. His loose canon of a son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), has authorized a hit behind his father’s back and repercussions may soon be approaching. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) serves as the family’s chauffeur but takes an interest in Anna and is willing to assist her as she stumbles into impending danger the more she translates from the diary.
Much like writer Steven Knight’s excellent previous film Dirty Pretty Things, this is a film that shines a light on the underbelly of London and focuses on the immigrant experience and how apt they are to be exploited. Eastern Promises is both a straightforward crime thriller with an intriguing, albeit simple central mystery, but then as it moves along it transforms into something far richer. Through the diary, we uncover the hidden inner workings of the Russian mafia, which is a truly global enterprise. Women are promised with great riches and freedoms in their Slavic homeland, and then once transported will spend the rest of their lives behind the bars of a whorehouse, kept dependent thanks to a drug habit forced upon them. We’re immersed in the culture of this crime family. Eastern Promises takes its noirsh sensibilities and then gives us the foreboding and enigmatic Nikolai, a mysterious figure that the audience, like Anna, is drawn to. He spent time in a Siberian prison and is covered in telling tattoos that serve as a resume for the mafia. Nikolai is such a dominating presence and proves to be more intriguing than the central diary mystery, and it’s here where the film performs a balancing act and transfers our attentions fully to this brooding brute.
Cronenberg subverts his usual irony and weirdness to stay true to his tale, and this may well be, even more so than A History of Violence, the most accessible Cronenberg movie yet. We’re a long way from flesh-eating-monster-in-Marilyn-Chambers’-armpit. He still works with such compact efficiency so that no scene feels wasted, and Eastern Promises is a brisk 1 hour 40 minutes. Where Eastern Promises really succeeds is by layering in strong characters within a relatively genre movie. People are not exactly who they seem and the actors do their best to give remarkable depth to their roles.
Cronenberg seems to have found an actor that shares his artistic sensibilities. Scorsese has Leonardo DiCaprio, Wes Anderson has Bill Murray, Kevin Smith has Ben Affleck, and now Cronenberg has Viggo Mortensen. I never thought much of Mortensen as an actor until Cronenberg unlocked something deep and mesmerizing in their first pairing. With Eastern Promises, Mortensen establishes himself as an extremely capable actor. Nikolai is a complex figure and he Mortensen displays a mastery of understatement; his stony silences and piercing stares speak volumes, but you can practically watch the decision-making of the character pass through the face of Mortensen. He skillfully displays the good inside a man bred for evil.
Watts is an actress with few equals and she dazzles once more in a role that requires her to do a lot of legwork. And yet, there’s a sad, haunting quality to her thanks to the back-story where she lost a child due to miscarriage. Cassel is also impressive in a complicated role that requires a lot of internal languishing. He’s at one an impudent child willing to live high off the power of his family name, and at other times he comes across as a severely wounded man who cannot thrive in his hostile family (both little and big F) environment. There are interesting revelations that make Kirill a much more complex and captivating figure, and Cassel plays the many dimensions very well. Personally, I’m happy to see Armin Mueller-Stahl in another high profile movie. There was a time shortly after his 1996 Oscar nomination for Shine where if you needed an old guy for a movie, you got the Armin. Lately, it seems James Cromwell has taken his place as go-to old guy. In Eastern Promises, he has such a sly menace to him from the moment his ears prick up at the notion of a diary. He insists upon inserting himself into Anna’s life and casually makes remarks like, “You know where I work, now I know where you work,” with just the right amount of finesse to sound intimidating and yet potentially harmless.
One scene I will never forget is when Nikolai is ambushed in a bathhouse by two revenge-hungry thugs. He sits there naked and exposed and these two unhappy gentlemen descend upon him (fully clothed) with knives. Nikolai fights like a wounded animal and manages to successfully take down both men even though he is unarmed and un-clothed. Up to this point the character has been something of a gentle giant, knowing the vicious ways of the Russian mob but seemingly at distance from them for whatever ethical decision. But it’s at this moment that we bare witness, no pun intended, to the cagey survival instincts of a man who must live his life looking over his shoulder. It’s a bravura scene that is played out in agonizing detail. Nikolai is slashed and thrown against tiled walls (much penis-related mayhem is glimpsed), but he keeps coming back and knows precisely when to strike. It really is the actors doing all the hard knocks and brawling, which heightens the tension. Cronenberg stages the violence in his realistic drawn-out style, which horrifies an audience while simultaneously fascinating them. This is by far one of the most indelible film moments of the entire year.
Eastern Promises is an engaging character-based thriller, and yet I wish it finished as strongly as it began. This is the kind of movie where much is implied or said in silence, which works great at respecting the intelligence of an audience as well as staying consistent with a believable reality where everyone in such dangerous positions is not explaining everything aloud. However, one of the drawbacks of a film where much is implied is that when it’s over you may wish that they implied less and showed more. The climax to Eastern Promises is a little weak, especially when it comes shortly after the incredible bathhouse attack. There’s a very hazy sense of a resolution. From an artistic standpoint, I suppose I can appreciate a thriller that doesn’t feel the need to end with a pile of dead bodies and much blood being spilt, but at the same time, from an audience point of view, I was really left wanting for more when the film finally comes to a halt.
Thanks to a smart, twisty script, Cronenberg’s sharp yet quirk-free direction, and some stirring performances, Eastern Promises is a first-rate thriller with the added benefit of strong characterization to add richer depth to this tale of mobsters, retribution, and sex slavery. Mortensen is the real deal when it comes to acting, folks. Cronenberg may have found a true match with Mortensen, and the added cache may give the director greater financial opportunities to tell more intriguing tales that may or may not feature ravenous armpits.
Nate’s Grade: B+
This is a movie that piles on the mystery and clues but once the finish does arrive I was left saying, “That’s all there is?” There’s so little to this film that, in retrospect, it’s simply blowing off the dust on An Occurrence at Owl Creek (I may have said too much). The trickery Stay throws at you is slightly intriguing but mostly confounding and, once the reveal tidies everything up, wholly unsatisfying. Part of the problem is that I didn’t care about any of the characters, so I didn’t really care about their plight. Yes I get it that there is a reason for how shallow they are, but the only thing Stay had to keep me going was my waning interest in what the hell is going on with everything. I’m not the biggest fan of Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) as a director, and he serves Stay to good and harmful effect. Forster gooses the film with all sorts of visual trickery like jump cuts, using twins and triplets as extras in backgrounds, repeating scenes, playing around with blocking, and lots and lots of spiral staircases (hello, Vertigo). And you do realize that most of these disorienting stylistic decisions have a seemingly coherent reason in retrospect, but it also effectively pushes the audience away from the story, aided by the fact that no one can get into the characters. The entire affair seems pointless and empty but it is pretty to look at. I’m sure I’d garner more from a second look, but I really just don’t want to see Stay again.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Has there been any movie this year that’s had a bigger hype machine than Peter Jackson’s King Kong? Coming after his Lord of the Rings trilogy, about two billion in revenue and a slew of Oscars in tow, Jackson decided to recreate the movie that captured his imagination as a child. It was King Kong that made Jackson want to become a filmmaker, so now he is returning the favor. Universal ponied up a staggering 200 million dollars for a budget and paid Jackson a record 20 million to sit in the director’s chair. Like his Rings series, this Kong clocks in at a gargantuan 3-hour running time. Will audiences share Jackson’s adoration with the story of a woman, a big ape, and a bigger building?
Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a filmmaker feeling studio pressure. The suits want to reel him in before he even starts shooting his next picture. Carl scrambles to get his crew and equipment onto a boat before the studio can shut him down. He?s on the prowl for a new lead actress and spots Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a hungry out of work vaudeville actress. He quickly convinces her to be apart of his movie and hurries her aboard, the selling point being that Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) has written the story. Carl practically kidnaps Jack and they all set a course for the mysterious Skull Island, a place only rumored to exist. The ship’s captain and crew are wary but sure enough their vessel washes ashore on an exotic island. But this is no sunny getaway, as the crew is immediately besieged by hostile natives and Ann is taken prisoner and offered as a sacrifice to Kong, a 25-foot gorilla. Jack leads an expedition to retrieve Ann, who begins to bond with her hairy captor (Stockholm syndrome, anybody?). Kong rescues Ann from dangers, be it bug or dinosaur, but flies into a vicious rage when she’s plucked away from him. Carl realizes an even bigger attraction: a giant ape to headline Broadway and line his own pockets. His schemes come true as Kong is knocked out and transported back to New York City. However, no stage is too great for Kong, as he busts free and looks all over for the love of his life, Ann.
The sweet love story gives Jackson’s update a surprising emotional richness. In the 1933 original, Fay Wray never stopped shrieking until the big guy toppled off the Empire State building. She had no emotional connection to her furry captor and his unrequited love. In the 2005 King Kong, the strength of the movie is the relationship between Ann and Kong. Jackson of course stacks the deck of his story to all but guarantee an audience will fall in love with the big brute (he appreciates sunsets, how romantic!). There?s not much choice whether or not to sympathize with Kong, especially those moments where we stare into his soulful eyes welling up with emotion. King Kong has always been a tale of exploitation with man as the true monster. By administering time to fully develop a convincing relationship between beauty and beast, it makes the later scenes of exploitation have a larger sense of tragedy. Immense credit goes to Watts for selling this relationship and spurring our sympathy for Kong, instead of making their bond something for snickers and eye-rolling. Poor Adrien Brody though. It’s pretty bad in a romantic triangle when you’d rather pick a giant primate than Brody.
The performances go a long way to adding to the enjoyment of King Kong. Watts is a luminous actress and a natural beauty. It’s because of her that the second half of the movie has a beating heart and some kicks to the gut. Brody is ho-hum but given little to work with as a, wait for it, second banana. Black works wonders to make his villainous role so charismatic. Denham is a huckster that would step over his dying mother to make a buck, and yet Black’s charming and funny even at his most dastardly and cowardly. I don’t think King Kong would have worked the same with different actors; few could bring the heart and emotion Watts emotes, and few could bring Black’s comic virtuosity that makes it plausible why others would follow his showman character. Colin Hanks (also along side Black in Orange County), as Denham’s assistant, imparts a favorable impression. I’d like to see him paired up with Topher Grace sometime. Give it some consideration, Hollywood.
King Kong is a spectacular vision by one of cinema’s greatest visionaries. Jackson has lavishly recreated the excitement of his youth, bringing the story of Kong into the modern age with studly panache. The film is marvelously beautiful to take in and has plenty of moments that will reawaken the child within you, transporting you to an age when movies truly seemed larger than life. During the epic battle between Kong and the T. Rexes, I knew the exact curiosity and excitement Jackson felt when he saw the 1933 original. The action is intense and rarely lets up once our adventurers reach Skull Island. The special effects are some of the best movies have ever seen. Kong moves with expressive accuracy that goes a long way toward expressing his humanity, whether it is in a sigh or a tantrum. Andy Serkis has yet again brought life to another entirely CGI character. King Kong is well worth the price of admission just to sneak a peek at the Jackson’s limitless imagination.
With Jackson’s beefed-up recreation, he has also brought with him a terrible amount of bloat. This King Kong runs a frightful 3-hours plus, and most viewers will just feel exhausted by the time the lights go back up in their theater. Jackson’s love affair with his material is indisputable but it also seems to cloud his judgment as far as pacing is concerned. Numerous scenes seem to stretch longer than necessary and lose their point of interest, the first hour seems too drawn out and prosaic, and the movie haphazardly mixes in the serious with the soapy (Kong on ice?). Some scenes lose their sense of believability the longer they stretch on, even in a movie filled with giant monsters. Certain subplots have set-up but no follow-through, like all the added attention to Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the ship’s teen that wants to experience danger too. Jackson even makes sure we catch that he’s reading Heart of Darkness. So where does this character go? Nowhere and very slowly at that. The character has no bearing on anything that happens with the plot and is dropped entirely once they leave the island. There’s no point. Did something get cut from the inevitable 8-hour extended edition DVD that will prove how pivotal Jimmy really was? I doubt it.
Some nipping and tucking and a comprehensive editing overhaul would certainly make King Kong a better movie, but it would lose its sense of spectacle. I can’t complain about length too much since Jackson packs such a wallop of entertainment like few others, so while King Kong certainly is a bloated and exhaustive film, it’s also an artistically bloated, exhaustive film. Jackson sure does have reverence for his source material (some lines and scenes are directly lifted), though he may have overlooked the 1933 King Kong‘s 100-minute running time.
Peter Jackson’s King Kong is an epic, epically grandiose, epically imaginative, epically action-packed, and epically bloated. The update is a bit exhausting but Jackson packs more entertainment per minute than few others in the film business, even if he has too many minutes to work with. Watts really sells her tender relationship with Kong and gives the film a surprising emotional heft absent from the 1933 original. Because of our emotional investment the film has a greater sense of sadness and tragedy as it plays out. King Kong was the 800-pound gorilla of the movie year and Jackson knows how to deliver a visual epic, even if he tiptoes into self-indulgence. While I can protest the length, pacing, and some subplots that go nowhere or strain credibility, it’s hard to argue that King Kong is the popcorn spectacle of the year. Your bladder may hate you by the end of it but you won’t want to miss a second.
Nate’s Grade: B
I loved The Ring. Loved it. So I had some trepidation when I found out they were making a sequel. Surely it wouldn’t have the punch of the first film. To see Ring Two I went to a theater frequented by somewhat affluent teenagers and pre-teens. Big. Mistake. People were chattering away the entire time, laughing stupidly, and shouting ridiculously lame jokes: (on seeing a damp bed: “Oops, somebody wet the bed”). There were two managers that had to patrol the theater to keep order. Worst of all was a team of easily riled prepubescent girls that sat behind me, shrieking like banshees even during movie trailers. The same thing happened to me when I went to see The Village at the same theater. I must attract the most annoying people in the crowd. The sound quality in my theater was also very poor. Now, I can’t help but think that this was some divine act to warn me how bad Ring Two was going to be.
Rachel (Naomi Watts) has taken her son Aidan (the creepy David Dorfman) to a new town to start a new life. It’s been years since the incident with the videotape, and Rachel feels guilt about her role in spreading the killer tape. She’s got a new job at a small town newspaper but yet she can’t escape her past. A teen has been found with a contorted face, soggy floor, and a certain videotape. Rachel finds the tape and burns it. Samara, the evil young girl who started the evil tape, is none too pleased. Seems the evil tyke wants to be a real girl with a real mommy, and is slowly taking over Aidan. His temperature is dropping, he’s not sleeping, and bad things are happening. Rachel confronts more of Samara?s history to learn what it takes to stop her and get her son back.
Everything that worked in the first film feels forced and meaningless when rehashed in Ring Two. In the previous film, there was context for the image of a tree on fire and Rachel yanking a fly right out of a TV screen. In Ring Two, these plot points are now reduced to being contrived signs of doom. There’s a scene where we’re supposed to be scared because a single fly comes out of a faucet. Huh? The fly and the tree made sense in The Ring, but in the sequel they are stripped of their context and seem alien. And dumb. After everything fit so tightly together in The Ring, it’s disappointing that little makes sense in the sequel.
Watts is such an enormously appealing actress that even in dreck like this she can come off as luminescent. With the two Ring films and Peter Jackson’s upcoming King Kong, Watts could establish herself as the scream queen of her generation. She’s a gifted actress and melts into whatever role she plays.
Ring Two‘s director, Hideo Nakata, knows a thing or two about the territory. He did direct the original Japanese Ringu films, which the American remakes are based upon. Nakata generates a fun sense of anticipatory dread. He also lucks into the occasional eye-opener like a bathtub whose water flows up and fills the ceiling. Nakata has a confidant touch but I miss the sheen of Gore Verbinsky’s direction.
What’s sorely missing is a killer premise like in The Ring. The premise was razor sharp, presenting a videotape as a virus and human nature’s willingness to taste forbidden fruit as the vehicle for its spreading. There was a sense of urgency because of the looming seven-day death deadline. In Ring Two there is no sense of urgency at all. In fact, the film takes an overly leisurely pace. It’s quite awfully boring. Samara wants a mommy and can?t really be stopped until a late revelation. This leads to a lot of impotent pacing and waiting. Except for a snappy opening, Ring Two completely ditches the videotape virus storyline that made its predecessor so compelling. As a result, it also ditches suspense and most of its intelligence.
The Ring had a strong central mystery and a sense of urgency, which both blended to create tightly wound tension. Ring Two sputters around and relies on gimmicky jump scares as its main source of spooks. We see a character look into a mirror, look away, and then look back and something else is right there! Does this really work for anyone still? I just assume when a character ducks out of the way of a mirror that something’s coming. It’s these kinds of creaky, transparent tricks that Ring Two goes back to over and over to goose an audience. Because the story isn’t engaging the filmmakers have to resort to gimmicks. Since we’ve seen the results of Samara’s murders (the grotesque facial distortion) is it even scary to see it again when we know exactly what we’re about to see? The essence of horror is the unexpected. Finding the expected is about as scary as looking at leftovers in the fridge.
There’s a great moment early in Ring Two. Rachel and Aidan are driving through a forest and are followed and then attacked by a horde of deer. It’s the lone sequence in this sequel that feels different and exciting. It’s somewhat crazy, somewhat marvelous, and very weird. Too bad Ring Two relapses from there on into a turgid horror flick.
The Ring was a smart, tense, expertly crafted film that rose beyond genre conventions. Ring Two is nothing but genre conventions and repeatedly goes back to the well to drub up scares that aren’t there anymore (unless you’re the prepubescent girls that sat behind me). Watts is still in fine form and there are some visually striking moments. However, Ring Two is bereft of excitement and scares and has become just another tired, languished sequel. When I walk out of a horror moving saying, “I guess the best thing about that film was either Sissy Spaceck’s crazy cameo or deer,” then you are in a world of bad. Ring Two is meek, dumb, and boring. Let this one go straight to video.
Nate’s Grade: C-