Blog Archives

Operation Finale (2018)

Operation Finale is one of those kinds of movies that is just good enough to make me wish it had been better. It’s based on the true story of an Israeli team of spies that located Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), one of Hitler’s lieutenants who authored The Final Solution. He’s been hiding in Argentina for years and giving public lectures, which isn’t helpful with keeping a low profile. Oscar Isaac (The Last Jedi) leads the Israeli spies as they plot to kidnap Eichmann, get him to admit his guilt for the Holocaust in writing, and smuggle him out of the country and to Israel to stand trail for the deaths of millions. This story should be exciting, it should be fascinating, it should be compelling, and for stretches it can be, but Operation Finale errs in capturing Eichmann too quickly. The majority of the film is the spy team holding him in a secret location and interrogating him, while the surprisingly Nazi-coddling police force of Argentina hunts for their location. I’m assuming the filmmakers were accurately telling the true story, but you start to question why the spies are taking their sweet time. Why not get on a boat as soon as possible and sail to another country to fly away, one less friendly to former Nazis? There aren’t really any set pieces where their cover might be blown. It’s mostly Isaac talking with Kingsley, and while their conversations are entertaining, it’s yet another preview of a better movie that we’re never going to have delivered. The film lacks enough urgency. The characterization is too limited and the supporting characters are more faces than people; Melanie Laurent essentially plays The Woman Spy. Operation Finale should have either spent more time on the specifics and complications of nabbing Eichamann, presenting a challenge, or it could have accentuated the debate between Isaac and Kingsley over the nature of culpability, rationalization, guilt, and vengeance. There’s probably a really good Nazi-hunting mini-series or Nazi-debating play in here. Either way, the actual finished film is well made, well acted, and well intentioned but also dramatically lacking.

Nate Grade: C+

Race (2016)

Race_2016_film_posterIn 1936, Jesse Owens (Stephen James) is an American track star that seems destined for magnificent glory. Under the guidance of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), from THE Ohio State University, Owens is smashing track and field records. The culmination of his athleticism occurs at the Berlin Olympics, where Owens earns multiple gold medals and shows Adolph Hitler just how masterful his master race is.

It’s difficult to declare Race a bad movie but it’s so formulaic and by-the-numbers that I walked away thinking that Jesse Owens deserved a much better movie. I kept waiting for the movie to properly communicate the totality of what Owens accomplished, let alone in a time period where the culture at home told him he was an inferior American citizen, and it just never coalesced into a stronger message. We’re talking about a man who bested the best of the world in front of Hitler. This is ready made for cinematic drama, and perhaps that’s the problem with the screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Frankie & Alice) because it always seems to fall back on the lazy and expected choice. Part of this is the reality that Owens was just that good as a runner; we only see him lose once in the entire movie. This anticlimax makes it difficult to stir up plenty of suspense around the larger and larger stages for the sports triumphs. The knowledge of Owens’ wins may be commonplace but we should still feel the stirrings of good storytelling and payoffs to well-established work, and that’s just not there. I loved watching the deluge of unhappy Nazi reaction shots to Owens’ victories (never enough footage of unhappy Nazis) but that doesn’t count as a satisfying conclusion to Owens’ story.

race-movie-stephan-james-jesse-owensThe character of Owens is somewhat lost in Race. It’s reminiscent of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 where the character of Robinson was kind of, well, boring. He’s a character who endures the suffering and indignities of others and perseveres, and this is likely why both films turn their stories of African-American tales into buddy pictures with Strong and Supportive White Men. Much of Race is presented as a buddy picture with Owens and Snyder, and both actors have such an amiable chemistry that they sort of treat the entire movie like a laid back adventure. They’re easing on through a segregated America. Too much of the movie is Owens and Snyder just cracking wise and going from scene to scene. James left a stronger impression as John Lewis in last year’s Selma. He’s too often merely stoic without more to work with. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) is right in his comfort zone with his performance and doesn’t stray far from his range. I credit the film for not ignoring some of the messier parts of Owens’ story, namely his out-of-wedlock young daughter and him cheating on his hometown girl with a fame-seeking starlet. He’s allowed to be seen making mistakes, but the movie doesn’t allow him to live with them (note: not referring to his daughter as a “mistake”). Whenever Owens might be in a horrible predicament from his own internal decision-making, the movie almost callously breezes by without much contemplation. It’s as if every conflict is in service to the Main Conflict – sticking it to Hitler. The pressure to bow out of the Olympics to make a statement about the treatment of black people in America could have been a soul-bearing moment, but we just move along and barely feel the weight of the pressure. Yes, we know that Owens will travel abroad and win golden glory, but make the decision count.

Another aspect that dooms Race to its limited appeal is the mediocrity of its direction and, in particular, how shockingly terrible the movie is edited. Director Stephen Hopkins seems to have been in movie jail ever since 1998’s Lost in Space. He’s only shot one movie between that bomb and Race, which happened to be The Reaping, a 2007 movie I almost liked by its twist ending. He doesn’t exactly bring much to the material to elevate the races or seem that interested in taking advantageous of the suspense opportunities. There’s one great sequence where Owens first enters the Olympic stadium and the camera tracks his movements where you feel the awe. There aren’t enough moments like this that take full advantage of telling Owens’ story in a visual medium. The other technical misstep is that this is one of the worst edited movies I’ve ever watched in a theater. If you generally pay attention to the editing, it’s generally a bad sign since it’s a facet of filmmaking that is best made invisible. There is one sequence where Owens sits in Snyder’s office and the 180-degree rule is broken over ten times… in one scene! The editing will frequently flip is scene orientation, jumping back and around and creating subtle visual compositions that create incongruity in the brain. Part of this blame deserves to be laid with Hopkins, who chose to shoot his film at these uncooperative angles. It was something that bothered me throughout and would rip me out of the movie.

204026_033The most perplexing storyline in Race involves the very positive treatment reserved for a controversial filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), best known for her propaganda films declaring the power and righteousness of Hitler’s Third Reich. Huh, why does a movie celebrating American heroes spend do much time positively portraying a Nazi propagandist? She becomes a translator for Goebbels and the American Olympic committee, but she’s also determined to have her vision respected when it comes to her Olympic documentary that is being produced by the Nazis. She doesn’t seem to mind about Owens trouncing the Aryan myth of racial superiority because she just wants to make the best movie and Owens is her storyline. She is portrayed as a sympathetic go-between for the Americans, someone fighting within a corrupt system to maintain her dignity and ownership in an industry that is dominated by men (she’s criticized for wearing “masculine” clothing). I’ll admit a general ignorance to Riefenstahl’s life and career outside of her most famous documentaries, which I should continue to stress are Nazi propaganda films, but this woman was a member of the Nazi party and responsible for some of the most indelible and damaging imagery justifying Hitler’s genocide, and to prop her up as a character worth rooting for and a champion to Owens just felt wrong.

Has there ever been a more self-satisfied yet facile title than Race? The double meaning is a bit too obvious and yet simple enough to be annoying. In a way, the title encapsulates the movie as a whole. It’s well-meaning but far too by-the-numbers and satisfied that it’s doing Important Work honoring an American sports legend when it’s barely giving us much of a reason to care about him as a person and less reason to root for him other than added Nazi discomfort. Owens becomes a boring centerpiece in his own movie, and his relationship with Snyder feels too ill defined, repeatedly approaching buddy comedy. The historical asides are momentarily interesting but don’t add up to much. The movie has some strikingly awful editing and lackluster direction that hobbles the storytelling. It’s a movie that hits all the checklists for sports biopic but won’t veer too far from its predicated formula. There’s a short scene at the very end that hints at what kind of better movie Race might have been. After his worldwide validation at the Berlin Olympics, Owens comes home to America and is forced to use the service entrance for his own honorary dinner. This American hero has to shamefully take the back entrance to be celebrated. It’s a stark wake-up call just how far the country had to go as far as race relations. This national cognitive dissonance, celebration and segregation, would be ripe for a searing human drama with plenty of emotion. That would be a good movie. Race is only an okay movie, and given Owens’ place in history, that’s not good enough.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Monuments Men (2014)

the-monuments-men-poster02An all-star cast, a true-life tale that incorporates a treasure hunt, a race against time, Nazis, and fish-out-of-water tropes as non-soldiers are placed in harm’s way, plus the skills of George Clooney behind the camera; in short, how could this go wrong? With that plot makeup and this cast it would take more effort to tell a boring big screen adventure of the real-life Monuments Men (and women). And yet, the movie found a way. It’s by no means a bad film and its heart is in the right place, but allow me to explain why The Monuments Men sadly fails to live up to its mission.

It’s 1944 and Adolf Hitler doesn’t just have his sights on constructing a permanent empire, he wants all the world’s art treasures as well. The Nazis have been plundering famous works of art, and while the war is coming to a close with the Allied invasion, the fate of these priceless works of art may be in jeopardy. Frank Stokes (Clooney) is tasked with putting together a team to save Europe’s art from the Nazis. He puts together an unconventional group of soldiers (Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville) and search for the hidden loot.

monuments-men-george-clooneyThe film looks like it’s going to be a high-concept heist film when it reality it’s a series of vignettes that do not add up to a solid whole. Early on, the Monuments Men team is scattered to the wind, divided into pairs, and so we have four or five competing storylines that don’t develop as desired. To be fair, there are some very good scenes, well executed and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Men Who Stare at Goats) where the conflict is turned up, but the film cannot escape the fact that it feels more like a series of scenes than a cohesive story. Not all of the stories are equal in their interest as well. The Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Damon storyline in France amounts to little else than her stalling for as long as the plot necessitates, then handing over the Very Important Info, then she’s swept aside. The comical asides, notably with Murray and Balaban, feel like scene fillers when there could be stronger material. Once they’re reunited as a group, you wonder why we even needed the time apart. Perhaps it’s an attempt to showcase a wider sampling of stories and perspectives on a complicated war, which is fine, but the characters don’t get the same complicated examination. Despite physical descriptors, these guys are fairly one-note and stay that way, which is a real shame especially when we start losing Monuments Men. The attention is split amongst a bunch of characters lacking proper development. If I felt like we knew these guys on any substantive level, I would feel more at their untimely passing.

Another issue that exacerbates the directionless feeling pervading the film is that it lacks a clear and concise goal. I understand they’re saving and rescuing art, but that’s kept vague until the very end of the film when it becomes more concrete. Until then, the guys are just traveling from place to place, retrieving this piece or that, having comic misadventures, and the movie just feels like it needs a stronger guiding force to corral all these stories, a concise goal that each scene builds onto and where the urgency increases. Late in the film, I got a glimpse of exactly what kind of movie Monuments Men could have been. Once the war is over, the Germans are replaced as antagonists by the Russians (two-for-two with classic American movie villains) and it becomes a race against time to get to the art before the Russians confiscate it. There was always a ticking clock in the film, as Hitler was assembling his art and his command would destroy them in spite of returning them. However, in the very end of the film, the urgency is cranked up, made real, and for once the film emerges with a sense of suspense. I think it would have been a more engaging film experience if the scope of the film were narrowed simply to the material covered in the climax, namely beating the Russians to the art reserves. It practically has a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel with two parties trying to outrace the other to the next precious treasure. How cool would that movie have been?

Legacy-Of-The-Monuments-Men-BackgroundsAnother problem is the film’s seesaw tone never really gels together in a satisfying manner. The film awkwardly switches gears from drama to comedy to action without smooth transitions. Clooney wants his film to be a comical buddy comedy but also a poignant remembrance of the lives lost so that we can enjoy our great treasures. Clashing tones take away from the effectiveness, making us feel that Clooney didn’t feel confidant with either direction to make a movie. Alexander Desplat’s overbearing musical score instructs the audience what they should be feeling at any given moment. It vacillates without similar transitions informing you with little transparency that you should feel whimsical, now sad, and now heroic, now go back to whimsical. The entire film, from a story standpoint to a technical standpoint, cried out for a greater sense of unity.

Then there’s the question of whether art is worth people giving up their lives, and this is a valid question that deserves consideration. I was never in doubt what Clooney and company would say to this ethical query, but it’s as if Clooney has little faith in his own audience. He gives three separate speeches about the significance of art and culture and why it is worth dying for. I expected one hefty speech, but three? It’s like Clooney is afraid his audience will waver when blood starts to be shed, and so we need to be reminded by the professor why art is significant to mankind’s value. The point has been made; it doesn’t need to be belabored. The film even ends on recycling this debate, with Clooney putting one final stamp of judgment before the credits roll.

One gets the sense while watching The Monuments Men that it would make a better documentary than a fictional feature film, at least this incarnation of a fictional film. Hearing from the men who lived it will be far more interesting than watching the comic squabbles of Clooney’s crew through Europe. I was instantly reminded of an engrossing documentary from a few years ago called The Rape of Europa, which looked at the subject of saving the arts from Hitler, not specifically the Monuments Men. That documentary was filled with so many different fascinating stories, I remember thinking that any one of them could have made a stellar movie. Monuments Men is further proof that a sharper, more contained focus would be best rather than trying to tell as many war stories involved on the topic. Clooney has proven himself an excellent director and despite his film’s faults it’s still an entertaining film in spurts. I just think we all expected better given the pedigree of talent involved and the can’t-miss quality of the history.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Blubberella (2011)

The action/horror spoof Blubberella is Uwe Boll’s second attempt at (intentional) comedy. He did re-release a “funny” version of his 2003 disaster, House of the Dead. That seems like the same opportunistic rebranding and dubious retconning that Tommy Wiseau pulled when he tried to claim that his magnus opus of suck, The Room, was always intended as a “quirky black comedy.” Sure, Tommy. Boll’s first attempt at comedy, 2007’s Postal, almost worked despite itself; the taboo-smashing genre of wacky comedy seems like a better fit for Boll’s cinematic tendencies. Blubberella is proof that Boll should stick to schlock and leave comedy to the professionals.

Blubberella (Lindsay Hollister) is a dhamphir, half-vampire/half-human, but really she’s just looking for a good man and a good meal. It’s 1944 Germany, and Blubby has joined forces with a resistance group lead by Nathaniel Gregor (Brendan Fletcher). Together, the group, along with the sassy gay soldier Vadge (William Belli), must battle a mad scientist (Clint Howard), a vampire Nazi general (Michael Pare), and the prospect of an immortal Adolf Hitler (Uwe Boll himself!).

Leaden puns, obvious jokes, clueless pacing and comedic construction, tiresome one-liners, incessant yet flaccid sex jokes, a desperation to be shocking, Blubberella is a bizarre and staggering failure even by Boll standards. Rarely does the movie actually land a funny line (you want to know the best line? Here it is: “My friend says I replace sex with food… but then he raped me, so that kinda shot that theory.” Yes, that is the best one). The jokes aren’t textured in the slightest and can’t be bothered with basic constructive issues like setup, context, and payoffs. Instead, the movie is rife with random sexual and scatological references. It’s like the film is the living embodiment of a Tourette’s child. Belli (TV’s Nip/Tuck) is a braying gay stereotype that wears out his abrasive welcome in no time flat. At one point Pare just goes into a garbled Marlon Brando impersonation for no clear reason, and then it’s done. This would-be comedy, in name only, confuses randomness for clever. Here’s an example: a group of characters are crouched waiting for an all clear signal, and Vadge blurt out, “If you’re going through the drive-thru get me a Frosty.” Just because it’s a random line and anachronistic does not cover up the fact that it’s simply not funny in any context. There is no joke there. Everything in the movie just seems like a meaningless throwaway gag, never accumulating or having any connection to situation. Randomness does not excuse sheer ineptness. Given the understated title, I’d expect there to be a plethora of fat jokes that the movie would routinely fall back on for easy punchlines. I actually counted: there are approximately 35 fat-related jokes; at barely 75 minutes, that comes to about one fate joke every 45 seconds. I’m shocked they had that much restraint considering the opening minute of the movie featured Blubby walking into a giant walk-in freezer filled with enough blunt Flintstones-style sight gags.

Even worse, Blubberella relies on pitiful attempts to be “shocking” to rouse the audience into laughter. And so we endure scenes like the resistance fighters relocking a boxcar full of concentration camp victims (“No wonder they took you. That hat does nothing.”), Blubby killing a man by farting on his face, playing RISK with Hitler and then there’s the blackface. In the movie’s most obscene, whiplash-inducing moment, Blubby suddenly morphs into a Caucasian version of Precious being berated by her abusive and spiteful mother. Belli portrays the monstrous mother in drag and blackface. Amazingly, this is not the only character Belli plays in blackface. There’s another regrettable moment during that Hitler RISK sequence where Belli plays Hitler’s black assistant (“One of our new allies from Africa,” Hitler explains), and the guy can’t go a single sentence without referring to people as MF-ers. Whoo boy. Here’s the thing about the attempted Precious parody: just taking a situation and copying and pasting it to a new location doesn’t make it a parody. The blackface moments, in particular the Precious aside, feel completely out of place and tacky at best. Just because something is supposedly shocking or in bad taste does not mean it is funny without due context and setup. Blubberella does not understand this comedy truism, and so we get more of the same wearisome crass crap.

Blubberella was shot simultaneously with Bloodrayne: The Third Reich, utilizing the same sets, costumes, actors (literally everybody does double duty), recycled action footage, and more or less the same script. It’s not like the script for Bloodrayne 3 was that strong to begin with to warrant a copycat. It’s like Boll’s version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, though with more Nazis. Actually, just that very description is giving the movie far more credit than it could possibly ever hope for. There’s nothing clever about Boll’s alternative spin on his third Bloodrayne vehicle; just replacing Rayne with a 300-pound actress and making her go through the same motions doesn’t mean it’s a comedy. The laziness on display is powerfully lulling. I don’t think anyone on the entire planet was praying for a wackier retread of Bloodrayne 3. The funny thing is I don’t think the change of tone makes that much difference to Clint Howard.

Blubberella plays out like a tired improv game that has gone on for an eternity. The film is stuffed with scenes that just seem to spin on and on, lacking momentum and any discernable direction. Scenes will just wander aimlessly like Boll is just waiting for his actors to somehow produce quality jokes spontaneously. Newsflash: this isn’t a Judd Apatow movie. Hollister and company will just spout random lines and riff off one another, acting like a troupe of lobotomized circus acts that have stumbled into a war zone. The results are pitiful, though occasionally they will hit a somewhat amusing idea that will be aborted in the next breath/stab at improv. It’s merely a numbers game and if they fire 100 jokes maybe 2 find some footing. Such shrug-worthy moments include Blubby holding a soldier’s hand to her stomach and saying, “If there wasn’t a baby in there, would that be okay?” Huh? At one point, Boll’s narration pops up to declare the following scene “boring,” and yet the entire scene from Bloodrayne 3 plays out uninterrupted or unedited. What was the point of that? If you’ve already made an attempt to side with your audience by declaring your scene boring, then why leave it unabridged? Why is keeping this scene vital from a plot standpoint for what is intended to be a silly spoof? Why does plot continuity even matter?

I noted with Bloodrayne: The Third Reich a theory that Boll, a notorious cinematic pick-pocket, was trying his hand at recreating Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning WWII drama, Inglourious Basterds. Well after sitting through this movie, I can confirm without a doubt that Boll has a raging hard-on when it comes to Tarantino homage. The movie is broken up into chapters, including such delightful titles as “Titty Titty Fang Bang,” the score will resort to periods of long whistling, Hitler screams “nein nein nein,” and for older references, one character says, “Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey,” and another, “I’ll kill every last mother fuckin’ last one of you.” Are you going to tell me that is all a coincidence?

The lingering problem with Blubberella, besides its overwhelming incompetence and inexplicable existence, is that it feels more like a gag reel accrued for the cast and crew of Bloodrayne 3. This doesn’t feel at all like a movie or even an attempt at a movie. I’m of a mixed mind when it comes to Hollister. The central Ohio native (represent, girlfriend!) is probably not going to get many starring roles, though she has shined in guest roles on numerous TV shows like My Name is Earl, Big Love, Law and Order: SVU, and Scrubs, so I can’t blame her for jumping at the chance to be the lead star, the headliner (she and Belli are also listed as co-writers). Hollister is actually a pretty nice actress and has strong comedic instincts; however, that doesn’t mean she will rise to the occasion if left to her own devices by Boll’s paucity for scripted jokes. Boll isn’t exactly the most creatively nurturing collaborator. It’s all one big fat mess. You want the most telling moment? It occurs during the dull outtakes peppered throughout the end credits. One of the actresses, little seen in the flick, remarks astutely, “It’s not working. It’s not funny.” In six short words, she has summarized Blubberella better than I could ever hope to.

Nate’s Grade: D

Chillerama (2011)

Chillerama is the latest ode to the drive-in B-movies of old. Like the higher profile 2007 Grindhouse, this movie is a series of short films from four different filmmakers celebrating the exploitation spirit of schlock cinema. Cecil B. Kaufman (Richard Riehle) is closing his drive-in theater, and for the final night of operation he’s showing four movies never before seen: the killer sperm movie “Wadzilla,” the unexpected lycanthropy romance “I Was a Teenage Werebear,” the black-and-white monster movie “The Diary of Ann Frankenstein,” and a final fecal-filled adventure into the abyss, “Deathication.” However, during this final night the drive-in is also ground zero for a new zombie outbreak, a disease spread through sexual fluids. Tobe (Corey Jones) has to navigate through the sex-crazed corpses to save his crush, Mayna (Kaili Thorne), and escape the drive-in- of death and maybe lose his pesky virginity.

Given its vignette nature, not all of the segments will be equal in quality. The absolute highpoint is indisputably “The Diary of Ann Frankenstein.” I laughed long and hard during this clever, cock-eyed satire. The absurdity of its premise and the assured demented sense of comedy of its creator, writer/director Adam Green (Frozen, Hatchet), had me laughing until I was in physical pain. The Frank family (formerly Frankenstein) is found by none other than Hitler (Joel David Moore, embracing the silliness with gusto) who dispatches them and steals the family journal. In one of the movie’s funniest lines, Hitler tosses a journal to a Nazi cohort and instructs: “Here, write some depressing stuff in this. We’ll say the girl wrote it and make millions after the war.” Hitler creates his own Jewish Frankenstein-like creature, though a missing film reel reveals his true motivation for reanimating this corpse (and he sings!). Green’s sense of comedy is evident in the pacing, construction of layered jokes, and genre spoofing. There’s one point where the monster is locked in the laboratory and just walks around the set, breaking down the fourth wall. Green even has the entire segment subtitled, though if you listen closely you’ll notice only about 10 percent is German. At one point Moore is screaming “No!” for a solid minute but he says a different word or phrase every time, including “Goldie Hawn!” at one point. The segment is so good that you may not even notice that joke at first glance. “The Diary of Ann Frankenstein” is wickedly hilarious and too tacky to be taken as a serious offense.

The other vignettes falls somewhere in the middle. “Zom-B-Movie” is the slickest looking movie, set in the present, and is a lot of fun. It adds a twist to the crowded zombie genre by adding in a sexual element, making the zombies a sex-crazed orgy (expect nudity that makes you feel funny). There are plenty of solid gross-out effects, and several sequences of penile endangerment, and there are some ingenious camera angles to match the segment’s electric energy. It’s the most self-aware segment, as characters openly discuss horror movie conventions and their own place in the movie Scream-style (“I’m the Final Girl,” one guy declares). A good percentage of the dialogue is comprised of movie quotes and catch-phrases brilliantly placed in this incongruous setting. During the climax, Riehle (Office Space) shoots round after round into the bands of zombies, ripping off like 20 anachronistic movie quotes as if they were action movie quips (“Nobody puts baby in a corner!” he yells and then shoots a zombie in the crotch). I was flabbergasted that the segment actually quoted Billy Madison, and well. The self-aware humor and the overall feverish energy, plus some characters we’ve been investing with in between the earlier segments, makes for a fun and satisfying sendoff for the whole trashy enterprise.

The first two segments rely more on base humor and seem to run out of gas midway through. “Wadzilla” is a one-joke segment about a man whose single sperm grows to monstrous, man-eating size. The cartoonish tone and low-rent visuals feel like a Joe Dante (Gremlins) homage. The segment does feature one truly inspired, wacked-out image: the giant sperm fantasizes the Statue of Liberty stripping out of her cloak and shaking her green goods (I think this segment just gave birth to a brand new fetish). But the overall concept is weak and the segment relies far more on shock value than wit. It’s more like a rejected Troma flick, though helped immensely by the presence of Ray Wise (TV’s Reaper). “I Was a Teenage Werebear” takes the 1950s beach blanket bingo teen films and gives it a gay twist, and to boot it’s a musical (territory covered well in Psycho Beach Party). The storyline of guy-meets-werebear doesn’t provide enough material to hold together the segment. Many of the actors cannot sing either, which adds to the joke but also makes the film more punishing to watch. The pacing is poor and the gags feel like they were the first things conceived. There’s not enough thought on display; the segment just peters out and becomes tiresome. The fact that Chillerama opens with “Wadzilla” and then “I Was a Teenage Werebear” makes it harder to appreciate the finished product.

Chillerama is certainly going to have a restricted audience interested in campy homages celebrating the trashy nature of cheesy low-budget, exploitative B-movies. Unlike Grindhouse, this collection lacks big names but it makes up for it with a cracked sense of humor. The segments all run about 25 minutes in length, which means even if you dislike one it’ll be over soon enough. The four segments vary in quality, though each has its moments. “The Diary of Ann Frankenstein” is easily the standout of the bunch, elevated by droll, absurdist, demented humor that’s skillfully constructed and deconstructed. “Zom-B-Movie,” the culmination of the film’s connecting characters, is a fun blast to conclude with. Chillerama is a messy, uneven, crude, occasionally brilliant, but most of all it’s a great way to spend a Saturday night with some friends and a supply of popcorn. Just watch out what’s in that butter topping.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Debt (2011)

A tense and mature spy thriller that’s as well written as it is acted, The Debt is a thriller that even stops to ponder some serious moral ambiguities along the way. Back in 1965, a group of Israel agents (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas) were sent to Berlin to capture a notorious ex-Nazi doctor (Jasper Christensen) and bring him back for justice. When things don’t go according to plan, the group must decide what is justifiable in the name of moral cost. In 1997, the aged former agents (Helen Mirren, Cirian Hinds, Tom Wilkinson) have to deal with the full consequences of their actions. A far majority of the film takes place in the 60s, and it’s for the best considering that’s where most of the tension and interest reside. As a thriller, drama, and non-linear mystery, there’s always something going on. The film is not without its genre clichés, but the sequences of holding Christensen (Quantum of Solace) hostage rise beyond genre mucking. He is a true monster and his dialogues with the various agents are chilling, reminiscent of Hannibal Lector’s tête-à-têtes. The cast is uniformly good, even Worthington, but the real star is Chastain (The Help, Tree of Life). She is magnetic. It’s a shame that The Debt felt it needed to tie up its loose ends in a conventional ending that discards the film’s more ambitious moral quandary. I suppose the toll of false identities and moral relativism just doesn’t make audiences happy like good old-fashioned vengeance. I guess that’s a debt everyone would rather have paid.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

In the summer of superheroes, you’ll be excused for feeling some fatigue when it comes to men in tights. Captain America: The First Avenger is a surprisingly enjoyable sepia-tinted action film that flexes enough might to pleasantly hark back to the days of 1940s adventure serials. Taking place almost entirely in the era of World War II, the film, and its hero, and unabashedly square and earnest. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) begins as a 90-pound weakling determined to fight for his country and gets transformed into a behemoth of beefcake by the Army. Captain America is devoid of the dark brooding that has come to encapsulate modern superhero movies, but it’s also playing its B-movie silliness straight. The flick has more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain than most other superhero product. Better yet, the movie finesses the in-your-face patriotism of the title character. I mean the guy is called Captain America. Yet the film finds a way to resonate a sincere nationalistic pride without falling back into Michael Bay-level jingoism. And who’s going to make for better villains than Nazis? Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park 3) turns out to have been the perfect choice to helm this rah-rah retro enterprise. The pacing is swift, the acting is engaging, the special effects are terrific particularly Evans’ transformation into a weakling, and the film is unexpectedly emotional at points. This is a comic book movie that would appeal to an older generation not normally interested in superheroes, namely people like my dad.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)

Heating up the art house cinemas, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is two and a half hours, Swedish, in subtitles, and is absent any familiar faces, and audiences can’t seem to get enough. Based on the international best-selling novel, this independent thriller was the highest grossing European film for 2009 and deceased author Stieg Larsson’s two sequels, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (sounds like a lot of risky behavior for this girl) have also been made into movies with the same cast. So now that America is caught in the midst of Dragon mania, we all won’t have to wait long for the ongoing adventures of the journalist and the Gothic investigator. Both sequels are planned for release this summer, meaning that the entire trilogy will unwind in theaters over the course of only a few brief months. That’s one thing that has to please American audiences — instant gratification. For those unhip to the world of Lisbeth Salander, get ready to take notes because she’s likely to become an indie film icon, at least for an older, well-read demographic (think: your parents).

Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is an investigative journalist sentenced to jail for 6 months after losing a libel case against a large shady corporation. Before he serves his prison sentence, Mikael is approached by a wealthy businessman, Henrik Vagner (Sven-Bertil Taube), convinced that his niece, Harriet, was murdered and her murderer is still taunting him 40 years later. Henrik Vagner lives with various other family members on a remote island. The mysterious clan has some serious skeletons in their closet, and Henrik believes ones of his family members, apart of the powerful Vagner Group, is guilty. Mikael takes refuge on the island and begins to comb over old police documents looking for any overlooked clues. Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) inserts herself into the case. She’s an expert computer hacker and hired by Henrik Vagner to compile a background check of Mikael. But her interest did not end with her assignment. She has hacked into Mikael’s computer and furtively spies on Mikael’s progress. She e-mails him some key breaks in the case and joins Mikael on the island. Together they make rapid progress finding out what happened to Harriet all those years ago, and a serial killer makes note of their encroaching progress.

Thankfully, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a thriller that respects its audience’s intellect by not having to spell out every damn detail, and people, there are a lot of damn details. While the movie feels complete, it still leaves much to the imagination to fill in character back-stories, connect the plot dots, and interpret all those silent glances and meditative stares (granted, it might all get filled in following two sequels). A prime example is when Mikael covets Lisbeth’s photographic memory, telling her what a terrific advantage that must be, and a small pensive look from Lisbeth says all we need. It’s enough to make us re-examine what we think we know concerning her background, and the rest of the movie follows this model. I also appreciated that every break in the case came from good detective work and not some swishy super computer stuff. Though Lisbeth is an expert hacker, nothing these characters do is out of the realm of reality unlike other tech-heavy detectives. The plot is tied in knots and we have all sorts of various suspects and angles. The central mystery needs to be interesting for this movie to work, and it is … after it gets into a second gear. A girl’s disappearance 40 years ago isn’t enough to grab you until the more sinister and sordid elements come out into the fray. It also hurts that there’s a clear disparity when it comes to character interest. Mikael isn’t a blah character by any means but he seems to serve as an expository device, the guy who uncovers the secrets and gets to be the helpless foil to Lisbeth. I suppose for maximum narrative effect a straight man would be required to be paired with Lisbeth.

Lisbeth is an unorthodox choice for a researcher given the fact that she’s pierced, punky, and full of attitude and ink, including a certain titular dragon tattoo. But she’s also fiercely intelligent, resourceful, intuitive, and wounded, which makes her a fairly fascinating character. She’s an exciting mystery of a character. She’s wounded and defensive but cavalier and intentionally confrontational at the same time, an exciting conflict. Her attitude is roughly, “So what if I dress as I do? So what if I have a healthy sexual appetite? So what if I am a woman? I demand to be treated with respect.” Lisbeth commands attention even though she feels uncomfortable being gazed at. She’s more than some female fantasy protagonist, though a punky, bisexual ass-kicking gal will fit the bill for some, she is a full-bodied character and a terrific break from the traditional investigative heroes of mysteries.

I asked myself midway through if the aesthetics were standing in for character; if you stripped away all that punk rock glamour and the shock value of a “Goth PI” than would there be anything compelling left (I was sort of thinking of the Gothic lab tech on America’s quizzically #1 TV show of the moment, the alphabet soup-friendly NCIS)? The answer, I found, was a resounding yes. There’s much more to this girl than a dragon tattoo and a spiked collar. Rapace doesn’t let the outfits overwhelm her. There’s a certain joyful recklessness to her character hidden beneath a veneer of steely coolness. Rapace has to play many different elements through a specific prism of emotional reserve, which makes her character, and her performance, less showy. It makes for a very good performance but ultimately leaves the final judgment of Rapace in question. Despite the international acclaim, Lisbeth isn’t exactly a star-making role. Yet, at least.

The story is awash in details, which is both a positive and negative reflection of the screenplay. There’s likely too many plot details for one screenplay and several elements feel like they may be integral when they really turn out to be incidental, like Nazi ancestry and the lone bridge off the island. Don’t get me all excited with Nazi ancestry and then have it become incidental to the plot. Nonetheless, it takes a good deal of time to process and familiarize all the numerous expository groundwork of the case, and time is what The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has to offer. At 150 minutes, the movie follows a pretty languid pace and doesn’t get moving until an hour in when our two leads join forces. Echoing that deliberate sense of pacing are the sparse and snowy landscapes of Sweden communicating isolation and looming danger. I can pretty much guarantee that the Hollywood adaptation in the works will not be nearly as leisurely with its pacing. The film’s resolution is very drawn out but that’s due to the many niggling plot threads that need to be attended to. It makes for a satisfying albeit mildly exhausting conclusion.

The book’s original title was “Men Who Hate Women” and that seems apt given what occurs on screen. Sure there’s a serial murderer on the loose but that’s par for the course. Even the grisly ritualistic killing stuff. But Lisbeth encounters a lot of malice and hostile male aggression, some of it very sickening. There’s a startlingly extended rape sequence, followed by some sadistic, if justifiable, revenge. It all contributes to an overall tone of queasy misogyny that seems to waver between intentional and unintentional. I’m not sure tone-wise whether the movie ever creeps into unsettling voyeurism at the behest of women in explicit sexual peril, but it certainly is a distraction. It can get pretty hard to watch at times in this disturbing Swedish thriller. I hope the eventual sequels don’t follow this same queasy, upsetting tone but I also worry that this may be unfortunately part of the books/movies appeal.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an arresting and entertaining thriller that occasionally ducks a little too low into the gutter for my tastes (I’m really taken aback at how rape-heavy it is). The mystery works, though it’s more complicated thanks to an excess of detail and not necessarily a complex narrative. The characters, in particular Lisbeth Salander, are what make this movie work. Lisbeth is a captivating lead character and only promises to get more interesting in those future sequels. In many ways, this is a mystery for grown-ups, not just in content but also in approach, with the relaxed pace, subtlety, and moral ambiguity. Having never read the books, I can now see what all the fuss is about, and most of it is warranted. Still, I’m holding out my final judgment until those other two editions of the Adventures of Lisbeth and Crew hit theaters. The movie adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an exciting opening entry into the world of Lisbeth Salander, international woman of extreme ass kicking in fine fashion to boot.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The White Ribbon (2009)

After all the awards and hype, I’m left fairly unmoved. I think I’m just not a fan of the director; I disliked Funny Games, disliked The Piano Teacher, and think Cache is vastly overrated. Michael Haneke is just not for me, and The White Ribbon is further proof of this fact. This is two and half-hours of incidents. Supposedly, since its victory at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, this movie was dubbed as a case study examining the beginnings of antisemitism as a small German town undergoes a series of mysterious violent assaults and vandalism. I don’t know how in the world this explores any sort of psychological group think to later clarify Germany’s willingness to accept Hitler’s demands. All this movie does is show yet another example of teenagers rebelling. In typical Haneke fashion, characters can be unbelievably cruel to one another at the flick of a switch. Nothing really adds up and the pacing is so mind-numbingly deliberate to showcase the world of pre-World War I Germany. So when people leave the room we watch them walk off screen, hear their off screen noises, then they return and go off screen again and we can repeat the same jolly waiting game. I understand the artistic thought behind it, but I’d be much more forgiving if Haneke had developed a story and some characters worthy to wait for. This is a plodding and conceited exercise that reveals next to nothing about the human condition for cruelty, because, chiefly, you don’t really believe that these people exist nor do you care.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Spirit (2008)

This is the last time someone will let Frank Miller direct. Astoundingly bad, The Spirit is borderline camp for every absurd and bizarre second. It careens all over the place, never settling on a tone. So one minute it will be hard-boiled noir and the next it will break down the fourth wall and amp up the goofy slapstick to Looney Tunes levels. The story is threadbare, the characters are half-developed ideas, and each scene almost exists in its own five-minute world before Miller barrels forward. Sure the flick has some appealing visuals, but even those are derivative of the superior Sin City. As a director, Miller doesn’t cut it. He will shoot scenes with nothing but close-ups, giving no point of establishment for the audience, and he’s too prone to random diversions. Miller displays zero ability, or a complete disregard, for directing actors; they are terrible in different ways. Gabriel Macht, as the back-from-the-dead crime fighter The Spirit, sounds like Paul Rudd doing a Harrison Ford impression. Samuel L. Jackson, as the nefarious criminal/mad scientist/also semi-immortal The Octopus, overacts to a degree not even seen by Samuel L. Jackson. Scarlett Johansson, as an evil assistant, can’t even hide her disdain and boredom. This stuff just becomes unchecked lunacy, but it still manages to be boring through and through. The hero is a stiff, all the women are sex objects, and the conflicts are pointless when the combatants can’t be killed. The only thing worth mentioning is that Eva Mendes is still a gorgeous looking woman. Even Miller couldn’t fumble that one.

Nate?s Grade: D

%d bloggers like this: