The Whale (2022)
Much has been written about Brendan Fraser’s comeback role and the mountain of prosthetics he was buried under to portray a self-loathing 600-pound man in director Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. The concern was that the movie would stigmatize overweight people as disgusting and treat fatness like a moral indictment, condemning their lifestyles as slovenly and doomed to misery. I watched the film ready to cringe at a moment’s notice with the hyped portrayal that earned such livid and divisive reactions. I found The Whale to be deeply empathetic but I’m uncertain about whether or not it was fully compassionate, and it’s that artistic distinction that I’m trying to square as I analyze Aronofsky’s melodramatic yet flawed character study.
Charlie (Fraser) is a morbidly obese English teacher who keeps his camera off during his online classes. The closest relationships he has is with his nurse, Liz (Hong Chau), who checks on him regularly with alarm and concern, as she’s also the sister of Charlie’s deceased partner. The movie chronicles one eventful week in Charlie’s life as he tries to make the most of his dwindling time and reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).
For me, Charlie is less a clinical case of what being morbidly obese can do to a person and he’s more a case study of self-destruction. In 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, Nicholas Cage won an Oscar playing a man determined to drink himself to death over the course of one eventful weekend in Vegas, and I saw more parallels with his character and Charlie, a man who turned to eating as his source of grief that then became his vehicle for self-destruction. The movie is not casting judgment that all fat people, even those approaching the size of Charlie, are destined for eternal loneliness or crying out for help. However, this specific man is using his increasing weight as a form of suicide. This facet makes Charlie interesting but also increasingly confounding as well. He seems genuinely remorseful about the time he’s missed from his now-teen daughter’s life. He’s saved up his life’s money and plans to give it to her, but I kept wondering why, exactly, he had to die for this? He won’t take care of himself because any medical cost could take away from the handsome sum he plans to leave, in full, to Ellie. He apologizes for being absent but seems unable to see an alternative where he can be present. After so many years apart, maybe she would actually prefer having her dad back in her life? Charlie stubbornly holds to an all-or-nothing ideal, like some kind of fumbling romantic gesture, but he doesn’t have to die for his daughter to live her best life. She doesn’t even get a say. It’s his inability to see through this false choice he’s determined is the best outcome that makes the character frustrating. He only views his death, and I’m sure the insurance to go with it, as his biggest reward that he can offer his estranged daughter, and that makes it even more frustrating at the very end, where he’s trying to prove something to her but is also likely traumatizing her for life. That love he proclaims so readily for his daughter seems questionable when he prefers a misguidedly noble demise to getting to know her and allowing her to choose for herself. The character seems so frustratingly myopic about his own life and its value only being its end.
Complicating this matter is the reality that Ellie is, quite clearly, a horrible person. She’s angry at the world and trained her ire on her absentee father, who she believes left her and her mom to pursue an illicit affair with one of his male students (the reality is a bit more complicated). She is well and truly awful. Ellie insults her father repeatedly. She yells that she wants him to die and that she would be better off. She agrees to spend time with him for a hefty price. She even takes pictures of him and posts them online for social media derision. She’s detestable, and yet the screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter (Baskets), adapted from his play, wants me to yearn for a hopeful father/daughter reconciliation. There isn’t a hidden pool of depth with this character, a brilliance that we know just needs to be nurtured and that Ellie can tap back into. She’s just the unrepentant worst. I think The Whale errs by placing so much of its dramatic foundation on this pairing. It made me question why this man is literally killing himself for this bratty teen. The late reveal for Charlie’s essay that he often quotes like a religious mantra is obvious and still doesn’t open up Ellie as a character. There’s a brief tear-stricken moment at the end that I guess is meant to represent Ellie with her guard down, but I didn’t buy it, and I found her to be a thinly written archetype that is unwinnable. She’s more of a plot device to motivate a redemption arc. Maybe the point is she’s undeserving of her father’s graceful overtures but I guess that’s parenting, folks.
Charlie says he’s always been a bigger guy but his weight got away from him after the loss of his partner, and it’s this unfathomable grief that caused Charlie to go on feeding binges. He sought comfort in the immediate appeal of food, and plenty of people can relate to stress eating or eating their feelings when times are turbulent. I don’t think the movie is setting Charlie up as a cautionary tale to avoid. Charlie’s grief is tied to religious intolerance and its own trauma. He opened himself to another person and then had his new sliver of happiness dashed away directly related to a religious intolerant mindset that his partner was unable to break free from. He’s a victim who saw no way out including a heavenly reward supposedly denied to him. It’s not this dead man’s fault that he was raised in a diseased environment that viewed his own identity as an illness, and it’s not worth blaming this man for being unable to break free from this mentality. It’s the intolerance that has contributed to Charlie’s weight gain and his fatalistic sense of self. Heartbroken, Charlie has retreated from the world, and it’s the guise of spiritual salvation that proves alluring to the determined young missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins, Jurassic World). He sees the flesh as the prison for the soul, and he tries to sell Charlie on a salvation that asserts itself as liberation from his body, which the young man views with horror. Charlie doesn’t want the spiritual guidance, especially from the same community that poisoned the mind of his late partner. Like the Ellie character, I don’t think we gain much with this storyline and the amount of time that the screenplay gives Thomas. I guess we’re meant to see him as another wayward soul trying to live authentically, but he’s another underwritten archetype given misplaced emphasis.
The best reason to sit through The Whale are the performances from Fraser and Chau. We’ve never seen Fraser in a movie quite like this, a man best known for broad slapstick comedies (George of the Jungle, Furry Vengeance) or dashing action-adventure movies (The Mummy films), and he’s great. His performance is less mannered than you would assume for an actor undergoing such a physical transformation. In fact, his vocal range makes Charlie often sound anesthetized, like he’s already given up moving out of a comfortable yet limited range of emotional output. It’s kind of heartbreaking but he’s also got a gentle heart that chooses to see the best in people, even when they might not be there. Fraser is compelling in every moment and disappears into the role of Charlie. His best scene partner is Chau (The Menu), and the movie is at its best when they’re sharing the screen. Liz is the closest friend Charlie has, and they have a shared special kind of pain relating to the loss of Liz’s brother. She’s also enabling his self-destructive impulses and is devastated that Charlie is accepting a doomed fate rather than letting her take him to a costly hospital. Chau is heartbreaking as you feel her fear and guilt, afraid of losing another person so dear to her but also severing another connection to her brother.
The Whale is an experience that makes me wonder about its best artistic intentions. Even the title of the movie feels like a glancing blow; what other analogy are you supposed to make other than Charlie as our very own Moby Dick? The critical essay he keeps reciting takes a sympathetic view of the marine animal and posits the fruitless efforts of those who wish to cruelly hunt it down and how this will not provide personal fulfillment (it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who represents who in this dramatic dynamic). It’s also the least distinguishable Aronofsky film of his provocative career, confined to a single location and devoid of the director’s usual vision and verve. It feels like a challenge in restraint for Aronofsky, almost like he’s approaching theater and just wanting to get transfixed by the dramatic surges of the actor’s interactions. I found the central character to be interesting but confounding, not that human beings are ever so clearly understandable in every facet of their being. I don’t think the supporting characters really added much, with the exception of Hong Chau, and I wish the daughter plot had been scrapped. But if you’re sitting down to watch The Whale, you’re doing so to experience Fraser’s career-best performance where he reveals layers to his acting that you never knew were possible. He can still lean into his innate generous spirit and charm to get you to root for Charlie to find some peace. For Fraser alone, The Whale is worth watching and might open some hearts.
Nate’s Grade: B-
All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)
The surprise surge of the Oscar season is a German-language remake of the 1929 Best Picture winner, and after watching all 140 minutes, it’s easy to see how it would have made such an impact with modern Academy voters. All Quiet on the Western Front is still a relevant story even more than 100 years after its events. It’s a shattering anti-war movie that continuously and furiously reminds you what a terrible waste of life that four-year battle over meters of territory turned out to be, claiming over 17 million casualties. I’ve read the 1928 German novel by Erich Remarque and the new movie is faithful in spirit and still breathes new life into an old story. We follow idealistic young men eager to experience the glory of war and quickly learn that the horror of modern combat isn’t so glorious. There are sequences in this movie that are stunning, like following the history of a coat from being lifted off a dead soldier in the muck, to being reworked at a seamstress station, to being commissioned to a new recruit who questions why someone else’s name is in his jacket. It’s a simple yet evocative moment that sells the despairing reality. The movie doesn’t skimp on carnage as well, as long stretches will often play out like a horror movie where you’ll fear the monsters awaiting in the smoke and that nowhere is safe for long. And yet, where the movie hits the hardest isn’t depicting the trenchant terror but with the little pieces of humanity that shine through the darkness. There’s a small moment in a crater shared by two enemies where one of them is dying, and these final moments of recognizing the same beleaguered helpless and frightened humanity of “their enemy” are poignant. Make no mistake, All Quiet is a condemnation on the systems of war where old pompous generals send young men to needlessly die for outdated and absurd reasons like the concept of “maintaining national honor.” A significant new subplot involves Daniel Bruhl (Captain America: Civil War) as a representative of the German government trying to negotiate an armistice when the French representatives are looking for punishment. It allows us to take a larger view of the politics that doomed so many and laying the foundation for so many more doomed lives. The ending of this movie is a nihilist gut punch. The production values are impressive and elevate the artistry of every moment. The sound design is terrific, the cinematography is alternatingly beautiful and horrifying, and the production design is startlingly detailed and authentic; it’s easy to see how this movie could have earned nine Oscar nominations. All Quiet on the Western Front is a warning, a eulogy, and a powerful reminder that even older stories can still be relevant and resonant.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Argentina 1985 (2022)
How does one adjudicate a country’s own nightmare and find justice? That was the situation Argentina found itself in after returning to a democratic state following seven years under a military junta that kidnapped, tortured, interrogated, and killed thousands of its own citizens in the guise of “stopping radical communists.” Argentina 1985 gives you its setting in the title but it’s really about the chief prosecutor (Ricardo Darin) trying to hold the top generals accountable for their crimes against humanity. There is a lot riding on this case and plenty going against him, including near-constant death threats for he and his supportive family. There are some very harrowing personal accounts in the movie, but it’s set up almost like an underdog courtroom drama conceived by Aaron Sorkin, and much is made about putting together the young hotshot team and seizing the day. The movie is swiftly paced for being over two hours and has notable comic relief to keep things from getting too overwhelmingly gloomy given the subject matter. However, Argentina 1985 never loses its focus on making the powerful account for their sins. It’s a rousing courtroom drama with piercing details, engrossing human stories, and the temerity of history. In the light of rising authoritarian movements around the world and even in the U.S., this movie has even more urgent political relevancy about making sure the crimes of government officials are accounted for and that justice is served. It’s a testament to the heroism of everyday citizens and it makes for an invigorating drama that doesn’t lose sight of the big picture amidst the plethora of procedural details.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Hours (2002) [Review Re-View]
Originally released December 25, 2002:
Okay, after watching the Golden Globes award show and seeing The Hours crowned with the highest prize, and hearing incessantly about Nicole Kidman’’s fake prosthetic nose in the movie, it was time to venture into that darkened theater and see how good the awards-friendly The Hours was. Little did I fully realize what I was getting myself into.
Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf, who is in the midst of writing her novel Mrs. Dalloway, where she proposes to display a woman’s entire life through the events of a single day. Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown, a housewife in 1951 having difficulty adjusting to a domestic life that she feels ill equipped for. Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughan, a gay copy-editor in 2001 planning a party for a poet and former lover (an emaciated Ed Harris), who is suffering from the late stages of AIDS. These three storylines will be juggled as the film progresses, with each woman’s life deeply changing before the end of the day.
The Hours is a meandering mess where the jigsaw pieces can be easily identified. The attempt at a resolution for an ending, tying the three storylines together, is handled very clumsily. The film spins on and on that you start to believe the title may be more appropriate than intended. What this movie needed was a rappin’ kangaroo, post haste! The film is wrought with victimization and screams “Give me an award already!” Before you know it you’’re being bludgeoned to death with what is profoundly the most over serious Lifetime network movie ever assembled. And there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Lifetime movies but The Hours does not share the sensibilities of its TV brethren.
Kidman, nose and all, gives a strong performance displaying the torture and frailty of a writer trapped within her own mind but too often relies on wistful staring or icy glares. Moore is effectively demoralized but cannot resonate with such a shallow character. Streep is the least effective of the three and fizzles among an over-stuffed assembly of characters.
The supporting cast is unjustly left for dead. The characters are seen as parody (Toni Collette as Moore’s un-liberated homemaker neighbor), extraneous (Claire Danes as Streep’s daughter, Allison Janney as Streep’s lover, Jeff Daniels as Harris’ ex-lover, you know what, almost anyone in the Streep storyline), one-note (the workmanlike John C. Reilly who plays yet another doting and demystified husband) or merely obnoxious (Moore’s brat child that refuses to separate from her). It appears The Hours is the three lead actress’ game and everyone else is not invited to play along.
Stephen Daldry’s direction shows surprising stability and instinct after his art-house pandering Billy Elliot showed little. The technical aspects of ‘lThe Hours are quite competent, especially the sharp editing and musical score, which just points out further how slickly hollow and manufactured the film is.
The Hours is an over-glossed, morose film that is too self-important for its own good. It sucks the life out of everything. And for all its doom and gloom and tsunami of tears, the only insightful thing The Hours is trying to pass off onto the public is that women are more depressed than you think.
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS
I thought 2002’s The Hours would be a good movie to come back to not necessarily because I thought it would be revelatory but because I thought it may have been emblematic of my more dismissive, glib attitude when I was a twenty-year-old smart alack getting published in his college newspaper and considering myself a hotshot wordsmith. I was worried that my initial review would come across as snide and condescending considering the subject matter. I dubbed it the “most over serious Lifetime network movie ever assembled” and yet, twenty years later, after having devoted two more hours watching The Hours, I must say that this comment still holds merit.
I was fully ready to disavow my younger self as being unkind to this movie, or being too quick to dismiss a movie about women’s suffering through three generations, especially as a young man trying to be clever and, by early 2000s standards, snarky and cynical. Well, even in 2022, I still dislike The Hours, and it’s because of how overwrought everything comes across in this movie. This movie is overstuffed with the trapping of importance, and the 1950s section featuring Julianne Moore as an unhappy housewife stifling her desires (not to be confused with her 1950s unhappy housewife also stifling her desires in 2002’s Far From Heaven) is played to the point that it could be self-parody. That’s not the kind of artistic approach you’d think you would want in something so transparently desirous of special award consideration. For me, it was unmistakable even early on, and the heightened melodramatic atmosphere made me, at several points, almost want to giggle at how obvious and cloying and annoyingly reaching each moment came across. There is no subtlety to be had with The Hours, and that’s fine, but there is also no real striking substance beyond a few transitory moments of grace that stand out. The Moore segment has her drifting through the day like a zombie and almost on the verge of tears at every single turn. I felt sorry for Moore, who is coasting on emotional instinct as the character she’s been given is, at best, meant to be a symbolic placeholder of millions of women of her era. Her interaction with her son makes her sound like a deranged android grasping for human behavior. The moment where they sift flour together and claim it’s beautiful was just so stupifying. It’s amazing to me that Moore was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this role. She’s also the example of the kind of woman that Woolf was writing about with her titular Mrs. Dalloway heroine, but without Woolf explicitly commenting, the entire 1950s segment is one big airless melodrama, meant as a misdirect of the movie’s miserablist obsession with suicide. By the time old lady Julianne Moore shows up to unload a hasty monologue explaining decades of unknown drama, you may have decided that the three stories could have been two (or one).
Each of the three plot segments is intended to better inform the other, to coalesce into a thesis statement on the plight of women, except each storyline is so thinly written. Without the others to provide direct companionship, each one of these storylines would be pitifully minimal and fail to evolve the notions of feminine hardship. Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is sad because she feels stifled by the country and doctors who are trying to improve her mental health. Laura Brown (Moore) feels stifled because she is a cloested lesbian pretending to be a happy and doting housewife to her oblivious husband (John C. Reilly, not to be confused with his other oblivious husband in 2002’s Chicago). And Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is sad because one of her closest friends (Ed Harris) is dying from AIDS. That’s it. Each of the three timelines is threaded together for the intention of greater relevance, but what it really does is put the onus on the viewer to find more relevancy in context. Sometimes the three women will be doing the same actions, sometimes one will make a comment that seems to be answered by another, and sometimes they’ll inadvertently quote one another or Woolf’s novel. Except the connections and layers are superficial and clinging to an obvious thesis and biding its overlong time for absent depth.
Much of the early publicity around The Hours circulated around Kidman’s fake nose, which producer Harvey Weinstein hated (he also hated the score by Phillip Glass that would later be nominated for an Academy Award) but Kidman absolutely loved. During the time of production, she was divorcing Tom Cruise and was a tabloid magnet but the prosthetic nose allowed her a degree of refreshing anonymity with the paparazzi. She kept the nose on for the entire movie. I’ve been more critical of Kidman’s since her early 2000s career summit (Moulin Rouge, The Others, The Hours), but she legitimately is good in this and has more spark and reserved melancholy than she’s shown in numerous latter roles. Whether she deserved the Best Actress Oscar over the likes of Diane Lane (Unfaithful), Salma Hayek (Frida), Renee Zellweger (Chicago), and Moore (Far From Heaven), is another question I think I already know the answer to, but it allowed every single critic and would-be Oscar historian to use the same hacky joke: “she won by a nose.”
This cast is stacked to the point that even small parts are played by great actors. On top of the big three you’ve got Harris and Reilly, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Margo Martindale, Eileen Atkins, Allison Janney, Miranda Richardson, and Jeff Daniels. It’s an embarrassment of acting riches, which makes it all the more disappointing when they are kept strictly as archetypes and stereotypes.
Director Stephen Daldry is a complete mystery to me. His first three directing features earned him three Oscar nominations for Best Director (2000’s Billy Elliot, The Hours, 2008’s The Reader). I thought The Reader was horribly misguided but it led to Kate Winslet winning her first Oscar, and I thought his follow-up, 2011’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was also horribly misguided and was still nominated for Best Picture. I don’t understand the adulation.
In my original review, I concluded by saying, “The Hours is an over-glossed, morose film that is too self-important for its own good. It sucks the life out of everything. And for all its doom and gloom and tsunami of tears, the only insightful thing The Hours is trying to pass off onto the public is that women are more depressed than you think.” I thought re-evaluating the movie twenty years later would prove more insightful and perhaps prove my younger self wrong, but the me of the year 2022 was the one in the wrong. I agree that its central thesis is relevant, but having three underwritten stories of sorrow stacked atop each other and expecting poetry is asking a lot. I wish this movie was indeed better but it’s prime early 2000s overwrought Oscar bait.
Re-View Grade: C
Gangs of New York (2002) [Review Re-View]
Originally released December 20, 2002:
Watching Martin Scorsese’s long-in-the-making Gangs of New York is like watching a 12-round bout between two weary and staggering prize fighters. You witness the onslaught of blows, see the momentum change several times, and in the end can’t really tell which fighter is victorious. This is the experience of watching Gangs of New York, and the two fighters are called “Ambitions” and “Flaws.”
The film begins in the Five Points district of 1840s New York among a vivid gang war over turf. Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) witnesses the slaying of his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), at the blade of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his “Native” Americans gang. So what does this son of a dead preacher-man do? Well he grows up, plots revenge by making a name under the wing of the Butcher becoming like a surrogate son. But will vengeance consume him?
Watch Leo DiCaprio assemble toughs, rake heels, and ne’er do wells to his Irish gang of rapscallions with facial hair that looks to be tweezed! Witness a one-dimensional Leo suck the life out of the film like a black hole! See Leo become the least frightening gangster since Fredo. Watch the horribly miscast Cameron Diaz play pin-the-tail-on-an-accent! Witness as she tries to play a pickpocket with a heart of gold that falls hopelessly and illogically in love with Leo! Marvel how someone looking like Diaz would exist in a mangy slum! See the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis upstage our stupid hero and steal every scene he inhabits! Witness one of the greatest villains in the last decade of movies! Watch Day-Lewis almost single-handedly compensate for the film’s flaws with his virtuoso performance! Admire his stove-top hat and handlebar mustache!
Witness a wonderful supporting cast including John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson! Wish that they had more screen time to work with! Wonder to yourself why in all good graces this film took nearly two years of delays to get out! Speculate away!
Gangs has the sharp aroma of a film heavily interfered with by its producers. The whole exercise feels like Scorsese being compromised. Gangs is a meticulous recreation of 1860s New York that often evokes an epic sense of awe. The story has more resonance when it flashes to small yet tasty historical asides, like the dueling fire houses and the Draft Riots. But all of these interesting tidbits get pushed aside for our pedantic revenge storyline with Leo front and center. You know the producers wanted a more commercial storyline, which probably explains why Diaz has anything to do with this.
The script is credited to longtime Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks, Steven Zallian (Academy Award winner for Schindler’’s List) and Kenneth Lonergan (Academy award nominee for You Can Count on Me). So with all these writing credentials, don’t you think one of them would realize all of the dumb things going on with the story? The ending is also very anticlimactic and ham-fisted. Just watch as we segue from a graveyard to present day New York, all thanks to the Irish rockers of U2!
I know this much, Day-Lewis needs to stop cobbling shoes and act more often. Gangs is his first visit to the big screen since 1997’’s The Boxer. He spent part of this hiatus in Italy actually making shoes. I don’’t know about everyone else but this man has too much talent to only be acting once every five years. Somebody buy his shoes and get him a script, post haste!
Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is at times sprawling with entertainment in its historic vision and at other times is infuriating, always dragging behind it a ball and chain called “stupid revenge story/love story.” I’’m sure the film will get plenty of awards and Oscar nods in prominent categories, and this seems like the Academy’’s familiar plan: ignore a brilliant artist for the majority of their career and then finally reward them late for one of their lesser films. So here’’s hoping Scorsese wins the Oscar he deserved for Raging Bull and Goodfellas.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS
It is rare to find a movie that is almost exact in its percentage of good aspects and poor aspects. This 50/50 balance is best exemplified by 2002’s Gangs of New York. The ten-time Oscar nominated movie (and zero-time winner) was intended to be director Martin Scorsese’s epic, and twenty years later it’s still his biggest movie in size. Scorsese waited twenty years to tell this sprawling story of New York City’s early criminal underworld, so at 160 unwieldy minutes it’s no surprise how overstuffed and unfocused the finished product ended up. It’s a movie with so many engrossing historical anecdotes, amazing texture and supporting actors, and a stunning return to upper-tier acting by Daniel Day-Lewis, and yet it is hampered by Leonardo DiCaprio’s lackluster storylines, both for vengeance and for love (maybe a love of vengeance?). It’s so bizarre to watch this movie because there can be sequences where the movie just excels, and then there are sequences where I just want to sigh deeply. It’s like the movie is in conflict with itself, and you, the viewer, are ultimately the frustrated victim.
Let’s focus on the good first. Day-Lewis had essentially retired from acting and went to work in Italy as a cobbler until Scorsese appealed to him to reconsider acting. Every second this man is onscreen deserves your utmost attention. DiCaprio was the advertised star of the movie but Day-Lewis was the real star. The movie is almost a Trojan horse of sorts, luring you in with a standard revenge plot line only for you to lose all interest and root for the charismatic villain. Day-Lewis is so enthralling, so commanding as Bill the Butcher that every moment he is absent feels like an eternity. He remained in character for the duration of the shoot, spooking waitresses, and learned how to throw knives from circus performers and how to cut meat from an actual butcher. Considering the man’s famous Method-acting approach, I wonder just how many skills Day-Lewis has acquired over decades. This man could be the living embodiment of Michelle Yeoh’s character in Everything Everywhere All at Once, able to, at a moment’s notice, tap into a uniquely honed skill-set upon need. I wish that itself was a movie; Day-Lewis filming a role when terrorists invade the set, and now he has to utilize every lesson and skill of his past acting roles to defeat the baddies and save the day. He may be the most interesting man in the world. Since Gangs, Day-Lewis has only appeared in five other movies, and amazingly he has been nominated for Best Actor three times, winning twice (that averages an Oscar every 2.5 movie roles). This man has become like an acting Halley’s Comet, waiting for him to swing around again and burn brightly and then, just as suddenly, pass back into the lengthy waiting period.
I loved the historical asides in this movie. I loved the scene showing, in one unbroken take, Irish immigrants stepping off the boat into New York harbor and getting immediately signed into service, given a rifle and uniform, and lined up to board another boat to fight the Confederacy. I loved the entire character of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and how transparently corrupt he is, reminding me of Claude Rains in Casablanca. I loved him competing with the dozens of other firefighting units squabbling over turf while a house burned down to cinders. I loved him scrambling for some entertainment for the masses, and he asks Bill to gather up four nobodies that they can publicly hang, and then we cut right to these relatively innocent men saying their last words before being hanged, including one man’s young son watching. It’s an incredible sequence. The culmination of the 1863 Draft Riots is terrific and maximizes the messy nature of the movie best, communicating the many breaking points that lead to this notorious riot. The opening of this movie is wonderful and a terrific mood setter as we watch the members of the Dead Rabbits assemble for battle, with the rattling percussive score by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings), finally breaking outdoors and watching gangs advance like armies. I loved the narrated history of the different gangs settled in New York and their peculiarities and fixations. I loved the before and after stories of Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), who settled as a corrupt police officer, and Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a mercenary who tries to go straight through, of all things, politics. I loved that the movie reminds us that just because these people reside in the North doesn’t stop them from being racist (an archbishop is especially aghast at a black man being allowed in his church). I loved the occasional P.T. Barnum appearance. I loved the proliferation of so many tall hats amidst all the handlebar mustache-twirling villainy. I loved when the movie felt like a living documentary, soaking up the richness of the recreated history.
Where the movie sputters is with just about all that involves DiCaprio’s character, Amsterdam. The revenge storyline is just so boring compared to everything else going on, enough so that I think even the movie forgets about it. Amsterdam becomes Bill’s budding protege and literally saves his life at several points (if your goal is for him to die, why save the man?). He’s such a boring character because all he thinks about is vengeance, so every relationship he builds is only about how much closer to achieving his goal he can be. Amsterdam is a thoroughly dull character, and DiCaprio doesn’t come across as a credible tough guy yet, especially diminished in the large shadow from Day-Lewis’s Butcher. It wasn’t until 2006’s The Departed where I felt like he shed his boyishness fully to play a credible adult man. DiCaprio has been great with Scorsese, and this movie was the start of a decade of collaborations (four movies, two Oscar nominations), but he feels miscast here as a brooding hero given inordinate attention.
Worse is the romance with a pick-pocket prostitute played by Cameron Diaz. I pity Diaz. She’s been given the spunky love interest role in the Oscar-bait movie, which is generally underwritten and only viewed as aiding the hero’s journey of our male lead or being the offramp not taken (“Don’ get y’er refenge, Amsti’dam, ‘stead come wit me to San Fran in Calyfer’nia”). This is not a good character and she’s meant to give voice to the female underclass perspective, so it’s even more irksome when her headstrong, defiant nature gets sublimated as a rote romantic option. Diaz is also woefully miscast and my 2002 quip of her playing “pin-the-tail-on-the-accent” is accurate. I might argue that maybe dramas aren’t her strong suit, but she was great in Being John Malkovich and In Her Shoes and The Holiday, though all of those had notable comedy elements. She has the ability but this might just have been too unfamiliar for her, and so she struggles throughout with a character defined by her sexual connections to the villain and the hero.
While these characters and the performances are the biggest misses in Gangs of New York, there are other misguided or poor elements adding to that 50/50 margin. The opening sequence is great until the actual gang warfare begins and you realize that Scorsese, arguably the greatest living American director, cannot direct action to save his life. The action is choppy and lacking any of the kinetic qualities we associate with most Scorsese movies. Not even the talents of editor Thelma Schoonmaker can help save this deficit. The movie’s overall scattershot nature also makes it rather uneven and difficult to build momentum. The ending plays out like a footnote to the Draft Riots and robs the viewer of whatever catharsis could be granted from the long vengeance plot. If the whole movie has been leading up to Amsterdam’s vengeance, well robbing him of it could be meaningful, if the self-destructive nature of vengeance had been a theme. It’s not like Amsterdam has suffered at all, beyond the occasional stab wound or black eye, so him learning a lesson about the futility of vengeance would seem inappropriate and trite. I also want it known for posterity that there is an un-credited actor listed online as playing “Hot Corn Girl.”
Twenty years later, Gangs of New York is still a frustrating and sometimes exhilarating viewing. It began a road for Scorsese that led to him finally winning his first, and still only, Oscar for directing The Departed. The sprawling nature of the movie is both a blessing and a hindrance. It allows for a wider scope and cast of characters but it also means that if you’re liking a subplot or a supporting character, you’ll have to wait your turn before they re-emerge. My old review back in 2002 perfectly sums up the majority of my feelings in 2022. There’s much to see and much to like with Gangs of New York but also too much to restrain its potential greatness.
Re-View Grade: C+
Glass Onion (2022)
When writer/director Rian Johnson wanted to take a breather after his polarizing Star Wars movie, he tried his hand at updating the dusty-old Agatha Christie mystery genre, and in doing so created a highly-acclaimed and high-grossing film franchise. The man was just trying to do something different and at a smaller-scale with 2019’s Knives Out, and then it hit big and Netflix agreed to pay $400 million dollars for exclusive rights to two sequels. Now as Johnson has reinvented his career as a mystery writer the big question is: can he pull it all off again?
Renowned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been invited to the world’s most exclusive dinner party. Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has invited all his closest friends to his Greek island soiree, setting up a murder mystery game his friends must spend the weekend solving. Except there are two interlopers: Andi Brand (Janelle Monae), the former partner of Miles who was betrayed by Miles and his cronies and… Benoit Blanc himself. Why was the detective invited to the murder dinner party unless someone planned on using it as an excuse to actually kill Miles?
Knives Out was a clever deconstruction of drawing room mysteries and did something remarkable, it told you who the murderer was early and changed the entire audience participation. Instead of intellectually trying to parse clues and narrow down the gallery of suspects, Johnson cast that aside and said it didn’t matter as much as your emotional investment for this character now trying to cover up her tracks while working alongside the “world’s greatest detective.” It made the movie so much more engaging and fun, and for his twisty efforts, Johnson was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Now, every viewer vested in this growing franchise is coming into Glass Onion with a level of expectations, looking for the twists, looking for the clever deconstruction, and this time It feels like Johnson is deconstructing the very concept of the genius iconoclast and including himself in the mix. The movie takes square aim at the wealthy and famous who subscribe to the idea of their deserved privilege, in particular quirky billionaires whose branding involves their innate genius (many have made quick connections to Elon Musk in particular). The movie’s first half is taken with whether or not Miles Bron’s murder mystery retreat will become a legitimate murder mystery, but by the midpoint realignment, Glass Onion switches into pinning down the bastard. It makes for a greatly satisfying conclusion as Blanc exposes the empty center of Miles’ calculated genius mystique.
As Blanc repeatedly says, the answers are hiding in plain sight, and this also speaks to Johnson’s meta-commentary of his own clever screenwriting. This is Johnson speaking to the audience that he cannot simply copy the formula of Knives Out. This is a bigger movie with more broadly written characters, but each one of them feels more integrated in the central mystery and given flamboyant distinction; it’s more like Clue than Christie. Through Miles’ influence, we have a neurotic politician (Kathryn Hahn), a block-headed streamer (Dave Bautista) pandering to fragile men on the Internet, a fashionista (Kate Hudson) who built an empire on sweatpants and has a habit of insensitive remarks, and a business exec (Leslie Odom Jr.) who admits to sitting on his hands until given orders from on high by Miles. All of these so-called friends are really bottom-feeders propped up by Miles’ money. It would have been easy to simply replay his old tricks, but Johnson takes the heightened atmosphere of the characters and plays with wilder plot elements of the mystery genre, such as identical twins and secret missions and celebrity cameos (R.I.P. two of them) and corporate espionage. The very Mona Lisa itself plays significantly into the plot (fun fact: Ms. Mona was not the universally revered epitome of art we know it to be until its 1911 theft). This is a bigger, broader movie but the larger stage suits Johnson just fine. He adjusts to his new setting, veers into wackier comedy bits with aplomb, and has fun with all the false leads and many payoffs. You never know when something will just be a throwaway idea, like the hourly chime on the island, or have an unexpected development, like Jeremy Renner’s hot sauce. Glass Onion is about puncturing the mirage of cleverness, and by the end, it felt like Johnson was also playfully commenting on his own meta-clever storytelling needs as well.
It’s so nice to watch Craig have the time of his life. You can clearly feel the passion he has for the character and how freeing this role is for an actor best remembered for his grimaced mug drifting through the James Bond movies. Craig makes a feast of this outsized character, luxuriating in the Southern drawl, the loquaciousness, and his befuddled mannerisms. After Knives Out, I begged for more Benoit Blanc adventures, and now with a successful sequel, that urge has only become more rapacious. Johnson has proven he can port his detective into any new mystery. Netflix has already paid for a third Knives Out mystery movie, and I’d be happy for another Blanc mystery every so many years as long as Craig and Johnson are willing. These are fabulous ensemble showcases as well with eclectic casts cutting loose and having fun. Norton (Motherless Brooklyn) is hilariously pompous, especially as Blanc deflates his overgrown ego. Bautista (Dune) is the exact right kind of blowhard. Hudson (Music) is the right kind of ditzy princess with a persecution complex. Her joke about sweatshops is gold. Jessica Henwick (The Gray Man) has a small role as the beleaguered assistant to Hudson’s socialite, but she delivers a masterclass in making the most of reaction shots. She made me laugh out loud just from her pained or bewildered reactions, adding history to her boss’ routine foot-in-mouth PR blunders.
There is one big thing missing from Glass Onion that holds it back from replicating the surprise success of its predecessor, and that’s the emotional lead supplied by Ana de Armas. She unexpectedly became the center of the 2019 movie and it was better for it. Glass Onion tries something similar with Andi Brand, and while she’s the easiest new character to root for among a den of phonies and sycophants, it’s not the same immediate level of emotional engagement. That’s the biggest missing piece for Glass Onion; it’s unable to replicate that same emotional engagement because the crusade of Andi Brand isn’t as compelling alone.
Glass Onion is a grand time at the movies, or as Netflix insisted, a grand time at home on your streaming device. It’s proof that Johnson can handle the rigors of living up to increased expectations, making a sequel that can stand on its own but has the strong, recognizable DNA of its potent predecessor. It’s not quite as immediate and layered and emotionally engaging, but the results are still colorful, twisty, and above all else, immensely fun and satisfying. I’m sure I’ll only think better of Glass Onion upon further re-watching as I did with Knives Out. Johnson once again artfully plays around with misdirects and whodunnit elements like a seasoned professional, and Glass Onion is confirmation that Benoit Blanc can be the greatest film detective of our modern age.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)
The Banshees of Inisherin is a melancholy movie that aspires for tragi-comedy but comes up short. I’m a big fan of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s past films, especially 2017’s Three Billboards and 2008’s In Bruges, and his command of character writing and finely hewn tonal shifts. With Banshees, it’s the tale of a falling out between two friends, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and Padraic (Colin Farrell), and the repercussions of this disunion. Colm (pronounced Call-em) looks at his long-time daily drinking partner as unrepentantly dull and as a drain on his emotional energy. As he’s getting older, he’s more mindful of his time and wants to try and create a violin piece to outlive him. Padraic (pronounced Patrick) cannot accept that his friend can just abruptly end things, so he persists, wanting to know why, wanting to know what he can do to mend this friendship, and not listening to Colm’s threats if he doesn’t leave well enough alone. The film is set in 1923 on the island of Inisherin during the short-term Irish civil war, and the backdrop gives way to gorgeous landscapes and an overwhelming sense of isolation. Every character in this movie is feeling some gnawing sense of loneliness and discontent, from Colm and Padraic looking at their friend and wondering why, to Padraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) who pines to leave and start a life on the mainland on her own, to Dominic (Barry Koeghan) who is looking for any human connection beyond his alcoholic and abusive father. McDonagh is terrific at writing his characters and interspersing droll humor and establishing the staid rhythms of this small world. The actors are all uniformly fantastic with special attention to the sad-eyed Farrell and super-charged Koeghan. I was enjoying my time but then I started to worry what this would all amount to, and the answer remains a big question mark. The movie’s story feels like an over-extended parable, and in doing so that holds many of the characters to be less developed and nuanced, serving their role as perspectives or victims of the folly of fate. By the end, I don’t really know what the larger theme or message of McDonagh’s movie. Maybe it’s about the facile nature of so many friendships, maybe it’s about what we choose to signify the fullness of a life lived, or maybe it’s just that a man’s donkey is nothing to trifle with. The Banshees of Inisherin is more funny than profound, but even kept too strictly in parable terms, it’s still an entertaining and occasionally heartbreaking watch.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Fabelmans (2022)
Steven Spielberg has been the most popular film director of the last fifty years but he’s never turned the focus squarely on himself, and that’s the draw of The Fabelmans, a coming-of-age drama that’s really a coming-of-Spielberg expose. The biographical movie follows the Fabelman family from the 1950s through the late 60s as Sammy (our Steven Spielberg avatar) becomes inspired to be a moviemaker while his parents’ marriage deteriorates. As a lifelong lover of movies and a childhood amateur filmmaker, there’s plenty here for me to connect with. The fascination with recreating images, of chasing after an eager dream, of working together with other creatives for something bigger, it’s all there and it works. I’m a sucker for movies about the assemblage of movie crews, those found families working in tandem. However, the family drama stuff I found less engaging. Apparently Sammy’s mother (Michelle Williams) is more impulsive, spontaneous, and attention-seeking, and may have some un-diagnosed mental illness at that, whereas his father (Paul Dano) is a dry and boring computer engineering genius. I found the family drama stuff to be a distraction from the storylines of Sammy as a budding filmmaker experimenting with his art and Sammy the unpopular new kid at high school harassed for being Jewish. There are some memorable scenes, like a girlfriend’s carnal obsession with Jesus, and a culmination with a bully that is surprising on multiple counts, but ultimately I found the movie to be strangely remote and lacking great personal insight. This is why Spielberg became the greatest filmmaker in the world? I guess. I’ll credit co-writer Tony Kushner (West Side Story, Lincoln) for not making this what too many modern author biopics have become, a barrage of inspirations and connections to their most famous works (“Hey Steven, I want you to meet our neighbor, Ernest Thalberg, or E.T. as we used to call him back at Raiders U.”). The Fabelmans is a perfectly nice movie, with solid acting, and the occasional moment that really grabs hold of you, like a electrifying meeting with a top Hollywood director in the film’s finale. For me, those moments were only too fleeting. It’s a family drama I wanted less family time with and more analysis on its creator.
Nate’s Grade: B
Women Talking (2022)
The hard-hitting Oscar-worthy drama Women Talking could have been titled Twelve Angry Women, but with the necessary subtitle: But They’re Very Justified in Their Rage. It is, as the title suggests, a movie almost entirely about women talking in one central location, enough so to feel like a stage play captured for the screen. However, the reason these women are assembled is heartbreaking, infuriating, and eminently engrossing. Women Talking demands to be heard.
The dozen women have gathered to debate the future of their participation in their community, a closed-off Mennonite coalition. They are victims of heinous sex crimes and general repression, debating between staying and fighting and abandoning their way of life. These women are talking about their own agency and what their collective response will be to the great wrongs that have prevailed upon them. It’s not just that the women of this community have been preyed upon by predators in their midst, their trauma has been dismissed as ghosts and devils until literal men were literally caught and apprehended. The next part is even more galling, as the guilty men will be returning back to the community and the women are expected to forgive the predators and go back to life as it has been. Except how exactly has life been for the women of this small community? The assaults have been going on for decades, enough that many of the children are the byproducts of their abusers. One grandmother is brought to tears that she should have done more to protect her adult daughter, herself married to an abusive man. The systematic nature of this abuse is the core of their deliberation. Can they stay and reform a broken society from inside, or is the best hope radically breaking away and starting anew without the men?
The movie also serves as a debate over the capacity for grace and forgiveness, reminding me in subject as well as the approach of last year’s equally hard-hitting and equally spellbinding indie, Mass. I found it especially insulting that these women are expected, by the male leaders, to simply forgive and forget, to shuffle back to subservience. It’s a larger philosophical discussion over the nature of grace and accountability. It would be showing grace to these men to forgive them when they do not deserve it, and surely the male leaders would underline this point in a comparison with their religious text, akin to Jesus forgiving those who crucified him. However, if forgiveness is not the catalyst for reform and reclamation, then it’s just another empty gesture that maintains the status quo of abuse going unpunished and the abusers being protected. It’s easy to make larger connections to larger societies protecting predators through conditioned silence. The entertainment industry has been rife with bad men, and yes it’s typically men, behaving criminally and being protected by their position, and it might be easy to make connections with Women Talking and She Said, the fact-based take-down of Harvey Weinstein. Are these people worthy of forgiveness or is the patriarchal system of power (women aren’t even allowed to learn to read and write in this community) beyond salvaging? Within minutes of watching, I was already shaking my head and saying they should burn it all to the ground.
Women Talking is powerful and somber without being overly grave to the detriment of the material. It’s never taken anything less than serious, but the subject matter is handled very sensitively and even rated PG-13. Under the careful guidance of writer/director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Stories We Tell), the film doesn’t soft-pedal the abuse these women have suffered but it doesn’t wallow in it either, getting overloaded with sordid details. The screenplay unfolds key pieces of information over time, allowing the audience to piece together a fuller picture (I didn’t even realize the family connection of the dozen women until an hour in). It would be easy if the only response explored was one of unfathomable rage, best exemplified by a stirring monologue where Claire Foy (The Crown, First Man) rattles off what she will do to protect her young daughter including murder, including vying with the Almighty, and even including spending eternity in hell. It’s easy to be all teeth-gnashing vengeance and fury, and entirely deserved considering these women are already looked upon as second-class citizens. However, Polley aligns her movie as a debate between anguish and hope and the difference between false and real hope. Is it real to hope that these men will change? Is it real to hope that August (Ben Whishaw), a college-educated child of a former outcast, can break the cycle? By the end, the main feeling I had was catharsis, that these women can chart a new, better path.
Given the heavy subject matter and the ensemble nature of the production, you would be right to assume that this is an actors’ showcase. The three biggest roles belong to Foy’s Salome, Rooney Mara’s Ona, and Jessie Buckley’s Mariche, each presenting a different perspective. Salome wants to stay but mostly as a means of collecting vengeance for her and her daughter. Mariche wants to forgive the men because, if they do exile themselves, they are told their immortal souls will be denied the kingdom of heaven. It also happens that Mariche’s alcoholic husband is one of the accused men returning. Ona is pregnant with her attacker’s child and questioning which setting would be best for her, staying with what she knows or risking a new life, for better or worse. Foy and Buckely (The Lost Daughter, Men) each have a signature monologue opening up their character perspective and each of them cinches it (call it their “Oscar clip moments”). Mara (Nightmare Alley) has the more contemplative and subdued role, which makes it less showy. Her character is the one who questions the most the value of forgiveness, and of course whether it counts when forgiveness is forced with the threat of eternal damnation. If Salome is the movie’s fury, then Ona is a reflection of begrudging hope, and Mara succeeds with a noble sense of grace.
There are two minor quibbles I have with Women Talking that hold it slightly back for me, and it’s not the locked-in setting making the proceedings feel like a staged play. Polley uses visual inserts and cutaways to devastating effect to highlight the women’s trauma, from awakening to the aftermath of assault to miscarriages, notions to heighten the visual storytelling potential of the medium without digging into exploitation and losing the tasteful tone. The directing even takes a few cues from Sydeny Lumet’s work from 12 Angry Men. One critical aspect that holds back the movie, again only slightly, is that the characters tend to feel a little more like various points of view rather than finely developed characters. Given the nature of the debate, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s a smart storytelling move to coalesce. It just slightly limits some emotional engagement; it’s still there because of the skill of the actors and every drop of empathy they rightly earn, but the characters aren’t as well realized as they could have been. This can also be simply because we’re dealing with a dozen characters to try and supply enough material for. Even in 12 Angry Men, not every juror is going to be given equal importance (nobody cares about you, juror #7, so sit down). I reflect back to Mass, an excellent 2021 movie that you should seek out, and how personable and in-depth those characters came across over their feature-length sit-down. It also helps that it only had four characters to balance. The other minor criticism I have is the overemphasis the movie places on a long-in-the-works romance between Ona and August, who maybe has more screen time than maybe any woman. For a movie dealing with the sexual and emotional trauma of women and them taking account, I’m left uncertain about the amount of time we spend on an unrequited romance. It’s not like Polley is elbowing in wacky rom-com material, as it all likewise carries the same subdued tone. I just don’t know if this movie needs a romance elevated during its otherwise 100 plaintive minutes.
Women Talking is an urgent movie that every person should watch. The central dynamic is radiating with dramatic potential, and the actors are uniformly excellent, even the youngest actors handling some very touchy material. Polley’s direction is stately and subdued without removing any of the surging emotional power inherent in her drama. I’m overjoyed that Polley has returned back to filmmaking as she hasn’t made a movie in ten years. It’s a triumphant return for Polley, one that will likely have her vying on the biggest stages come awards season. Women Talking is timely and, unfortunately, also timeless. By the end, you’ll feel slightly exhausted but better for it, like the euphoria that comes after a good cry and you feel like, having pushed through, you’ll be better for it.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)/ Pinocchio (2022)
It seems 2022 has unexpectedly become the year of Pinocchio. The 1883 fantasy novel by Carlo Collodui (1826-1890) is best known via the classic Walt Disney animated movie, the second ever for the company, and it was Disney that released a live-action remake earlier in the year on their streaming service. Now widely available on Netflix is Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio, so I wanted to review both films together but I was also presented with a unique circumstance. Both of these movies were adaptations of the same story, so the comparison is more direct, and I’ve decided to take a few cues from sports writing and break down the movies in a head-to-head competitive battle to see which has the edge in a series of five categories. Which fantastical story about a little puppet yearning to be a real boy will prove superior?
1. VISUAL PRESENTATION
The Netflix Pinocchio is a lovingly realized stop-motion marvel. It’s del Toro’s first animated movie and his style translates easily to this hand-crafted realm. There is something special about stop-motion animation for me; I love the tactile nature of it all, the knowledge that everything I’m watching is pain-stakingly crafted by artisans, and it just increases my appreciation. I fully acknowledge that any animated movie is the work of thousands of hours of labor and love, but there’s something about stop-motion animation that I just experience more viscerally. The level of detail in the Netflix Pinocchio is astounding. There is dirt under Geppetto’s fingernails, red around the eyes after crying, the folds and rolls of fabric, and the textures feel like you can walk up to the screen and run your fingers over their surfaces. I loved the character designs, their clean simplicity but able readability, especially the sister creatures of life and death with peacock feather wings, and the animation underwater made me question how they did what they did. del Toro’s imagination is not limited from animation but expanded, and there are adept camera movements that require even more arduous work to achieve and they do. I loved the life each character has, the fluidity of their movements, that they even animated characters making mistakes or losing their balance or acting so recognizably human and sprightly. There’s a depth of life here plus an added meta-textual layer about puppets telling the story about a puppet who was given life.
In contrast, the Disney live-action Pinocchio is harsh on the eyes. It’s another CGI smorgasbord from writer/director Robert Zemeckis akin to his mo-cap semi-animated movies from the 2000s. The brightness levels of the outside world are blastingly white, and it eliminates so much of the detail of the landscapes. When watching actors interact, it never overcomes the reality of it being a big empty set. The CGI can also be alarming with the recreation of the many animal sidekicks of the 1940 original. Why did Zemeckis make the pet goldfish look sultry? Why did they make Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) look like a Brussel sprout come to life? It might not be the dead-eyed nightmare fuel of 2004’s The Polar Express, but the visual landscape of the movie is bleached and overdone, making everything feel overly fake or overly muddy and glum. The fact that this movie looks like this with a $150 million budget is disheartening but maybe inevitable. I suppose Zemeckis had no choice but to replicate the Pinocchio character design from 1940, but it looks remarkably out of step and just worse. When we have the 1940 original to compare to, everything in the 2022 remake looks garish or ugly or just wrong. The expressiveness of the hand-drawn animation is replaced with creepy-looking CGI animal-human hybrids.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
2. FATHER/SON CHARACTERIZATION
The relationship between Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) and Geppetto (David Bradley) is the heart of the Netflix Pinocchio, and I don’t mind sharing that it brought me to tears a couple of times. As much as the movie is about a young boy learning about the world, it’s also about the love of a father for a child. The opening ten minutes establish Geppetto’s tragedy with such surefooted efficiency that it reminded me of the early gut punch that was 2009’s Up. This Geppetto is constantly reminded of his loss and, during a drunken fit, he carved a replacement child that happens to come to life. This boy is very different from his last, and there is a great learning curve for both father and son about relating to one another. This is the heart of the movie, one I’ll discuss more in another section. With del Toro’s version, Geppetto is a wounded and hurting man, one where every decision is connected to character. This Pinocchio is a far more entertaining creature, a child of explosive energy, curiosity, and spitefulness. He feels like an excitable newborn exploring the way of the world. He’s so enthusiastic so quickly (“Work? I love work, papa!” “I love it, I love it!… What is it?”) that his wonder can become infectious. This Pinocchio also cannot die, and each time he comes back to life he must wait longer in a netherworld plane. It provides even more for Pinocchio to understand about loss and being human. This is a funny, whimsical, but also deftly emotive Pinocchio. He points to a crucifix and asks why everyone likes that wooden man but not him. He is an outsider learning about human emotions and morals and it’s more meaningful because of the character investment.
In contrast, the Disney live-action Pinocchio treats its title character as a simpleton. The problem with a story about a child who breaks rules and learns lessons by dealing with the consequences of his actions is if you have a character that makes no mistakes then their suffering feels cruel. This Pinocchio is simply a sweet-natured wannabe performer. He means well but he doesn’t even lie until a sequence requires him to lie to successfully escape his imprisonment. The relationship with Geppetto (Tom Hanks) is strange. This kindly woodcarver is a widower who also has buried a son, but he comes across like a doddering old man who is quick to make dad jokes to nobody (I guess to his CGI cat and goldfish and multitude of Disney-tie-in cuckoo clocks). I don’t know what Hanks is doing with this daffy performance. It feels like Geppetto lost his mind and became stir crazy and this performance is the man pleading for help from the town, from the audience, from Zemeckis. It’s perplexing and it kept me from seeing this man as an actual character. He bounces from catalyst to late damsel in distress needing saving. The relationship between father and son lacks the warmth of the Netflix version. Yet again, the live-action Pinocchio is a pale imitation of its cartoon origins with either main character failing to be fleshed out or made new.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
There are a few key themes that emerge over the near two-hours of the Netflix Pinocchio, which is the longest stop-motion animated film ever. Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) repeats that he “tried his best and that’s the best anyone can do,” and the parallelism makes it sound smarter than it actually is. The actual theme revolves around acceptance and the burdens of love. Geppetto cannot fully accept Pinocchio because he’s constantly comparing him to Carlo. When he can fully accept Pinocchio for who he is, the weird little kid with the big heart and unique perspective, is when he can finally begin to heal over the wound of his grief over Carlo, allowing himself to be vulnerable again and to accept his unexpected new family on their own terms. There’s plenty of available extra applications here to historically marginalized groups, and del Toro is an avowed fan of freaks and outcasts getting their due and thumbing their nose at the hypocritical moral authorities. By setting his story in 1930s Italy under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, del Toro underlines his themes of monsters and scapegoats and moral hypocrites even better, and the change of scenery really enlivens the familiar story with extra depth and resonance. All these different people want something out of Pinocchio that he is not. Geppetto wants him to strip away his individuality and be his old son. Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) wants Pinocchio to be his dancing minion and secure him fame and fortune. Podesta (Ron Perlman) wants Pinocchio as the state’s ultimate soldier, a boy who cannot die and always comes back fighting. When Pinocchio is recruited to train for war with the other young boys to better serve the fatherland’s nationalistic aims, it’s a far more affecting and unsettling experience than Pleasure Island, which is removed from this version. In the end, the movie also becomes a funny and touching exploration of mortality from a magic little child. The Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), this version of the Blue Fairy, says she only wanted to grant Geppetto joy. “But you did,” he says. “Terrible, terrible joy.” The fleeting nature of life, as well as its mixture of pain and elation, is an ongoing theme that isn’t revelatory but still feels impressively restated.
I don’t know what theme the Disney live-action movie has beyond its identity as a product launch. I suppose several years into the Disney live-action assembly line I shouldn’t be surprised that these movies are generally listless, inferior repetitions made to reignite old company IP. For a story about the gift of life, the Disney Pinocchio feels so utterly lifeless. I thought the little wooden boy was meant to learn rights and wrongs but the movie doesn’t allow Pinocchio to err. He’s an innocent simpleton who gets taken advantage of and dragged from encounter to encounter like a lost child. The Pleasure Island sequence has been tamed from the 1940s; children are no longer drinking beer or smoking cigars. They’re gathered to a carnival and then given root beer and told to break items and then punished for this entrapment. The grief Geppetto feels for his deceased loved ones is played out like a barely conceived backstory. He’s just yukking it up like nothing really matters. By the end, when he’s begging for Pinocchio to come back to life, you wonder why he cares. If you were being quite generous, you might be able to uncover themes of acceptance and understanding, but they’re so poorly developed and utilized. That stuff gets in the way of Pinocchio staring at a big pile of horse excrement on the street, which if you needed a summative visual metaphor for the adaptation, there it is.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
4. EMOTIONAL STAKES
One of these movies made me cry. The other one made me sigh in exasperation. The Netflix Pinocchio nails the characterization in a way that is universal and accessible while staying true to its roots, whereas the Disney live-action film feels like a crudely packaged remake on the assembly line of soulless live-action Disney remakes. By securing my investment early with Geppetto’s loss, I found more to relish in the layers of his relationship with Pinocchio. In trying to teach him about the world, Geppetto is relying upon what he started with his past son, and there are intriguing echoes that lead to a spiritual examination. Pinocchio is made from the tree from the pinecone that Carlo chased that lead to his death. Pinocchio hums the tune that Geppetto sang to Carlo. Is there something more here? When he visits Death for the first time, the winged creature remarks, “I feel as though you’ve been here before.” These little questions and ambiguity make the movie much more rewarding, as does del Toro’s ability to supply character arcs for every supporting player. Even the monkey sidekick of the villain gets their own character arc. Another boy desperately desires his stern father’s approval, and he’s presented as a parallel for Pinocchio, another son trying to measure up to his father’s demands. Even this kid gets meaningful character moments and an arc. With this story, nobody gets left behind when it comes to thoughtful and meaningful characterization. It makes the movie much more heartwarming and engaging, and by the end, as we get our poignant coda jumping forward in time and serving as multiple curtain calls for our many characters, I was definitely shedding a flurry of tears. Hearing Geppetto bawl, “I need you… my boy,” to the lifeless body of Pinocchio still breaks me. Under del Toro’s compassionate lens, everyone is deserving of kindness.
As should be expected by now, the Disney live-action movie is lackluster at best when it comes to any kind of emotional investment. The characters stay as archetypes but they haven’t been personalized, so they merely remain as grubby facsimiles to what we recall from the 1940 version. Jiminy Cricket is meant as Pinocchio’s conscience but he vacillates from being a nag to being a smart aleck who even breaks the fourth wall to argue with his own narration. I hated every time he called the main character “Pee-noke” and he did it quite often. He’s far more annoying than endearing. There’s also a wise-cracking seagull that is just awful. The Honest John (Keegan Michael-Key) character is obnoxious, and in a world with a talking fox who dresses in human clothing, why would a “living puppet” be such a draw? He even has a joke about Pinocchio being an “influencer.” The only addition I liked was a coworker in Stromboli’s traveling circus, a former ballerina who injured herself and now gets to live out her dancing dreams by operating a marionette puppet. However, the movie treats the puppet like it’s a living peer to Pinocchio and talks directly to the puppet rather than the human operating the puppet, and the camera treats her like she’s the brains too. Safe to say, by the end when Pinocchio magically revives for whatever reason, just as he magically reverted from being a donkey boy, I was left coldly indifferent and more so just relieved that the movie was finally over.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
This was one area where I would have assumed the Disney live-action film had an advantage. Its signature banger, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” became the de facto Disney theme song and plays over the opening title card for the company. It’s still a sweet song, and Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) is the best part of the movie as the Blue Fairy. It’s a shame she only appears once, which is kind of negligent considering she sets everything in motion. The Netflix Pinocchio is also a musical and the songs by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water) are slight and low-key, easy to dismiss upon first listen. However, the second time I watched the movie, the simplicity as a leitmotif really stood out, and I noticed the melody was the foundation for most other songs, which created an intriguing interconnected comparison. While nothing in the Netflix Pinocchio comes close to being the instantly humable classic of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the songs are more thoughtful and emotionally felt and not just repeating the hits of yore, so in the closest of categories, I’m going to say that Netflix’s Pinocchio wins by a nose (pun intended).
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
One of these Pinocchio movies is a visual marvel, heartfelt and moving, wondrous, and one of the best films of 2022. The other is a hollow vessel for corporate profit that copies the imprint of the 1940 animated film but only more frantic, scatalogical, and confused. In the year of our lord Pinocchio Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, there is only one movie you should see, and at this point ever see as it concerns this old tale. Guillermo del Toro has harnessed magic, and we are all the better for his bayonet imagination and enormous heart for his fellow outsiders.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio: A
2022 Pinocchio: C-
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