Sometimes a movie just gives the wrong impression from its conception, pre-production, and initial advertisement, and that’s exactly King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Optimistically planned as a six-part franchise, this new big-budget rendition of Arthurian legend looked like a total disaster. Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) seemed like the wrong fit for the material, the tone seemed messy and unclear, and it screamed a transparent attempt by Hollywood execs to sex up something old. I was holding out a sliver of hope that it might be stylish, mindless fun, and this was coming off of Ritchie’s unexpectedly enjoyable Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake. If I do not see a more headache-inducing, self-indulgent, cumbersome, illogical, and generally exasperating movie this summer, I will consider myself most fortunate.
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a streetwise youth raised in a whorehouse on the dirty streets of Londinium. He’s a low-level criminal with his own loyal crew and his own moral code. He’s also, unbeknownst to him, loyalty in the making. Arthur is the son of the former King Uther (Eric Bana) who was murdered by his brother and mage, Vortigern (Jude Law). Arthur runs afoul of the law and is captured, and his identity is revealed when he successfully pulls Excalibur from the stone. Vortigern must kill the young upstart but a group of dissidents kidnaps Arthur and pleads with him to join their cause. Together they can topple Vortigern and free England of his tyranny.
If you can keep up with Ritchie’s willfully shifty film narrative then you’re of sounder mind than me because it felt like King Arthur was just being made up on the spot. Whenever one tells a story in a fantasy realm with fantasy figures, the rules are important to establish, otherwise everything can just feel airless and arbitrary and anticlimactic. If a movie can’t establish its own internal logic and system of rules it feels obtuse. There aren’t setups, and without setups there can’t be well-orchestrated payoffs. This is basic structure, plain and simple. This does not happen in King Arthur at all. Beyond the most flimsy good-guys-triumph-over-evil underpinning, there is nothing that makes sense. Characters will all of a sudden achieve some advanced knowledge without the audience seeing how this was gained. Characters will make use of powers that would have been very useful if they had been used earlier but we have no explanation why. The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) all of a sudden summons a giant snake, or turns into a giant snake, and I’m thinking, if you have giant snake-making powers, why did you wait so long on this? Conversely, Vortigern offers blood sacrifices to an evil squid-siren-sister-threesome, but what he gains in exchange is vague, their demands are vague, as is their overall fit into a larger scheme. I thought Arthur was trying to stage an insurgency and court a political revolution, but that fizzles out after a few scenes of rare coherency. I gave up trying to understand the movie within the first twenty minutes. It feels like Ritchie and company are just hurtling through expected fantasy elements as if they were merely expanded features from a trailer and a chore to overcome. Arthur has an incredibly expedited adventure on an island with oversized animals (literal R.O.U.S.!), and it feels like Ritchie is just laughing at the expense of the audience and whatever genre demands they might have had.
The characters are also extremely uninteresting and kept me at a distance for the entire film. Ritchie is trying to incorporate his cheeky gangster movies into the fantasy mythology of the King Arthur legend, and the two don’t exactly fit. An early sequence involves Arthur explaining his routine that day through repetitious, annoying narration and a non-linear time-skipping timeline. It’s the kind of narrative trick we’ve become accustomed to in Ritchie’s movie. This time it was shallow because it wasn’t funny, interesting, and its only justifiable purpose seemed to be beating an audience into submission to remember the names of Arthur’s pals through rote repetition. The characters have stupid, Dick Tracy-in-Midlevel times names like Goose Fat Bill, Wet Stick, Back Lack, Chinese George, Jack’s Eye, Blue and Mischief John. Silly names by themselves are not an issue, as Snatch had characters with monikers like Franky Four-Fingers and Bullet-Tooth Tony, but by God those characters were memorable. These characters lack striking personalities and general purpose other than filling the frame. If you challenged me to put names to faces I would probably fail (the main female character doesn’t even get a name; she’s simply The Mage). These boring people just drifted from scene to scene, bumping into an increasingly arbitrary, ungainly, and meaningless plot.
The subtitle is also an indication of the deeper problems inherent with the plot. It’s “Legend of the Sword” and not “Arthur,” and it doesn’t even name the sword. We’re told that the sword wields immense power, though like much it’s never explained in any sort of manner that would provide context or general understanding. The sword is powerful but it’s also more active than our hero, because Arthur is told that the sword controls him and not the other way around. His mission then is learning to simply allow the sword to do its thing. His mission is to become more passive when fighting? Does that strike anybody as a character arc that makes sense or would be satisfying to watch?
With so many missteps at so many levels, the only way this movie could have been salvaged is from some sensational action sequences to quicken one’s pulse. Ritchie is a stylish director but I don’t think he’s ever been a great stager of action. His documentary-style zooms, speed ramps, and quick cuts are more about engendering an impression. An excellent example, and probably the high-point of the movie, is a montage establishing Arthur’s childhood growing up on the rough and tumble streets of Londinium. It’s wordless, set to a gasping, percussion-heavy score, and quickly establishes through concise visuals how Arthur came of age and gained his street smarts. The legitimate action sequences are underwhelming and poorly orchestrated. The setups are rushed, confusing, and the edits are a scrambled mixture of slow motion, fast motion, and extreme close-ups, a combination that doesn’t aid in coherency. The advanced fighting feels like the movie just accelerated into a video game cut scene. It’s generally as incomprehensible as the plot and as ultimately tiresome as the various characters.
Allow me to indulge an exemplary example as to why King Arthur is as stupid, irritating, and headache-inducing just from a plot standpoint, never mind Ritchie’s filmmaking tics. The villain has three chances to kill Arthur and he inexplicably whiffs every freaking time. The first is when Arthur is a young boy and his father manages to place him on a small dingy and pushes him out to sea like he’s Moses in a basket. Vortigern is his super video game bad guy ultra self, who we later see has the power to launch fiery projectiles, and he just watches as the slowest boat in the world slowly drifts away, forgetting he has projectile powers. Either that or the movie inserts an arbitrary limitation for no reason. Now established as king, Vortigern lives by the prophecy that Arthur will return and pull Excalibur from the stone and one day vanquish him; however, Arthur can still be killed because he is mortal. Arthur pulls the sword from its stony sheath and passes out. Does Vortigern kill his long-prophesied enemy while he’s unconscious? No. Does he kill him while he’s locked in a jail cell? No. Does he kill him before a big public ceremony where, surprise, a group of outlaws rescue Arthur? No. Even if you were being generous and account these foolish actions as the result of unchecked hubris, consider the very climactic battle between the adult Arthur and Vortigern. Once again, Vortigern has adopted his fiery, giant video game boss battle visage, the same that killed Arthur’s father that fateful night. It’s clearly a life and death showdown, and at one point Arthur gets thrown, hits his head on rock, and is knocked unconscious. He eventually wakes up and looks over to find… Vortigern just standing on the other side of the rock and admiring like a stone altar. It’s the battle between good and evil and evil decides to take a walk. Three obvious instances where the villain could have won, easily, and three illogical excuses that showcase the absence of even acceptable storytelling.
So what if the story of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is dumb and feels like it’s being randomly made up on the spot? So what if the characters are underwritten, lacking in distinguished personalities, and are rather pointless? So what if the main character has to learn to better give up his agency to a stupid magic sword? So what if the only significant female character doesn’t even merit a name? So what if the action often resorts to a slow-motion frenzy of a CGI dust cloud? So what if there are 300-foot sized elephants in this movie and then never appear again? So what if I don’t understand anybody’s personal relationships besides good and evil designations? So what if I was so bored and disengaged from the movie that I started contemplating strange subjects to pass the protracted time, like why does Hunnam’s natural British accent sound so fake, and why does Jude Law’s hair remind me of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters? The ultimate question is whether or not something as ostensibly irreverent as a cockney crime King Arthur is fun, and the answer is unequivocally no. If you’re still wondering how poorly conceived and executed this movie is, I’ve saved the best doozy for last, which coincidentally is also one of the final moments in the two-hour film. I kid you not, the movie ends with the eventual Knights of the Round Table actively befuddled by the existence of a round table. They cannot apply their knowledge of tables to this new, rounder model. They gawk, shake their heads, and wonder what it is exactly. There you have it, a group of heroes mentally defeated due to the absence of corners.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Their Finest (not to be confused with Their Finest Hours, even though this is based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half) is a disarmingly sweet and poignant true story that resonates with empowerment and the power of creativity. Set at the start of WWII, the British film industry is trying to make ends meet as well as provide morale boosts to the public. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, her best performance yet) goes in for a copywriting job and walks out a hired screenwriter, pegged to write the “women’s parts.” Thanks to the depleted workforce, Catrin has an opportunity she never would have otherwise and she blossoms under the crucible of creative collaboration. This was one aspect of the movie that I was very taken with, as a writer and screenwriter myself, the natural progression of creativity, solving a problem, finding a solution, and the elation that follows. The complications keep coming, first from the British film office who need the movie to be inspirational, then from the divergences from the true story of a pair of French girls who stole their uncle’s boat to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk, then from working with American producers who insist on an American hero who can’t act, and then from natural calamities of scheduling, casting, and oh yeah, the bombing and blitzes that could obliterate everyone. The movie is alive with conflict and feeling and the sweet story of a woman finding her sense of empowerment in the arts. The movie-within-the-movie is filmed to period appropriate techniques, and Bill Nighy is effortlessly amusing as an aging actor still fighting for some scrap of respect in an industry ready to forget him. The insights into the different stages of film production were fun and illuminating. I appreciated that the war isn’t just something in the background but a constant. It upsets the order, takes lives, and is a striking reminder why these people are doing what they’re doing. The film also rhapsodizes the power of the arts, and in particular cinema, in a way that feels reverent without being overly sentimental or self-congratulatory. A great collection of characters is assembled as a ramshackle sort of family with a mission, and the movie drives right into one payoff after another, lifting your spirits and warming your heart. There is a sudden plot turn that will likely disappoint many in the audience eager for a simple happy ending, but I almost view it as industry satire on the difference between American and European cinema tastes. Their Finest is a small gem with sympathetic characters trying their finest and achieving something great. It’s a rich story that deserves its moment in the spotlight and I’d advise seeking it out if possible.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo. Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Germany invades and occupies Poland. Their animals are slaughtered or moved to the Berlin Zoo, under the care of Nazi party member and amateur geneticist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). Feeling impotent to the horrors around them, Antonina and Jan risk everything to hide Jews in their zoo and eventually smuggle them out to safe houses.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those slice-of-life stories about good people risking much to save lives during the Holocaust that come from obscurity to remind you that there are still fresh, invigorating stories from a topic that can feel tapped out after 70 years. However, it’s also an indication that you need the right handling to do it justice. The Holocaust is by nature such a horrific subject matter that it’s hard to do it justice with a PG-13 or below rating, but it can be done with the right amount of artistic restraint as long as the overall story doesn’t feel hobbled with limitations. Reluctantly, The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too sanitized for the story it’s telling. When it comes to cruelty and human atrocity, you don’t need to shove the audience’s face in the mess to fully comprehend its distaste, but overly avoiding the reality can also be a detriment. The Zookeeper’s Wife, as a PG-13 movie, does not feel like the ideal way to tell this real-life story. It feels too restrained and some of those artistic compromises make for a movie that feels lacking and distracting at points. Fair warning: there are plenty of animal deaths in this movie, though they are all dealt with off-screen with implied violence. The edits to work around this can be jarring and would take me out of the picture. This is only one example of an element that, in order to maintain its dignified PG-13 rating, unfortunately undercuts the realism and power of its story.
For a Holocaust story set in Poland, the stakes feel abnormally low. The zoo is a sanctuary compared to the Jewish ghettos. The danger of hiding over 300 Jewish people over the course of the entire war feels absent, which is strange considering it should be felt in just about every moment. There are a handful of scenes where we worry whether they will be caught but they’re defused so quickly and easily. After Antonina is caught talking to a very Jewish-looking “doctor” in her bedroom by the housekeeper, they just fire the housekeeper who leaves quietly and never comes back again. It’s a moment of tension that can be felt and it all goes away in a rush. This scene also stands out because the narrow escapes and close calls are surprisingly few and far between. Even when Antonina’s son commits stupid mistake after stupid mistake, including impulsively insulting a Nazi officer to his back, there’s little fear of some sort of retribution. The movie can also lack subtlety, like watching Heck say three times he’s a man of his word and will be trustworthy. We all know he’s going to fall short. There’s also a moment where Jan is literally loading children, who each raise their arms in anticipation, onto a train car. It’s like getting punched in the stomach with every child. Much of the time spent on the zoo is with the quiet moments trying to make the Jewish survivors feel like human beings again (the animals-in-cages metaphor is there). The details of the smuggling and hiding are interesting but cannot carry a movie without more.
The biggest reason to see this movie is the promise of another leading Chastain (Miss Sloane) performance. Ever since rocketing to prominence in 2011, Chastain has proven to be one of the most reliably excellent actors in the industry regardless of the quality of the film. She’s been dubbed a Streep in the making and Zookeeper’s Wife allows her to level up to her “Sophie’s Choice acting challenge stage” and try on that famous Slavic accent that turns all “ing” endings into “ink.” Chastain is terrific as a person trying to navigate their way through the unimaginable, calling upon reserves of courage when needed, and she’s at her best during the moments with Herr Heck. She has to play the dishonorable part of the possible lover, and Heck definitely has his heart set on Antonina. The scenes with the two of them draw out the most tension and afford Chastain a variety of emotions to play as she cycles through her masks. In some ways I wish the more of the movie was focused on this personal conflict and developed it even further.
There was a small practically incidental moment that got me thinking. As stated above, the film has a PG-13 rating and one of the reasons is for brief nudity from Chastain. Now the actress has gone nude before in other movies so that’s not much of a shocker, but it’s the context and execution that got me thinking. Antonina and Jan are lying together in bed after sex and Chastain does the usually Hollywood habit of the bed sheet being at her shoulders while it resides at the man’s waist (those typical L-shaped bed sheets). No big deal. Then, during their discussion over what to do, Antonina rolls over and exposes her breast for a second before she covers herself up again. The reason this stood out to me, beyond the prurient, is because it felt like a mistake. It seems obvious that Chastain was not intended to be seen naked in this intimate post-coital conversation but it was used in the final cut anyway, which made me wonder. Was the take so good, or so much better than the others, that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) and Chastain said “the hell with it” and kept the briefly exposed breast? Did they enjoy the happily accidental casual nature to the nudity, creating a stronger sense of realism between the married couple? Or in the end was it just another selling point to help put butts in seats? I’m thinking best take is the answer. You decide.
I am convinced one of the main reasons that Chastain wanted to do this movie, and I can’t really blame her, is because she would get to hold a bunch of adorable animals. Given the subject matter, I was prepared for a menagerie of cute little creatures, but I started noticing just how many of them Chastain is seen holding. She holds a rabbit for a monologue. She holds a lion cub. She holds a baby pig. She holds a monkey. She even kind of holds a rubbery baby elephant doll (talk about Save the Cat moment, this movie takes it even more literally). There may very well be animals I simply have forgotten she held. I would not be surprised if in her contract there was a rider that insisted that Ms. Chastain hold at least one small, adorable animal every third day of filming on set.
Stately and sincere, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an inherently interesting true story that should have more than enough elements to bring to life a compelling film experience. It’s an acceptable movie that’s well made but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better version of this story out there. It feels a tad too safe, a tad too sanitized, a tad too absent a sense of stakes, like it’s on awards-caliber autopilot. Chastain is good but her Polish accent becomes a near metaphor for the larger film: it’s polished and proper but you can’t help but feel like something is lacking and going through the motions of what is expected. This is a worthy story and I’m sure there are great moments of drama, but The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too clipped and misshapen to do its story real justice.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Some of Hollywood’s most famous characters are its monsters, and no I’m not referring to studio executives. Kong was one of cinema’s first international stars, a stop-motion marvel in 1933 that had a hankering for blonde women. His legend has endured many different incarnations and once again the gigantic gorilla is given his close-up, in Kong: Skull Island, the second phase in a would-be MonsterVerse after 2014’s Godzilla. This time the monster comes through. Skull Island is a pleasing two hours spent with just enough style, thrills, and comedy to enjoyably pass the time best accompanied by a big bag of popcorn.
In 1973, a geological surveying team has discovered a heretofore-unknown island ominously shaped like a skull. Everyone is heading there for different reasons. Bill Randa (John Goodman) wants to prove the existence of monsters, and that he’s right. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) wants one last mission before returning home from the Vietnam War and its anticlimactic ending. James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the world’s best big game trackers and wants a new challenge. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is an award-winning war photographer who wants a new scoop. Their plans are put on hold when a 100-foot tall ape, Kong, violently knocks their helicopters out of the sky. The survivors scramble to regroup and escape the hostile locals on Skull Island along with the aid of Hank Marow (John C. Reilly), a WWII fighter pilot who crashed on the island thirty years ago and might have a few screws loose from the experiences.
Kong: Skull Island is a monster mash-up that knows how to entertain in grand smash-em-up style. It is not a remake of the original King Kong story, and being free of that “twas beauty killed the beast” narrative opens the movie to be its own thing, a high-concept action vehicle and clear Vietnam War parallel. It’s like someone watched Peter Jackson’s agreeable if bloated 2005 King Kong and said, “Hey, what if we shaved off the first hour and spent the whole time on Skull Island, the undisputed best part of the movie?” It’s the equivalent of an-all marshmallow box of Lucky Charms (Simpsons reference!). The unique environment boasts a retinue of fun surprises and a variety of action set pieces that keeps the movie from falling into a valley of repetition. It’s not just giant apes and dinosaurs, there’s also giant bulls, insects, and in one creepily terrifying moment a giant spider that uses its stalks of long legs to try and impale its prey down below. It’s a long lost world that allows for a constant sense of discovery that doesn’t get old. When the characters stumble upon a graveyard I wanted to soak up every detail of the spectacular collection of bones. I was grateful that Vogt-Roberts made fine use of his locations, real and computer enhanced, to build a sense of space and atmosphere.
One of the best aspects is that the producers have apparently learned from 2014’s Godzilla and elected not to play an elaborate game of hide and seek. My biggest complaint is that I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie. I was not content to settle for a shadowy impression or a glimpse of a tail here and a foot there. It was an artistic decision that toyed with audience anticipation but it also felt like we were being lead on. Too much teasing and not enough of the good stuff. This is not a problem with Kong: Skull Island; the title beast makes his presence known in spectacular fashion around the half-hour mark, and there’s no tiresome visual obfuscation to blunt the impact. You see Kong smash and it’s glorious carnage. He’s established as ornery protector, a sheriff of Skull Island keeping order with the fragile ecosystem. It makes the world of monsters seem much larger and more balanced. I wish there was more for Kong to do as a character but without his familiar arc he’s less character and more a testy god. There is a moment or two that hint at the soul inside the giant ape, but he’s mostly the physical embodiment of implacable force and the good and bad that goes with such power.
The Vietnam parallels are plentiful and provide a dollop of subtext to the conflicts, but this is a movie that doesn’t forget to have fun. The imagery can often fall into Apocalypse Now flashbacks and other war movie iconography, from the burnt orange sunsets casting dusky silhouette to the slow motion explosions trailing after teams of helicopters. The ever-present 70s rock soundtrack almost reaches Suicide Squad levels of needle-drop proportions in the first half, constantly reminding you of its time period. Skull Island isn’t a very deep movie but it does subvert some genre expectations at turns. A character given significant attention is taken out rather unceremoniously. An appeal to a greater sense of humanity is curtly brushed off. A lone heroic sacrifice that proves to be fruitless. Our more photographic heroes are evidently the worst, most useless characters (more on that below). For a movie that doesn’t strive for more than two hours of entertainment, it finds interesting sub routes.
I’m shocked at what director Vogt-Roberts has proven capable of considering his only other film was the low-budget, rather unremarkable coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer. This is a Russo brothers-esque statement, a Colin Trevorrow-style jump from minor indie to full-blown big screen spectacle. Is Hollywood going to sign up Joe Swanberg or Shane Caruth to direct the next four-quadrant blockbuster based on a toy? He does an adept job of capturing the action with style, and his shot compositions are routinely visually pleasing, confidently guiding an audience’s eyeballs to key info within the frame. I loved Kong’s immediate introduction as the camera circled him in a 360-degree pan, stopping at points to slow down before ramping up once more. There are amusing angles that highlight the comedy or tension of a scene, and Vogt-Roberts’ sense of geography and scale enhances the destruction. The prologue even had me hooked, as we watch a pair of enemy WWII soldiers parachute on the beach and continue their fight on the new territory. It was such a slam-bang opener and Vogt-Roberts’ use of camera placement reminded me of Spielberg. The special effects are reliably terrific even if they don’t seem like leaps and bounds from Jackson’s Kong. The skull-faced lizard monsters are scary enough to be threatening while still cool. The monster mayhem is lovingly reproduced and in environments where an audience can see the spectacle.
Another improvement is that the human cast has just enough characterization to make me care. With the newest Godzilla, I didn’t care if the giant lizard stepped on any of them, short of maybe Bryan Cranston. However, in this film I wasn’t impatient for the monsters to return that much. The best characters are, ostensibly, the antagonists. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) who goes full on heart of darkness, obsessed with killing the mighty Kong, asserting man’s dominance, and winning a war that others tell him cannot be won. He’s still sore and frustrated from the Vietnam War’s conclusion. He’s convinced that brute force and intractable persistence will win out, and he’s trying to prove something to himself, to the brass in D.C., and perhaps to all the lives lost under his watch. It’s not subtle characterization by any means but neither is a movie with a giant ape fighting monsters. Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) uses any opportunity to prove his life’s research about the existence of ancient monsters who he claims are the ones who rightfully have dominion. He’s using the looming possibility of a threat, and the paranoia of the U.S. government in the Cold War, to his sneaky advantage. Watching Goodman and Jackson glare at each other, neither side refusing to back down in their stolid beliefs and personal, self-destructive obsessions, is the non-monkey highlight of the film.
The closest thing approaching human drama, and even tragedy, is Reilly’s distaff character, and I don’t know the last time that John C. Reilly was asked to be a movie’s human compass (Magnolia?). His out-of-time character has a definite degree of cabin fever wonkiness. Reilly excels at being the offbeat oddball and has some welcomed comic relief moments, but it’s the drama related to the character that stuck with me. With the appearance of new human faces, he can take stock just how much of his life he’s missed out on and the family he’s been absent for. His genuine melancholy provides a depth to a character that would ordinarily just be made fun of for being kooky. Still, he’s got some great gallows humor that keeps the movie alive comically while also reminding of the dangers at stake.
The rest of the characters are rather interchangeable or curiously have little impact on the plot, and that unfortunately includes the headlining stars. Hiddleston (Thor) is a big game tracker and he’s the most useless character. Think about that. He’s supposed to be a wildlife expert and a tracker and he provides no real purpose other than he fills out a tight shirt nicely. Hiddleston is eye candy and little else, which is strange considering his skill set should have factored into the plot somehow. He points them in the direction of water and that’s about it. Larson (Room) is a recent Oscar-winner and has tremendous skill burrowing into her characters and finding a raw vulnerability. With Kong, her anti-war photographer gets off a few ideological shots with Jackson, but there’s little to separate her from the other diverse supporting castmates who are just bodies meant to be sacrificed. They’re all waiting to be eliminated in fantastic, gruesome, or unexpected ways. You won’t exactly be shedding a tear for these people when they become monster chow. Fun fact: ⅔ of the core cast of Straight Outta Compton are here (Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell), which apparently shows that Ice Cube isn’t a fan of long travel.
Enjoyably dumb at points and smart enough to know it, Kong: Skull Island is an admirably efficient monster movie that delivers its share of fun. Vogt-Roberts makes a major statement as a visual stylist and director of big-time smash-em-ups. The action is varied, intense, and vividly realized from carefully positioned camera angles and a team of high-class special effects wizards. Kong: Skull Island knows what an audience wants and happily delivers. The actors, for the most part, are enjoyable or enjoyably expendable. If this is the next step in the growing MonsterVerse, then I saw bring on the cataclysms and world-destruction. Friendly tip, stay for a post-credits scene that sets up future installments and try not to pump your fist in excitement. Kong: Skull Island is a boisterous B-movie that can make you feel like a kid again watching the amazing film feats of classic monsters.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Great Wall is the most expensive film in Chinese history and the first major co-production between an American film studio and a Chinese-owned studio. While Matt Damon is the name above the title, it’s filled with recognizable Chinese stars, like Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, and pop star Lu Han. China’s most renowned action filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, serves as the director. It has the look and feel of a Hollywood special effects epic but it’s very much a Chinese film in ownership and execution, perhaps marking a new synergy of East meets West blockbusters. With a whopping budget of $150 million, the same as the last Star Trek movie, it looks like a typical Hollywood big-budget epic with visual spectacle and sweeping vistas. It’s up to the viewer whether a majority-Chinese production successfully imitating Hollywood middlebrow action spectacle is a brave step forward or just another source for mediocrity.
In the 11th centruy, traveling European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) are looking for black powder, an explosive substance that’s worth serious money back home. A mysterious feral creature attacks them and William cuts off the beast’s hand, taking it as a trophy. The Nameless Order, Chinese military officials stationed at the titular great wall, capture them and want to know exactly how these foreigners were able to defeat this beast. Legend states that long ago a meteor crashed to Earth, and with it came a horde of green monsters with big teeth lead by a queen that psychically controls her thousands of attack drones. Every 60 years the creatures emerge searching for food for their ravenous appetites. The Imperial City must be protected at all costs and that is why the wall was constructed. Lin Mae (Tian Jing) is thrown into command when her male superiors are killed, and she relies upon her unexpected Western allies to throw back the evolving horde of monsters.
As the first major big-budget collaboration between studios in China and the United States, The Great Wall feels like something that would have escaped from the 1990s era of tentpole filmmaking, and it’s clearly a paycheck film for all involved. Now that doesn’t condemn in either regard. There’s a certain charm to the relatively dumb sci-fi action movies that started being prepped with steady regularity in the 1990s when advancing special effects made it possible for hordes of CGI monsters to thwart. There’s an obvious point of engagement that crosses all translations: man versus monsters. The film even somewhat admirably knows its own ridiculousness and embraces it. I was reminded of the go-for-broke silliness of Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies like National Treasure’s positing that maybe, just maybe, there’s a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. This feels like the biggest budget Asylum movie you can imagine, and that in itself is not necessarily a problem. However, because of the mechanical nature of so much of its storytelling and the safe territory it resolutely occupies, The Great Wall is a mediocre monster movie that aims right down the middle for cross-continental mass appeal and nothing more. I’m almost certain that Damon had to have been paid $20 million dollars to justify his participation. The actors and the director go about their business in a professional manner but you feel the lack of passion. It’s a film looking to appeal to the most people and losing any sense of distinction.
Credit director Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) for keeping the film on life support, providing just enough action variety and pleasing visuals to stir an audience awake. The monsters are introduced very early into the film, around the twenty-minute mark, and their CGI horde definitely presents a worthy challenge. In fact they feel too overwhelming in their numbers. Early on we see that the ferocious creatures, which closely resemble the Ghostbusters demon dog painted green, are hard to kill outside of a straight shot to their shoulder-eyes (they have eyes on their shoulders… because…). The first creature that successfully scales the wall takes out a slew of Chinese warriors. If one of these things is that hard to kill, how in the world can a limited number of people, even with high ground, defend against a sea of a hundred thousand? The mismatched numbers deflate the stakes and lessen the tension, which isn’t helped from subpar characterization. The world building is certainly hazy (Why do they come out once every 60 years? Why do magnets affect them? Why all the effort for small food supplies?) and some of the elements feel inserted just for their “cool” factor. A group of female warriors bungee jump off platforms to spear the monsters, but why is this necessary when we’ve already seen that China has fiery projectiles that are far more effective? It is cool though.
Thankfully a movie with little going for it other than spectacle at least knows to vary up its action sequences. Each encounter with one of the monsters is structured differently. The best sequence may be William and Tovar navigating through a blinding fog and relying upon the sounds of whizzing arrows to alert them to approaching hungry monsters. It provides some fun tension and pop-out moments. There’s a beautiful sequence commemorating a fallen friend with the launching of hundreds of floating lanterns. The concluding sequence involves our remaining characters climbing to the top of a pagoda lined with stained glass. As the characters rush up flights of stairs, the screen is lovingly diluted with colored shafts of light, which also add extra visual flourishes when the monsters begin to leap through the glass level by level. Yimou’s use of color has always been a hallmark of his career and it translates even into the color-coded amour of the different divisions of the Nameless Order. They look like ancient Power Rangers. While lacking a great deal of overall tension due to its predictable nature and dull characters, there are fleeting moments of suspense drawn out in individual action set-pieces. The overall movie is generally unremarkable CGI carnage reminiscent of a too-late Lord of the Rings rip-off, and yet there’s at least a general professionalism to its unremarkable CGI carnage.
Early on the movie was hit with accusations of whitewashing, and given Hollywood’s recent track record with the likes of Exodus, Aloha, and Gods of Egypt, it would be entirely conceivable that producers felt Damon needed to be a white savior role. That’s not the case at all and in fact the Chinese forces are shown to be flawless specimens. Damon’s character is the out-of-place European (complete with hard to place accent) who represents selfish and arrogant Western attitudes. He’s routinely awed by the ability and precision of the Chinese warriors, who dutifully sacrifice for the greater good and safety of others they will never know. They are symbols of power, teamwork, courage, strength, and dignity. The lessons can be rather blunt (a woman… in charge?!). The portrayal of the Chinese forces is so honorable and so empowered that they come across as boring moral paragons without an ounce of traceably human nuance. They don’t come across like characters so much as interchangeable warriors, and so when they start dying one-by-one their sacrifices ultimately leave little impact. It turns out that the non-Chinese actors, Damon and Pascal, supply the most interesting characters because their roles are allowed personality, basic moral ambiguity, and inner conflict beyond a sense of duty and the requirements of achieving that duty. The Great Wall drafts off Damon’s worldwide star power to teach him a lesson about Eastern values. It certainly presents China and Chinese characters in a very positive perspective, but being so broad sanitizes their humanity and transforms people into boring paragons.
Given the pedigree of those involved, it’s completely expected to be underwhelmed by the end results of such an expensive East meets West collaboration. The Great Wall is ultimately too safe and stately to satisfy beyond generic genre thrills; lowering one’s expectations is highly advised in order to properly appreciate the goofy action spectacle. The Great Wall of China being constructed to protect from a horde of ravenous, possibly extraterrestrial monsters is certainly a silly premise, but the movie doesn’t pretend it’s anything than what it is, a large-scale monster movie with a sense of fun. It’s not soaked in deconstructive irony or meta commentary. Instead, The Great Wall is a straight-laced action spectacle that treats its absurdity with conviction. It’s not much better or worse than other empty-headed big-budget action cinema from the Hollywood assembly line, but is that progress? Is making an indistinguishable mediocre B-movie a success story?
Nate’s Grade: C
The Founder aims to be The Social Network of hamburgers and milkshakes, a warts-and-all biopic of a huckster who glommed onto other’s success and transformed it into an empire, a pragmatically ruthless entrepreneur run rampant with ambition and leaving behind a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled little people. Michael Keaton, on a roll since Birdman, teams up with screenwriter Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) to bring to life the story of the man behind the ubiquitous golden arches. The details are routinely fascinating and the movie presents a larger thesis on shifting and conflicting concepts of the American Dream and whether a ruthless yet victorious huckster is to be celebrated, pitied, scorned, or all of the above.
In the mid 1950s, Ray Kroc (Keaton) was a struggling milkshake mixer salesman striking out with just about every drive-in and dinner in the Midwest. His wife Ethel (Laura Dern) is exasperated by Kroc’s flights of fancy, shilling whatever new product might be his ticket to riches. His life changes thanks to one very efficient hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California. The McDonald brothers, Mac (John Caroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), have ordered eight of Kroc’s milkshake mixers because they can barely keep up with demand. Kroc travels out West to see for himself and discovers a tasty and speedy hamburger assembly line that nobody else is doing. He pushes the McDonald brothers to franchise their model with him in the lead. They’re wary but agree with a strict contract that still gives full executive decision-making to the brothers. Kroc languishes at first but finds growing success, barely able to keep ahead with the mounting overhead costs. Kroc wants to keep going but the McDonald brothers are unyielding over their terms of business. Kroc schemes to push them out of their own business, establish himself as the founder, and take their very name for himself.
Firstly, the story of the formation of McDonald’s is probably far less known than the formation of Facebook, and this provides plenty of opportunities for illumination. It is an inherently interesting story. There’s the invention of the modern-day fast food assembly line and the difficulty in perfecting this process and getting customers acquainted with the new reality. Initially, after years of drive-in service, customers are befuddled that they have to physically walk up to a window and order and throw away their own trash. The early history, hiccups, and adjustments are interesting, but it all gets more engrossing once Kroc comes aboard. It’s here where the film becomes very business-like in its examination of Kroc’s ruthless business tactics that lead to his ascent. Without Kroc’s intervention, perhaps the world would never have known the name McDonalds. He’s not an instant success either. He’s already middle-aged when he comes across the McDonald brothers. He’s not a brilliant salesman by nature. He’s cunning and doggedly persistent, the key he tells us since the world is rife with talented, educated, and good people who go nowhere. Kroc is a constant motor that can never be satisfied. Ethel asks him if anything will ever be enough, and after a short pause he replies without pretense, “Probably not.” He cannot enjoy success because he always feels he should be entitled to more. It’s the kind of unmoored ambition that leads him to throw his litigious weight around, knowingly breaking legal contracts and handshake deals to get exactly what he wants. Kroc’s business triumphs will remind certain viewers of Donald Trump, a man who uses similar advantages of wealth to exploit others and force them into advantageous deals. Even when explicitly in the wrong he just rolls along undeterred.
It is Keaton’s (Spotlight) movie and he more than delivers under pressure. Keaton adopts a speaking affect that makes the character weirdly magnetic without being wholly charming, an interesting combination that reflects the conflicted nature of Kroc. He’s a fast-talking salesman who enjoys the sound of his own voice but he doesn’t fool himself. He’s a man who knows what he wants and it just happens to be everything. He knows his limitations but he strides forward. He is bursting at the seams to get out from under the thumb of the McDonald brothers, who he sees as limiting the growth of a company that is more his than theirs. Kroc delights in being treated to the upper echelons of power. He loves having people proverbially kiss his ring and lavish his greatness. It’s the story of a man who scraped by his entire life until stumbling upon someone else’s genius idea. Keaton plays the man with a wily canniness that is always entertaining, channeling the actor’s natural oddball energy and style into a Midwestern McBeth. He says if he saw his competitor drowning he’d “shove a hose down his throat.” He’s generally cold but Keaton and Siegel don’t present him with a standard redemption arc. He’s kind of a hapless jerk at the start and becomes a powerful, egotistical jerk by the end. Keaton’s layered performance gives the film a solid anchor to keep viewers invested in the film.
If only the other parts of The Founder had as much nuance and care as Keaton’s role. The supporting characters have flashes of interest but are too relegated to be much more than symbols or less developed foils to Kroc. The McDonald brothers have a poignant level of tenderness to them but they’re set up to be symbols of American values that will inevitably be trampled upon by Kroc’s corporatist version of the American Dream. Mac is the hopeful and trusting brother, Dick is the no-nonsense devote to quality and ethics, and together they could use additional ambiguity or depth. They’re meant to represent an older way of doing business, the familiar edict that hard work, dedication to customers, and quality will pay off. The brothers are successful and content at their level of success; they lack the naked ambition of Kroc and his disregard for the rules. They’re set up to be defeated and swindled and victims of Kroc’s tactics, which limits them as characters. There’s a sliver of detail with Dick’s concern for his brother’s diabetes threatening him, but the brothers are more martyrs than anything else. You anticipate their defeat with slight dread but more a sense of impending inevitability. Their good-natured values are no match for the winner-takes-all mentality of a man on a mendacious mission.
Similarly, Kroc’s wife is another figure set up from the start to be trampled upon. She’s supportive but not supportive enough Kroc feels. Like the McDonald brothers, she’s too content within her station and what she deems a good existence, a life of dinners at the club with a retinue of upper middle class friends. Ethel is a plain looking woman of simple pleasures. You already know that there’s a ticking clock before Kroc will trade up. With these expectations, more could have been done to establish her character. Too often Kroc’s selfish, indifferent, or casually hurtful broadsides are treated with silent suffering from Ethel. She’s set up as a walking pained reaction shot. It almost gets to comical levels as the pattern repeats itself and you anticipate a slightly elongated, wounded reaction shot. Kroc’s second wife, Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), is a sweetly smiling prize but proves herself more than a pretty face. She shares Kroc’s ambitions and proposes swapping real milk for instant milk mix to save refrigeration costs. There’s obviously more to this woman, who we meet already married to a business associate of Kroc’s, but the movie keeps her as a mostly symbolic, almost Fitzgerald-esque trophy. The other side characters that come into Kroc’s orbit, B.J. Novak’s scheming real estate fixer, Kate Neeland’s esteemed secretary, Justin Randell Brooke’s loyal lieutenant, are clipped so that they only appear in the film when they offer some service or advice useful to Kroc. Perhaps there’s a meta level here exploring how Kroc views those seemingly closest to him in strict transactional terms, or perhaps I’m just reaching for more.
The other liability from an otherwise still entertaining script is the director. Hancock is better known for softer, feel-good films about American values. The Founder is a story that subverts all of those notions and Hancock doesn’t seem to master the skills in order for the satirical and darker implications to land. The onscreen visuals seem to clash with the movie’s overall disquieting tone. The colors are bright and the musical score by Carter Burwell seems curiously jolly at points, confusing the tone of darker scenes. It just doesn’t feel like Hancock had a good feel for the material and how best to execute it. It feels like he’s missing the layers of potential with Siegel’s screenplay. I’ll readily credit Hancock for part of Keaton’s terrific performance but Hancock’s touches are best realized in the art direction details recreating a bygone era. I feel that somebody like a Steven Soderbergh would have tapped more into this story’s satirical potential.
The Founder is an entertaining biopic of a scoundrel who ran roughshod over others dreams and turned their success into his own. It’s anchored by a complex performance from Keaton. It’s a rags-to-riches story that doesn’t tell the audience how to think about its centerpiece character. He’s underhanded, sure, but he’s also got everything he wanted and his tactics proved successful. Is this an ends justify the means story to rationalize the power of avarice, or is this an exploration of the darker undercurrents of the passing American Dream usurping others’ dreams and accomplishments (closing text informs us that McDonald’s feeds one percent of the world’s population every day)? The movie doesn’t seem to take a stand, neither fully condemning nor excusing Kroc’s actions. The tale behind the worldwide fast food giant is full of supersized drama and interesting procedural details about the rise of the most recognizable name in burgers. It’s unfortunate then that the movie struggles to reach the same heights as Keaton. The supporting characters are tragically underdeveloped and kept as figures for comparison to chart Kroc’s ascendance. Director John Lee Hancock also feels like an poor fit for the material, his instincts seemingly at odds with the film’s tone and intentions. The Founder is an interesting movie with a strong central performance but it can’t help but feel like its destiny was far greater, that it’s not meeting the full potential of the material.
Nate’s Grade: B
A nearly three-hour movie about Portuguese Jesuit priests facing persecution in 17th century Japan and struggling with the personal demands and costs of their faith sounds like a hard sell for your casual moviegoer. It may seem even stranger coming from the likes of director Martin Scorsese. This is a deeply personal film and perhaps the greatest movie about the nature of spiritual faith, both good and bad, I’ve seen. Two priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) sail to Japan in 1635 to find their mentor after hearing he has renounced his ties to Christianity and taken up a Japanese wife. Christianity has been outlawed and those caught practicing the religion can be turned in for 100 pieces of silver, and a priest for 300 pieces. The repression forces Christian converts to make difficult choices, especially when their refusal to recant their faith causes suffering for others. The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) is a fascinating figure who argues that these misplaced missionaries never understood Japanese culture and that this foreign religion simply cannot flourish. The meaning of individual faith is explored beautifully with existential highs and lows. When the priests come across a village of secretly practicing Christians, it’s a powerful example of the goodness of faith, as these people are nourished body and soul, empowered. They can also finally confess their sins and garner a clean slate. However, much of the film is about the internal struggle to retain one’s faith in the seeming absence of confirmation. The priests are eventually caught and ordered to apostate, and their ongoing refusals are met with harder and harder challenges to bear. It’s an ongoing process for many people to square the concepts of a loving God and the horrors and general torment that do not merit said God’s intervention. At one point one of our priests, shaken by his experiences, asks if he is merely praying to silence. In some regard, I think the movie is about coming to terms with the fact that faith is often a relationship with a silent partner. Silence may be the greatest spiritual epic about doubt. It feels like a thriller at times and also the most Christian movie at other times. It puts the simplistic tripe starring the likes of Kirk Cameron to shame. Scorsese’s camera is unmistakably his and the movie is often dazzling to just experience. The pacing is very much a slow burn but the historical context felt increasingly intriguing for my tastes. Ogata is the real star of the movie, embellishing his antagonist with a magnetic power. Every time he was off screen I wished for his return. Silence is not going to be a movie for everyone or for many. It’s too long and airless, but it’s a deeply serious, deeply meditative, and deeply searching film about the power of belief and the price we pay to hold on.
Nate’s Grade: B+
With only three films, Ben Affleck has successfully reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented directors when it comes to adult crime thrillers. It’s not just his superb directing chops; the man also serves as producer, lead actor on most films as well as a screenwriter, and Affleck’s ability to write flawed yet deeply human characters within genre parameters has accomplished actors flocking to work for him. Beyond his 2012 film Argo winning Best Picture, Affleck has gotten three different actors supporting Oscar nominations (Amy Ryan, Jeremy Renner, Alan Arkin). He’s an actor’s director and a man who knows how to satisfy an audience hungry for authentic genre thrills and interesting characters. His latest film is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel and is Affleck’s most ambitious film yet and it’s gorgeously brought to life. There’s still plenty to like and entertainment to be had with his Prohibition era gangster flick Live by Night, but it’s also unquestionably Affleck’s weakest film yet as a major director.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a hardened WWI veteran who says he came back to Boston as an “outlaw” (he seems to turn up his nose at being called a “gangster”). Joe settles into an easy life of crime with the local Irish gang lead by Albert White (Robert Glenister). Unfortunately, Joe’s lover, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), happens to be White’s main squeeze. Joe and Emma sneak around and carry on their relationship without proper discretion. Their secret is found out, Emma is dealt with, and Joe escapes with his life, serving a prison sentence and then enlisting in the Italian mob under local boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe is sent to Tampa to manage the rum-running business, starting his life over. The area is ripe for expansion and it isn’t long before Joe is making friends and enemies over his exploits. He falls in love with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), a fellow criminal with a working operation of Hispanic bootleggers. Joe warms to a local police chief (Chris Cooper) and his daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning) a girl who experiences the darker side of vice and becomes a troublesome born-again leader. All the while Albert White has relocated to Miami, and the specter of vengeance looms just within reach.
It’s a Prohibition gangster flick and Affleck makes sure to check as many boxes as he can when it comes to audience expectations for a pulpy hardboiled action drama. The production design is aces and the cinematography by Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) is beautifully composed with its use of light, shadow, and framing. There are shots of violence that are exquisitely rendered so as to be their own art, like a man falling down a stairwell with a Tommy gun blasting above bathed in light. The production details are a sumptuous aspect that Affleck and his team put supreme effort into to better make their movie transporting. The action sequences have a genuine delight as they pop. A shootout throughout the grounds of a mob-owned hotel is an exciting climax that finds fun ways to provide genre thrills. The rise-and-fall structure of the story, mingled with a simple revenge motivation, is a suitable story vehicle for the audience to plug into. There are fun characters, fun moments, and sizzling action, all decorated in handsome period appropriate details. While Live by Night has its share of flaws, a dearth of entertainment is not one of them.
Tone and coherency end up being Affleck’s biggest obstacles he cannot overcome. It’s somewhat of a surprise considering his other directorial efforts brilliantly melded several genres while telling invigorating stories. I think the main fault is a screenplay trying to do too much when more streamlining was optimal. The specific goal that sets Joe in motion is a bit hazy and fails to provide a larger sense of direction for the arc of the tale. Affleck’s previous films were rock-solid in crafting overarching yet specific goals that propel the scenes onto a natural narrative trajectory. With Gone Baby Gone, it’s finding the missing girl. With The Town, it’s getting closer to a bank employee without having that relationship discovered by his cohorts. With Argo, it was rescuing the hostages. With Live by Night, it’s mostly getting vengeance against Albert White, though we don’t know how. In the meantime, we have episodic incidents failing to register connective tissue or at least a cause/effect relationship where it feels like a natural order of organic conflicts. The opening act in Boston that sets up Joe’s tragic love, jail time, and enmity with White could be removed entirely. I’d miss the thrilling 1920s car chase, which is also unique in that it’s the first period car chase I can think of that utilizes the mechanical limitations of the vehicles for extra tension, but it’s at best a moment of flash. Having the story pick up with Joe putting his life back together in sunny Florida would have been a cleaner entrance into this world for an audience. Once Joe ingratiates himself into this new world, the audience has to play another game of character introductions and assessing relationships and the balance of power. It feels a bit redundant after having our previous act pushed aside to reboot Joe’s world.
It feels like Affleck is trying to corral so many historical elements that he loses sight of the bigger picture. Joe’s criminal path seems comically easy at times as he builds a fledgling empire along the Floridian west coast. First it’s the law and then it’s the KKK and then it’s religious revivals that need to be dealt with. Each incident feels like a small vignette that observes the historical setting with an angle that will be perfunctorily dropped in short order. The conflicts and antagonists don’t feel sufficiently challenging and that lessens the intended suspense. When Joe is dealing with the KKK, it feels like he’s restraining himself out of politeness rather than a series of organic restrictions. The elements and tones don’t really seem to inform one another except in the most general sense, which leads to the film lacking suitable cohesion. It’s easy then for Affleck to overly rely on stock genre elements to provide much of the story arrangements.
The characters have difficulty escaping from the pulp trappings to emerge as three-dimensional figures. Graciela gets the worst of it, proving to be a capable bootlegging criminal in her own right who loses all sense of personality, agency, and import once she becomes romantically entwined with our hero. It’s as if she erased herself to better heal his broken heart. How kind of her. The religious revival element is ripe for further examination but it’s kept at a basic level. We’re never questioning the validity of Loretta’s conversion and sudden celebrity. Chris Cooper’s pragmatic lawman has the most potential as a man trying to keep his morals amidst the immoral. The character isn’t utilized in enough interesting ways that can also flesh out his dimensions, and his conclusion suffers from that absent development. The characters serve their purpose in a larger mechanical sense but they don’t feel like more recognizable human beings.
Affleck’s innate talent with actors reappears in a few choice moments, just enough to tantalize you with the promise of what Live by Night could have been. The standout moment for me is a sit-down between Joe and Loretta where she unburdens her self-doubts. This is a woman who has been preyed upon by others, had her hopes dashed, and is trying to reinvent herself as a religious leader, but even she doesn’t know if she believes that there’s a God. The scene is emotional, honest without being trite, and delivered pitch-perfect by Fanning (The Neon Demon). It’s the kind of scene that reminded me of The Town and Gone Baby Gone, how Affleck was deftly able to provide shading for his characters that opened them up. Miller (American Sniper) has immediate electricity to her performance and reminds you how good Affleck is at drawing out the best from his actors. British TV vet Glenister is so good as a villain that seems to relish being one that you wish he were in the movie more. He has a menace to him that draws you in closer. Maher (The Finest Hours) is a memorable cretin who you’ll be happy to be dealt with extreme prejudice. There isn’t a poor casting choice in the film (hey Clark Gregg, hey Anthony Michael Hall, hey Max Casella) except possibly one, and that’s Affleck himself. I know part of the reason he selects his directing efforts is the possibility of also tackling juicy acting roles, but this time he may not have been the best fit. He’s a little too calm, a little too smooth, a little too out of place for the period, and his director doesn’t push him far enough.
A strange thing happened midway through, namely how politically relevant and vicariously enjoyable Live by Night feels specifically for the year 2017. It’s a movie largely sent in the 1920s with characters on the fringes of society, and yet I was able to make pertinent connections to our troubled times of today. After a contentious presidential election where many feel that insidious and hateful extremist elements are being normalized and emboldened, there is something remarkably enjoyable about watching a murder montage of Klansmen. The Tampa chapter of the KKK takes aim with Joe’s business that profit from fornicators, Catholics, and especially black and brown people. They’re trying to shake Joe down for majority ownership but they’re too stupid, blinded by their racist and xenophobic ignorance, to accept Joe’s generous offers, and so they can’t help but bring righteous fury upon their lot. There is something innumerably enjoyable about watching abusive bigots brought down to size with bloody justice. I could have seen an entire movie of Joe and crew tearing through the Florida chapters of the KKK and just cleaning out the rabble. This sequence whets the appetite for what comes later. Without going into specific spoilers, the climax of the movie involves the put-upon minorities rising up against their bosses who, like the Klan, felt they were too powerful, too indispensable, and too clever to be seriously threatened. In its own way, it’s like a dark crime actualization of the American Dream. Unpack that if you will.
Live By Night is Affleck losing the depth of his world to its surface-level genre pleasures and they are indeed a pleasure. This isn’t a bad movie by any measure, only one of slight disappointment because it had the markings and abilities to be much more than the finished product. The tonal inconsistency and storylines provide episodic interludes and enticing moments, whether in action or acting, but they don’t blend together to form a more compelling and impressive whole. It’s a gangster movie that provides the gangster genre trappings but loses sight of what makes the characters in these movies so compelling, the moral complications, shifting loyalties, the impossible positions, and enclosing danger. I don’t think you’ll sweat too much over whether the main character will come out on top, which somewhat hinders the intensity of the action. When your movie is more predicated on those genre thrills than character or story, that’s an even bigger hindrance. It’s a fun world worth visiting but it doesn’t have the staying power of Affleck’s better efforts.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’m glad there’s still a filmmaker at the talent level of director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) dedicated to making genuine Gothic romance with style and reverence. The Handmaiden is a ravishing, enrapturing, and momentously engaging movie with dark delights, startling depths, palpable romance, simmering tension, and high-wire twists and turns that keep redefining the story. The absurdly talented filmmaker takes a novel set in Victorian England and adapts the setting to 1930s Korea during the time of Japanese occupation, a fascinating and little-known time period for a Western audience. A poor orphan Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is pressured into a scheme to trick the wealthy Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) into being admitted to an insane asylum, her family riches sold. From the opening minutes, The Handmaiden produces immersive drama that pushes the central characters into consistent conflict to achieve their varying goals. They’re constantly at odds with one another and themselves. There’s even tension between those who hold onto their Korean culture and those who adopt the culture of their oppressors, namely Lady Hideko’s perverse and treacherous uncle. Sook-Hee grows an unexpected affection for her mistress, and this includes a burgeoning attraction that the movie communicates with serious sensuality. The passionate lesbian sex scenes are, if anything, a tad restrained from what I was expecting from Chan-wook, and they’re definitely far more restrained and absent the male gaze than the still excellent Blue is the Warmest Color. I felt the same carnal desire the characters were discovering, a feat worth celebrating for still staying true tonally without veering into tawdry exploitation. More than the sex or the top-notch technical aspects, it was the characters that hooked me and refuse to relinquish. The deepening relationships and the subtle shifts of loyalty, perception, and desire make what is essentially a twisty and twisted chamber-play into world-class drama. You think it’s one kind of movie, and then it flips the script, and then it does it again, each time opening wider this mysterious, dangerous, and invigorating world. My one quibble is that the final twenty minutes feels unnecessary and self-indulgent, Chan-wook finally scratching a few violent tendencies he had been keeping as veiled up to that point. The Handmaiden is a ridiculously entertaining movie that is handsomely mounted, wonderfully acted by its leading ladies, and a romance worth losing your self over. Plus, there’s also the sex.
Nate’s Grade: A-
There’s something about plays turned into movies that bring out the best in actors. Usually they provide meaty characters with flaws and big personalities, which lend themselves to big performances that touch upon every emotion in an actor’s kit. Fences is based upon August Wilson’s Tony-winning play set in 1950s Pittsburgh. It follows the fractious household under the indomitable influence of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, also serving as director). He’s a complex man prone to bold protestations and morally righteous fury, but he’s also deeply imperfect, hypocritical, and consumed with self-doubt over whether or not he has done right by his family. He’s a man trying to still assess his place in the world and what is owed. Troy’s older brother (Mykelti Williamson) has been mentally incapacitated from his war service and Troy has been living off of his brother’s wages. Troy’s oldest son doesn’t feel like he ever had a father, Troy’s youngest son wants to devote a future to sports, which Troy adamantly refuses, still nursing a grudge over his failed potential that was never capitalized in his mind. Then there’s Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) who tries to keep her blended family together though Troy’s actions will test the boundaries of her devotion and affection. As expected, the performances are outstanding, lead by Washington and Davis reprising their Tony-winning roles. When these two sink into roles worthy of their caliber, it’s a pleasure just to sit back and watch the high-class mastery. Washington lights up the screen with the overwhelming power of his performance; you feel like your ears are pinned back by the sheer volcanic strength of his acting. Davis has her moments and she tears your heart out when she lets loose on a life of compromises to sustain her husband. The characters are so multi-layered with such plentiful history and generational conflicts. Every actor gets his or her moment to shine and do an excellent job under Washington’s direction. The movie is little more than a filmed version of the stage play, and the pacing is a bit loquacious for being almost two and a half hours, but Fences rises on the sheer power of its performances with expert actors giving all of their considerable skill to bring these fascinating people to vivid life.
Nate’s Grade: B+