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Almost Famous [Review Re-View] (2000)

Released September 13, 2000:

Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.

Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15-year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.

The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.

The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.

Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Cameron Crowe was a filmmaker on a hit streak from his debut as a screenwriter (Fast Times and Ridgemont High), to his debut as a writer/director (Say Anything) and throughout the 1990s, culminating in his greatest achievement, the Oscar-winning and semi-autobiographical Almost Famous in 2000. This is without question the pinnacle of Crowe’s career and he deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for a movie that feels so assuredly magical, textured, and lived-in, an authentic trip down one’s memory that doesn’t lose itself to empty nostalgia but reminds the viewer about the genuine appeal and connection of art, the ramshackle families it can build, and a shifting sense of self under construction that can provide armor and security. And strangely enough it was all dramatically downhill for there for the former hitmaker. Crowe followed up with 2001’s Vanilla Sky, a messy remake of a Spanish sci-fi head-scratcher, and then a slew of movies about bland, melancholy dudes going home to restart their cratering personal lives with the help of a good, patient woman, from 2005’s Elizabethtown, to 2011’s We Bought a Zoo, to 2015’s Aloha (infamously known as the film where Emma Stone plays a woman of Chinese descent). A “Cameron Crowe film” stopped becoming something you looked forward to, and then they stopped even happening. The man who made big studio comedies with big heart had seemed to lose his infallible touch. His last industry credit is creating the one-season Showtime TV series Roadies, following the lives of its subjects on a tour, and it felt clearly like he’s trying to tap back into his own past success. Still, if your career high point is Almost Famous, then it’s a mighty fine pinnacle that many would kill to have as their finest hurrah. It was even turned into a theatrical musical in Britain in 2019.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve revisited Almost Famous and in doing so for this twenty-year review I’ve now also watched the movie for the first time, so to speak. I didn’t realize I had found myself the 160-minute director’s cut (labeled “The Bootleg Cut”). I had always intended to watch this extended edition but never got around to it, and now having done so, I can’t imagine another version that better portrays the highs and lows of this story. The extra (approximately) 40 minutes are mostly extended scenes, conversations that carry on a little longer, pauses that feel more resonant, stories that have more shape, and an epic coming-of-age script set amidst the wonderful landscape of late 70s rock and roll music that now feels even more wonderfully alive. If you were a fan of the 122-minute theatrical version, I have to imagine you’ll be delighted by even more time spent in the company of these characters and inside this amiable world.

Crowe’s screenplay pools from his own personal experiences as a young reporter for Rolling Stone who traveled with The Allman Brothers Band as well as several famous anecdotes with real-life rock bands. The turbulent airplane that motivates conscious-clearing confessions was from Alice Cooper’s band with Crowe onboard. The guitarist almost being electrocuted onstage was from KISS. The journalist being pulled into the offstage pre-show huddle happened to Crowe by Pearl Jam. The “I am a golden god” line is taken from Robert Plant yelling on a hotel balcony. Lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is based on Glenn Fry of The Eagles, and the illustrious Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is an amalgamation of multiple women. But far from just feeling like a muddled recounting of hazy personal stories, Crowe has done something rare and has melded his own experiences, and the rumors and legends of rock and roll, and transformed them into a movie that is universal, accessible, and brimming with gentle wisdom and hard-won joy. It’s both optimistic and pessimistic, generously character-based but also clearly goal-oriented in William’s (Patrick Fugit) quest to get his long-delayed interview and to write his breakthrough article. It’s an easy movie to fall in love with because Crowe has so expertly put in all the care needed for you to simply immerse yourself in this world and become awash in feeling.

It’s a canvas of insecure people using one another for personal gain. Legendary music critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) warns young William that rock stars are not to be trusted; they only want to make him feel special so they’ll get a good article in return. The Sweetwater band is wary of William and the power he wields, as well as his discretion with what he sees and experiences with them on the road. Russell may or may not be in love with Penny Lane and desires her comfort, but he’s also a perpetual one-foot-out-the-door kind of guy, striking up repeated threats to abandon the band and strike out on a solo career. Penny Lane is so obviously in love with Russell but committed relationships might run afoul of her free spirit sensibilities and her wish to be able to blow up her life and start over at a moment’s notice, channeling a new fantasy life. Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is distrustful of anyone that might sabotage the band and his ascent. He feels inferior to Russell’s talent. Manager Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) wants to prove himself capable in direct competition with the much more connected and professional manager, Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon). The “band-aid” ladies desire proximity to fame, as well as indirectly serving as muses for the music they love. The band just “wants to look cool.” There’s so much broiling interpersonal conflict colliding, and that’s not even accounting for William’s intense, tenacious overly protective mother (Frances McDormand) who has sheltered him for his life and worries herself sick. All of these people have vibrant interior lives and are trying to project a best-case version of themselves. The illusion of rock and roll, media, and objectivity, personal and professional, eventually fades.

The performances were career-defining for many of the actors involved, two of whom were nominated for Oscars (McDormand and Hudson), but I want to first talk about Hoffman’s performance because, even though it is brief, I consider it one of his best in a storied career of great performances. Lester’s a cynic who believes rock and roll has long died from commercialization and is populated with phonies eager to taste the sweet life by any means. He’s dubious about William’s aims but becomes a trusted ally and pillar of support during his moments of doubt. He’s been where William has, swooned by interview subjects to diffuse his objectivity (“Friendship is the booze they feed you”). I think he sees himself in William and his desire to write about the industry he loves. Their final exchange is, quite simply, some of the finest writing that has ever existed in cinema. Lester connects with William over their shared “uncool” status, culminating in his greatest advice: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Hoffman starts his performance with breakneck cynicism and then by the end he’s become one of the most genuine believers in the power of human connection. The fact that Hoffman was deadly sick with the flu throughout his shooting days only makes his performance even more astonishing. While the rock and roll shenanigans prove fun, the realest relationship for me with Almost Famous was between these two “uncool” guys bonding.

Crudup (Watchmen) and Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) are so inexorably connected in their performances because their relationship forms one of the movie’s most heartfelt and heart-breaking storylines. Penny Lane is such an instantly transcendent character, drawing others into her orbit and lifting up the orphans of this world into a new family. She’s more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term first coined in response to Crowe’s film, Elizabethtown); in fact, she’s never really manic in behavior. She wears heavy fur coats, conducts herself like the ringleader of a circus, and ensnares hearts and minds. She envisions herself as a muse, a lover of music, a spiritual guide for musicians to reach new heights, and definitely not just some “groupie.” However, she can’t help but circlle Russell and go against all her better instincts of playing it safe. Her reaction to hearing the news that Russell and the band “sold her” in a card game for beer is a beautifully underplayed moment for Hudson. Penny takes in the hard news, not wanting her carefree veneer to crack, then slightly dabs at a tear rolling down her cheek, adding with a crack of bemusement, “What kind of beer?” It’s so crushing in how underplayed the moment comes across, but you can tell Penny has been deeply wounded, things have gotten too real, and inside she’s rolling (“I always tell the girls, never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriously, ya never get hurt, ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”). Hudson makes it inevitable that you will fall in love with Penny Lane just as rapidly as William. It’s a shame Hudson has been castigated to disposable rom-com junk for much of her career since breaking out.

Likewise, Crudup’s performance has much more self-awareness than anyone else, even when he’s flailing. He senses he’s not meeting his potential and that can cover his love life as well. He’s married but doesn’t seem too committed to maintaining those boundaries. He enjoys the fame and adulation of being a rock musician but wants more. At the same time, he desires truth, real-ness, and after being called out for his selfish stances, Russell flees the confines of the hotel with William and mingles with the “real people” at a house party. It’s a great little aside for the movie and one of the funnier sequences especially as William is forced into playing keeper. The sequence is a fun escape but it’s also emblematic of the contradiction of Russell as a character. He desires truth but cannot be fully honest with himself, his desires, and his own failings. Crudup is laid back and disarming as he opens up to Russell while still admonishing himself for doing so. By the end, the movie isn’t about William getting the girl, as my friend I saw the film with had hoped, but it’s about William getting his long-elusive interview, and by the end they’re both a little wiser, a little more world-weary, and the ending comes down to these two men and their shared love, not for Penny Lane, but for music itself and what it means to them. Originally Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley were set to play the roles of Russell and Penny Lane, and I cannot imagine both actors being able to out-perform who eventually filled these roles.

Fugit (Gone Girl) was the avatar for the audience and is far more reactionary, taking in the rock and roll lifestyle with so many strange and amusing people. We’re meant to be seduced like he is, and when he hits a personal high, we feel the same elation, like his first night as a journalist when he’s practically dancing back to his mother’s car. That entire plight of William trying to get into the Black Sabbath concert is a supremely written scene how it unfolds. Crowe spends the first 15 minutes of the movie to establish key family drama for William, including the fact that his college professor mother has accelerated his academics and lied about his age. He’s really two years younger than his peers, and I wondered why even include this aspect into the movie. You could readily tell the same story with a 17-year-old William as you could a 15-year-old William. Then I realized that this opening establishes William as always feeling out of place, of trying to catch up to an adulthood he might not be prepared for, and for having to cover an insecurity over his own identity. He’s looking to remake himself just as much as Penny Lane and the Stillwater musicians. Fugit feels like a young discovery without ever getting big moments to steal attention. His performance anchors the film while also being able to be invisible, our eyes and ears into this rarefied realm. I’m a little surprised he didn’t have as big a career as he deserved after Almost Famous, mostly sticking with quirky indie ensembles (Saved!, Wristcutters). He did play as Owen in the deeply polarizing Last of Us Part II video game, a fact might just set off more than a few readers into rage spirals.

Almost Famous is the kind of movie that has so much going on yet never strays far from its artistic aims, instead taking time to better flesh out re-creating this late 70s showbiz world and the supporting characters. Even a joke character like Fairuza Balk’s “band-aid #3” part gets to have a moment to shine, like when she answers a phone call from William’s mother. She of course blurts out something she shouldn’t, confirming the drug-fueled atmosphere of the mother’s alarmist fears, but then she realizes her miscue and corrects herself. Balk’s character (Sapphire) congratulates the mother on raising William to be a very respectful and good child, lamenting how rare such a thing is becoming, and relating some of her own family experiences. Then, as a comic capper, she ends the call by saying, “Oh, and this is the maid,” and hangs up. A small moment like that serves a plot purpose, amplifying the worry of William’s mother, but it can also be an opportunity for a small character to take the spotlight to make an impression. That is the gorgeous result of Crowe’s writing, that every scene has multiple levels going on, all connected to character and theme.

This is such a bounty of a movie ether at 122 minutes or 160 minutes. It’s an affectionate, humane tale that draws you in with its warmth and genial insights. In my original review, I compared Almost Famous to receiving a hug and, twenty years later, that’s exactly the same kind of feeling I got watching. I was smiling, I was laughing, and I felt nourished by Crowe’s creative opus. It’s a special movie and one that is exactly of its time but also timeless. You can pop this film on again and drift away, and that’s the transporting power of storytelling, acting, and directing all working harmoniously in sync to create a movie that feels just as satisfying as it did in 2000. My original review didn’t go into many specifics, and was a little too overblown about McDormand’s performance, but even at 18 years old, seeing this movie early as part of a college orientation with new friends in my life, I got the big things right. This movie sings.

Re-View Grade: A

Mulan (2020)

The new Mulan looked like something I’ve been begging for in this surging era of live-action Disney remakes, namely something different. I don’t need inferior live-action versions to shorter animated classics, and as Disney enters into a more modern trove of remakes, the courage to adapt becomes noticeably less. There’s a reason the 2019 Lion King was simply a sludgier, superfluous version that was beat-for-beat the same, and it’s called $1.5 billion dollars worldwide. People want their nostalgia as they remember it, thank you very much. The Mulan remake looked to be taking a different route; it eliminated the songs, the comic relief sidekicks, and overt supernatural characters. It was going to be more serious, more mature, and more action-packed, and I was all for it. The release was pushed back several months due to COVID and finally lands on Disney+ but at an extra cost. I would advise fans to wait. This new Mulan 2020 isn’t worth your time and it’s certainly not worth an additional $30 to be disappointed by.

Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a young maiden in old China who has trouble fitting into how society says a woman should behave. The Emperor (Jet Li) orders all families to supply one male into the royal army to combat Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his powerful witch, Xianniang (Gong Li). Mulan takes her family armor and poses as a man to take the place of her ailing father. She wants to serve but she’s also hungry for adventure, and over the course of her training, she will come to fully understand her real power.

I knew within minutes that this movie was in trouble. In a flashback, we watch young Mulan chasing after a chicken, not listening to her father, causing havoc and consternation from neighbors, but then she effortlessly climbs to the roof of her neighborhood and then, as she falls off, is effortlessly able to recapture her balance and land perfectly like she was Spider-Man. From there, the first act tells us that Mulan is not just a super-powered being of high chi (think midi-chlorians and The Force) but also potentially the Chosen One (like Anakin Skywalker) and she must hide her real power to… not bring disgrace to her family? I’m sorry but this makes little sense. I understand the oppressive cultural expectations for women at this time and how women’s real value, as judged by their society, was through marriage and child-rearing. However, we’re now in a world of magic where living super-powered beings walk among us (mutants in X-Men), but rather than valuing this, it’s shunned because she’s a girl? That seems even more preposterous to me. The screenplay followed the Captain Marvel feminist theme and it’s about a woman finally coming into her own power, shunning the restraints, and embracing her full potential against the wishes of frightened men. If after reading all of this that sounds like a good start for a movie, let alone a live-action remake of Mulan, then have at it, dear reader. For me, this began as a thematic and tonal mess that didn’t get better. By making Mulan a super-powered being it eliminates her relatability and the stakes of the movie. She’s no longer an ordinary girl who struggles to do her best. Now she’s essentially a god who just has to turn on her powers and subdue easily outmatched opponents. That’s a significant loss and mistake.

If you were going to be a martial arts epic where characters have super powers, then be that movie and give me epic showdowns between epic warriors. Give me a heavy dose of magic realism and eye-popping imagery. Chinese cinema has plenty of examples of these kinds of movies in recent years. One needs to only start cycling through the filmography of Zhang Yimou for spellbinding supernatural martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers and 2018’s Shadow. If you’re going to be a heightened world of extraordinary combat, then build your movie around that tonal decision and start from there. In Mulan 2020, people exist with amazing abilities but nobody treats this with the recognition it deserves. There appears to be a prevalent form of sexism as powerful men are seen as impressive but powerful women are seen as frightening and dangerous, often derided as witches. There was room for exploration of Gong Li’s (2046, Memoirs of a Geisha) character and the parallels with Mulan, both women feared for their powers and apparent threat to a hierarchy that wants to exploit them but not include them. My girlfriend was irate throughout the viewing and pointed specifically at the witch character and declared, “They’re going to give her a lame redemption story where she sacrifices herself at the end to save Mulan, and I will hate it.” And boy oh boy did she hate it.

Alas, Mulan 2020 cannot sustain itself as a supernatural martial arts epic. As an action spectacle, every moment is shortchanged, which is not good when you have a whopping $200 million budget. The action consists of a handful of characters, at most, and only a short display of activity. There are no strong action set pieces and well-developed sequences that keep your excitement pumping. There is some acceptable fight choreography here and there but little to tickle the imagination or approach the poetry of something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don’t know if director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) feels confident enough as an action director of big visual spectacle, and that uncertainty leaks throughout the finished film. Take for instance camera movements meant to be stylish but instead becomes perplexing. As our big bad villain and his crew ride toward the outer walls of a village, they leap from their horses and ascend the walls, and the camera shifts 90 degrees to follow the movement smoothly. That’s a good stylistic choice. Then mere seconds later, as they reach the top, the camera will abruptly shift again 90 degrees, then back again, but the characters haven’t shifted their stances or perspectives. Caro has taken a stylistic flourish that had meaning and seems to be hitting it again and again, but without the earlier context, it becomes confusing, arbitrary, and annoying, and it happens multiple times. Because the movie doesn’t fully embrace being a martial arts spectacle, when it does employ super human tricks, it runs the risk of being goofy. Mulan has several moments where she kicks flying arrows into her foes as if she was a soccer player setting up a wicked trick shot. I welcomed a martial arts epic version of Mulan but the filmmakers were too timid to commit.

There are several moments that left me scratching my head in the adaptation process. Take for instance Mulan deciding to take her father’s place. In the animated film, it’s a big moment and we watch her slice her hair with her ancestral sword, put on her father’s armor, and it’s treated like the big character-defining moment that the story demands. It’s like watching a superhero transform and suit up for battle. In Mulan 2020, this moment is denied to us and we skip to her turning around already in armor and riding off. Why? Why wouldn’t you want to savor and dwell in a moment of great drama and a turning point for the character? Likewise, late in the movie, once Mulan accepts her destiny and not to compromise her powers, she strips her father’s armor piece by piece and flings it off herself while riding into battle. I understand the symbolism of her stripping away the uniform of entrenched masculinity but two things: wasn’t this her family’s armor that meant something of value, and isn’t wearing armor a good defense in a battle? What’s the point of removing the supernatural ancestral elements from the animated film to simply give Mulan a flying phoenix that mainly serves as a cursor to point her in the right direction?

Let me open up one head-scratcher and how it could have been resolved. Mulan has a younger sister but her inclusion is practically meaningless. Mulan’s parents worry about her capability of being docile and husband-material, but they have the younger sister who will serve their needs. The movie doesn’t present the younger sister’s perspective. She’s just a bonus daughter. It’s a confounding creative decision but I think, with a little more shaping, it would have justified itself. This sister could have been resentful of her big sister, for being selfish and rejecting her eldest responsibilities that would protect their family. These duties now fall onto her with the added pressure of being the only daughter who has a chance of attaining a good marriage. This could and should cause friction between the sisters, a divide that can be healed over the course of the movie. Dearly missing from Mulan 2020 is the ability of its titular heroine to share herself. She doesn’t have her magic companions coaching her, so she has no audience to confide in. As a result, Mulan feels so impassive and inscrutable. My solution: she writes a series of letters to her sister to explain her actions as well as her day-to-day fears and hopes, and in doing so it opens up the Mulan character as well as provides an outlet where her sister can learn and relate to her. That would have worked, and it would have justified the younger sister in the narrative as well as provide Mulan herself with an ongoing opportunity for reflection, expression, and confession.

Sadly, I also had serious reservations about lead actress Yifei Liu (The Assassins, Forbidden Kingdom) from her first moment onscreen as the adult Mulan. Her line readings were overwhelmingly flat. This may well be a byproduct of her speaking English as opposed to Chinese, and on that front, why couldn’t this movie have been entirely Chinese and subtitled? I understand Disney would view a foreign language version as less profitable but if you’re going for a more serious, more grown-up version of Mulan set in ancient China, how about trusting Americans to read? Regardless, Liu certainly has the right look to anchor a movie but her acting is too stilted. There are many actors who have great martial arts skills (Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee) that aren’t called upon. Why hire actors with great fighting capability and then give them precious little to show off? My favorite performer in the movie was Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma, The Farewell).

After watching Mulan 2020, I then re-watched the 1998 animated original, and my opinion of the live-action remake sank even lower. The animated film has it beat in every measure. The mixture of drama and comedy is deft, the emotional core of the character is fierce, and the supporting characters have distinct and discernible personalities, and the songs aren’t too shabby either. The villain is more menacing and has those very necessary moments to establish their villainy. The bad guys in Mulan 2020 have no memorable moments that make you go, “Oh, that’s a baddie.” Plus, the hand-drawn animation is beautiful and allows far more emotional expression for the characters, making it even more transporting but also engaging. If you’re a fan of the original, I cannot see how you will enjoy Mulan 2020, and if you paid $30 for that opportunity, I imagine you’ll be even more incensed. If it was going to be different, the new Mulan needed to fully embrace those differences and develop its new big screen story to be best suited as a martial arts epic for older viewers. If it was going to make Mulan a superhero, it needed to embrace this decision and heighten the world, mixing in fantasy foundations. The moments needed to matter and be a reflection of our heroine’s emotional journey. Mulan 2020 is a frustrating disappointment and another reminder for myself that live-action Disney remakes will rarely, if ever, even come close to recreating the charm and magic of their predecessors.

Nate’s Grade: C

Greyhound (2020)

I’m fairly certain I now know what my father’s favorite movie of 2020 will be. Greyhound is a World War II movie set in the cold, grey waters of the mid Atlantic and follows a cat-and-mouse game between an Allied convoy and a German submarine pack in 1942. Tom Hanks plays the beleaguered U.S. Navy captain of the Greyhound making his first voyage and the long, hard-fought campaign over five days without air cover. I wish I could have seen this in theaters with the added benefit of the immersive screen, the rumbling sound system, and my father as company. While often exciting and well rendered with visual effects, the movie isn’t so much a movie as it is a DLC video game campaign. Ostensibly this is a movie about heroic qualities like leadership and sacrifice and bravery, but it’s really all about tactics and historical realism. It reminds me of those Civil War movies in the 1990s that appealed to battle re-enactors. This feels like it’s made for the same crowd; not moviegoers looking for engaging characters and compelling drama but moviegoers looking for period jargon and historical accuracy, things incidental to storytelling. The climax comes at 75 minutes and the end credits at 81. The battle sequences can be thrilling and feel reverent to a fault, but what emotional engagement is this movie supposed to offer to someone who doesn’t fill their weekends watching streams of WWII documentaries? What characters am I to connect with? It’s not bad by any means but it also feels like it never even tries to be more than a visual manual for naval warfare. I kept thinking my own father would enjoy this movie. He happily watched the many, many hours of those Ted Turner-produced Civil War movies that paid fawning homage to the military tactics and realism (within reason, they were PG-13 after all) at the expense of character and story. The story is the battle, the characters are stuck as interchangeable faces, and the real star is the depth of historical fidelity. It almost feels like it should simply be the epic visual accompaniment to a series of talking heads for a WWII television documentary. Greyhound is an exciting experience, not much of an actual story, but it might be the most “dad movie” of 2020 if your father is anything like mind.

Nate’s Grade: B

Gladiator (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released May 5, 2000:

Director Ridley Scott has given the world of cinema some of its most unforgettable visual experiences. But can Scott breath new life into a genre whose heyday was when a badly dubbed Steve Reeves oiled his chest and wrestled loincloth-clad extras in the 1950s?

The year is roughly 180 AD and Rome is just finishing up its long-standing assault on anything that moves in the European continent. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) merely wants to retire back to his loving family and get away from the doom and war that has plagued his life. This is made all the more difficult when the ailing Emperor bypasses his treacherous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and decides to crown Maximus as the Defender of Rome. Because of this Commodus rises to power through bloody circumstances and has Maximus assigned to execution and his family crucified. You’d think crucifixion would be so passé by now. Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery and bought by a dirt-run gladiator training school. As he advances up the chain and learns the tricks of the primal sport he seeks but vengeance for his fallen family.

Gladiator is an absorbing and sweeping spectacle of carnage and first-rate entertainment. The action is swift and ruthlessly visceral. The first movie in a long time to literally have me poised on the edge of my seat. The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp.

What Gladiator doesn’t sacrifice to the muscle of effects and action is storytelling. Are you listening George Lucas? Gladiator may unleash the beast when the rousing action is loose, but this is coupled with compelling drama and complex characters. Phoenix may at first seem like a snotty brat with an unhealthy eye for his sister (Connie Nielsen), but the further Gladiator continues the more you see in his eyes the troubled youth who just wants the love of his father that was never bestowed to him. Maximus is a devoted family man who regularly kisses clay statues of his family while away, and must ceremoniously dust himself with the earth before any battle.

The acting matches every sword blow and chariot race toe-for-toe. Russell Crowe marks a first-rate staple of heroism. Every calculating glare he exhibits shows the compassion and ferocity of this warrior. He becomes a rare breed – an action hero who can think and actually act. Oliver Reed, in what sadly was his last role, turns in a splendid and charismatic turn as the head of the gladiator school of Fine Arts and Carnage. Mysteriously everyone carries a British accent closer to them then a toga two sizes too small. Even Crowe who is nicknamed “The Spaniard” speaks like he walked out of Masterpiece Theater.

The effects and visuals are a sumptuous feast. The aerial shots of Rome and the Coliseum are simply breath taking. Gladiator rivals American Beauty for the most rose petals used in a movie, except in this one they don’t shoot out of Mena Suvari’s breasts.

Ridley Scott’s track record may be hit or miss but Gladiator is definitely one sorely not to be missed.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

As Russell Crowe famously barked, “Are you not entertained?’ It was hard to argue in 2000 and it still holds true to this day. Gladiator was a big-budget throwback to the swords-and-sandals epics of old Hollywood. It was a box-office hit, made Crowe a star, and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture. My own elderly grandmother loved it so much that she saw it three times in a theater that summer, which was practically unheard of in her later years (she also, inexplicably, loved the 1999 Mummy movie). It was a millennial DVD staple. I can recall everyone on my freshman dorm hall owning it and hearing it on regular rotation. As studio projects were getting bigger with more reliance on CGI, Gladiator felt like a refreshing reminder on how powerful old stories can be with some modern-day polish. Re-watching Gladiator twenty years later, it still resonates thanks to its tried-and-true formula of underdog vengeance.

We all love a good story where we follow a wronged party seek to right those wrongs, plus we all love a good underdog tale, and given the pomp and circumstance of the gladiatorial arena, it’s easy to see how this movie was engineered to be a success from the page. This isn’t a particularly new story. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus mined the same territory with an even bigger scope, both in politics and in war, and there have been many movies covering the same history around the rise of Commodus, like 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Two Gladiators. We’ve seen this kind of story before even in this setting but that doesn’t matter. The familiarity with a story isn’t a hindrance if the filmmakers take their story seriously and make an audience care about its characters. It all comes down to execution. As long as the filmmakers don’t get complacent and take that formula familiarity for granted, old stories can have the same power they had for decades because, deep down, cooked in their structure, they just work.

Gladiator gives us everything we need to know by the conclusion of its first act, introducing us to Maximus, showing his leadership and loyalty, giving us the strained father-son relationship with Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, the expectations of the son of his ascendancy, the regrets of the father and hope for a return to a Republic, the reluctance of Maximus to be more than a general of Rome, and finally after the murder of the old emperor, a decisive choice for Maximus that challenges his morals and responsibility. From there, screenwriters David Franzoni (Amistad), John Logan (The Aviator), and William Nicholson (Les Miserables) put our hero and villain on parallel tracks heading for a collision. Maximus rises through the ranks of gladiators and builds a name for himself, getting called to the major leagues of bloodsport, and Commodus schemes to have his old enemy killed with increasingly dangerous trials in the Coliseum. It’s a natural progression and escalation, which makes the storytelling satisfying as it carries on. Gladiator never had a finished script when they began filming, which has become more common with big budget tentpoles with daunting release dates and rarely does this work out well. However, this is the exception (the screenplay was even nominated for an Oscar). It should be stated that the events of Gladiator pay very little to the actual history but fidelity is not necessary to telling a compelling story (the real-life Commodus rose to power after dear old dad died from plague). Use what you need, I say.

Ridley Scott was on an artistic hot streak during the start of the twenty-first century, directing three movies within one and a half years of release and earning two Oscar nominations. He wanted to veer Gladiator away from anything too cheesy of older swords-and-sandals epics, as reported. This isn’t about homoerotic wrestling with men in unitards (in Jerry Seinfeld voice: not that there’s anything wrong with that) and instead about the grit and superficial glory of Rome. The opening battle in Germania is meant to show Maximus in action but it also shows just how overpowering the Roman Empire was during this time period. They just massacre the remaining German tribe, and there’s a reason we don’t focus on battle strategy and instead on the chaos. The conclusion of the battle is a shaky camera mess of bodies and flames and dark shapes. It’s a bloody mess and not something to be glorified. Maximus is tired. His men are tired. Even Marcus Aurelius is tired of his decade-long conquering of a map, adding little inches to an already gargantuan territory. When is it all enough? When is war a self-perpetuating quagmire?

This same dismissive view over conquest and glory carries throughout. When Maximus becomes a slave, he must play the blood-thirsty appetites of the crowd to reach his goals. He disdains the theater of combat, the delaying of strikes simply to draw out the drama of two men fighting to the death. Later, these same venal interests of the mob form a protection for Maximus. He’s too popular to just be assassinated because the Roman people just love watching how he slays opponents. There’s an implicit condemnation of popular entertainment built around the suffering of others. Scott has a purpose for his depictions of violence, and you could even make the argument he is drawing parallels between the bloodthirsty crowds of the Coliseum and modern-day moviegoers screaming for violence. What are the human costs for this entertainment? It’s not explicitly stated, and some might even say this level of commentary for a movie awash in bloodshed makes any such condemnation hollow or hypocritical. Maybe. The violence feels like it has weight even when it can border on feeling like a video game stage with enemies to clear.

Crowe (The Nice Guys) was already making a name for himself as a rugged character actor in movies like L.A. Confidential and The Insider, but it was Gladiator that made him a Hollywood leading man, a title that he always seems to have felt uncomfortable with. Crowe wasn’t the first choice of Scott and the filmmakers (Mel Gibson turned Maximus down saying he was too old), but it’s hard to imagine another person in the role now. Crowe has a commanding presence in the film, an immediate magnetism, that you understand why men would follow him into hell. That flinty intensity plays into the action movie strengths, but there’s also a reflective side to the man, a sense of humor that can be surprising and rewarding. There’s more to Maximus than avenging his wife and child, and Crowe brings shades of complexity to an instantly iconic role. He finds the tired soul of Maximus when he could have simply been a kickass killing machine. Between Crowe’s three Best Actor nominations in a row from 1999-2001, I think he won for the wrong performance. It’s a shame Crowe hasn’t been nominated since, which seems downright absurd. People have forgotten what an amazing actor Crowe can be, singing voice notwithstanding (I need a sequel to Master and Commander please and thank you).

This was also a breakout role for Joaquin Phoenix (Her), who has risen to become one of the most celebrated and chameleon-like actors of his generation. The character of Commodus is your classic example of an entitled child who doesn’t understand why people don’t like him. He’s a sniveling villain prone to temper tantrums (“I am vexed. I am very vexed”). Much like his co-star, Phoenix finds layers to the character rather than resting on a stock villain characterization. He’s really the jealous son who envies the preference and love given to Maximus, first from his father, then from his widowed sister (Connie Nielsen), and then from the Roman people. He whines that they love Maximus in a way he will never deserve. It’s hard not to even see a Trumpian psychology to Commodus, a man not equipped for the position of power he occupies who longs for adulation he hasn’t earned. You can hate the man, but you might also feel sorry for him despite yourself. When he wants to be pompous, he can be hilarious (I adored his quick reaction shots to the theatrical combat). When he wants to be creepy, he can be terrifying. You can even see some of the broken pieces here that Phoenix would masterfully use to compose his Oscar-winning Joker performance.

The supporting cast was gifted with great old actors getting one last victory lap. Richard Harris was so stately and grandfatherly that it got him the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. It also served as a great sendoff for Oliver Reed (Oliver!) as Proximo, the selfish, trash-talking former gladiator turned gladiator trainer. Reed died months into the production and before he had wrapped his part, requiring extensive reworking from the screenwriters (Logan was on set for much of the production to cater to the immediate day-to-day story needs). Scott used a body double and parlayed visual effects to recreate Reed’s face, much like what 1994’s The Crow was forced to do after the unfortunate death of its star, Brandon Lee. I kept looking for what moments would be Reed and what moments would be the CGI-enabled Reed double, and it was harder to determine than I thought, so nice job visual effects team. Reed had a reputation of being a carousing reprobate, so having a final performance that allowed him to tap into those old impulses plus the regrets of older age was a wonderful final match.

The other big takeaway upon my twenty-year re-watch was how recognizable and stirring Hans Zimmer’s famous score was, which lost the Oscar that year to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that seems insane to me. Zimmer has been in a class all his own since the 90s with classic, instantly hum-able scores for True Romance, The Lion King, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Pirates of the Caribbean, which borrows heavily from his theme for Gladiator. The score greatly adds to the excitement and majesty of the movie and can prove transporting by itself.

A truly bizarre post-script is the story of how the studio tried to develop a sequel. Gladiator was hugely successful but any sequel presented problems. Given the death of its star, following another character makes the most sense, and yet that’s not the direction the screenplay took. Eventually, the sequel to Gladiator was going to follow the ghost of Maximus as it travels through time including to modern-day. Just take a moment and dream of what could have been. Alas, we’ll likely never get time-traveling ghost Maximus now and we simply don’t deserve it as a society.

Reviewing my original film critique from 2000, I feel that my 18-year-old self was more entranced with making snappy, pithy blurbs than going into further detail on my analysis. My early reviews were far more declarative, saying something was good or bad and giving some detail but not dwelling on going deeper into the examination. This line, “The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp,” makes me cringe a little because it’s just trying too hard to be casually clever. I do enjoy the Mena Suvari rose petal joke. Still, I celebrated that a studio movie could emphasize its story first and foremost and my observations are still valid. I’m all but certain the only reason I knew who Steve Reeves was back then was because of his many appearances via Mystery Science Theater 3000 covering his cheesy swords-and-sandals films of old that Ridley Scott was so eager to avoid recreating (“Do you like films about gladiators?”)

Because the movie does so much so well, with some exceptional, it’s hard for me to rate Gladiator any lower than my initial grade of an A-, so that’s where I’m keeping it twenty years later. I think the national conversation has cooled on Gladiator, forgotten it because it wasn’t quite as audacious as other examples of early 2000s films, but it sets out to tell a familiar story on a big canvas and deserves its plaudits for somehow pulling it all off with style and gravity. It would be flippant to say Gladiator still slays the competition but it’s still mighty entertaining.

Re-View Grade: A-

American Psycho (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released April 14, 2000:

American Psycho is based on the controversial 1991 best seller by Bret Easton Ellis though it got old fast. One can easily grasp how the lead connects with brand names on page one, but repeat it for 300 more and you’re tempted to add the book to your collection of firewood. Ellis’ novel was sadistically perverse, but director Mary Haron (I Shot Andy Warhol) has somehow managed to pull out an entertaining social satire from the pages of blood and name brands.

Christian Bale, mainly known as the boy-next-door in period piece films, plays Patrick Bateman with ferocious malevolence and vigorous life. Teen scream Leo was once considered for the part but after seeing Bale’s startling performance it should prove why he’s on screen and Leo’s swimming in The Beach. Bateman is an up-and-up Wall Street yuppie who glosses over appearance more than anything else. The only outlet it appears for our sinister shark from the soulless decade is by random acts of gruesome violence.

If Bateman blows off steam by blowing off companion’s heads than it only becomes more frustrating when no one believes his random confessions. Haron takes the grisly material of Ellis’ novel and mines it for pure 80s pulp. It only gets better the further it gets as you have so many points to discuss: Is Bateman acting out to prove his existence in a world that doesn’t humor him or others? Is he acting out deep-seeded rage from the actions of the decade on its people? Is he desensitized and so jaded that death does not even fracture him anymore? The questions are boundless.

The hit list of stars in Psycho includes Chloe Sevigny as a nailed home addition, Willem Dafoe as an investigative detective, Jared Leto as an axed co-worker, and sweet Reese Witherspoon as the apple of Bateman’s twisted eye. Everyone has fun in their tongue-in-cheek nostalgia romp through the absurd.

American Psychoshould not be confused with the successful teen sex farce American Pie. The only desserts in this film are just, and they’re usually left of the mayonnaise and behind the frozen head in the refrigerator. American Psycho is the thinking man’s slasher movie. A flick that slices, dices, and always entices. It only gets better after you’ve seen it. One of the best films of 2000 for now.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

American Psycho was a literary sensation upon its initial publication in 1991 and was deemed shocking, grotesque, perverse, and all those splashy adjectives that made it guaranteed Hollywood would turn Bret Easton Ellis’ novel into a film. Every young actor in Hollywood in the 90s was rumored to play narcissistic serial killer Patrick Bateman. By the late 90s, director Mary Haron was attached with Christian Bale as the intended Bateman on the condition that other name actors could be brought on (Haron secured Willem Dafoe and Reese Witherspoon for supporting roles). The producers kept pushing for their number one target, Leonardo DiCaprio as Bateman, and Haron said she would walk if he was hired over Bale. The producers went ahead and DiCaprio was hired for several months, with the budget ballooning to over $40 million, half of which was slated just for DiCaprio’s payday. Months later, DiCaprio left to film Danny Boyle’s The Beach, and the producers went back to Haron and her top choice, Bale, who was so determined to play Bateman that he didn’t take any other acting gigs for nine months just in case (new total film budget: $7 million). Looking back again twenty years later, it’s difficult to imagine late 90s DiCaprio in the part that became the first of many star-making performances for Bale, one of the most chameleon-like actors of his generation. Haron’s tenacity and instincts proved correct and the film still stands tall as a dark comedy and a character study of a compulsive narcissist.

The novel was set in the 1980s and intended to satirize the soulless suits of Regan’s America that made their ill-gotten gains on Wall Street, and the satire has only become more relevant after the 2008 financial meltdown and numerous white-collar scandals. The perception of Wall Street as predatory and vampiric and roiling with sociopathic greed has only become more pronounced, which makes the intended satirical targets even more worthy of their take-downs.

I initially wondered in my original review in 2000 whether, among other interpretations, Bateman was lashing out in a world that didn’t care about him in order to make himself feel heard, and that is exactly the opposite response. Bateman is acting out because he can and because he no longer cares about following rules. It may be a metaphorically simplistic application to make a Wall Street trader a serial killer but that doesn’t make it any less appropriate and resonating. The iconic business card scene still sends me howling, as Bateman and his colleagues (Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Matt Ross) compete for supremacy with who has the most accomplished little square of cardboard with their name on it. The hushed and awed voices, the detailed micro-analysis, the slow motion and beauty shots of the cards, it’s played to such wonderful heights of absurdity. When Bateman hires two call girls for a threesome, he spends more time flexing and admiring his own image in the mirror. He spends more time on his daily beauty care rituals than he does on introspection. For these hollow men, status and appearance is the only thing that matters in a world of imposters and transitory pleasures.

Bateman is meant to serve as a character study for a man who declares there isn’t anything there underneath him. It’s an expose of vanity in an era of venal excess and it’s also an indictment on privilege. As depicted on film, and later revealed why with an ambiguous conclusion, Bateman gets away with his wild and increasingly murderous antics because of his position. He’s a rich white Yuppie during 1980s New York City. He can get away with anything, which is why he can run around screaming, flailing a live chainsaw, wearing nothing but socks and blood, and nobody seems to be the wiser. It’s why he can go back to his own crime scenes to leave even more of his evidence, and DNA, around the premises. It’s why he can pose as Paul Allen (Jared Leto) even after he has hacked Allen into tiny little Yuppie pieces. It’s why he can hilariously wax on like a Rolling Stone essayist about musical artists like Phil Collins and Whitney Houston as he prepares to slice and dice his victims. As his actions become more and more blatant, the satire rises with Bateman to blanket his reckless impulses (these crooks can get away with anything, Haron seems to be whispering in your ear while elbowing you in the ribs). After two more decades of Wall Street scandal without consequence or credible jail time, as well as a president who is convinced rules do not apply to him, the satire has approached an even darker laugh-because-otherwise-you-might-cry territory than it was back in 2000 (“This confession has meant nothing.”).

With no one able to tell him no, how far will Bateman go? Haron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner (who also appears in the film as Elizabeth, a drunk friend of Bateman’s who becomes another victim) smartly dialed into the themes they wanted to send up and dialed down the grisly gratuitous details. In the book, Bateman’s depravity is described in as much detail as he gives to his rampant consumerism. We don’t need pages upon pages of description to understand that Bateman is sick in the head, and we don’t need examples such as torturing a prostitute by trapping rats inside her vagina. The grisly overkill of the book is smartly pulled back to its essentials, and an oft-reviled work deemed misogynistic by many critics has been transformed from a deep dive into rape, dismemberment, and cruelty into a satire on the men who aspire to commit such awful acts. There’s a noticeable difference there that some will miss. One perspective focuses on the actions and the other focuses on the meaning. Bateman is a privileged, entitled, and alienated white man teeming with unprovoked rage, a figure we’ve seen more often in the news in the ensuing decades. The American Psycho movie takes aim at the fragile male egos of past and present. Haron would later go on to write and direct other indies (2006’s The Notorious Bettie Paige) but she never seemed to get that career boost after American Psycho. Ellis decried the movie adaptation and later said he felt female directors were unable to accurately translate the male gaze, which is dubious when the starting point for Hollywood filmmaking is preset at “male gaze.”

Bale is phenomenal in what proved to be his breakout role. It was only a few years later that he nabbed Batman for Christopher Nolan. According to interviews, Bale modeled his performance after what he saw during a Tom Cruise appearance on David Letterman’s talk show. Bale says he saw an “intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes,” and he then knew how to play the part. It was also the beginning of Bale’s trademark method transformations, becoming the muscled figure of Bateman’s desire, the only thing that ever truly mattered to the man. Bale’s thinly veiled contempt for everyone and ironic detachment are constantly entertaining and provide great laughs (his go-to excuse for departing, “I have to return some video tapes,” made me laugh every time). There’s a late scene where Bateman calls his lawyer to confess to his litany of sins, feeling cornered, and it’s a spellbinding performance all in one take where he approaches mania as he finally unburdens himself (“Tonight I, uh, I just had to kill a LOT of people. And I’m not sure I’m gonna get away with it this time.”). It’s a tremendous moment in a tremendous performance. The movie is filled with familiar faces (Chloe Sevigny! Samantha Mathis! Reg E. Cathy!) that it becomes fun to realize just how many great actors and future stars contributed to the movie. For trivia buffs, it also features Batman (Bale) killing the Joker (Leto).

My original review attempts many turns of phrase, like “blowing off steam by blowing off others’ heads,” but the core points are still viable: the satire improves from the book, Bale delivers an amazing performance, and there are many ways to interpret the film. The ending isn’t quite as ambiguous as perceived but it makes sense with the outlandish escalation of events, a point where even Bateman looks at his own power with befuddled curiosity. Back in 2000, I called American Psycho the “thinking man’s slasher movie” and I think that title still applies. It’s a vicious movie but the satire is just as vicious. Weirdly, there was a direct-to-DVD sequel that just went the “non-thinking man’s slasher” route by featuring Mila Kunis (Black Swan) as a criminal justice coed who embarks on her own bloodbath, including killing William Shatner as a professor. It’s like unintended satire on Hollywood itself; follow a cerebral and daring artistic work with run-of-the-mill slop under the same name, co-opting the appeal of a “brand” to make a buck. Much like Wall Street, Hollywood doesn’t know when to stop.

Re-View Grade: A

The Vast of Night (2020)

If you had told me that The Vast of Night was based upon a radio play or a narrative-driven podcast, something like the popular Welcome to Night Vale, I would have completely believed you. This is a very dialogue-driven story where the movie seems to hit pause and allow a speaker unfettered time to tell their tale in patient monologue, like a sci-fi edition of This American Life (I’m coming up with a lot of comparisons here). It’s a more high-concept, cerebral, imaginative-dependent science fiction.  In 1950s New Mexico, a small-town radio DJ and a teen switchboard operator, both with dreams of leaving the town for bigger things, discover a strange signal and eyewitness reports of something in the sky. Over the course of one night, the characters investigate the signal and those who experienced it before. The Vast of Night flies right out of the gate, long takes giving space for fast-paced dialogue exchanges. The direction is very assured with long tracking shots to maintain the tightrope walk of a live theater performance that the screenplay imbues. I was always interested in what was happening but I can see many other viewers failing to click with the material and its narrative restraints. I do think the movie could use more of a resolution and errs by having the wrong combination of characters for a climax, denying the only real emotional catharsis that was offered by the screenplay. I’m sure many will simply find this movie slow and boring (it’s only 89 minutes but even that might be pushing it for many). The Vast of Night feels like an extended Twilight Zone episode, for better or worse. I applaud the ingenuity of the director and screenwriters on a small budget but I would not be surprised that bigger and better things lie ahead for each of these creatives.

Nate’s Grade: B

Valley Girl (2020)

valley_girlIf you’re a big fan of 80s music and looking to congenially pass 90 minutes, I suppose you could watch the new musical Valley Girl as it whisks you away on a cloud of simple nostalgia. That’s the word for this movie. Everything is very simple, from the stock characterizations, to the boy-meets-girl romance, to even the performance of the dozens of popular 80s songs, which are reworked into being blander vanilla versions that reminded me of what Kids Bop does to music. We follow a titular valley girl (Jessica Rothe, so great in the Happy Death Day franchise) as she falls for a punk rocker (Josh Whitehouse, struggling in the singing department) from the wrong side of the tracks. The romance is very familiar as are their trials of stepping outside their individual comfort zones for the other person. The big problem with Valley Girl is that the first half feels like it’s at warp speed; nary a minute goes by without a song-and-dance number barreling onto the screen. The second half, in contrast, has only a handful of these numbers and tries to expand the characters but by that point it’s too late. I don’t care about them. Since it’s a jukebox musical, the songs should be selected to provide better insights into the characters’ emotional states, but too often they feel superfluous and clunky. “Hey Mickey” introduces our selfish jock (Logan Paul of YouTube infamy) at a pep rally. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is about having fun on the beach. “Boys Don’t Cry” about dealing with being sad. It’s that kind of application. There’s a frame device where an older mom (Alicia Silverstone) is recounting her 80s experiences to her teenage daughter, and this could have provided a satirical and clever development, allowing the recounted experiences to blend into fantasy and her hazy memory. Valley Girl isn’t a bad movie, just one lacking significant purpose outside nostalgia and cleaning out a big music clearance account. If watching watered down 80s hits sounds like your thing, then party to the max, man.

Nate’s Grade: C

Capone (2020)

In 2012, after the found footage superhero movie Chronicle became a surprise smash, director Josh Trank was at the top of Hollywood’s hot new director list. Within three years, he was a pariah. The production behind 2015’s Fantastic Four was so troubled and fraught with reshoots, creative clashes, and secret edits that Trank was labeled as a malcontent who couldn’t be trusted with the big tentpoles. He was unceremoniously dumped by Star Wars and seemed to become the latest casualty of an industry that eats its own promising wunderkinds. I’d highly advise people read a very illuminating in-depth article from Polygon on Trank’s troubles and triumphs, including his insights on where Fantastic Four went awry. Trank spent years honing his next script, an Al Capone biopic of his late years, and waiting for star Tom Hardy to be available. Some critics have called Trank’s comeback movie a self-indulgent, surreal, campy mess, and indeed while I was watching I had visions of Mommie Dearest. However, that wasn’t a bad thing, at least for me. I cannot call Capone an unqualified success but I appreciated the bizarre lengths Trank goes to make a biopic that mocks and tears away the mystique of its macho idol.

Capone (Hardy), or “Fonze” as he’s referred to primarily, has been released from his prison sentence for tax evasion and living the rest of his days on his Florida estate. He’s suffering dementia from the effects of neurosyphilis, a condition he contracted as a teenager. His wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), tries her best to keep him from harming himself or others. The F.B.I. is still listening, still watching, and newspaper reporters are still hiding along the bushes. Capone struggles to keep his mind from being completely lost but will lose, dying at age 47.

First off, I think Trank’s initial creative approach is a genius way to explore a biographical film, running through the major points of a subject’s life in a hallucinatory, non-linear fashion that mixes fantasy and reality. From that standpoint alone, Capone is never boring because it can quite literally go anywhere as Capone retreats further and further into his fraying mind. That’s such a visually stimulating way of telling a story while also presenting a chaotic impression of a character’s perception, locking us into an empathetic experience with an unreliable guidepost. I think that alone makes Capone worthwhile, as does Hardy’s go-for-broke performance (more on that later). It’s a weird fever dream of a movie, constantly shifting between past and present, fantasy and reality, and I think this perspective adds much to the film’s appeal and ambition. One second the man is sitting down with FBI agents and the next he’s wandering a ballroom to go onstage with Louis Armstrong for a New Year’s Eve duet. It gets pretty crazy and that’s good.

I was wondering if Trank would glorify his title subject. I only had to wait for the first twenty minutes where Al Capone literally craps himself twice for my answer. This is not Capone at the height of his fearsome power where he ruled the Chicago ganglands; this is a decrepit, doddering middle-aged man, equally helpless and reckless, unable or unwilling to even control his bowels. He is rotten from the inside out, a vile human being whose own filth is leaking out to smother him. Gangster cinema has often glamorized the mafia and criminals as unorthodox folk heroes, like in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the more recent Public Enemies in 2009. So, with all of that said, I enjoyed that Trank took a legendary figure of the criminal underworld and totally undercut his machismo power. He strips away the romantic notions of the man’s life. This isn’t the man on the pulpy radio dramas, this is a guy who craps the bed. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman got plenty of acclaim for spending its final half-hour showing where a lifetime of crime leads its elderly protagonist, a sad, lonely life without any lasting personal benefit. Trank takes that much-heralded final half-hour and turns it into an entire 100-minute movie. I wish more movies would do this to deserving subjects.

The biggest draw of the film is Hardy (Venom, The Revenant) who never met a film role he couldn’t grumble, mumble, growl, or unleash a funny voice for. To say he is committed does not to do the man justice. He is not only chewing scenery; he is rapidly inhaling it. He is playing to the cheap seats with this role, bloodshot eyes bulging out of his head with thousand-yard stares of confusion and paranoia. He’s barely intelligible at times, and that’s before he has a stroke that further impairs his ability to communicate. He can also be hard to recognize under layers of pock-faced makeup. The acting-with-a-capital-A style is so enthralling but perhaps not for the exact intended reasons. It’s fascinating to watch a highly respected, Academy Award-nominated actor just indulge every over-the-top impulse and tic, where each small decision feels like generating the question, “Really, you went with that choice?” The batty performance brought to mind Faye Dunaway’s breathtaking performance in 1981’s so-bad-it’s-good Mommie Dearest as Joan Crawford (she thought she was going to in awards for that performance!). It’s a level of camp with no earthly reservation, and it’s rare to see from such a famous actor, and I was spellbound. If you enjoyed Mommie Dearest for its unintentional camp hilarity, then Capone might be just for you.

While at turns confounding and fascinating, Capone falls short when it comes to examining the inner life of its title character. I assumed with the conceit of losing touch with reality that Capone would be experiencing some reckoning over his past misdeeds, and this happens to a very mild, opaque degree. There are some supporting characters that turn out to be, surprise, ghosts that Capone had killed in his past. But they stop there, failing to provide an opportunity for Capone to feel remorse and they don’t even push him on being guilty. You would think a man with a sizeable list of dead people he’s responsible for would be haunted by more ghosts from the past, forcing him to reconcile his idea of himself with his tortured deeds. Capone is also seeing images of a young boy that is meant to represent his poor youthful upbringing, but he doesn’t interact with this past representation other than look uncomfortable in his presence. The movie desperately needed more introspection with this man examining his sins and legacy and validations. A bad man coming to terms with the end and what it means has great dramatic potential. A bad man who bumbles around his luxurious home, sees some ghosts, and continues bumbling has less so. That’s where Trank’s screenplay really falters because it doesn’t push harder. Capone is too caught up in upending the image of Al Capone rather than digging deeper into the man himself and his inherent end-of-life drama.

The supporting characters also do little to offer alternative sides to better know Capone. His long-suffering wife is nicely played by Cardellini (Green Book), brought to tears watching her strong man waste away, calling her an angel one minute and forgetting her face the next, but we don’t learn more about the central figure through her. He started poor. Got power. Now he’s incompetent (and incontinent). That’s it. There’s room for more here than a man physically and mentally falling apart. What about the other people in his life? What about plans for succession from those who spent their lives in his service? There’s even a storyline of a lovechild trying to get in contact with him and the movie miraculously does nothing with this abandoned son to add further dimension and insight.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t laughing throughout Capone, though I think Trank is intending some degree of mockery with his biopic that plumbs the depths of the strange and grotesque. There’s a guy who gets stabbed in the neck maybe 50 literal times. There’s Capone shooting alligators, convinced they’re conspiring to munch on his testicles. There’s Capone applauding and singing along to The Wizard of Oz and arguing for the sake of the Cowardly Lion. There’s an ongoing subplot about different supporting characters trying to somehow sift the location of Capone’s hidden millions from his broken mind like a treasure hunt. There’s an entire sequence where Capone, with carrot-as-cigar in mouth, marches around firing a golden tommy gun while his saggy adult diaper droops around his waistline. In short, there’s more than enough material here to enjoy on a strictly ridiculous, pulpy, heightened to the point of breaking campy variety. Hardy is fully unrestrained, for better and worse, but he’s always watchable, as I would say of the film itself. Even if it feels ultimately superficial and underdeveloped, Trank’s Capone is a mess of bad taste about a bad man going through some bad times and it just might be the good kind of bad.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Emma. (2020)

If you’re going to see a Jane Austen movie, chances are you already know what you’re signing up for. This new edition of Emma. (with extra punctuation at no charge) feels like a slightly more arch version, given a dose of the stilted whimsy of Wes Anderson. It’s only a dash but it’s definitely enough to set the movie apart from its more austere brethren, which will either make it a fresh and reinvigorating take on the material for an audience or a quirky misfire not playing to the strengths of its source material. I fall somewhere in the middle, as I’m not the biggest fan of Austen’s comedic voice but appreciate her point of view and the way she can drop you into these very specific, very rarefied world of class, privilege, and ignorance. The movie’s pacing is quite slack and the scene-to-scene urgency can seem a bit in doubt, which works with the more arch portrayal but also makes the movie feel very long and borderline tedious at parts. The technical asides of Emma. are impressive, with the glorious costuming and art direction transporting an audience back to that early pastoral 19th century time period. Ana Taylor-Joy (Glass) is a sprightly choice as the titular matchmaker and her best moments are when she embraces the extremes, whether it’s being haughty, awkward, contentious, or the occasional dose of slapstick. She navigates the complicated minefield of others affections, trying to stay above it, while finding herself drawn to the free-spirited Mr. Knightly (Johnny Flynn), who is the only reason this movie is rated PG thanks to a brief flash of rear nudity. Mia Goth (Suspiria) is winning as a demure women feeling the highs and lows of love thanks to Emma’s friendly intervention. It is such an amusing change of pace for Goth, often performing as a sexpot. The real standout are the comic actors doing the most with their supporting turns. Bill Nighy (Detective Pikachu) is highly amusing as the fussy hypochondriac father and Miranda Hart (Spy) is a welcomed presence as the oblivious, constantly nattering Miss Bates. It’s Emma’s show, though, and Taylor-Joy is an enjoyable lead surrounded by an exquisitely manufactured world of old. If you’re an Austen fan, Emma. is worth a watch. If you’re not, this won’t exactly be the movie that brings you over into the fanbase.

Nate’s Grade: B

6 Underground (2019)/ Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.

The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.

6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.

6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.

There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.

Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.

At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).

Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.

When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.

I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.

The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.

6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.

Nate’s Grades:

6 Underground: C-

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A

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