It’s full of big feelings, declarations of self-identity, an unabashed love of the transformative power of theater, and its power of positivity can be a balm to many during this holiday season. The Prom is based on a short-lived Broadway musical about a girl in Indiana who wants to bring her girlfriend to the school prom and the ensuing media controversy that erupts. A team of out-of-work theater actors (Meryl Streep, Anthony Rannels, Nicole Kidman, James Corden) see publicity value in rallying to her cause, so they decamp to Indiana and challenge the homophobic PTA leader (Kerry Washington) who refuses to hold an inclusive prom. Director Ryan Murphy’s style and sensibilities work well within the realm of musical theater; a decade of television curation for FX and now Netflix has made him an expert on camp and flash. The man loves applying slick gloss to trash. His camera is constantly, uncontrollably moving during the numerous musical numbers, attempting to compensate for the generic quality of the majority of them. There are two standouts. The first is when Corden’s character takes our lesbian teen to the mall for a makeover. It’s got a catchy hook and one that becomes a reoccurring theme for the show. The second is when Rannels’ character is pointing out the hypocrisy of local Christians decrying homosexuality but falling short of other Biblical teachings. The story is sweet but un-challenging. The plot exhausts so quickly that I was amazed at one point to discover there was still an hour left in the over two-hour production. Each member of the squad gets a signature number to varying degree of success. The happy ending is affirming and heartfelt but also quite easy and kind of unearned. The amount of catharsis and reconciliation doesn’t gel with the emotional investment and development of these characters. They’re nice but relatively dull, and the industry satire only goes so far to chide the out-of-touch Broadway elites for their own prejudices of Midwest life. The Prom is disposable fluff that will pacify an afternoon.
Nate’s Grade: C+
More an expose on toxic work environments than anything overtly political, Bombshell is an effective true-life drama about the many pitfalls, humiliations, traps, harassment, and compromises that women face in the workforce. We follow the downfall of news magnate Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the imposing man who built the Fox News empire and who also bullied his employees and solicited sexual favors from the many women who were on his payroll. Margot Robbie plays an invented character meant to provide that entry point into Ailes the creep in creepy action. She’ll be harassed and pressured for sex by a man described as “Jabba the Hut,” and Robbie is terrific in her big dramatic moments portraying what the pressure and shame does for her ambitious anchor. The other two main characters wrestle with how far to go in a corporate culture of keeping secrets from very powerful, very dirty old men. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is consulting lawyers for a personal harassment lawsuit against Ailes the person, not Fox News, but she needs other women to come forward. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is struggling with the scrutiny she has endured after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump turns his small Twitter thumbs against her. The Fox bigwigs won’t go on record to defend her, and their journalists, because they need Trump to drive ratings. The movie uses several Big Short-style narrative tricks to help tell its sordid tale, including swapping narration and fourth-wall breaks; a run through of hearing from Ailes’ past victims in their own words is striking, especially a woman who says she was only 16 at the time. Part of the fun are the many many cameos and just watching actors portray different Fox News personalities (Richard Kind as Rudy Guiliani!). The makeup is also phenomenal and Theron looks unrecognizable as Kelly. The film itself doesn’t feel like it’s telling you anything you already don’t know about the subject; people will compromise their morals for personal gain, power leads to exploitation, women are unfairly treated, and it’s easier to fall in line than stand up to power. There’s still a thrill of watching the downfall of a serial abuser, and the acting is strong throughout, but Bombshell can’t shake the feeling of being a slicker, more star-studded TV movie version of recent history. Even with the urgency of the topic, it feels light, and not because of its use of incredulous humor. I could have used more behind-the-scenes details, and maybe that’s where Showtime’s miniseries The Loudest Voice comes in, retelling the same story with Russell Crowe as Ailes. It’s a solid movie on a very pertinent subject and worth seeing but it also makes me wish for a harder-hitting, more widely sourced expose on this very bad man who felt forever protected by the status quo of power.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s hard not to talk about the fledgling DCU without grading on a curve. Wonder Woman was a great success and a definite step in the right direction but it still had clear Act Three problems. However, when your previous movies are the abysmal Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman, anything in the right direction is seen as enlightenment. There are currently no planned Superman films, no planned Batman films, and it looks like the teetering DCU is banking its future on the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman. If you had told me that the future of an interconnected series of franchises would rest upon the shoulders of a man who talks to fish, I would have laughed. Enter director James Wan, best known for the Conjuring franchise and plugging into Furious 7 without missing a beat. Warner Bros. desperately wanted Wan’s stewardship to get a notoriously difficult comics property to float in the modern market. The early marketing was not encouraging but I held out a slim degree of hope that Wan would make it work. While Aquaman as a whole has its share of problems, Wan has done it. He’s made a big screen Aquaman movie that is fun, visually immersive, weird, and packed with great action. I was just as surprised as you, dear reader, but the smile on my face was evident.
Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is heir to the undersea throne of Atlantis. His mother (Nicole Kidman) fled her arranged marriage and had a son with a human lighthouse keeper. She retreated back into the ocean to prevent further harm to her shore side family. Arthur is approached by princess Meera (Amber Heard) to return to Atlantis and claim his birthright to the throne, currently occupied by Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson). The reigning king is planning to unite the seven sea kingdoms to launch an attack against the surface-dwellers. Arthur must go back to the people who reportedly killed his mother and challenge his half-brother for supremacy. Along the way he’ll have to venture across the globe with Meera for a series of adventures to reclaim lost artifacts, while also dodging Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate gifted with underwater technology who swears vengeance against Arthur for letting his father die.
Make no mistake, there is definitely a ceiling capped for Aquaman. The characterization is pretty standard stuff with little added nuance. It’s a dash of Chosen One destined to bridge communities, a dash of Prodigal Son outcast trying to make amends and duty, and there’s the general pledged vengeance that reappears again and again for motivation. The plot is reminiscent of a video game, structured so that Arthur and Meera have to travel from one stage to another, finding an important artifact and then going to the next stage. Sometimes there are mini-bosses at these various video game stages. The antagonists are acceptable but without much in the way of depth or charisma. You might even find yourself agreeing with King Orm as far as his pre-emptive strike over mankind (the latent racism of “half-breeds” maybe not as much). The leads are also given little. Momoa (Justice League) is a naturally charismatic actor but his range is limited; he basically has two modes, off and on. This might have been one reason why the screenplay resolves to merely push him toward his “call to action,” which I thought was his Justice League arc. Still he’s an affable and handsome presence even with lesser material. Heard (London Fields) is struggling to find her character’s place in the story. She’s a romantic interest, quest cohort, and there are attempts to push through more feminist agency but it’s too murky. It feels like she’s trapped by her character and her giant Halloween store red wig. If you cannot get over these deficits, it’s going to feel like a relentless 143-minute video game.
And yet the movie works thanks to the talents of Wan and the overall abundant sense of exuberant fun. Wan has become a first-class chameleon, able to adapt his skill set to whatever genre he attaches himself to, be it high-octane car chase thriller, slow burn horror to grisly torture porn, or now splashy superhero blockbuster. Early on, I knew we were in good hands when Wan showcases a destructive fight scene between Kidman and a group of aqua storm troopers in long takes and wide angles, letting the choreography speak for itself and allowing the audience to fully take in every smash and crash. The action is consistently interesting and filmed in ways to highlight its best points. An underwater brotherly battle takes the movement within water into account, adapting fight choreography to add this new dimension. That’s what good action movies should be doing, applying their unique settings into the action development. There isn’t a boring action moment in the film. Even when we get to the big CGI armies duking it out, Wan instinctively knows to pull back to avoid overkill. Even the otherwise normal hand-to-hand combat is clever and consistently entertaining. The highlight of the movie is actually on land, an extended chase through the villas of Tuscany. Arthur and Meera are battling Black Manta but they’re also divided, and Wan’s camera will zoom back and forth between the two, connecting each on their parallel tracks. They jump from tiled roof to tiled roof, escaping danger. There’s one super aqua storm trooper who takes a more direct approach and just runs through room after room, and the camera follows him on this direct line of destruction. There’s even a payoff where Meera uses her powers in a wine shop to her great advantage. It’s moments like this where Wan is clearly having fun and demonstrating that he and his team have put good thought into their action.
The visuals are wildly immersive and amplify the sense of fun the film has to offer. There are plenty of cinematic reference points of influence here, from George Lucas to James Cameron, but Wan and his team do an excellent job of making this universe feel full. We visit many different undersea realms and people, including seahorse people, crab people, and just taking ownership of the weirdness without irony is refreshing. With the exception of Momoa’s need to undercut moments with quips, the film feels genuine and proud of its old-fashioned mentality, taking the ridiculousness and treating it with sincerity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t campy and absurd moments that are enjoyable precisely because of their camp and absurdity. There are people riding great white sharks and battling crab people to the death. How can that not be silly? There’s one group of creatures that feel plucked from Pitch Black, a band of feral monsters vulnerable to fire. There’s a fun and effective sequence where Arthur and Meera must dive to escape with their lit flare and we see the full totality of their situation, a literal sea of these monsters breaking apart just so as they dive. It’s a creepy moment made even better by Wan’s visual choices, which always seem to correspond to what’s best for the experience. The special effects are uniformly great and the attention to the undersea worlds is pristine.
Ultimately your view of Aquaman will come down to what you’re willing to forgive in the name of fun spectacle. Its best Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) equivalent are the pre-Ragnarok Thor films. There are definite deficits with the minimal characterization and the familiar hero’s journey plot arc, but the execution level and the sheer energetic entertainment are enough to rise above. The action sequences are routinely thrilling, eye-catching, and wonderfully alive and clever thanks to Wan. They’ve found a way to make Aquaman cool and fun, which is what rules the day when it comes to the film version. Aquaman is another step in the right direction for the notoriously gloomy DCU. If Wan was attached for a sequel, I’d genuinely be interested. This is nothing you haven’t seen before in any number of movies (just now underwater), it’s not exactly intellectually stimulating or emotionally involving, and yet the sheer success of the visuals, action orchestration, and the sense of fun override the rest of the detractions for me. It reminds me of the Fast and Furious franchise. I don’t care a lick for any non-Rock/Statham characters; I’m just there for the physics-defying stunts and set pieces. It provides the goods when it comes to action spectacle, and so does this movie. If you’re looking for a 90s throwback to big, fun action movies, then take the dive with Aquaman.
Nate’s Grade: B
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos might just be the most perversely ingenious creative mind working in movies today. After Dogtooth and The Lobster, I will see anything that has this man’s name attached to it, especially as a writer/director. Lanthimos’ latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is a challenging revenge thriller, a macabre comedy, a morality play, and a generally uncomfortable watch that is just as alienating as it is totally brilliant.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a heart surgeon with a loving family that includes his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), teen daughter Kim (Tomorrowland’s Raffrey Cassidy), and young song Bob (Sunny Suljic). Then there’s Martin (Barry Keoghan), the lonely son of a patient who died on Steven’s operating table. He won’t leave Steven alone and doesn’t understand boundaries, even trying to hook up Steven with his lonely mother (Alicia Silverstone, yep you read that right). Martin even takes an interest in Kim. However, once Steven’s son falls victim of a mysterious illness and becomes paralyzed, Martin makes his true intentions clear. He’s poisoned all three of the Murphy family members and they are destined to die slowly unless Steven kills one of them. He has to choose which family member’s life to take with his own hands, or else they all die.
It’s hard for me to think of whom exactly to recommend this movie to because it is so intentionally off-putting. It’s intended to make you awkwardly squirm and question what you are watching. This will not be a fun watch by most accounts unless you’re a very select person who has a dark sense of humor and an appreciation for something different. Lanthimos seems to be purposely testing his audience’s endurance from the start. We open on several seconds of black to test our patience and then an extended close-up of real open-heart surgery. My pal Ben Bailey had to shield his face from the screen. From there, the movie defies your expectations at most turns and digs further into its depths of darkness. This is one of those movies where you wonder whether it will go “there” and it most assuredly goes there and beyond. One minute you’ll be cringing, the next you’ll be cackling, and the next you’ll be deeply unsettled, and then maybe back to laughing if you’re like me. Much like Lanthimos’ other movies, his deadpan sense of comedy is his prescription for an absurd world. It’s a movie where you have to actively work to adjust to its bizarre wavelength, but if you can, there are rewards aplenty. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Unlike The Lobster, this doesn’t exist in a completely parallel universe but more of a cracked, heightened version of our own. Lanthimos’ breakout film, 2009’s Dogtooth, dropped the audience into a strange world and expected us to catch up. This is similar. The flatly comic conversations become a sort of absurdist poetry. Everyday moments can be given one extra strange beat and become hilarious. Scene to scene, I didn’t know what would happen. The movie allows its story to properly breathe while finding room for its characters to discover intriguing diversions and insights, like Martin’s recollection of how he and his father eat spaghetti the same way. There’s an unusual sexual kink that involves giving oneself completely to another that makes more than one appearance, enough to question the connection between them. The very geneses of that kink I think alligns with a character’s god complex, but that’s my working interpretation. It made me rethink about the aberrant concepts of sexuality in Dogtooth, a.k.a. the nightmare result of helicopter parenting. The handling of pubescent sexuality, and the idea of incorrectly applying information learned from other settings, is just one more tool to make the audience uneasy. Killing of a Sacred Deer exists in a closer approximation of our world in order for there to be a better sense of stakes. Somebody is going to die, and if Steven cannot choose then everyone will die. This isn’t a fantasy world but a real family being terrorized by a demented and vengeful stalker. This gangly teenager is more terrifying and determined than just about any standard slasher villain.
This is a modern-day Greek tragedy literally inspired by an ancient one. Prior to the Trojan War, Agamemnon was hunting and killed one of the sacred deer belonging to Artemis. The angry goddess stranded Agamemnon’s ships and demanded a sacrifice in order for the winds to return. He had to choose one of his family members to kill, and Iphigenia got the short end of that one. Euripides’ classic work gets a fresh retooling and Lanthimos is not one to merely stand on ceremony. He smartly develops his premise and takes it in organic directions that feel believable even given the ludicrous circumstances. That is Lanthimos’ gift as a storyteller, being able to make the ludicrous feel genuine. After the half-hour mark, where Martin comes clean, the movie really takes off. Does Steven tell his family and how much? Does he take matters into his own hands to convince Martin to stop? Is he actually culpable for the death of Martin’s father? Once the reality becomes clear and people starting getting increasingly sick, the movie becomes even direr. Steven is given the unenviable position to choose life and death, though he frequently shucks responsibility and only continues to make matters worse. Once his family comes to terms with the reality of Martin’s threat, they each try different methods to argue their personal favor to dear old dad. They vie to be father’s favorite or, at least, not his most expendable loved one. It’s a richly macabre jockeying that had me laughing and then cackling from the plain absurdity. Lanthimos presents a tragedy and forces the audience to simmer and contemplate it, but he doesn’t put his characters on hold either. They are adapting and have their own agendas, mostly doing whatever they can to campaign for their lives at the expense of their family (Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious character would loath this movie with a sleeveless fury).
The end deserves its own mention but fear not dear reader I won’t spoil it. It’s a sequence that had me literally biting my own hand in anxiety. I was pushing myself backwards in my chair, trying to instinctively escape the moment. It’s the culmination of the movie and feels entirely in keeping with Lanthimos’ twisted vision and the depiction of Steven as a weak man. There’s a strange sense of inevitability to it all that marks the best tragedies. I don’t know if I’ll sit through a more intense, uncomfortable few minutes in 2017, and yes I’ve seen, and appreciate, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! of difficult 2017 sits.
As much as this is a thriller it also feels just as much a satire of overwrought Hollywood thrillers. The killer isn’t some shadowy evil genius. He’s just a very determined teenager in your neighborhood. There are several moments that are difficult to describe but I know Lanthimos is doing them on purpose as a critique of thrillers. At the end, a character shakes a generous heaping of ketchup onto a plate of French fries, and we’re meant to get the lazy metaphor of the sloshing ketchup as spilled blood. However, under Lanthimos’ heavy direction, the shot holds longer, the accompanying soundtrack becomes an operatic crescendo, and the whole thing turns comic. Lanthimos has to know what he’s doing here, commenting on the lazy symbolism of dread in overwrought thrillers. There’s another instance where Martin has severely bitten into Steven’s arm. Martin’s apologetic and promises to make it right and then proceeds to bite a chunk of flesh out of his own arm and spit it onto the floor as an offering. That would have been creepy enough but then Lanthimos goes one step further. “Get it, it’s a metaphor,” Martin explains. It’s one in a series of moments where Lanthimos goes a step further into pointed genre satire. It’s possible I’m reading too much into the rationale behind some of these oddities but I don’t really think so. It seems too knowing, too intentional.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a movie that invites discussion, analysis, and just a general debriefing in the “what the hell did I just watch?” vein. This is a movie experience that calls upon the full range of human emotions, and sometimes in the same moment. Lanthimos’ modern Greek tragedy serves up a self-aware critique of its own genre, as he puts his personal stamp on the serial killer thriller. This is also an alienating film that doesn’t try to be accessible for a wider audience. It almost feels like Andy Kaufman doing an experiment replicating Stanley Kubrick (and it was filmed in Cincinnati). Even if you loved Lathimos’ most high profile work, The Lobster, I don’t know if you’d feel the same way about Killing of a Sacred Deer. It wears its off-putting and moody nature as a badge of honor. I found it equally ridiculous and compelling, reflective and over-the-top, sardonic and serious. Dear reader, I have no idea what you’ll think of this thing. If you’re game for a demanding and unique filmgoing experience and don’t mind being pushed in painfully awkward places, then drop into the stunning world of Lanthimos’ purely twisted imagination. Killing of a Sacred Deer just gets better the more I dissect it, finding new meaning and connections. If you can handle its burdens of discomfort, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of the most memorable films of the year and also one of the best.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Loosely based off the 1969 film Cactus Flower, the title of the latest Adam Sandler comedy feels like a transparent plea from the screenwriters and Sandler. He plays a womanizing plastic surgeon that has bedded many women under the false pretenses of being married to horrible women. Now he’s in a dilly of a pickle because he has to convince the new hottie in his life (Brooklyn Decker, former swimsuit model, clearly chosen for her acting “talents”) that he is getting a divorce from his fake wife, played by his assistant (Jennifer Aniston). Her real-life kids become Sandler’s fake kids, and the whole lot goes along for a Hawaiian vacation. At various points characters will talk about how confusing the lies are becoming. I wish. Just Go with It doesn’t have the ambition to embrace its farcical premise, instead settling on rom-com gooeyness even though most of the characters are lying jerks. Sandler’s been tricking women into sleeping with him for decades, but we’re supposed to view him as a good guy? What’s the point of throwing in Nicole Kidman, of all people, as Aniston’s college nemesis if the film doesn’t do anything with the different pretenses? Things don’t get too complicated because the characters really only assume one identity and one story, blunting escalating comic mishap. While Sandler and Aniston have a surprisingly natural chemistry together, and some of the jokes are decent in conception, Just Go With It is a wearisome rom-com weighed down with false sentiment and kicks to the groin.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Filled with beautiful stars, beautiful Italian scenery, and beautiful cinematography, Nine has some significant sure-fire flash, but it’s missing the dazzle (or is it razzle?). The movie based on the 1980s Broadway musical based upon the Fellini movie, 8 1/2, is a pretty hollow enterprise. It’s all about writer’s block, and unless you’re the Coen brothers this is not a very interesting conflict to watch on screen. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, a famous Italian director feeling overwhelmed by the impending start of his ninth movie, a movie he hasn’t written a script for yet. He tries to find inspiration from his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his muse/lead actress (Nicole Kidman), his dead mother (Sophia Loren), a magazine journalist (Kate Hudson), and just about anybody else. The film is structured much like director Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning musical Chicago, where the song-and-dance numbers are little mental asides inside the characters’ minds. So most actresses get one big number and then it’s arevaderche. Day-Lewis is good but his character is hard to emphasize with, especially as he bounces from woman to woman, whining about the duress of creativity while anybody minus a Y chromosome (and who isn’t Judi Dench) throw themselves at the guy. Despite the lackluster story and characters, Nine still could have succeeded from its musical numbers. Too bad then that the songs are instantly forgettable. Seriously, if you put a gun to my head mere minutes after I heard these tunes I wouldn’t be able to hum a bar. The dancing is lively, and Cruz and Cotillard prove to be infinitely and tantalizingly flexible, but the songs are truly unimpressive. I never would have guessed that in a movie filled with so many Oscar-winners that Fergie would be the highpoint. She plays a lustful figure of Day-Lewis’ youth, and her number exudes a vivacious sensuality. The playful choreography incorporates sand on the stage, which makes for several great images and dance moves. The song is also by far the catchiest, “Be Italian,” and the only thing worth remembering. The trouble for Nine is that there’s another hour left after this peak. I’m astounded that people thought, at one time, that Nine was going to be a serious awards contender. This has the “parts” of an awards movie but no vision or verve to assemble them.
Nate’s Grade: C
Baz Luhrmann is a filmmaker that doesn’t know the meaning of the word “small.” He paints in giant strokes with lavish creative flourishes that separate him from the pack of visionary auteurs. I’ve enjoyed every one of his films thus far and I fee that Moulin Rouge is a romantic touchstone that I can go back again and again to be dazzled and moved. I anticipated that Australia would be suitably grandiose in scope and style. While it suitably grandiose it definitely could have used some fine-tuning when it came to scope and style.
Australia follows the adventures of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) entering the land Down Under in 1939. Her husband owns a cattle ranch in the north called Faraway Downs. She suspects that her husband travels to Australia to get a bit more business down under, if you know what I mean. He’s been killed and the only witness is a half-white, half-aboriginal boy named Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters). It was customary for the Australian government to abduct mixed race children and ship them off to a church mission, where the tykes got to learn how to be servants for rich white people (this government policy only officially ended in the 1970s). Little Nullah hides on the Faraway downs ranch with his aboriginal mother. Lady Ashley must decide what to do with her strip of land. The local meat baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown), owns all the land surrounding Faraway downs and is close to maintaining a monopoly. Carney’s right hand man, Fletcher (David Wenham), has been keeping watch over Faraway Downs. Lady Ashley decides to hold onto the ranch and to drive the 1,000 head of cattle to sell at the town of Darwin. Carney orders Fletcher to stop the competition in its tracks. With little resources, Lady Ashley needs a rugged man to lead the cattle drive. The Drover (High Jackman) is a man of adventure and promises to deliver the cattle to their destination in Darwin. Through the course of 165 minutes Lady Ashley and the Drover will fall in love, Nullah’s freedom will be in jeopardy, and the Japanese will bomb Darwin in 1941.
The flick is ambitious, I’ll give it that. Just the title itself sets off an aim to summarize an entire country’s history, culture, and people in a declarative and definitive narrative. Somehow I doubt many will leave the theater and say, “Well, now that’s Australia.” Indeed, I find the film’s narrative to be a limp representation for a country. I suppose most big nationalistic history films start with the birth of nations, but when your country began as a repository for English criminals then I suppose you may want to find a different tale to tell. Australia is really three movies in one colossal package: a Western dust-up, a World War II disaster, and a dark history lesson over the country’s treatment of the aborigines. There is too much movie there, especially at a mammoth running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes. I almost think that Luhrmann believes that if he throws out enough storylines and emotions that somehow it will form a cohesive whole, but the pieces never truly mesh satisfactory. The kitchen sink method rarely works without a grander scheme. The war elements could have been dropped entirely considering that the Japanese bombing sneaks in at the very end of the film and serves little other purpose then decimating the town of Darwin. The movie just all of a sudden transitions into Australia at wartime, and various characters have new positions, like Lady Ashley serving as a phone operator. Where did any of this come from? It just sort of happens without any solid setup or transition despite a near three-hour length. You don’t need to nudge in World War II disasters just to introduce sustainable conflict. Australia is filled with moments where the plot or the characters make big leaps without justifying the transition. Lady Ashley goes from a lily-white upper-class fop to a tanned Outback rootin’-tootin’ adventurer over the course of mere minutes.
Director Luhrmann’s over-the-top visual style is absent and the movie feels strangely square, like Luhrmann is keeping his more manic abilities in check so he can tell an old school epic. But [i]Australia[/i] is not an epic despite a running time that would argue otherwise. It has gorgeous cinematography, gorgeous natural exteriors, and a pair of fairly good-looking leads (Jackman was named People Magazine’s sexiest man alive for 2008), but these are all components and not a finished product. I kept wanting Luhrmann to break free from his creative straitjacket and add some pizzazz and inspired sidesteps. It never happened. Lurhmann has been instrumental in the birth of Australia from beginning to end (he is credited with the screen story), but having such an idiosyncratic and surreal talent make a movie that is so backwards in approach and appeal is lunacy. This is not the best use of Lurhmann’s many talents. Australia has some gauzy and gaudy visuals but it feels altogether devoid of style, though it attempts to make up for that loss in sweep.
The true history of what happened to mixed race aboriginal children is appalling and certainly worth examination. So why then is Australia another case where the story of a minority’s oppression and tragedy must be told through the eyes of valiant white characters? Nullah’s story is far more interesting then Lady Ashley learning to be a country gal or the Drover learning to settle down. There is much more inherent drama in following a child who feels displaced and forever hunted because of his own genetics. That’s far more powerful than watching the tyke play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for the 80th time on his harmonica. Whenever Australia dips into serious statements on the plight of the unfortunate aboriginals, the movie feels very awkward. This is because “serious” is not what the movie does best at all. Australia is a large-scale attempt to revitalize that old-fashioned, sweepingly romantic Hollywood filmmaking of the 1950s. You could just as easily imagine John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in the starring roles, though the movie’s sensuality and outward comments on racial equality would have been tampered down. My point is that Australia is engineered to be this romantic spectacle that nearly overdoses on sentiment, so whenever it cuts to the aboriginals plight (something serious not in a silly movie sense) then it just seems tonally disjointed.
Let’s also talk about the depiction of the aboriginal people in Australia. Clearly Luhrmann has sympathy for these people and their persecution, and rightfully so. However, the movie turns the aborigines into magical otherworldly spiritual creatures. The depiction is similar to how Native Americans are seen in movies that take place in North America. The Native American is always seen as a being more in tune with nature and spirituality; they’re a “magic Indian” and always seem to possess supernatural powers and great wisdom. These portrayals are intended to be flattering but they really come across as hollow and condescending, transforming disadvantaged people into mystical and mysterious figures. Australia is packed with aborigines walking around, singing their songs to the wind, and having a near-psychic connection to the Earth and its inhabitants. There are several moments where King George, an old aboriginal man, will hum to himself and appear out of nowhere across thousands of miles to pose in a flamingo-like stance. It’s this sort of silly attempt at mystical reverence that stops the movie full-force when it touches upon the terrible realities of how the government treated the aborigines.
The actors do as best they can with such underwritten characters. Kidman found a perfect collaborator with Luhrmann on Moulin Rouge, a performance that deserved the Best Actress Oscar of that year. She has complete trust in Luhrmann. Her character is the typical role where someone from the outside adapts and finds a new home, which means Kidman is mostly comic and overacts in the beginning. She overdoes the comedy, expressing lines with a bit too much energy that almost seems against her will, like someone is pulling an invisible string to stretch her face into extreme expressions. I’ve always believed that Kidman could be a fine actress but honestly I don’t think I’ve loved a Kidman performance since 2001 with, yep, Moulin Rouge (she was quite fine in Dogville and The Interpreter). I’m starting to dread the thought that I may never see another Kidman performance that sets me afire. Jackman’s background in theater comes in handy when it comes to selling such melodrama and cheesy sentiment. He’s a handsome man and the movie takes great pains to showcase him shirtless. His character is another in a long line of solitary men who have to learn to reach out and love again despite the danger of being hurt. It’ all pretty standard for a Drover, naturally. Walters’ performance can at times be too cloying that it becomes grating. Eventually you do build a tolerance and he becomes more endearing than annoying. I had more fun with the supporting cast who can be relied on to offer glimpses of humor and menace.
I will say that I was rarely bored with the movie, though there are occasions that sag in the overly extended middle. Lurhmann still knows how to make an entertaining movie even if it’s one that generally plays by the book. The first third of the film, the cattle driving section, is the most successful and the most compelling, which is somewhat a backhanded compliment when the movie also deals with racial injustice. The stampede sequence is quite exciting and adds some needed action into the proceedings. From a technical standpoint, everything is staged well and looks refined, and my goodness does Walters have big dark soulful eyes that look pristine on the big screen. Kidman and Jackman’s big screen coupling will likely sate fans of romances between proper ladies and men with musk. Theirs is a romance thinly sketched but told with vigor. Australia is far too accomplished to be dismissed as a bad movie or a grandiose failure, but it never really settles into anything alluring or momentous.
You know what I’ll take away most from Australia? The term “drover.” Jackman’s character never has a real name, he is simply referred to as “Drover” or occasionally, “Mr. Drover,” as manners require after you sleep with a drover. He is not a “driver” of cattle but a “drover,” which sounds like a present use of a past tense. At one point little Nullah says in voice over, “The Drover drove them cheeky bulls.” Can you “druv”? When you are completed is called “droven”? I wonder if Australian school children ever had to diagram this sentence: “The Drover drove the cows until he had droven them far enough to druv.” This grammatical curiosity lodged in my brain and I amused myself elaborating on the “drover” vocabulary.
Now, Australia itself, as many locals will tell you, isn’t bad. It packs a lot of movie in 165 minutes but I just wish it had been a stronger movie. While the visuals are pleasing and the story is mildly engaging, Australia never justifies itself as the epic it so eagerly wants to become. The story is too disjointed and silly to be taken seriously and too square and stifled to be fun and energetic. Lurhmann is a filmmaker who has such limitless potential; he didn’t just resurrect the movie musical in 2001 but gave it a new language. Watching his talents get henpecked and hampered to tell a nostalgic old-fashioned romance that doesn’t resonate is like watching Gene Kelly paint. Sure it might work but the man just wasn’t meant for it. Which then makes it even more bizarre that Australia has been a passion project that Luhrmann has been working on for years. I don’t feel his passion or even his pride for his native land, though cattle drive tours might increase as a result. This is a movie that could have used more of Luhrmann’s brash and buzzy style. The only thing declarative about Australia is that Luhrmann should have been attached to a different movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The fourth remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a more interesting behind-the-scenes story than as a film. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) created a movie that was described as more psychological thriller than action chase movie. The studio and producers scrapped many pieces of the film, hired the Wachowski brothers to rewrite portions of the story and cram in some action, and then James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) directed the reshoots. As a result, the movie is wildly displaced and hacked together and never feels whole. There’s a slow burn of intrigue and mob madness and paranoia that gives way to chase scenes, car wrecks, and a ridiculously contrived happy ending. I’m sorry, but when you do The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you cannot have humanity win; that destroys the entire point of the story. It’s like having King Kong climb the Empire State Building and deciding to live there and dance for peanuts. Nicole Kidman and her lithe frame seem like an odd choice as humanity’s last hope with a gun. The Invasion flirts with some philosophical ideas about free will, assimilation, and the cost of peace, but then it speeds headfirst into an abrupt finish. This movie is unsatisfying to all parties.
Nate’s Grade: C
Beloved by many and condemned by others, Philip Pullman’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials, is widely popular. New Line Cinema placed an expensive wager in adapting the first book of the series, The Golden Compass, with the express desire of having their own Narnia-style franchise. Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) was hired to adapt and direct the enterprise. The final tally had the budget somewhere around $180 million, add in an extra $60 million for marketing, and New Line was pretty much banking their studio’s fortunes on this would-be fantasy blockbuster. Trouble is, there is not built in audience for a Golden Compass movie. The books are more popular overseas and less than ten years old, so there hasn’t been enough time to build a sense of lore or greater anticipation, like with Narnia. As of this writing, it looks like The Golden Compass is going to tap out at about $70 million domestic haul, and while I have no doubt that figure will be much higher overseas, I do not think it is a coincidence that soon after The Golden Compass fizzled New Line buried the hatchet with Peter Jackson and started the process on engineering two Hobbit movies. You see, that’s guaranteed money in the bank unlike The Golden Compass.
On a parallel Earth, people walk around with their souls in the form of animals known as daemons. These creatures serve as conscience, servant, and protector. Until a child reaches adulthood the daemon will often change form until it settles on one creature, be it a cat or a hawk or a toad. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) has discovered an inter-dimensional hole around the Arctic Circle, and a magical substance known as Dust is seeping through. The all-powerful Magisterium feels that they know best for others and that people need to be told what to do, and they most certainly do not appreciate Lord Asriel’s scientific discovery. They have decided to silence him permanently as he travels to the Arctic.
Meanwhile, Lord Asriel’s niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is investigating poor orphans that seem to be vanishing around her school. The Magisterium has taken an interest in Lyra and “asked” that she accompany Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), an icy woman with a wicked monkey as a daemon. She has great hopes for Lyra, but soon the child realizes she is a prisoner in the care of Mrs.. Coulter and that the Magisterium is responsible for abducting children and conducting experiments to remove their daemons from them forever.
She escapes and heads to the North, and finds help amongst nomadic people known as Gyptians, an air cowboy (Sam Elliott), a group of flying witches led by Serafina (Eva Green, as lovely as ever), and a scarred and grumpy polar bear named Lorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) who has been exiled from the Ice Bear kingdom after losing in one-on-one combat with the cruel current king, Ragnar (voiced by Ian McShane). Lyra leads this motley crew to the Arctic where the Magisterium is keeping the absconded children for experiments.
Most noticeably absent is a sense of wonder. The Golden Compass kind of plods along, and when new magical creatures are introduced they’re done so with such matter-of-fact complacency. If they can’t pretend to be impressed then why should I? There’s a difference between playing the fantastic straight and just shrugging it off. The structure of the screenplay doesn’t help things much. Many subplots feel rushed or grafted on to a lumbering plot that collects minor characters like static cling; it isn’t until the climax that the whole slew of people combines forces. As a result, some subplots are far more interesting than others, like the world of armored polar bears. This imaginative diversion, like much of Golden Compass, reveals itself as simply a side step in a plot littered with nothing but side steps. Just as soon as the storyline has started it’s pretty much over and the movie has moved on to new ground.
The movie fluctuates between the silly and the confusing. The hardest part of any fantasy film is establishing the rules and laws of this new realm, and The Golden Compass seems a tad overburdened in trying to explain its world. Weitz’s adaptation is heavy in lugubrious exposition without the benefit of drawn-out explanation. Often some character will explain something briefly and then the audience is left to orient themselves with this new morsel of information. Cosmic dust, alternate dimensions, Magesteriums, daemons, Gyptians, polar bears, witches, prophecies, it’s a bit much to decipher for an adult let alone a child (I’m convinced that the sluggish pace and confusing jumble of a story will totally bore kids). The golden compass itself is a very awkward creation and really has little purpose or connection to the events of the film. First off, in order to pose a question a person must align three hands to varying pictures to best describe what they will ask (how many pictures do you need to ask where you left your keys?).
The book’s anti-ideology stance has been severely watered down and replaced with half-hearted euphemisms. Gone are any overt references to the church or Christianity, instead the movie couches its ire in vague authoritarian terms, a giant entity that wants to separate children from their daemons (souls) to purify them from Dust (sin). I do find it amusing that the villainess is a tall, thin blonde woman named Mrs. Coulter, though this seems more coincidence than indignation. There is a brief scene in the film where a bunch of frowning, older white men (one of them Christopher Lee) sit around a table clucking their tongues and talking up their evil scheme; that’s about as provocative as the movie gets. But by sanitizing the book’s provocative nature, Weitz has produced a movie adaptation that feels too silly to be taken at face value and too bland to be taken as anything but.
From an effects-driven perspective, The Golden Compass is admirable even if few of the CGI works manage to truly dazzle. The special effects are sturdy for a tale with such demands as talking animals and winter icescapes. The bear battle is the film’s highlight but a climax involving a sprawling brawl, which visually indicates a person’s death by a daemon vanishing into a cloud of gold smoke, is fun to watch. Sadly, an ongoing sense of fun or enjoyment is missing from most of The Golden Compass. It feels more dutiful when it should be wondrous and timid when it should be exciting.
The Golden Compass is a less spirited fantasy adventure that skimps on what makes the genre special. It has no sense of awe and wonder, and even worse the movie is structured in a rush with little time for clarification and growing characters. The film is crammed with cheerless exposition and the bulk of the plot is built around a lame rescue attempt. Weitz has sanitized the intellectual and religious provocations of the book to appeal to greater mass audiences, but by doing so he’s robbed the audience of substantial subtext. The Golden Compass even ends on kind of an unresolved, Fellowship of the Ring, “Oh, it’s over” kind of way, finishing before even reaching the climax of the first book it’s based upon. I have read that the studio shot these scenes, and you can even see them in the original trailer and access them via the video game tie-in. They wanted to save them for the start of a second movie. It may be painfully obvious to most, but allow me to say it: there is not going to be a second movie. The Golden Compass is a slightly entertaining but mostly charmless fantasy film. Someone figure out the right three pictures to ask, “How could we have made this movie better?”
Nate’s Grade: C+
This is a polished political thriller that hearkens back to the day of the 1970s, where Hollywood was willing to put out smart, complicated, involving political intrigue and have faith that adults would enjoy. The premise is sound and director Sydney Pollack sure knows how to add layers of complication and mystery as well as make you doubt everyone’s involvement. A scene where all the film’s major players somehow get on the same down town bus is a masterpiece of nuanced suspense. The ending, not so much. Nicole Kidman, as the white African U.N. interpreter that hears a planned assassination one night, is credible but a bit weightless in her part. It’s not enough the pretty girls are taking the ugly girl parts (Monster,The Hours), but now they’re taking African parts? Granted, the idea of a white African allows for a new insight into the struggle for ethnic and cultural identity. Sean Penn gives a nicely rattled performance, giving his character more edge then it even deserves. The Interpreter is a geo-political thriller that trusts its audience and mostly delivers a good time.
Nate’s Grade: B