Swiss Army Man shouldn’t work as a movie, and in fact it will only work for a narrow swath of the world’s audience. There were plenty of walkouts during its Sundance premiere. The triumphant riding of a powerfully flatulent corpse in the film’s opening ten minutes should seal the movie’s fate. How does a movie survive such a juvenile, taste-obliterating moment, and one that is meant as an introduction to the film? Amazingly, stupendously, Swiss Army Man delicately walks that narrow tonal path and succeeds wildly, rapturously, and produces the rarest commodity in Hollywood, something daringly different and excitingly new. I fully anticipate that sizeable portions of readers are going to have an immediate and repellent response from just reading the plot synopsis, and I can’t blame them. I will do my best to try and explain why the movie worked so well even if I know this will be a fool’s errand for many, but if I can convince one more human soul to give Swiss Army Man a chance, then I’ve done the Lord’s work.
Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a desert island and about to hang himself when a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Unfazed, Hank is still determined to end his life, that is, until he can no longer ignore the farting of the body. That’s when he gets an idea and uses the power of the farting corpse to ride back to the mainland. Hank drags the corpse with him finding unique benefits, like his retention of drinkable rainwater. He’s still stranded and it’s at this point that Manny, the name he gives the corpse, begins speaking and inquiring about the world and what it means to be human.
Swiss Army Man is a disarming buddy comedy that weirdly yet miraculously deepens as it goes, becoming a genuine relationship drama that touches on the profound and philosophical. For the first act, the movie is an unconventional survival drama with Hank finding peculiar yet helpful uses with his savior, the dead corpse. It’s a guy lugging around a dead body at the end of the day. I was wondering if this was really a story that was more suited as a short and didn’t have the substance to merit a feature-length runtime, and that’s when the magic realism steps up and when Manny comes into focus. This is easily one of the most oddball buddy comedies ever. Manny is an innocent, a proverbial babe in the woods, and doesn’t know much about himself and the world, and Hank becomes his teacher. Through this process he’s forced to examine his own life from an altogether different perspective and actually starts to vocalize and come to grips with his own life’s shortcomings, insecurities, and frustrations. It’s through Manny that Hank is able to open up and examine what it means to be human. Their interaction becomes a truly rewarding and emotionally honest buddy film where one of them just happens to be a talking corpse that farts a lot. Manny wants to learn about the world and to feel what it means to be alive, and it’s this new path that emerges that gives the film a new life.
You would expect something this strange to be drenched in irony or pushing the audience to laugh at the characters, but you would be completely wrong. Swiss Army Man is one of the most earnest movies you will ever see. It is completely genuine, heartfelt, sincere in every crazy detail, and it’s what gives the movie its emotional resonance. It treats the relationship between Hank and Manny with credibility. It’s a movie about celebrating and claiming ones weirdness, told from a movie that is proudly offbeat. Hank feels left out by normal social interactions. He’s the typically withdrawn and awkward Dano character we’ve come to expect from his catalogue of films; however, rarely has he seemed this artfully articulated. He’s a man who has some deep-seeded neuroses and fears, including farting aloud in public, and he’s using his ongoing experiences with Manny to exorcise some of these past failings, to become the determined, self-actualized man he wants to be. There’s a touching part where Hank talks about the poor relationship with his father; the two have signed up for one another to get birthday e-cards via email. That’s the extent of their connection at this point, and yet Hank remarks that even if he were to die his father would still get a birthday card from him in perpetuity. It’s a small little thing but it hits and makes one think about the impact and legacy we’ll have after we’re gone for good. Are we more than just an occasional birthday card? The fact that the movie utilizes a climax that incorporates farting in public as an emotional catharsis is amazing, but what’s even more amazing is that this moment is completely earned and gratifying.
Another aspect of Swiss Army Man that kept me specifically amused is the clever use of ambiguity. As the fantastical plays out with even-keeled realism, it’s easy and expected to believe that much of what we are witnessing is all in the mind of Hank. He’s projecting his needs and hopes onto this analogue for a friend that also represents himself. That’s why Hank uses Manny to relive personal experiences and to try and get them right. Then the third act comes along and causes you to question even more, putting the behavior of Hank into a muddier realm that makes you wonder if he’s this innocent wounded heart we had come to know previously. Then there’s Hank’s fixation over the pretty girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he gravitated to on his bus rides. He looks to her as a goal, something he can return to once finally rescued and returned home. As he plays out his brief experiences with her, dressed as her, with Manny in the position of Hank, a faux courtship ensues. Hank, as her, and Manny, as stand-in for Hank, and it’s weird and wonderful and not afraid to accept the homoerotic qualities of its implications. This is a love story ultimately but a unique kind of love, and it’s up to the audience to determine what that means exactly. Is it romantic, bro-mantic, or simply a dude coming to terms with his own life in a very unusual therapeutic manner? The writer/directors The Daniels (Dan Kwan, Dan Scheinert) don’t outright tell you how to think or feel throughout any of this movie, which is a blessing. They present a complicated world with complicated and broken people doing their best to try and make their own sense, and they invite the audience along on this beguiling journey and just ask that they be patient and open-minded and then come to their own conclusions.
The music is a wonderful element that is also another facet of the characters, layering in even more whimsy and character depth. The music is often accompanied by Radcliffe and Dano, their mutterings and ramblings becoming syncopated and layered into a soothing collage of sound. They’re providing their own soundtrack to the movie of their life. Early on Hank describes the music from Jurassic Park as the proper accompaniment for life’s big moments, with a little nestling of nostalgia as well. It’s especially enjoyable to listen to either of the guys break out into their rendition of the majestic Jurassic Park theme. It’s silly and sweet but it also gets at the psychological element of Hank being outside himself, seeing his life as a movie and he as its lead. He also hums what he remembers of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” which reappears throughout with comically incorrect and changing lyrics. The music is another reflection of the characters and it imbues the scenes with an extra sense of whimsy that helps to maintain its magic realism tone.
Radcliffe (Harry Potter and the… everything) and Dano (Love and Mercy) are terrific together and Radcliffe gives a tour de force physical performance. The way he’s able to contort his body, malign his posture, make use of stilted facial expressions is amazing. This goes leagues beyond the simple slapstick of Weekend at Bernie’s. The way he’s able to convey a character and a performance through this crazy decaying prism. Manny wants to help people, is eager to learn, and it makes his character so endearing, and then you remember he’s a corpse who might just be a figment of Hank’s diseased imagination. Radcliffe completely lets go of vanity and delivers one of the best performances of the year. Dano is in more familiar territory but shines again, serving as a dry comic foil for Radcliffe. The two of them form a highly entertaining and winning buddy team.
Swiss Army Man is a unique film experience and one that shouldn’t work. It’s filled with juvenile body humor. Its key supporting role is a dead body. It’s about a guy who may or may not be a stalker living in a fantasy world in his own head. This should not be, and yet like Manny himself, miraculously it has been birthed into existence and we are better for it. Every time it feels like the movie is heading for a more conventional direction that will weigh it down, be it a love triangle or some slapdash “he was dead the whole time” twist ending, it calmly steers away. This is a wonderfully humane, touching, earnest, and emotionally affecting movie, one that, yes, also involves farting. The body humor stuff is a reflection over confronting what we feel uncomfortable with and why that is, what social conventions tell us is in poor taste, tell us to box ourselves in and play by the rules. Here is a movie that gleefully plays by its own rules. It’s not going to be for everyone but if it’s for you, like me, there might not be much else that can rival its cinematic highs. Even if you think you will hate this movie, see it. See it just to have seen one of the strangest and most beguiling movies of the modern era. See it and judge for yourself. I’m still awed at how life affirming and profound a movie with a farting corpse can be. Swiss Army Man is a labor of love, an explosion of feeling, and a declaration to stay weird.
Nate’s Grade: A
In 1841, free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in Saratoga Spring, New York, performing as a trained violinist. Some traveling performers offer him serious money if he’ll play with their circus act in Washington, D.C. Solomon bids goodbye to his family, never knowing he will not see them again for a dozen years. He’s kidnapped, imprisoned, and sold down South to a series of plantation owners. He insists he is a free man, but who will believe him? He’s a black man in chains, and frankly many people just do not care. He learns to adjust to the rules of his new life, finding some companionship with the fiery Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and looking for a trusted source to mail a letter to Solomon’s family. It’s a life of daily terror and Solomon could be killed at any moment if word got out that he knew how to read and write.
12 Years a Slave is, as expected, a hard movie to watch at times but it is an essential movie to be seen. A friend of mine literally had this conversation with a movie patron (I wish I was only making this up):
Customer: “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll end up seeing 12 Years.”
Friend: “Oh. Well it is a hard movie to watch.”
Customer: “It’s not that. I’m just waiting for a movie that finally shows all the good slave owners doing nice things. It wasn’t all bad.”
This brief conversation exemplifies for me why a searing drama like 12 Years of a Slave is still vital in 21st century America. This is a slice of history that cannot be forgotten, but just as sinister is the amelioration of its cruelty. As time passes, and those with direct personal experience are long gone, then the mitigation begins, and you have ignorance consuming people who want to whitewash America’s original sin, like the above movie patron. I’ve even read, simply on message boards for this very film, a dubious prospect I admit, people arguing, “Can’t we just move on already?” and posing false equivalences like, “Well the poor Southerners who worked as indentured servants had it just as bad.” I swear I am not deliberately setting up a straw man argument, these are actual gripes people have. It’s as if acknowledging the totality of the horror of slavery is, in itself, some kind of insult to people today. It’s history and vital history that need not ever be forgotten or mitigated, and we need more films dealing with this subject.
There is zero equivalency to treating people as subhuman property, stripping them of all human rights and dignity, separating them from their families, beating them, raping them, murdering them without consequence, being punished for defending yourself, and kept in a constant state of terror where anything horrible can happen to you at any time without reason. Sorry slavery apologists, but even the notion of a “kindly slaver,” which the movie actually showcases, is erroneous. Whether they don’t beat their slaves as often or addressed them as people, slave owners are still profiting from the institution of slavery, and as such the notion of a “good slave owner” is antithetical to the very insidious nature of plainly owning another human being.
With all that said, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at the cruel reality of slavery but one that demands to be seen. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) doesn’t pull his punches when it comes examining the unrelenting misery of slavery. There’s a whipping scene where he are in the safe position of focusing on the faces of those involved, studying their horror, but then McQueen has the camera turn around and you see, in graphic detail, the ravaged back of an innocent woman, the bloody result of every one of those whippings that we watched at a comfortable distance at first. This is a gory example, and the film is rather restrained when it comes to this aspect. This is not simply wallowing in sadism. Hollywood has yet to have a definitive film showcase the traumatic reality of slavery. 1997’s Amistad gave you glimpses, but most of Steven Spielberg’s movie was set in courtrooms arguing the philosophical nature of inherent rights. I wish they would remake the classic miniseries Roots; today’s TV landscape would be more permissible at showing the graphic terror of slavery than 1970s network television. With 12 Years a Slave, there are several uncomfortable moments that will make you gasp, but overall, while retrained on the gore, you feel the overall devastation of a slave’s predicament. Every moment of life was at the whims of another, and a victim could be trapped at every turn. Solomon is beaten soundly, and after he defends himself, he is rounded up to be lynched for his audacity. The aftermath is portrayed with stark tension, as Solomon is left hanging by a noose, his feet barely touching the muddied ground, trying to maintain his stance or else choke to death. And like the long takes in shame, McQueen’s camera just holds us there, trapping the audience in the same strenuous dilemma. The worst goes to Patsey, who is raped by her master and tormented by the master’s jealous wife. Both Solomon and Patsey are damned with every decision. By the end, Solomon is rescued and reunited with his family, but you can’t help but think about all those other unfortunate souls left to mire in slavery. For millions of them, there was no set limit to their desolation.
From a script standpoint, the movie flows more as a series of scenes rather than a traditional three-act arc. Writer John Ridley (Red Tails, Three Kings) works from Solomon’s own autobiography and does an incisive job of recreating the dimensions of mid-19th century America and the diseased mentality that accepted slavery. No more is this evident than in the frightening character of Edwin Epps, played with chilling absorption by Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s favorite collaborator. Epps is the kind of man who uses selective Scripture to justify his heinous actions. “A man can treat his property how he likes,” he quips with authority. Epps’ plantation is the worst along Solomon’s hellish odyssey. Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) spookily possesses Epps with great ardor, bringing out the snarling dangers of a man and his unsavory convictions. You’ll cringe over all the unwanted lascivious attention he gives to Patsey. He is a weak man through and through, but one who rages against others with his weaknesses. Fassbender is electric and keeps an audience extra alert when onscreen.
The acting is exceptional and infuriating. Ejiofor (Serenity, Salt) is commanding in a performance that stays with you. There is so much the man has to communicate with his eyes, those great orbs of his. Because of his circumstances he must hold back his ire, do what he can to make it another day, and his adjustment to the horrors of slavery are heartbreaking in itself. He must always be cautious, and when he dares to risk trusting a white man, we feel the same tremors of trepidation. There’s a great scene where Solomon, having been betrayed, has to come up with a credible alternative in the moment, with so much riding on his improvisation skills. It’s as suspenseful a moment as most Hollywood thrillers. The most heartbreaking performance, though, belong to Nyong’o, who is making her film debut in a major way. As Patsey, she symbolizes the mounting torment of unremitting victimization, a woman begging for death but too proud to make it happen. She has some intense monologues where not one word feels false. She is a broken woman struggling to find her footing, and watching her get abused in so many different ways is gut wrenching. She’s more than a martyr and Nyong’o shows you that.
Undeniably a good movie, there are still enough filmmaking choices that hold it back for me, and it all comes down to Solomon as the protagonist. The movie’s center was not as strong as it needed to be, and that is chiefly because our focal point, Solomon, is not well developed as a character. I feel pings of something approaching shame just bringing up the subject, but I must profess that Solomon is just not given much to do beyond suffer. As a free man, his adjustment to the absurd cruelty of the institution of slavery is meant to serve as an entry point for a modern audience, to have the safety of our lives suddenly stripped away. But if I had to describe Solomon as a character, I could say that he mostly vacillates between two modes: shock and solemn dignity (“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”). Strange that Patsey and Epps and even Epps’ wife are shown more dimension than the lead character. I’m not asking for Solomon to suddenly become a more active character and to rise up, Django Unchained-style; the context of slavery limits his opportunities to express himself. I just wanted more to this guy to separate him from the others suffering onscreen. And maybe, ultimately, that’s the point, that Solomon is, at heart, no different than any other slave. I can agree with that in philosophy, however, this approach also nullifies my ultimate investment in the protagonist. I feel for him because he suffers, I feel for him because I want him to find some semblance of justice (an impossible scenario given the circumstances, I know), and I feel for him because he is a good, honorable man. But I do not feel for him because I have an insight into the character of Solomon Northup. Fortunately, Ejiofor does a superb job of communicating as much as he can non-verbally. It just wasn’t enough for me.
To criticize 12 Years a Slave makes me feel awkward due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but hey, plenty of people make mediocre movies exploring Holocaust atrocities too (does anyone ever dare say, “Get over it,” to Holocaust survivors?). A horrifying historical subject does not give filmmakers cart blanche to slack when it comes to the important elements of storytelling, like story and characterization. 12 Years a Slave, by extension, is an exceptionally made movie with moments to make you wince and cry, gifted with powerful acting and sensitive direction. It is a searing recreation of the many facets of slavery, not just the sheer brutality of the beatings. You will understand on multiple levels the terrorism that was the institution of slavery, a vicious reality that should never be forgotten by a complacent citizenry. I can applaud 12 Years a Slave for its technical excellence, depth of performance, and historical accuracy; however, my personal investment in the protagonist was somewhat limited because Solomon Northup was not developed sufficiently enough. I certainly empathized with the man, but too often I felt like I was watching Solomon as a suffering symbol rather than a character. He’s obviously an interesting figure and I wanted more dimension. While not exactly rising to the level of a Schindler’s List for the institution of slavery (as some have dubbed), 12 Years a Slave is an enthralling movie in so many ways. It’s just a shame that an underdeveloped protagonist would hobble a film so otherwise worthy.
Nate’s Grade: B+
One rainy Thanksgiving day, two little girls go missing. Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) and their neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), discover their two young daughters have gone missing. A manhunt is underway for a suspicious RV, spearheaded by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). The RV is found with Alex Jones (Paul Dano) inside. The problem is that there is no physical evidence of the missing girls inside the RV and Alex has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. He’s being released and Keller is incensed. He’s certain that Alex is guilty and knows where his missing daughter is being held. One night, Keller kidnaps Alex and imprisons him in an abandoned building. He beats him bloody, demanding Alex to tell him the truth, but he only remains silent. Loki has to deal with finding the girls, finding a missing Alex, and trailing Keller, suspicious of foul play.
This is a movie that grabs you early and knows how to keep you squirming in the best ways. The anxiety of a missing child is presented in a steady wave of escalating panic. The moment when you watch the Dover and Birch families slowly realize the reality of their plight, well it’s a moment that puts a knot in your stomach. Prisoners is filled with moments like this, that make you dread what is to come next. The crime procedural elements of the case are generally interesting and well handled to the point that they feel grounded, that these events could transpire, including police mistakes. The central mystery sucks you in right away and writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) lays out clues and suspects with expert pacing, giving an audience something new to think over. At 153 minutes, there is a lot to chew over in terms of plot developments and character complications. It’s a compelling mystery yarn and shows such promise, though the last half hour cannot deliver fully. Fortunately, Prisoners is packed with terrific characters, a real foreboding sense of Fincher-esque chilly atmosphere from director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) and greatest living cinematographer Roger Deakens (Skyfall). The film’s overall oppressive darkness is also notable for a mainstream release. The darkness doesn’t really let up. It’s hard to walk out feeling upbeat but you’ll be thankful for those punishing predicaments.
By introducing the vigilante torture angle, Prisoners is given a dual storyline of suspense and intrigue. How far will Keller go? Will he get caught? What will his friends think? Will they be supportive or will they crack? How does this change Keller? That last question is the most interesting one. Others tell us how Keller is a good man, and he’s certainly a devoted family man, but does a good man imprison and torture a mentally challenged man? Does a good man take the law into his own hands? If it meant the difference between your child being dead or alive, how far would you go? These are the questions that bubble up and the movie makes you deal with them. The torture segments are unflinching and challenge your viewer loyalty. You will be placed in an uncomfortable moral position. Then there’s just the what-would-you-do aspect of the proceedings. Could you torture someone, possibly to death? Fortunately most of us will never have to find out. I do wish, however, that the movie had gone further, complicating matters even more severely. It becomes fairly evident halfway through that Alex is innocent. It would have been even more interesting to intensify Keller’s legal troubles. If the police have their man, what does Keller do with Alex? Does he let him live after everything Keller has done? I think it would have worked as a logical escalation and put the audience in an even more uncomfortable position, forcing us to question whether Keller deserves to get away with what he did or pay a price.
What separates Prisoners from other common thrillers, and what must have appealed to such an all-star cast, is the raised level of characterization on display. Jackman’s (Les Miserables) intensity is searing, as is his character’s sense of pain and futility. By all accounts, this is the best acting work Jackman has done in his career. Keller’s determination is all consuming, pushing away his doubts with his reliable pool of anger. Everyone is failing him so he feels he must take matters into his own hands, and the film does a fine job of relating his frustrations and urgency. But Keller is also in danger of derailing the ongoing investigation, becoming a liability to finding his daughter. This predicament pushes Loki into the tricky role of having to defuse parental intrusion, pushing him into a role he loathes, having to tell a harrowed father to back off. Loki is also consumed with the case, causing plenty of internal tumult and chaffing with the inefficiency and miscommunication of the police force. Gyllenhaal (End of Watch) doesn’t play his character big; he keeps it at a simmer, with hints of rage below the surface. His character is certainly richer than the Driven Cop we’ve often seen. His character is given less moral ambiguity but you feel his frustration working within the system and hitting dead ends. These two performers are both ticking time bombs.
The rest of the supporting cast has a moment or two to shine, though the characters are given less to work with. Bello (Grown Ups 2) is hastily disposed of from a plot standpoint by making her practically comatose with grief. Davis (The Help) knows how to make the most of limited screen time (see her Oscar nominated performance in 2008’s Doubt as evidence), and she’s heartbreaking in her moments of desperate pleading. Howard (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) is meant as the foil to Keller, a voice of moral opposition, but Howard lets the gravity of his involvement in horrible acts hit you hard. Dano (Ruby Sparks) has the toughest part in many ways because of his character’s brokenness and the fact that he’s being tortured so frequently. It’s hard not to sympathize with him even if part of you suspects his guilt. Naturally, Dano is adept at playing weirdos. Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) is nearly unrecognizable as Alex’s older aunt caring for him. She’s prepared for the worst from the public but has some nice one-on-ones where she opens up about the difficulty of losing a child herself.
Prisoners is such a good mystery that it works itself into a corner to maintain it, ensuring that no real answer or final reveal will be satisfying, and it isn’t. I’m going to tiptoe around major spoilers but I will be delving into some specifics, so if you wish to remain pure, skip ahead. The culprit behind the child abductions, to put it mildly, is underwhelming and rather obtuse in their wicked motivation. The specified reason is to test people’s faith and turn them into monsters by abducting their children. This comes across as an awfully nebulous philosophical impetus, and it’s a motivating force that I find hard to believe even in the grimy, dark reality the movie presents. It just doesn’t feel grounded, more like a last-ditch conclusion to a TV procedural. However, what makes this ending worse is the false turns and red herrings that Prisoners utilizes. Every mystery requires some red herrings but they need to seem credible, and if executed properly, the characters will learn something useful through the false detour. The issue with Prisoners is that it establishes a secondary suspect that is so OBVIOUSLY the guilty guy, compounded with plenty of incriminating evidence including the missing children’s clothing covered in blood. When this suspect comes undone, his sketchy behavior starts to become a series of contrivances. They introduce a character that is too readily the guilty party, and then they just as easily undo him. And here’s another character of questionable motivation. Plus, there’s the central contrivance of having two characters that remain mute under all torturous circumstances unless the plot requires them to say something that can only be interpreted in an incriminating manner. These mounting plot contrivances, and an ending that wants to be ambiguous but in no way is, rob Prisoners of being the expertly crafted thriller it wants to be. It still hits you in the gut, but you’ll be picking it apart on the car ride home.
Grisly, morally uncomfortable, and genuinely gripping, Prisoners is a grownup thriller that isn’t afraid to go to dark places, with its characters and its plot. It hooks you early and keeps you on the hook, pushing its characters to make desperate decisions and asking you to think how you would perform under similar pressure. It’s a fascinating meta game and one that also adds extra intrigue to a rather intriguing mystery. It may not be revolutionary, but Prisoners is an above-average thriller with strong suspense and characterization. Where Prisoners stumbles is how it brings all this darkness to a close. The ending is rather perfunctory and not terribly satisfying; perhaps no ending would have been truly satisfying given the setup, but I’d at least prefer an alternative to the one I got, especially since it feels less grounded than the 140 minutes or so beforehand. It’s an ending that doesn’t derail the movie, but it certainly blunts the film’s power and fulfillment. Then again perhaps a word like “fulfillment” is the wrong term to use on a movie that trades in vigilante torture and the cyclical nature of abuse. In pursuit of perceived justice, what are we all capable of doing? The answer is likely surprising and disheartening for many, and Prisoners deserves credit for pushing its audience into uncomfortable positions and reflections.
Nate’s Grade: B
Never as good as a film should be given the talent involved, nor as bad as its detractors might have you believe, Cowboys & Aliens is an entertaining genre mash-up that’s about 60 percent Western, 30 percent alien thriller, and 10 percent naked Olivia Wilde, which is too small a percentage in my opinion. For a solid hour, the movie follows the rhythms of classic Westerns and Daniel Craig has a face vividly made for the Western canvas. The sci-fi elements feel well integrated in small doses, however, when the movie goes all-out intergalactic gun slinging is when the narrative gets swallowed whole by the crude blockbuster nature of this beast. The plot is pretty standard Man with a Dark Past stuff, and can we put a moratorium on people suffering amnesia and choosing to be better people? The characters never really feel real but they feel believably stock for their genre. For a PG-13 movie, the violence can get pretty gruesome, especially in its gooey disembodiment of the alien invaders. You almost feel sorry for these nefarious gold-hoarding (yes, you read that right, the aliens are after our gold – Glen Beck was right!) creatures. The action sequences are a notch above average, the emphasis on practical effects is appreciated, and the movie takes some darkly comic turns, which kept me amused even when the movie’s IQ was dropping at a precipitous rate for the last act. Cowboys & Aliens never pretends to be anything more, or smarter, than its blunt title.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The early frontiersmen lead difficult, backbreaking struggles as they migrated west to start anew. The pioneers had a perilous journey, and judging from Meek’s Cutoff, they had a hard time asking for directions. We follow a wagon train hopelessly lost in Eastern Oregon, blindly hoping they are getting ever closer to water. This awful movie feels about as adrift as the characters. Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) recreates pioneer life in obsequious detail, which means that for most of the interminably long 104 minutes we’re watching characters walk. And walk. And walk. Hey, now they’re doing something, nope back to walking. Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) has the most personality of this taciturn bunch, but I couldn’t have cared less about her lot. The movie is practically indignant about the narrative demands an audience has for its movies. This is not some arty examination on the treacherous nature of the human spirit, or some conceited claptrap like such. And in a growing trend of 2011 Sundance films, Meek’s Cutoff ends absurdly abrupt, just as the characters appeared at a crossroads and on the verge of mercifully doing something interesting. Instead, Reichardt ritualistically kills the movie on this spot, robbing the audience of any payoff after 104 minutes of fruitless and tiresome artistic masturbation. If I wanted to watch a recreation of frontier life without any regard to character or story, I’d watch the History Channel. This is an exasperating, maddening, crushingly boring movie that makes you feel trapped on that misbegotten wagon train.
Nate’s Grade: D
Imagine a James Bond movie from the point of view of the Bond girl. That’s the premise for the curiously titled Knight and Day, a mostly breezy action movie that really resembles a romantic comedy with guns. It works thanks to the chemistry between Cameron Diaz (Bond girl) and Tom Cruise (super agent). She’s engulfed in a sketchy international spy caper that is replete with typical stock characters (sleazy agents, kooky scientists, angry authority figures). The movie, under the direction of James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma), tried too hard to be lighthearted and can veer from confidant to indifferent. The film is told from Diaz’s point of view, which means there are chunks of the movie where the action occurs off screen, which will naturally disappoint people. There’s one montage where Diaz has been drugged and she keeps going in and out, waking up to a different dangerous situation. It’s meant to be satiric but it might also frustrate. The action sequences, on whole, are well paced and make use of their exotic locales. Knight and Day doesn’t fully work due to its leaps in tone from satire to sincere romance, the on/off switch for the law of physics, and introducing a secondary antagonist far too late in the film. Cruise lays out a full-on charm offensive. You’re reminded that this man is a movie star, and Cruise has fun tweaking that image as well as the public perception over his mental state. His character may be crazy after all, but Cruise is having serious fun and you might too watching the man with the million-dollar smile.
Nate’s Grade: B
Studio execs are always seen as the bad guys, right? They meddle in the affairs of artists, more concerned about dollar signs and marketing potential than in lasting, authentic artistic achievement. Director Spike Jonze, the most lauded video music director of all time, has gone through five years of trials to bring the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are to the big screen. He’s had his funding cut, he’s been dropped by one studio, and the second studio contemplated starting over from scratch after seeing an early cut of the movie. The studio heads were worried that Jonze’s take was too sullen and too scary for children. They asked for something a tad more uplifting about a boy that runs away to have adventures with giant monsters. Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers (Away We Go) insisted on their vision and stuck it out, and 18 months later, that vision is what made it to theaters. Having now seen Where the Wild Things Are, it pains me to accept that maybe those studio honchos had a point all along. Jonze’s film is eclectic and visually wondrous but this is not a children’s movie; this is a movie about childhood intended for thirty-something adults and film critics. And man, it’s a downer.
Based upon Maurice Sendak’s masterful 1963 book about an unruly child “sent to bed without supper,” we follow Max (Max Records), a nine-year-old on a tear through life. His older sister is growing up and hanging out with older friends, his dad is absent, and his mother (Catherine Keener) is trying to juggle work, kids, and having a life her own. One night she has a man over (Mark Ruffalo, in cameo form) and Max gets upset. His mother isn’t giving him the attention he feels he’s owed. So he acts out, bites his mother, and when she responds with genuine terror, he runs away. He finds a small boat and sails away across the ocean to a mysterious island. It is here that he encounters the titular wild things, giant beasts that act out in very similar ways. Max declares himself the king of the beasts and they accept. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini, a fabulously warm performance) is the happiest to have somebody new to play and listen. There’s also the small goat-creature Alexander (Paul Dano), the eagle Douglas (Chris Cooper), the elusive KW (Lauren Ambrose), and the married monster couple, the pushy Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and the subdued Ira (Forest Whitaker). Together they form an unorthodox family that still falls prey to in fighting and jealousies.
First off, Jonze does a magnificent job of creating the world of the wild things. The cinematography by Lance Acord (Lost in Translation) uses a lot of handheld cameras to trail after Max, communicating the kinetic energy of youth. The movie looks gorgeous but doesn’t resort to a self-conscious gloss. Acord makes the wilderness look inviting and dangerous. The wild things are amazing creatures to watch, brought to startling life by Jim Henson’s creature shop and seamless CGI artistry to provide facial expressions. If these creatures were purely computer generated, they would lose a sense of magic. Watching the furry suits interact with the real world brings so much more enjoyment to the movie. These giant creatures look real and intimidating. I liked the fact that there’s one character, The Bull, who just stands in the background alone, and the other wild thing monsters make a point of not noticing him. He’s the weird disaffected kid on the outside. I also appreciated that the movie doesn’t pander to make the monsters cute and cuddly. They continue to be scary. At one point Carol even chases after Max with the intent to eat him. Jonze and Eggers have made a movie about childhood that doesn’t coddle children. The production design by K.K. Barrett (Marie Antoinette) is nicely imaginative, though it only deals with a handful of stick huts. The fort that the wild things construct is fantastical, like an alien structure but made completely out of twigs.
Jonze and Eggers have made a movie all about the feelings of childhood; however, it seems that almost all of those feelings are negative. Sure Max bounces around with youthful energy, and his imagination goes to exuberant places, but the movie paints a broad picture of how painful and disappointing childhood can be. The movie doesn’t capture the wonder and excitement and possibilities of childhood; it focuses on the somber realities of what it’s like to be misunderstood, lonely, and incapable of changing anything. What about the pleasures of childhood? Even when Max engages in his fantastic creativity it usually leads to destruction and hurt feelings; everyone ends up in a worse place. A great example is in the opening sequence where Max tries to snare his older sister and her friends into a snowball fight. He gets them to play along and then everything is great, until the older kids accidentally take it too far and Max is left embarrassed, hurt, scared, and incredibly angry, which leads to lashing out, which then leads to regret and attempts to rationalize it as not his fault. This pattern is repeated throughout, where Max will get scared or confused and this triggers bouts of physical violence, like literally biting his mother. You might think his time on the island would be an escape, but really all of the monsters are manifestations of Max’s fractured psychology. KW represents his older sister’s approval so deeply longed for; Judith represents his defensiveness; Alexander represents his feelings of marginalization and helplessness; and Carol most closely resembles Max’s id, concerned that his family is falling apart, prone to jealousy and sudden violent outbursts when he doesn’t get his way. It all can make for an interesting psychoanalytical experience but it also can get tiresome. Listening to needy, whiny, morose monsters can be exasperating after awhile when there isn’t anything else resembling a plot. Where the Wild Things Are feels somewhat like Jonze and Eggers are subjecting everyone to their own therapy.
This shaggy, somewhat draggy movie has little else going on, so we watch Max boss around the monsters, commission colossal forts, run around, sleep in a big pile, and more or less try and hold a family together when they are moving in different directions. Things slow down a lot on this island. Max himself is a polarizing figure. Some people find him relatable, his pain and fears, and still others find him to be a wild brat. His behavior seems to go beyond that of a normal child acting out. I’m not going to prescribe the kid Ritalin, but me thinks there may be something else amiss with Max (am I alone in my diagnosis, people?). My wife and our friend Dan Hille both thought Max was an insufferable and unsympathetic brat who learned nothing by the end of the movie. I feel that Max has to have learned something, since his entire time spent on the island was him working out his troubles to gain a little more perspective. Records is a real find as a child actor, and he’s the only human onscreen for like 90 minutes. I thought he carried the movie ably enough and finely displayed the conflicting emotions of being nine years old.
Will you like Where the Wild Things Are? That’s difficult to surmise. It may depend upon whether you can identify with Max; I couldn’t for the most part. This is a much easier movie to admire than to like. There’s very little fun to be had. The movie has an implicit sense of loss and melancholy throughout. Children’s movies don?t need to be all happy endings and feel-good lessons, but then again they don’t also have to be densely Freudian. Childhood isn’t all innocence and rainbows, but it’s also not all rain clouds and emotional meltdowns and feelings of impotence. The movie presents childhood as an unyielding hell. I know other people love Where the Wild Things Are, and I respect that artistry Jonze and his crew brought to this movie, but I doubt I’ll ever watch this movie again in my life. For once, the studio execs had it right.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most gifted filmmakers working today, bar none. There Will Be Blood is only his fifth film and marks a radical departure from his intimate, inter-laced character dramas. Blood is an epic in size and scope and has been blessed with numerous awards and vehement praise. Critics say this film is one for the ages. My anticipation was fed to unhealthy proportions thanks to the hyperbolic praise and Anderson’s track record of audacious visionary cinema. There Will Be Blood is certainly audacious, and not just with its bladder-testing running length. This lethargic throwback to 1970 filmmaking exists for the purpose of a single performance and neglects other important tenets of storytelling. At 158 minutes, I can safely assume for many that there will be boredom with There Will Be Blood.
Our first glimpse of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is in the pit of a hole. It’s 1898 and Plainview is chipping away at the earth looking for scraps of silver. His meager beginnings set the stage for other mining prospects when, on the hunt for silver, he discovers even bigger riches – oil. Thanks to the advancing automobile age, the world has a thirst for oil that knows no bounds and makes Plainview a wealthy man. He’s an unscrupulous business figure that trots around his “son” HW (Dillion Freasier) as one more angle to fleece gullible townsfolk out of their property rights. HW’s father died in a drilling accident when he was a baby and Plainview has looked after him since.
One day Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) enters Plainview’s office and is willing to name a prime piece of land that oozes oil. Plainview agrees to pay Paul his sum and heads out with crew to Little Boston, California. The small town is easily enamored by Plainview’s promises of riches and prosperity. He purchases as much tracts of land as he can and begins drilling for that valuable black liquid. Eli Sunday (also Dano) is Paul’s twin brother; he wishes to build a church and become a prominent religious figure for his town. He sees the oil as his ticket to a throng of adoring congregants that will do his bidding. Oil is struck and several parties vie for dominance.
I fear that Blood may be too languid for its own good. I’m all about allowing a film to take its time to establish a world and the people that inhabit it, and to its credit Blood spectacularly recreates turn-of-the-century America and the craze for oil. The cinematography and production design are stunning in gorgeously recreating a bygone era with such dusty detail. The film is packed with evocative imagery that will linger in your memory, like a burning oil derrick that feels like someone just drilled down to hell. The mixture of smoke, fire, and oil set amidst the hazy twilight is a remarkable sight. Visually speaking, this movie is close to flawless.
The nascent plot is what hampers Anderson’s Blood from reaching masterwork territory. The focus is on a misanthropic man who despises people and wants only to seclude himself, and yet he has genuine affection for his son until Daniel feels betrayed by his ambitions. I understand that the movie is a far-reaching character study, and Daniel Plainview is a fascinating and ferocious character, a perfect yet perplexing combination of greed and ambition, but I feel like Anderson has spent so much thought on his characters and forgotten to write a story around them. The silent, early portion of Blood gives us a quick summation of how Plainview rose to fortune and power and it’s rather compelling how much story comes across with no words of dialogue. This wordless pattern seeps into [i]Blood[/i] and there are stretches here and there where you may not hear a wisp of dialogue for, oh, 15 minutes, but by this point the movie is beyond setting up its storytelling universe. Again, I have no issues with the use of silence to convey meaning and metaphor, but it feels downright neglectful for Anderson to have concocted such intense, lively portraits of people and then to encase them in a void of speech.
Significant human interaction is kept to a minimum and I couldn’t help but feel that the movie was uncomfortably coasting without conflict for too long. Blood sets up Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview as rivals, two men intent on grabbing power and the upper hand. The film takes a winding path to set these players in motion but I was encouraged that now, finally with two adversaries pitted together, the film would kick into another level and showcase a violent struggle worthy of a titan like Plainview. I recall every summary I read of There Will Be Blood noting that Eli is the thorn in Plainview’s side for many years and that their feud took up the bulk of the labored running time. This does not happen at all. Eli drops out for long stretches of plot and is forgotten unless Anderson feels that the character needs to be shoehorned back into the central drama at arbitrary points. This is no battle either, it’s all one-sided; Plainview handles Eli without breaking a sweat. With this in mind, I’m puzzled at how the conflict between Eli and Plainview was supposed to take center stage. Anderson had such wonderful potential to paint a doomed rivalry that eclipsed both men, but instead the external conflict only appears whenever Anderson desires some new sounding board for Plainview. That means that Blood can go for what feel like entire acts before it appears that conflict will be introduced or elaborated upon. There is a vacuum of story here and Eli Sunday, as written and performed, is far too submissive and easily beaten to present any formidable challenge.
Why present characters at odds if you’re not going to push them further? Why write such vivid and amoral characters if you’re going to have them sit out or stay still? Plainview is the star of the show, I get that, but that isn’t an excuse for underwriting every single other character in an entire 158-minute movie. There are no intriguing character dynamics in this movie. Eli Sunday is forgotten. HW presents the closest insight into the humanity (what’s left) of Plainview, but the character is treated like a mute doll and when HW unexpectedly leaves the story so too does the only significantly interesting emotional relationship. Anderson establishes that greed comes in all shapes and sizes, be it an oil tycoon or a false prophet feasting on the coffers of his congregation. There is great thematic tension between the spiritual and the material but it never comes to a head. I kept waiting for confrontation but what Blood kept dishing out time and again was willful stagnation.
The extended ending forces a marginally contrived final reunion between Eli and Plainview but it doesn’t feel like any sort of payoff. The brutish and abrupt finale will cause many to scratch their heads and say, “That’s it?” until their scalps bleed. It’s a rather unsatisfying end for a film that boasted such grand ambitions.
The musical score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood certainly wasn’t bad but it definitely did not mesh with the movie. Greenwood’s score consists mostly of a cacophony of violin strings buzzing about like a swarm of angry bees. The score seems to have a life of its own, intruding upon the scene at whim and upstaging character dialogue at times. The mixture of shrieking violins and some heavy percussion makes the movie feel less like a costume drama and more like a horror movie. The score seems to percolate and signify approaching danger. The score is also overly redundant and feels unnaturally paired to There Will Be Blood. It’s a marriage that doesn’t ever match.
Day-Lewis doesn’t act often in movies and when he does it’s usually something special. His performance in Blood is outstanding, and it better be, because the film is built exclusively around his performance. He is an angry man bent on crushing opponents and making sure no one else gets sight of success. Day-Lewis is an immense talent and can dabble with multiple emotions with sheer, sightless subtlety. His distinct manner of speaking is finely attuned, though sometimes I felt like I was watching the world’s longest, and best, Jack Palence impersonation.
The other actors fall victim to the one-man show nature of the narrative. Dano comes across as miscast. He seems too youthful and ineffectual for the role. When he’s beaten and bullied his voice goes into a high-pitch squeal that is not becoming for the character. Dano’s acting takes the empty characterization one step further and removes any audience empathy.
Going by the repeated slam that Anderson is less a visionary and more a regurgitation of homage, if Boogie Nights was his Scorsese movie, Magnolia his Altman movie, Punch-Drunk Love his French New Wave movie, then There Will Be Blood is his Kubrick movie. It’s a plodding, challenging, and idiosyncratic movie that hits universal themes like family, greed, desire, and vengeance but does so in a small-scale story that feels intimate and epic simultaneously. The movie is dripping with artistic integrity and breathtaking filmmaking ability; however, it’s also a crushing disappointment. Anderson is a gifted writer/director with few contemporary peers, but he strands such vivid characters in a dessert of storytelling. There is little external conflict and the characters feel neglected or too easily forgotten. The focus is one misanthropic man but the film shortchanges him by not supplying additional substantial characters or conflict. Perhaps There Will Be Blood will stand the test of time and be the classic or landmark that critics are wetting themselves to declare it. It’s just simple economics in my mind: a character study cannot fully resonate without a strong network of supporting characters and/or lasting conflict. I have never been let down by a Paul Thomas Anderson film yet but I suppose there’s a first for everything.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Slowly but surely, Little Miss Sunshine is gaining momentum as the breakout comedy of the summer. It’s gotten some of the most glowing reviews of the year and is poised to capture the hearts of not just fans of indie cinema but also patrons of the big suburban multiplexes, your red state soccer moms and NASCAR dads. After having seen Little Miss Sunshine, I feel like I must have missed the bandwagon.
Little Olive (Abigail Breslin) is bursting with shriek-worthy excitement. She just found out she’s a regional contestant in the national Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant. Her family crams into a beaten down, canary yellow Volkswagen bus and heads off on a cross-state journey for Olive. Along for the ride are Olive’s fractured family — older brother (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a fighter pilot, stressed-out but supportive mom (Toni Collette), ambitious self-help failure dad (Greg Kinnear), a potty-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandpa (Alan Arkin), and a suicidal gay uncle (Steve Carell). It’s a long road to the pageant, especially with such an eclectic group of people whose only thing in common are their chromosomes.
I just couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that Little Miss Sunshine should be more. It’s not really much of a comedy. There are some funny moments, and pushing the bus is a running gag with better legs than I would have guessed, but the film has a lot of stretches where the laughs are low to nonexistent. It’s not really much of a character piece either. None of the characters are that well defined or allowed to stretch out. The family members are all archetypes of indie film weirdness: the gay intellectual, the verbally inappropriate grandparent, the self-deluded father, the frazzled mother, the loner brother, and the precocious tyke. Little Miss Sunshine does a fine job of setting up its family of cracked characters but then seems to twiddle its thumbs when it comes to development. The only character insights come in a scattered few small moments with Olive. Dad is essentially poisoning his family with his self-help claptrap, casting the world into “winners” and “losers.” There’s a heartfelt moment brilliantly played Breslin where she confesses to grandpa that she doesn’t want to be a loser because her dad would stop loving her. Aside from that, Little Miss Sunshine seems to wind its characters up and then leave them be. I wanted more of just about everything but the movie wouldn’t budge.
The movie spends quite arguably too much time at the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Child beauty pageants are a well deserved, albeit easy, satirical punching bag, and they creep the hell out of me. Seriously, turning little girls into highly sexualized Barbie dolls seems cruel, unnatural, and very very creepy to me. There was a stupendous documentary that aired on HBO years ago called Living Dolls that traced the life of a six-year-old girl and her stage mother. It was a harrowing film, and the obsessive mother is one of the most disturbing villains I’ve ever seen in a movie, scripted or otherwise. In the film you see how people transform little girls into flirty, overly made-up little adults. It’s sickening.
The reason I bring this up is because Little Miss Sunshine because they lift a direct metaphor. In Living Dolls the main girl is playing one of those tiny slide puzzles where the finished result is an honest to God yellow smiley face. It’s a perfect metaphor of this child attempting to find happiness when no one seems to want her to live as a child. And then I saw the exact same moment in Little Miss Sunshine. Rip-off or accidental homage, you decide. In the same vein, every time Kinnear invokes the name of his literary agent, Stan Grossman, I kept thinking of Fargo.
In Sunshine, the family is aghast at the pageant scene but support Olive anyway. Then things get way too easy. The film concludes with the 5,785th rendition of the weirdos celebrating what makes them who they are, their weirdness, and sticking it to the thumb-nosing naysayers. Then the movie abruptly ends. That’s all, folks. Little Miss Sunshine was already built on the aching backs of two very familiar indie staples, dysfunctional families and road trips, and offers little else to justify its existence.
It’s hard to really drag this film through the mud. It was proficiently made by the music video directing team of Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris (Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight Tonight). The acting is generally good. The better actors rise to the top despite their limited character depth. Carell is a big name in comedy right now, and he gives a rather subdued, sarcastic performance that will resonate best with audiences. Kinnear is better at playing smug types than pathetic types. His character really is the villain of the piece, so it’s nice to see his transformation even if it is awfully spontaneous. Collette always looks to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Breslin (Signs) is pretty cute and will pierce your heart during the aforementioned talk with grandpa.
There are some amusing moments and fun pieces of dialogue, and the film has its heart in the right place. The screenplay needed to go through a few more drafts to strengthen character and story. I can honestly say my favorite part of Little Miss Sunshine was listening to its very Sufjan Stevens-like soundtrack full of meloncholic horns, cellos, violins, squeezebox and electronic whispers. I would recommend the soundtrack ahead of the movie.
I feel some shades of guilt as I gather my opinion, however I cannot deny the overwhelming urge that Little Miss Sunshine should have been more. It needed more comedy, more character depth, more attention to story, and more opportunity for its ensemble of actors to sink their teeth into the material. This appointed indie darling is intermittingly amusing, has some laughs, and may be worth a free afternoon or as a rental. To me, it’s also a big example of wasted potential. Little Miss Sunshine is a beauty that needs more work before it can shine on a greater stage.
Nate’s Grade: C+