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I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

I expect strange from a Charlie Kaufman movie; that goes without saying. I also expect some high concept turned inward and, most importantly, a humane if bewildered anchor. His other movies have dealt with similar themes of depression (Anomalisa), relationship entropy (Eternal Sunshine), identity (Being John Malkovich), and regret from afar (Synecdoche, New York). However, no matter the head-spinning elements, the best Kaufman movies have always been the ones that embrace a human, if flawed, experience with sincerity rather than ironic detachment. There’s a reason that Eternal Sunshine is a masterpiece and that nobody seems to recall 2002’s Human Nature (ironic title for this reference). 2015’s Anomalisa was all about one man trying to break free from the fog of his mind, finding a woman as savior, and then slowly succumbing to the same trap. Even with its wilder aspects, it was all about human connection and disconnection. By contrast, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about a puzzle, and once you latch onto its predictable conclusion, it doesn’t provide much else in the way of understanding. It’s more a “so, that’s it?” kind of film, an exercise in trippy moments intended to add up to a whole, except it didn’t add up for me. I held out hope, waiting until the very end to be surprised at some hidden genius that had escaped me, for everything to come together into a more powerful whole, like Synecdoche, New York. It didn’t materialize for me and I was left wondering why I spent two hours with these dull people.

A Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) is traveling with her boyfriend Jake (Jessie Plemons) to meet his parents for the first time. It’s snowy Oklahoma, barren, dreary, and not encouraging. In the opening line we hear our heroine divulge the title in narration, which we think means their relationship but might prove to have multiple interpretations. It only gets more awkward as she meets Jake’s parents (David Thewlis, Toni Collette) and weird things continue happening. The basement door is chained with what look like claw marks. People rapidly age. The snow keeps coming down and the Young Woman is eager to leave for home but she might not be able to ever get home.

The title is apt because I was thinking of ending things myself after an hour of this movie. Kaufman’s latest is so purposely uncomfortable that it made me cringe throughout, and not in a good squirmy way that Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) has perfected. Kaufman wants to dwell and drag out the discomfort, starting with the relationship between Young Woman and Jake. She’s already questioning whether or not she should be meeting his parents and their inbound conversations in the car are long and punctuated by Jake steering them into proverbial dead ends. He’s a dolt. You clearly already don’t feel a connection between them, and this is then extended into the family meet and dinner, which takes up the first hour of the movie. I’m Thinking of Ending Things tips its hand early about not trusting our senses and that we are in the realm of an unreliable narrator. Characters will suddenly shift placement in the blink of an eye, like we blacked out, and character names, professions, histories, and even ages will constantly alter. The Young Woman is a theoretical physicist, then a gerontologist, then her “meet cute” with Jake borrows liberally from a rom-com directed by Robert Zeemckis in this universe (my one good laugh). Jake’s parents will go from old to young and young to old without comment. All the surreal flourishes keep your attention, at least for the first half, as we await our characters to be affected by their reality, but this never really happens. Our heroine feels less like our protagonist (yes, I know there’s a reason for this) because her responses to the bizarre are like everyone else. The entire movie feels like a collection of incidents that could have taken any order, many of which could also have been left behind considering the portentous 135-minute running time.

There are a lot of weird moments and overall this movie will live on in my memory only for its moments. We have a lengthy choreographed dance with doubles for Jake and the Young Woman, an animated commercial for ice cream, an acceptance speech directly cribbed from A Beautiful Mind that then leads directly into a performance from Oklahoma!, an entire resuscitation of poetry and a film review by Pauline Kael, talking ghosts, and more. It’s a movie of moments because every item is meant to be a reflection of one purpose, but I didn’t feel like that artistic accumulation gave me better clarity. There’s solving the plot puzzle of what is happening, the mixture of the surreal with the everyday, but its insight is limited and redundant. The film’s conclusion wants to reach for tragedy but it doesn’t put in the work to feel tragic. It’s bleak and lonely but I doubt that the characters will resonate any more than, say, an ordinary episode of The Twilight Zone. Everything is a means to an ends to the mysterious revelation, which also means every moment has the nagging feeling of being arbitrary and replaceable. The second half of this movie, once they leave the parents’ home, is a long slog that tested my endurance.

Buckley (HBO’s Chernobyl) makes for a perfectly matched, disaffected, confused, and plucky protagonist for a Kaufman vehicle. She has a winsome matter of a person trying their best to cover over differences and awkwardness without the need to dominate attention. Her performance is one of sidelong glances and crooked smiles, enough to impart a wariness as she descends on this journey. Buckley has a natural quality to her, so when her character stammers, stumbling over her words and explanations, you feel her vulnerability on display. After Wild Rose and now this, I think big things are ahead for Buckley. The other actors do credible work with their more specifically daft and heightened roles, mostly in low-key deadpan with the exception of Collette (Hereditary), who is uncontrollably sharing and crying. It’s a performance that goes big as a means of creating alarm and discomfort and she succeeds in doing so.

I know there will be people that enjoy I’m Thinking of Ending Things and its surreal, sliding landscape of strange ideas and images. Kaufman is a creative mind like few others in the industry and I hope this is the start of an ongoing relationship with Netflix that affords more of his stories to make their way to our homes. This is only the second movie he’s written to be produced in the last decade, and that’s far too few Kaufman movies to my liking. At the same time, I’m a Kaufman fan and this one left me mystified, alienated, and simply bored. I imagine a second viewing would provide me more help finding parallels and thematic connections, but honestly, I don’t really want to watch this movie again. I recall 2017’s mother!, an unfairly derided movie that was also oft-putting and built around decoding its unsubtle allegory. That movie clicked for me once I attuned myself to its central conceit, and it kept surprising me and horrifying me. It didn’t bore me, and even its indulgences felt like they had purpose and vision. I guess I just don’t personally get that same feeling from I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It’s a movie that left me out cold.

Nate’s Grade: C

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Marvel’s X-Men franchise had some serious damage it needed to undo. The once mighty superhero series had been harmed by that age-old foe – bad sequels. The collective stink from 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and the 2009 Wolverine debacle, the franchise had lost some serious luster. While the recovery was not nearly as deep and cataclysmic as what the Batman franchise had to deal with in the wake of 1997’s Batman and Robin, a film that flirted with salting the earth, the X-Men needed some kind of facelift. Enter director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust), the man who was going to save the series back in 2006 when original director Bryan Singer flew away to direct a different man in tights. Vaughn was originally tapped to direct Last Stand but he dropped out and was replaced by the hack Brett Ratner (Rush Hour). Thus began the slide toward mediocrity. Now Vaughn is back to tidy up unfinished business, taking the series back to its historical roots in the 1960s. It seems that a trip back in time was just what was needed to make the X-Men fresh.

Back in 1944, Erik Lehnsherr is a prisoner in a Polish concentration camp when Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) discovers the young boy’s great potential. When enraged, Erik can control anything metallic. In upstate New York at the same time, young Charles Xavier discovers a young shape shifter named Raven. She’s blue from head to toe and afraid. They’re delighted to find one another, fearing they were the only ones “different” in the world, children of the “atomic age.” All three of these people are headed for a collision course. In 1963, Charles (James McAvoy) has become an Oxford professor, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) has followed him to England, and Erik (Michael Fassbender) has been systematically hunting down the Nazis responsible for his pain and suffering. Dr. Schmidt has now become Sebastian Shaw, a younger-looking playboy with the intent to push the Soviets and Americans to nuclear war. Shaw has his own team of mutant henchmen, including telepath Emma Frost (January Jones, proving once again that she can really only ever be good as Betty Drapier) who walks around in white lingerie the whole movie. Together with CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), Charles and Erik assemble their own team of young mutants to thwart Shaw.

Similar to 2009’s Star Trek, this film provides the opportunity to reboot a franchise by going back in time. It transports the series back to the beginning of the friendship between Charles and Erik, and spends the next 130 minutes filling in the rationale for the “why” of their varying personal philosophies. By dialing back, we’re able to play around with 40 years of back-story and histories. While we know the end results, that these two giants will become enemies, that Charles will lose the ability to walk, and that Raven/Mystique will eventually side with Erik, that doesn’t mean there isn’t pleasure to be had in watching the journey. There are all sorts of self-aware in-jokes for fans and a few nifty cameos that left me howling with glee. The script, credited to Vaughn, his writing partner Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass), and four others, smartly moves the film forward; no scene seems at a waste. Even better, the film strikes a tone that manages to take its real-world implications seriously (nuclear brinksmanship, Holocaust, and fighting for equality and acceptance) without diminishing its popcorn thrills.

As a summer movie, X-Men: First Class has enough razzle-dazzle to compliment its intelligent social pontification. Vaughn and his screenwriters have composed action sequences that neatly incorporate the mutant abilities of its subjects while building the tension and smartly utilizing the contours of geography. I hate action sequences that don’t play to the potential of location and subject. An evil teleporter (Jason Flemyng) finds a fiendishly clever way to dispatch 20 CIA agents. Magneto efficiently takes out former Nazis residing in Argentina in one chilling sequence (“I’m Frankenstein’s monster,” he tells one man). Shaw makes for an actual formidable opponent for our fledgling heroes. The personal connection he has with Erik, on top of Bacon’s devilish glimmer of villainy, makes Shaw a strong antagonist that the audience can rally against. Vaughn has a splendid reveal with Shaw. Back when he was a Nazi doctor, he asks young Erik to move a coin with his abilities. The shots consist entirely from one side of his office, showcasing it to be a bookish study. Then when Shaw calls the Nazi guards to bring in Erik’s mother for a little more direct incentive, the camera flips position. We see the opposite side of the room, a medical station on the other side of large glass panels. Inside is a torturous display of medical cutlery. It’s a fantastic reveal that kicks up the tension while adding to the terrifying character of Shaw. The action highpoint, a mutant vs. mutant battle amidst the Soviet and American naval fleets, provides plenty of parallel action to follow that keeps the movie alive and kicking.

The film mixes a frothy, James Bond-esque spy thriller feel in production design and whatever-goes plot savvy, but then recomposes real life events as mutant enhanced. Alert the history textbooks, because the Nazi scientists experimented on mutant children and that mutants averted World War III. Some will chafe at the alternative history approach, but I find it to be more interesting, suspenseful, and a natural fit with the overall Cold War paranoia feel of the setting. Melding the X-Men into history makes for a more intellectually stimulating adventure, tipping its hat at various historical revisions that payoff as small rewards for a well-informed audience. I’m not saying that the movie is like Noam Chomsky’s take on X-Men by any means, but it’s certainly the most heady film in the series since the departure of Bryan Singer (he serves as producer on this flick). Indeed, this is a rather talky X-Men adventure with plenty of philosophical debates and speeches. But then it’s got naked women in blue too. But you see, it’s not just naked women in blue, it’s that a naked woman in blue can become a political statement – man!

And it’s on that note I’d like to say a few words. Mutants have always been a central metaphor for the oppressed, be they Jews, African-Americans, homosexuals, whatever minority group you’d like to slot in. That’s been one of the secrets to the continued success of Marvel’s flagship series – anybody can identify with the fear of being judged, feared, and despised because of who you are. That’s why the character of Raven/Mystique, short of Magneto, is the most fascinating character in the movie. Her true form, scaly and blue, is what keeps her feeling like an outcast. She doesn’t have an invisible power like her surrogate big brother, Charles. She constantly disguises herself in order to fit in, albeit her disguise is the alluring natural figure of Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone). “Mutant and proud,” she says in disdain when she stares at her bluish reflection in the mirror. It is through Erik hat she begins to believe in this mantra, gaining pride that “blue is beautiful” and she need not even wear clothes to cover who she is up (millions of teen boys celebrate this decision and wish it had become more widespread in application). Raven/Mystique is the figure torn between the two philosophies argued by Charles and Erik. She is the central figure that has to struggle with reality vs. idealism. It’s also a little funny that a movie piggybacking the civil rights movement of the 60s (mutant rights!) also trades in the casual misogyny of the 1960s (women in lingerie as outfits, regularly practiced sexism). I suppose some of this is intentional. I guess the women’s movement will be saved for a sequel.

While the retro setting ties in nicely with the series’ core metaphor about being different/disenfranchised, the dichotomy of ideas presented by Charles and Erik are not given equal measure. That’s because, quite frankly, Erik is a much more powerfully interesting character and more sympathetic than a rich kid who can read people’s minds. Charles Xavier and Magneto have always represented a comic book version of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X when it came to the ideas of integration, equality, and representation. Charles believes that mutants should assimilate and that humanity will accept in time; peaceful and hidden. Magneto, on the other hand, takes a more militant stance and feels that mutants need not hide who they are out of fear or shame, that they are the dominant species and should not be threatened by the weaker Homo sapiens. But where X-Men: First Class runs into some trouble is that the ideological deck is completely stacked in Magneto’s favor. He’s the one who suffered through concentration camps, Nazi experimentation; he’s seen the worst of what mankind of capable of. He’s a tormented man seeking vengeance, which is character motivation that is easy for an audience to fall behind. Then, even after the mutants save mankind’s bacon during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the first person who tells me this is a spoiler gets a history book thrown at them), they still get treated as the enemy. Almost everything that plays out onscreen aligns with Magneto’s ideology, which makes it hard not to be on Team Magneto as the movie draws to a close. I suppose the film utilizes our knowledge of future events to counterbalance Magneto’s pessimistic world philosophy.

The other issue that lends more credibility to Magneto than perhaps the filmmakers were hoping for is the fact that he’s the most interesting character in the movie, easily. The X-kids are a pretty bland bunch of boys and gals. This is the first class the filmmakers chose? Did they have recruiting violations at the school? Havok (Lucas Till), a goy who can shoot energy beams, Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), a guy who can scream loudly and fly, somehow, Angel (Zoe Kravitz), a gal with fairy wings and an acid tongue, and then Darwin (Edi Gathegi), a guy who… adapts? Darwin’s power is so obtuse to explain, it’s no wonder he doesn’t last long in service to his country (it’s a bit tacky that when one character says “slavery” the edits have to cut back to the one black mutant for a reaction shot). Each one of these teenagers has a different reaction to their powers. Some are ashamed, some are afraid, others proud or apathetic. But they are all singularly uninteresting. Once they establish their power, they become less a character and just another piece on a game board to be positioned. And Lenny Kravitz’s kid in fairy wings? Plus she spits little fireballs? I’m sorry but that should have been the first thing removed from rewrites. This crew makes it sure that we empathize even more with Magneto as he refines his powers to reach his personal vengeance, which is the film’s pre-designed payoff. We’re not really looking for the team to band together, which they inevitably do, but we’re awaiting that splash of vengeance. And when it does come, it’s satisfying, stylish, and dramatically fitting (“At the count of three, I’m going to move the coin.”). The fact that the movie still has like 15 minutes of material afterward is almost inconsequential.

Vaughn certainly delivers the spectacle, it’s the actors that produce the real fireworks. This is a vehicle for McAvoy (Atonement, Wanted) and Fassbender (Ingloruious Basterds, Jane Eyre), and both men provide admirable gravitas. McAvoy’s role offers a more jocular performance, showing Charles to be a bit of a lady’s man in his younger years, harnessing his telepathic powers to bed him some beauties. Then again, as I’ve been told from my female friends, looking like McAvoy will certainly also help matters. But this is Fassbender’s show. He has a chilly intensity to him, rather than just being cold and indifferent like January Jones (she is really poor, I’m sorry). His performance captivates you from the start, and his slow-burning hatred consumes the man. It’s a dramatically rich performance given the material. After being discriminated against for being a Jew, than a mutant, he has to sell that his character, haunted and rage-filled, would ironically follow the same social Darwinism that his Nazi tormentors evoked. And Fassbender sells every bit of an iconic Marvel villain coming into his destiny. However, his Irish accent slips out in the film’s final reel, and I’m really curious why the studio couldn’t have shelled a few bucks to fix that with ADR. Rushed for time, or revealing that Magneto has unheard of Irish lineage?

Going back in time manages to open up all sorts of possibilities for the X-Men franchise. There could be a whole slew of sequels that play around with the rich, complex back stories of the X-Men without having to serve the aging stars of the original trilogy. Vaughn keeps the proceedings amazingly fluid, stylish without being overtaken by visual artifice, and the swinging 60s provides a groovy backdrop. The action delivers when needed, the smart script doesn’t downplay the clash of ideas to go along with the clash of fists, and the special effects are relatively up to snuff as summer escapism goes. The movie is not without its misses, including a cadre of lackluster junior mutants. But Vaughn has re-energized a flagging franchise and given hope for a future (past?). In the pantheon of X movies, I’d place X-Men: First Class as an equal to X2, the best in the series. It may not be at the head of the class, but this superhero flick earns is stripes with a solid effort and strong potential. Just get rid of January Jones when it comes time for the age of feminism.

Nate’s Grade: A

2012 (2009)

Let’s get this out of the way. The world isn’t going to end in 2012. Well, it might, but it won’t be because the Mayans said so. Because truth be told, the Mayans didn’t say anything about the world ending. The Mayan calendar exists in large circular amounts of time, and the largest period of time is called a bactun. An epoch, 13 bactun, will be coming to an end somewhere around December 21, 2012, but this in no way is a signal for the end of days. It just means that one cycle of time has come full circle and we begin anew. This is entirely a Western invention. If you learn nothing else from this review, know that the world will be fine come 2012. At least in this regard. Who knows about nuclear holocaust, biological warfare, religious fanatics bringing about the end of days, Sarah Palin running for president. The world could still end, but don’t blame the Mayans. They’re already dead anyway. They didn’t see that one coming, either.

2012 is the latest disaster movie from director Roland Emmerich, who fondly destroyed the world in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. In news interviews, Emmerich has insisted that 2012 will be his last disaster movie (yeah right!), so he wanted to pull out all the stops. And he does. 2012 is like the disaster movie to end all disaster movies. It’s great escapist fun but it’s also silly and cheesy and hokey and all things a great memorable disaster movie should be. The movie packs so much that you may likely experience fatigue by the end.

Like previous Emmerich movies, we follow a dispirit group of people from all walks of life who coincidentally come together. Jackson (John Cusack) and his wife Kate (Amanda Peet) are separating. Kate is currently seeing a new guy, Gordon (Thomas McCarthy, the writer/director of The Station Agent), and Jackson’s son thinks highly of new dad (maybe he saw the excellent Station Agent). Jackson is trying to become a better dad and take the kids camping to Yellowstone National Park. It’s there that he runs aground with government officials and a conspiracy radio host (Woody Harrelson) warning about impending doom. He puts enough pieces together to hatch a plan to save his family and escape. The government was alerted by a geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 2009 and has been preparing for massive seismic shifts. The president’s chief of staff (Oliver Platt) has been planning the “continuity of our species.” The elites have secured a place on massive arks built in the Himalayan mountain range. Jackson and his family must find a way to reach the arks in China for any hope of surviving the next chapter in human existence.

Emmerich packs so much earthly chaos into this movie that it can get flabbergasting. It’s not enough that California is upending by earthquakes and gaping chasms, it has to be thrown into the sea city block by city block. It’s not enough that Yellowstone National Park emits a thunderous volcanic discharge; it has to explode with the might of three mushroom clouds. It’s not enough that a 150-foot tidal wave strikes Washington D.C., it has to drag along a U.S. aircraft carrier that topples the memorable architectural sights of the city. It seems like Emmerich is trying to one-up everything that has come before in disaster cinema, but beyond the cheesy Irwin Allen movies of the 1970s, his only real competition is himself. No one wreaks havoc upon the world like Emmerich. He has the same destructive tastes of a mad scientist of Godzilla. He’s a big kid that likes to see things fall down and go boom. And in that regard, Emmerich has no equals. Not even Michael Bay, who certainly has panache to his record of ruination, can compete with this German master of disaster. No one can do enjoyable cheesy entertainment on such a mass scale like this man.

The special effects in 2012 are first-rate and the true draw to see this thing on the big screen. Large-scale global devastation has never looked so pretty. This is a full-blown summer movie in the midst of the fall prestige season. The destruction is often awe-inspiring thanks to Emmerich and his team of visual wizards, and the buildup of suspense can be palatable as well. The pacing is better than you would expect for a movie that runs over 150 minutes, but that didn’t stop the contingent of teenagers in my theater from standing up and leaving whenever there wasn’t violent death. At least Mother Nature wasn’t taking out specific monuments with pinpoint precision like She normally likes to do in these things. And just like in disaster movies, the “chosen few” are gifted with the amazing ability to outrun fireballs, earthquakes, falling debris, falling buildings, and just about everything falling at high velocity. Sure the immediate heat from an explosion at Yellowstone would instantly fry the characters, and sure an airplane can?t fly through a pyroclastic cloud, but it’s all part of the territory for the genre. If it was really true to life than we’d all be dead and the movie would be considerably shorter.

So what is the protocol for enjoying mass entertainment that coincides with massive death? Emmerich is usually very good about his disaster sequences to keep his focal point at long distance angles, both so that the audience can get a full vision of the mayhem and also to make sure that we cannot concentrate on the little people fruitlessly scurrying away for their lives. If you stop and think, practically every second of on screen destruction in 2012 involves thousands of nameless, faceless people dying horribly, and these are the big moments when the audience chows down on greasy fistfuls of popcorn. It reminded me somewhat when the news kept repeating the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers as pieces for their 9/11 segments, and I’d stop and think, “You know, you just paused an image and in that image is the reality that hundreds of people are dying.” It’s a strange thing to contemplate, which is probably why Emmerich overloads your senses with (safe distance) disaster carnage. There is an image that does cross a line, where we witness office building workers tumbling out of the crumbling high rise. That’s one 9/11 image that’s just too distasteful even for a disaster flick.

Naturally the reason to see these kinds of movies is the big bangs for your bucks, but what happens during the downtime? I was genuinely surprised how involved I became with the collection of characters. I’m not saying that this is deep, penetrating writing, but it’s easy to wring some pathos out of a story when you have one character after another delivering a teary “Goodbye, I always loved you” speech to their soon-to-be-dearly-departed relatives. I cared about these characters enough to wince when they began being picked off one-by-one when the script called for heroic sacrifice upon heroic sacrifice. Burrowed beneath the avalanche of special effects, like really really buried in there, is an interesting philosophical argument about how people would behave during the end of the world. Would they be selfless or selfish? Would they step on their neighbor’s neck for another minute of life or would people sacrifice? Personally, I’m a bit of a pessimist, but the debate is intriguing. I also thought that 2012 had a vital conversation about who exactly gets to survive. In the story, a seat on the super arks are a billions Euros, which gives the insanely rich a huge advantage, but it’s because of the insanely rich private sector that the world’s governments are able to build these massive arks and plan for a future. So there you have it: a future world with the likes of billionaires and politicians. Who will get them all coffee? Who will pick up their dry cleaning? Who will take their calls? Is this even a world worth living in?

2012 is dopey and self-serious and way too long but man is it entertaining. The fabulous special effects are the real star of the movie, though the assorted cast does well. 2012 is deemed Emmerich’s last disaster picture, and if that holds true then he’s making sure there isn’t anything left to destroy. This is disaster pornography on a scale rarely seen in the movies. It deserves to be seen on the big screen for maximum enjoyment of maximum destruction.

Nate’s Grade: B

Year One (2009)

This is a slapdash comedy that?s too toothless to be satire and too dumb to be witty. Jack Black and Michael Cera play a pair of banished cavemen who stroll through various episodes from the Old Testament, like Cain and Abel and a circumcision-crazed Abraham, before settling in for a wild time at Sodom. This uninspired riff on the Bible rarely lands any laughs. The comedic aim of the film is extremely low; the scatological humor consists of farting peasants, bestiality, eating poop, urinating on your face, genital mutilation, and lots and lots of pedophilic jokes thanks to a grotesque, lispy Oliver Platt. Year One (of what exactly?) is a big step back for co-writer/director Harold Ramis and a general waste of everyone’s time and talent. Black and Cera do have an interesting and playful ying-yang chemistry but they have so little to do given the rambling, episodic nature of the plot. The characters make anachronistic pop culture references or talk in self-aware circles, the celebrity cameos do little, and the jokes lack any lasting momentum. Somewhere Ramis wants to make statements about religion and faith but the flick is too timid to do anything, so the movie limps to a finish with its lame “be your own chosen one” message. This is a prehistoric comedy with rocks in its head.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Ice Harvest (2005)

Imagine my surprise when I found out that a small crime novel I read years ago was getting the big Hollywood treatment. I read Scott Phillips’ The Ice Storm in one sitting back in 2003 during a plane trip from Ohio to San Diego. It was deliciously dark down to the very last page and I loved it, but then I am a sucker for a good crime story (check out Jason Starr’s Tough Luck and Hard Feelings if you are the same). The movie looked to be on the right track with names like John Cusack to star and Harold Ramis to direct. Ramis is responsible for starring, writing, or acting in or directing some of the most beloved comedies of the last 25 years including Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. That’s one illustrious comedic pedigree. So how could the movie go wrong?

It’s Christmas Eve and Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) is a self-loathing attorney that works for some of the shadiest folks in Wichita, Kansas. One of those bad customers is mob boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid) whom Charlie and his partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) have just swindled over $2 million from. Unfortunately for them, Wichita is hit by an ice storm that makes the roads haphazard to travel. The two will wait until the morning thaw and then hit the road with their booty. Vic reassures Charlie to just, “act normal.” This means many ventures to some of Wichita’s finest strip clubs with alluring names like Sweet Cage and Tease-O-Rama. Charlie has a sweet spot for Renatta (Connie Nielsen), a bombshell and the operator of the Sweet Cage. He’ll also have to drive his plastered friend Phil (Oliver Platt) around, who is regretting having married Charlie’s cold ex-wife. Charlie would love to sail off into the sunset with Renatta by his side but first he’ll have to survive the night and a mob enforcer (Mike Starr) is already on his trail.

The Ice Harvest feels like an episodic collection of ideas, too many of which have too little significance. The titular ice storm seems all but forgotten, only serving as a cheap plot device to keep our characters bottled up in the city. It has no bearing elsewhere on the plot. The reoccurring “As Wichita falls” passage has no payoff. The nosy police officer plotline looks like it might be building to something important but then is quickly disposed of. The Christmas setting has little impact except for giving the strippers something to complain about. The Ice Harvest wants to benefit from the juxtaposition of Christmas cheer with all these tawdry, violent asides and it just seems small and shallow. The movie also shifts the story’s time from 1979 to modern day one suspects just for the cheap out of cell phones.

Credit goes to Cusack for making his character as likable as he is. His character is a mob lawyer, a deadbeat dad, an increasingly drunk driver, and a man with his nose in whole lot of sleazy ventures, and yet you still pull for him to somehow succeed. Cusack, forever youthful, seems overly numb to all the horror around him and downplays the danger to a negative degree. Charlie seems like he’s in the wrong movie. Thornton plays yet another hedonistic louse and is quite good though not at his Bad Santa apex. He seems the most at ease with the physical comedy. Nielsen plays your typical femme fatale with a Veronica Lake haircut and breezy voice, which should both be instant red flags for students of film noir. The two men that steal the show are Platt and Quaid. Platt gives a brilliant uninhibited performance as quite possibly the drunkest man in movie history. Quaid is an honest surprise as a menacing mobster ruing the day he chose a criminal enterprise in Kansas. He chomps scenery with a violent exasperation that truly seems larger than life. This is a bad guy to fear and Quaid makes the most of his very limited screen time.

Ramis is out of his league here. The man cannot competently direct tension or action. Ramis doesn’t let the audience build suspicion because he’d much rather have characters just point-blank say, “Don’t trust this person” instead. He doesn’t give us time to piece clues of betrayal together so instead characters just keep running forward until they get smacked in the face by something made obvious. Ramis’ mishandling of tone really sinks the movie. The Ice Harvest doesn’t know whether it wants to be a thriller of a dark comedy and therefore just really sputters at both. The comedic elements and the thriller elements butt heads; because of the comedy the character never feel in danger, and because of the thriller/noir elements the characters and their situations never really seem funny. The Ice Harvest turns into some kind of two-headed beast that snaps at itself. I think maybe Ramis was watching Blood Simple and taking notes and then he accidentally taped over it with a Charles in Charge marathon and was at a loss.

Part of this problem is that the screenwriters don’t fully commit to the nastiness. Phillips’ novel is unrelentingly dark, cynical, and unsentimental and doesn’t give a damn if you like its characters. The movie, on the other hand, wants to get its hands dirty but is more interested in playing it safe. The film seriously reminded me of last year’s Surviving Christmas, another movie that wanted to be sweet and nasty and wound up just being really bad. You can feel The Ice Harvest reeling back several times to set up Charlie as a likable lad in over his head, going so far as a slightly contrived yet predictable finale. At least Bad Santa had the gusto to approach a happy ending on its own crude, unsentimental terms. Ramis needs to stick to broad comedies and leave the bleak neo-noir humor to the Coen brothers.

There are some plot elements from the book that just don?t work with this half-hearted adaptation. (Spoilers to follow for paragraph) At the very end of the movie Charlie has left the city with all the money and stops along the road to help a stalled camper. In the book, the camper backs up over him and kills him, thus ending with the ringing endorsement that crime doesn’t pay. It made sense, especially for a book that was dark to the very end. In the movie, the camper backs up and knocks him to the ground but doesn’t run him over. Charlie dusts himself off and that’s that. The scene feels pointless without fulfilling the end of the book. It doesn’t provide any last-second tension. Charlie just hops back in his car, dear hung over Phil pops up, and the two are set for one most excellent adventure. Unearned and misplaced happy ending? No thank you.

The Ice Harvest is only a mere 88 minutes long and yet the film still feels padded and draggy. The drunken Oliver Platt-heavy middle is a generously paced muddle, and though it’s rather funny it’s also rather extraneous. The Ice Harvest is really a handful of great moments that don?t add up to a satisfying whole. The movie is really episodic and too many of those episodes have little bearing on the plot. Character betrayals are spelled out to us and Ramis seems to lose interest in his own film as it slides further and further into dangerous territory. The Ice Harvest can’t commit to whatever it wants to be and the audience is the one to suffer. Read the book instead. It’s only 224 pages.

Nate’s Grade: C

Kinsey (2004)

Bill Condon’s probing, fascinating biopic of Indiana University sex pioneer Kinsey (Liam Neeson) could not come out at a more important time. Kinsey lived in the Dark Ages of sexuality and fought against what he saw as “morality disguised as fact.” Kinsey broke barriers studying the science of sexuality and gathered nationwide statements to amass the first thorough book on what’s under the sun and what’s going on under the sheets. Today, we live in a splintered world where people listen to information that affirms their beliefs, and tune out contradictory evidence even if it’s fact (look at the latest report on abstinence-only programs dishing out highly erroneous information). Kinsey railed against this dangerous line of thinking. The man was no saint and had issue comprehending some of the more complicated human emotions. Kinsey is exceptionally well acted and Neeson gives a career best performance. Kinsey is fearlessly graphic in its frank discussion but also enormously intelligent. The fact that conservative groups are actually protesting it shows that Kinsey’s work is far from over.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Pieces of April (2003)

The set-up for Pieces of April, a low-budget film starring Katie Holmes, is a pastiche of familiar independent film elements so much so that it could across as parody. Holmes plays April Burns, a beleaguered teen living on her own in a grungy New York apartment. Today is Thanksgiving and her family will be stopping by for a grand Thanksgiving meal prepared by April. Her cantankerous mother (Patricia Clarkson) is ailing from breast cancer, and when she tries to think of one good memory she’s had with April, she can only conjure memories belonging to younger daughter Beth (Alison Pill). She also will be introducing her family to her new boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke of Antoine Fisher). April has 24 hours to cook a memorable meal for her family and it could be the last Thanksgiving they spend together.

In the world of independent film, it seems like there’s a whole sub-genre of movies that revolve around chaotic Thanksgiving dinners and dysfunctional families. The holiday setting, her mother’s cancer, April’’s spirited attempts at autonomy in the big city, interracial dating and an apartment complex full of cute oddballs all seem like tried-and-true staples of indie film.

Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges, writer of What’’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and co-writer of About a Boy. His pedigree would certainly state that he knows something about family drama, and Pieces of April is a nice continuation of his observational humor. Hedges has a skilled confidence in his writing. The characters feel real and we gravitate to their vulnerability and hope. We see every sincere detail of April’s plight to make her family proud. The choice to shoot Pieces of April on digital video adds an extra element of intimacy, like we’re trapped inside a home video.

Holmes gives her best performance to date. April, with patches of bright orange hair and arms enclosed with bracelets, is a sweetly vibrant character. When a neighbor asks about her relationship with her mother, April describes herself as the first pancake. “She’’s the one you’’re supposed to throw out,” another neighbor explains. Holmes’’ performance is like a slow simmer of frustration, optimism and determination that wins your heart. Her more dramatic moments of helplessness and disappointment are quite affecting.

The supporting cast for Pieces of April is top-notch. Clarkson gets some weighty moments as the ailing mother, like when she runs out of the car in tears because she can’t afford one more bad memory with April. She gets the showy part but enlivens every moment. Oliver Platt further feeds my theory of his quest to be in every movie ever. In Pieces of April he plays the put-upon father who frets his wife could pass any moment. Pill shines as the hyperactively cheerful and overachieving Beth. Her cherubic cheeks and glowing smile leave an indelible impression, and makes me question if her face ever got sore from excessive smiling.

Pieces of April is a pleasurable little comedy that’s borderline touching. It’’s not much more than a small slice of family drama, but with excellent writing and strong acting, Pieces of April distinguishes itself as more than a collection of familiar staples, and as a warm and quietly charming homespun comedy with an extra helping of heart.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Bicentennial Man (1999)

I shed a tear for what the great comedian Robin Williams has become. Once the quickest and sharpest of minds just cascading with outrageous and fanciful wit has been turned into the holiday gift-giver of schmaltzy pull-from-the-heartstrings sap.

The story of Bicentennial Man is set in the not-too-distant future, so not-too-distant that it looks like it’s just next week – with the addition of flying cars. The future seems to lack outbursts, crime, and even minorities. Seems like not everyone has a future I guess. In this world of marvels you can buy a shiny metal man for your home life and/or atrociously neglectful parenting needs. Enter walking trash receptical robo-Robin as Sam Niell’s family nanny and solution for not getting his children a dog. Through the 200 years robo-Robin learns to laugh, and love, and what the true meaning of humanity is and heart. Put some scrubs on him and this entire thing is basically Patch Adams in Space.

As the film lags on it grows increasingly more annoying until the point where it might cause audiences to bleed from the ears. If you thought a dentist appointment was painful just wait until the euthanasia comedy kicks in here.

Williams yet again throws on his usual holiday blubbery dough eyes and message of good will. But this time the pill is much harder to swallow, especially coming from an actor encased in silver foam rubber. The movie aims for a deep message of what makes us human, but comes away more likely with the message of “Wait an hour for Williams to get this crap off then do his schtick.” If you’re trying to find out what makes people human, it certainly ain’t this flick. Williams has such unparalleled comic ability that one wonders why he is wasting his time on sappy films like these when he needs to flee back to his zany comedic roots. Anyone could be a robot in this, judging from the acting for a start, but no one can do the things Williams does – and that’s why his uniqueness is being utterly wasted.

The real heart breaker isn’t in this movie, it’s seeing Robin Williams fade into mediocrity and seem content with it.

Nate’s Grade: D

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