Horror is likely the most forgiving genre out there for being derivative. Just about every modern horror movie wears its many influences, even the recent trend of elevated horror movies that are trying to say Big Things with equal amounts of arty style and bloodshed. There’s only so many monsters that can chase so many teenagers. Ti West (House of the Devil) is a director I haven’t fully enjoyed, though I would say X is his most accomplished film to date for me. It’s clearly going for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe and docu-drama aesthetic. It’s set in 1979 and we follow a ragtag film crew trying to make “a good dirty movie.” They’ve rented a guest house in the middle of nowhere Texas as their film site because who knows. The octogenarian couple who owns the farm property doesn’t seem to approve of these young folk, and the old lady ends up becoming the slasher killer that mows down the randy young adults. Turns out the old lady has her own urges that the old husband is no longer physically able to satisfy, so she seeks out solace one way or another with the newcomers, whether that be through her sexual satisfaction or through violence. To West’s credit, he has given more attention to his characters. These people are not going to be confused with three-dimensional figures but there’s enough character shading that made me more interested in spending time with them and a little more rueful that most of them will probably die horribly soon enough (Chekhov’s alligator). The slow burn is not wasted time or dawdling, and there are some very well-executed squirm-worthy moments of discomfort. I don’t think X quite works on that elevated horror level of late; it’s mostly a slasher movie with a dollop more complexity and style. The real reason to appreciate X is from the dual performances from actress Mia Goth (Suspiria), the first as a stripper-turned-ingenue that sees pornography as a path of possible self-actualization, but she’s also secretly the killer old lady under piles and piles of makeup. Her wild performances, including scenes where she is facing off against herself, makes the movie far more interesting. Goth goes for broke. I don’t think the X is as fun as it thinks it is, nor is it as thoughtful as it thinks it is, and I don’t know if I care about a prequel that was shot back-to-back that illuminates the killer old lady’s younger life. Is this character really that interesting to warrant her own movie? As a horror movie, it’s disturbing and bloody and surprising in equal measure even as it doesn’t do much with re-configuring the many conventions of its genre.
Netflix’s Choose or Die is one of those spooky horror movies that wants the audience to play its deadly games alongside the unfortunate characters, much like Saw and Would You Rather?, and I typically enjoy these kinds of movies and thinking what options or strategies I would undergo if I was in their place. The structure is pretty straight forward, with a young woman (Iola Evans) and her programmer friend (Asa Butterfield) coming across a cursed old school text-based computer video game that forces its users to make awful choices. The game turns itself on every 24 hours, so there’s a natural delivery of set pieces, each increasing in its personal stakes. There’s the amateur investigation of the history of this 80s video game and uncovering the possible owner who might be benefiting from all this cruelty and sadism. This is a movie built around its set pieces and they start strong. When the protagonist sees the game in action, with a poor diner worker force-feeding herself broken pieces of glass, it’s truly horrifying and the sound design makes it so much worse. The movie isn’t s gory as it could have been and implies a lot more than it shows. The problem with Choose or Die is that there are too many leaps in logic and characters doing silly things just for the sake of the plot. There needs to be an established system of rules or else everything will feel arbitrary, and eventually that is what dooms Choose or Die. Even while we get more of an explanation behind the makers of the game and their occult connections it never feels like we’re better positioned to beat the game. I will say the final act, the Boss Battle, is where the movie cranks things up and gets really intense and darkly humorous. There’s a showdown that involves a key concept of self-harm that plays out in moderately clever, bizarre, and surprising ways, and this splashy, silly finish made me wish the rest of the movie could have lived in this tonal space. I found the overall sound design to be very annoying as it cranked up the volume on lots of glitchy electronic noises that just made me want to turn it off. There are some good ideas here, like the criticisms of being too nostalgic to the past, and of misogynist men believing nobody else is deserving of being the hero of their story, but this is a movie that lives or dies on its killer set pieces, and those just fall flat after its unsettling first level. Watching someone vomit VHS tape is not scary. Watching people move their bodies like they have no control over them will inherently look goofy. Choose or Die wouldn’t be the worst choice of a movie to kill 85 minutes but it’s certainly not much more than the sum of its parts, and even those are overly derivative and been done better by its predecessors.
Choose or Die: C
I am admittedly not the world’s biggest Agatha Christie fan, so once again reader, as you did with my review of 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express remake, take my critique with caution, especially if you are a fan of the illustrious author’s many drawing room murder mysteries. Kenneth Branagh returns as director and as the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot, with arguably the world’s greatest mustache (as I said in 2017, it appears like his mustache has grown its own mustache). Death on the Nile takes the murder-on-mode-of-transport formula and leaves us with a gaggle of red herrings and suspects to ponder until the inevitable big conclusion where our smartypants detective reveals everything we had no real chance of properly guessing no matter the clues. Again, these kinds of impossible-to-solve mysteries are not for me, but I know others still find antiquated pleasures with them (Christie was the best-selling author of the twentieth century after all). What I don’t find as pleasing, and I’m sure even ardent whodunit fans would agree, is how cheaply this whole production looks. The budget was almost twice as much as Orient Express but it’s really a chintzy-looking cruise ship with one of the most obvious green screens for a big budget film. It takes away from the grandeur quite a bit, especially knowing the original 1978 movie was shot on location in Egypt. Another aspect that didn’t work for me was the added back-story for Poirot, including the explanation for why he grew his preposterous mustache. Did we need a mustache origin story? Did I need an attempt to better humanize this fastidious detective? If you were a fan of the overly serious and stately Orient Express, and of Christie in general, I’m sure there’s enough to recommend a new Death on the Nile. Branagh clearly has passion for this character and as a steward of this cherished material. However, for me, it took too long to get the movie really rolling, the characters were too lackluster, and there are too many tonally bizarre and uncomfortable moments, like Gal Gadot quoting Cleopatra while being, I guess, dry humped by Armie Hammer against an Egyptian relic. As Poirot’s mustache, which will be given top-billing in the third film, would say, “Yikes.”
Nate’s Grade: C
The Time Machine is one of the most famous works of fiction in history. It was writen long long ago by the great H.G. Wells. It presents a fantasy glimpse into our future, but in it Wells also gave readers the opportunity to ponder what would happen if they could go back and change their own lives. People have used the story as a cautionary allegory to our own times, like the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. Now, a bigger budget Hollywood remake attempts to put another spin on the Wells classic.
Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is an absent-minded professor interested in cracking down the physics of time. He’s chided by some of his peers for crackpot theories and his fascination with any new gadget. He’s supposed to meet Emma (Sienna Guillory) at Central Park and tonight’s the big night he plans to propose to her. He eventually catches up to Emma and the two go strolling off into the park. Shortly after popping the question the two become victims of a mugging and in the fray Emma is left dead. The death drives Alex to create his fanciful time machine, which only happens to take four years time.
Alex gives his big brass LA-Z-Boy looking machine a try and travels back to that fateful night to avoid Emma’s death. Alex avoids the mugger all right, but while purchasing flowers his fiancé gets plowed over by a runaway carriage instead. It seems that one cannot change the past. Alex decides to give the future a chance and travels to a very Back to the Future 2 looking 2037. Someone astutely asks Alex if his time traveling machine makes a good cappuccino.
When Alex hops a little further into the future the moon is breaking up because of ill-fated lunar construction. Moon rocks are hurtling toward the surface and disrupting everyone’s day. (It was in this moment that a scene of rocks smashing into the World Trade Center was cut for taste) Alex jumps back into his machine but is konked out by some lunar cheese and falls asleep at the wheel. The next thing you know Alex is in a mysterious future world.
The place where The Time Machine really bogs down is once Alex arrives in 80,000 something or other. The child-like thrills and adventure of Alex zipping between the past and near future are buried underneath the standard post-apocalyptic movie world. The people dress in loin cloths and rags (though some of the female natives wear revealing tops that look like see-through chain mail) but still have perfect teeth. When Alex doesn’t understand the linguistics of 80,000 AD the next words that he hears are English from Mara (pop star Samantha Mumba). It’s amazing that English survived 81,000 years when Latin didn’t last a mere 2,000 and change.
It turns out these people who live in huts resembling hot air balloons along the faces of cliffs are called Eloi. The Eloi don’t have anyone looking old enough to carry an AARP membership and are apprehensive to speak of why. Perhaps it’s because creatures resembling something that would belong in The Mummy Returns pop up from the sand to capture whatever slow moving prey they can and return to for an underground feast.
The creatures, called Morlocks, are the offshoots of evolution. Seems after the whole moon destruction thing (whoops!) those who took refuge below the surface have evolved into dusty hunchbacked cannibals. Their rowdy ranks are controlled by Uber-Morlock (I’m not making up that name) who resembles an albino bassist for Poison or Skid Row. It’s actually acclaimed actor Jeremy Irons under all that pancake makeup and fleshy spine-showing prosthetic. The less said about Irons the better.
It’s during this part that The Time Machine reverts into a half-baked Stargate. Alex encourages the Eloi race to stand up to their oppressors and fight for their freedom. He becomes part of the Eloi community, rallies the troops into rebellion, and also has to save the damsel in distress.
The Time Machine remake isn’t the political statement the 1960 film was on man’s folly with technology, particularly nuclear weapons. What this suped-up version is all about is special effects and plenty of them. The effects are for the most part dazzling, especially the scene where Alex travels to 2037 and we see the development of New York City with skyscrapers assembling themselves.
Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt) directed this remake and is actually the great-grandson of the famous adventure’s author, H. G. Wells. Trivial Pursuit fans everywhere rejoice. Wells had to sit out the last 18 days of shooting due to “exhaustion” and Gore Verbinsky came off the bench to finish the directorial duties. The film clocks in at a scant 90 minutes but there are definite moments of drag.
Pearce (Memento) is a hunky hero and for the most part is admirably gung-ho with the role. Samantha Mumba’s motivation must have been to stand and look pretty the entire film. To think that Mumba might be the most talented of the recent singers-come-actors (Mandy Moore and Britney Spears) is a distressing thought all its own.
As The Time Machine kept dragging into its Mumba-filled period, I began day dreaming of an alternate, darkly comic version. In my head, Pearce’s character keeps traveling back again and again to save his beloved only to lose her a different way each time. I could picture a humorous montage of his girlfriend dying an assortment of colorful deaths and Pearce just getting more frustrated and jaded. I could picture them skating only to have her plunge below the ice. I could picture the couple dining at a fine restaurant only to have her choke and Pearce just throw his napkin onto the table and sigh loudly. I was enjoying my alternate take on The Time Machine so much that I didn’t want to return to the one that was playing.
The Time Machine has its moments of thrills and excitement but they are mostly condensed to the opening third. This remake doesn’t have the political edge or wow-factor the original did. It plays more to the rules of conventional Hollywood than the wide open possibilities Wells wrote about. Pearce tries valiantly and the special effects are really something, but more often than not The Time Machine is not worth your time.
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
The 2002 Time Machine is fanciful schlock on the verge of being populist spectacle. It’s not just another adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells sci-fi novel, it’s also emerging from the shadow of the 1960 movie that broke ground in the realm of special effects. Storytellers will often find new relevant meaning to be mined from the resources of old, and literature with classic stories can still be compelling decades and centuries hence as long as they are served with care and empathy. In theory, another Time Machine movie could be a worthy venture especially in a realm of modern special effects marvels and a more socially conscious viewpoint. If the 1960 film was a cautionary tale about mankind’s impending doom from nuclear arms and technological hubris, you would think a movie born from the ashes of the Cold War would follow a different approach, perhaps something more in line with the colonialism critiques from Wells. It’s surprising then that the 2002 movie also follows the “be careful with your machines, mankind” thematic warning of the earlier version. It made me think of Tim Burton’s maligned 2001 Planet of the Apes remake where they could have gone with ANY ending possible except one, the original’s famous twist ending, one of the most famous endings ever, and what did the new movie do? The same ending. Re-watching the 2002 Time Machine, it’s more fun than it has any right to be and there are aspects worth celebrating, but much like its hero, it’s a victim of unmet potential.
Firstly, this is a pretty entertaining studio movie that blows by quickly at only 96 minutes. The screenplay is by John Logan, the same writer with credits like Gladiator, The Aviator, Rango, Hugo, Skyfall, and other quite successful, quite large studio hits. And yet this movie doesn’t just feel like another paycheck for the man. The opening half of this relatively brief movie definitely feels like the favorite half. It’s here where the movie introduces the protagonist’s personal loss being the motivating force that drives him to make a time machine, something absent from the 1960 original and an exciting and emotional way to separate itself. Watching Alexander (Guy Pearce) go back to save his love has an immediate appeal, and watching him fail again brings forth the idea of being unable to change the past. Even twenty years later, I still think about the darkly comic version of this story, just as I did in my initial review in 2002, where Alexander tries again and again to save his beloved only to lose her to some new calamity. It would have a lighter approach even while dealing with darker humor, and it would certainly contribute to the film’s central thesis that man is unable to change the miscues of the past.
You would think The Time Machine would follow a theme about correcting the mistakes of the past to prevent future danger; many time travel tales follow a hero trying to thwart a terrible future, although sometimes they inadvertently cause that same terrible future in grand ironic tradition. This movie doesn’t really dwell on fixing the past but more so upon learning from it. During its post-apocalyptic second half, the focus isn’t on preventing it or going back to warn mankind of the folly of its ways. It’s about adapting to change, which can be viewed as defeatist or pragmatic. The future world of 800,000 years ahead is messed up because of the actions of mankind’s past, namely the lunar collision thanks to bad condo construction (thanks, capitalism!). It’s none too difficult to place a general ecological/climate change message in place, the exploitation of the present spoiling the future for generations yet to come. However, the movie isn’t about Alexander going back to teach mankind how to avoid its own mistakes. Unlike the 1960 original, he stays put in this uncertain future world with his new Eloi family and Eloi girlfriend (Samantha Mumba). He’s content to remain in this new time and live his life, ignoring the foresight of a time machine. There’s a message there about looking ahead in one’s life, not dwelling on the past at the expense of the future, but it’s also unexpected for a time travel action adventure. It’s usually about preventing the horrible future, not learning to live with it and make a better tomorrow. This also could be read as the present giving up on avoiding the mistakes of contemporary excess.
You can probably tell what kind of person that you are depending upon which half of The Time Machine you prefer. For me, the first half has all the surprises and time jumping and fun, and the second half settles into standard post-apocalyptic rally-the-masses formula. It’s not bad but it honestly feels like an entire second act is missing from the development of the plot. In quick succession, Alexander learns he’s in a far-flung future, the customs of the Eloi, the danger of the Morlocks, their hunting practices, their cannibalistic impulses, what caused them, and then who their leader is, and how there are multiple Eloi-Morlock colonies throughout the world. It’s a lot of absurdly fast exposition that just unfolds to the convenience of our hero, and so little of it occurs from the virtual A.I. figure (Orlando Jones) that seems entirely designed to be an exposition device. It’s during the second half that the playfulness and ideas give way to a grungy future with efficient if unspectacular chase scenes from monsters. I am convinced that the Morlock leader played by Jeremy Irons was originally intended to be the older, more evolved, and more callous ends-justify-the-means version of Alexander. That kind of twist would have brought things back to the personal realm of those first minutes traveling through time. Alas, he’s just another monster with bad hair. It seems like wasted potential for the last twenty minutes of this movie to just be another climax involving blowing up the monsters and rescuing the damsel.
Apparently there was significant contention behind the scenes over the look of the Morlocks. The creatures were designed by the famous Stan Winston studios and then director Simon Wells and the producers wanted to change their look, making them more humanoid and recognizable. This infuriated the effects team who strongly disapproved of this creative direction. I appreciate that the production went to the trouble of expensive prosthetics and costumes rather than just making all of the Morlocks ugly CGI monstrosities. I was worried that twenty-year-old humanoid CGI would not age well, but thankfully I didn’t have to bother with that fear.
This was the first live-action movie for Wells as director. He spent over a decade in the world of animation and helmed An American Tale: Fievel Goes West, Balto, and The Prince of Egypt. After the mediocre reception to The Time Machine, Wells didn’t direct another movie until almost ten years later, 2011’s Mars Needs Moms, a film that reportedly cost the studio over $200 million in losses. It was one of the biggest box-office bombs ever. It’s not much of a surprise then that Wells hasn’t been able to direct another studio movie until just this year, and even that is a small-scale adaptation of a children’s TV show, to the best of my knowledge. The man has directed two movies in the last two decades. On a more fortunate note, Wells has had steady work in his old field of animation as a consultant and storyboard artist for just about every Dreamworks cartoon (Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, The Croods, etc).
Re-reading my old review, there’s not much more to extrapolate. I agree with just about every word I wrote back in 2002. It’s fun for me when I watch these films twenty years later and have the same remarks in my head only to discover my younger self had the exact same response.
While not breaking new ground or even attaining its own creative potential, the 2002 Time Machine is a perfectly reasonable genre movie that you could put on and kill 90 minutes. It’s relatively fun, has some bigger ideas, and some surprising moments where it appears on the verge of poignancy. One of those is when the A.I., who has survived 800,000 years of isolation, talks about the misery of remembering every face he ever interacted with, cataloging every detail, and how this is tearing him apart and how valued having a lone friend was for him. It’s such a thoughtful and empathetic moment that seems to come out of nowhere and leave just as fast before you can really dig into it for genuine pathos. The Time Machine feels this way, like whenever it presents something intriguing, intelligent, or emotive, it then it has to veer sharply back to the bigger, dumber lane of blockbuster filmmaking for the masses.
Re-View Grade: C+
In 2015, I was completely on board with a Kingsman franchise. Based upon the Mark Millar comics, the film was a hip, transgressive, action-packed, and refreshingly modern remix of stale spy thriller tropes. It also followed a satisfying snobs vs. slobs class conflict and a My Fair Lady-stye personal transformation of street kid to suave secret agent. In short, I loved it, and I said co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn used big studio budgets smarter than any other blockbuster filmmaker. Flash forward to 2017, and the Kingsman sequel started to show cracks in my resolute faith in Vaughn, and now with the long-delayed Kingsman prequel, I just don’t know if I care any more about this universe. It feels like the appeal of the franchise has been stamped out by its inferior additions. This one chronicles the origins of the Kingsman tailors/secret agency, a question nobody was really asking. It’s the beginnings of World War I, and a comical cadre of super villains, such as Mata Hari, Rasputin, and future assassin Gavrilo Princip, is meeting to plot doom and destruction and goad the world’s powers into war (in a goofy but appreciated comical touch, Tom Hollander plays the leaders of England, Germany, and Russia). Ralph Fiennes plays Orlando Oxford, a pacifist leading a special team trying to thwart the drumbeats of war by taking out the shadow brokers. The Kingsman movies were known for its attitude and cheekily crossing the line from time to time, but that willful perversity seems so desperate with this new movie. During the Rasputin mission, the disheveled madman literally stuffs an entire pie into his face, tongues Oxford’s wound on his upper thigh, and lasciviously promises more to come for him and Oxford’s adult son. The sequence is almost astonishing in poor taste and grotesque, and it just seems to go on forever. And yet, thanks to the sheer audacious energy of Rhys Ifans as the pansexual cleric, this actually might be the best or at least most entertaining part of the 130-minute movie. The problem is that The King’s Man doesn’t know whether it wants to commit to being a ribald loose retelling of history or a serious war drama. It’s hard to square Rasputin cracking wise and sword fighting to the 1812 Overture and an interminable 20-minute tonal detour that seriously examines the horrors of trench warfare. It jumps from silly comic book violence to grisly reality. That entire episode is then washed away with a joyless climax that feels like a deflated video game compound assault. I’ll credit Vaughn for dashes of style, like sword-fighting from the P.O.V. of the swords, but this movie feels too all over the place in tone, in ideas, in execution and lacking a dynamic anchor. Fiennes is a dry and dashing leading man, though I was having flashbacks of his 1998 Avengers misfire at points. It’s a story that doesn’t really accentuate the knowledge base of future Kingsman, and it’s lacking a sustained sense of fun and invention. It needed more banter, more subversion, more over-the-top and less formulaic plot turns. In my review of The Golden Circle, I concluded with, “It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.” That day has sadly arrived, ladies and gentlemen.
Nate’s Grade: C
I’ve now watched both versions of Nightmare Alley, the 1947 movie and the 2021 Guillermo del Toro remake, and I guess I just shrug at both. Based upon the 1946 novel by Lindsay Gresham, we follow an ambitious yet troubled man, Stanton (Bradley Cooper), who finds refuge in a traveling carnival, mentors as a phony mentalist, and then uses his skills of manipulation to fleece the rich and privileged while possibly losing his own soul in the process. I kept watching this 150-minute movie and waiting for it to get better, to hit another level, and I had to keep asking, “Why isn’t this playing better for me?” It’s del Toro, an early twentieth-century freak show, a dashing of film noir, and a star-studded cast (Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn), and all those enticing elements should coalesce into something special and dark and adult and transporting, like del Toro’s 2017 Best Picture-winning Shape of Water. However, for me it just feels so turgid and overly melodramatic. I wish the movie had stayed with the traveling carnival and the colorful weirdos that it ditches halfway through. I think it’s because the movie plays to your exact expectations. You expect it to be beautifully composed, and it is, with a flair for the grotesque, a del Toro specialty, and the beats of its film noir-heavy story with femme fatale and double crosses comes across so predictably but minus substantial depth to compensate. I kept waiting for the themes to deepen, to be a better reflection of ourselves, but it’s one man’s circular downfall that doesn’t play too tragic because he’s already an unrepentant scoundrel. Cooper also just seems too old for the part, especially when everyone refers to him as a “young chap.” You might not see a better looking movie from 2021. The cinematography, production design, costumes, and stylish panache that del Toro trades in are all present and glorious to behold. I just wish I could get more from Nightmare Alley besides an admiration for its framing and less about what is happening to the characters within such doting artistry.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Originally released January 25, 2002:
Call it swash without the buckle. While The Count of Monte Cristo does an adequate job of telling the Alexander Dumas story (heavily editing chapters and making the leads friends in this version) the whole experience feels very rote. The sword fighting scenes are nowhere what they were billed as and the direction is surprisingly lackluster. Only the actors allow this film to arise mediocrity particularly with a devious turn from Guy Pierce (Memento). Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) directed this film and proves he doesn’t need Kevin Costner to screw something up. Somewhere Costner is laughing. Actually, somewhere Costner is likely crying in his beer wondering what happened to him. “I was the king of the cinema…”
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I think 2002 is going to be my potential apology tour year when it comes to reviewing my initial film criticism of twenty years hence. The Count of Monte Cristo is my first entry for the new year and I already cringe re-reading my initial review. I think some of my early film reviews went overboard on snark, trying to establish a cool, chipper-than-thou attitude, but this was the early 2000s writing default for many. It was better to make quips, take some cheap shots, and sprinkle in some actual film criticism on top, and it’s a style of writing I’ve tried to grow out of as I’ve aged. I began writing film criticism back in 1999 as a means of expressing myself and showcasing my cinephile knowledge, and in many ways it was like learning to crack a puzzle, why a movie worked or didn’t work and what decisions lead to this eventual outcome. In some ways, early on, it was showing off and exploring my evolving writerly abilities, and sometimes that meant prioritizing cleverness over sincerity. I know I’m going to be reliving this with Crossroads but I’m reminded already with my first movie re-examination for the year 2002. So, to the filmmakers of The Count of Monte Cristo, on behalf of my then-19-year-old self, I apologize. Your movie is actually pretty good and, strangely, even makes some deviations from the book for the better.
Based upon the famous novel by Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), it’s a classic tale of vengeance and it’s plenty fun to watch because it feels like a movie that is giving you so many different turns at once. It’s almost structured like 30-minute episodes, and while being deemed “episodic” is usually regarded as a negative for a film story, I think this is an improvement. The beginning segment establishes how Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) gets into trouble, and he might just be the biggest idiot in the world. The opening features him and his best pal, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), seeking assistance for their ailing ship captain on the island of Elba during the time of Napoleon’s exile. Edmond agrees to deliver a letter from the deposed emperor to “an old friend” of his and then Edmond gets charged with treason in France. His shocked, incredulous response is absolutely hilarious (“What? Napoleon… USED me? I’m starting to rethink my whole appraisal of this man who tried to conquer the European continent.”). There’s a conspiracy by a government official to cover up his father being a Napoleon loyalist, the intended recipient of the letter, but it almost feels like Edmond deserves to be in jail for being this naively stupid. The first half hour sets up the villains, Edmond’s BFF betraying him to covet Edmond’s attractive wife, and the starting point for vengeance to be had. It’s economical storytelling and works well, and each thirty minutes feels like they are defined by a “very special guest star” who comes and goes.
The next thirty minutes explores Edmond’s life and routines in prison, lorded over by a cruel warden (Michael Wincott), and where he finds his mentor and salvation with an old priest, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris). Again, screenwriter Jay Wolpet efficiently establishes the routine, the passage of time, the means of how Edmond might escape, and his growing relationship and tutelage under a new unexpected friend. It’s kind of funny to watch old man Richard Harris (Gladiator) teach the considerably younger Caviezel how to sword fight, especially knowing that Harris would pass away later in 2002 at the age of 72. He needs the training because our first impression of this man is not favorable. Once Fernand betrays him, Edmond engages in what might be the most pathetic excuse for sword fighting I have ever seen. I know the classic character arc of starting inexperienced and weak and coming into experience and strength needs to be laid out, but man this guy just sucks. He runs around like a lame animal, crashing into furniture, meekly pushing glasses off a table and flopping like a soccer player trying to score a penalty card. However, the crucible of vengeance will temper this man into a dashing fighting machine. The prison segment establishes rules, develops a central antagonistic and mentor relationship, develops a prison break, and then provides Edmond with his first victory, first villain to topple, and shows his new cunning.
The next thirty minutes is almost a buddy movie between Edmond and Jacopo (Luis Guzman), the “best knife fighter in the world,” a smuggler whose life Edmond saves before joining the gang. Together they seek out the island of Monte Cristo, find a bountiful fortune thanks to Faria’s confiscated treasure map, and then Edmond reinvents himself as a mysterious count. He makes quite a flamboyant entrance, almost like a dapper nineteenth-century Great Gatsby, flaunting his extravagance and theatricality to make his mark with the upper social classes. His calculated social graces reminded me of any number of costume drama series that are predicated on operating within a rigid system of social manners and expectations. It’s about establishing his new reputation and working his way back into a position that he can tear apart whatever advantages Fernand has gotten used to. His former friend has married his wife, though he flaunts his infidelity, and he also is raising a son, Albert (Henry Cavill), that may or may not belong to Edmond. It’s through this son that Edmond sees his way back into the good graces of this family, staging a kidnapping and his rescue that gives him the standing he needs. Naturally, Edmond’s wife recognizes her former husband instantly, though he tries to deny her claims. This segment establishes the new normal, Edmond’s traps being set, and then it heads into its fitting climax.
Much of these plot points are from Dumas’ original novel, which is so tailor-made to make for an engaging adventure with a thirst for blood. It’s such a sturdy structure that provides satisfaction, as revenge stories often will; they are so easy to root for because it’s so utterly primal. There’s a reason there is an entire sub-genre of exploitation films is nothing but revenge (and yes, sadly, too often including rape as the inciting wrong to be avenged). It’s an easy hook for an audience to get onboard and root for. Wolpert’s adaptation makes some smart changes to better transform the story for the visual medium. By making Edmond and Fernand friends, it does make the betrayal feel even more bitter. Also, the means of vengeance is simply more engaging here. In the novel, Fernand’s bad deeds are exposed publicly and he’s humiliated and kills himself. He’s not even the final villain that Edmond gets vengeance upon. The 2002 movie improves a classic novel and makes the ending feel even more climactic. Watching a villain like Fernand just slink away would not be as satisfying as a finale (that’s not even the story’s finale). Wolpert, who is also credited with the screen story for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, died very recently as of this writing, on January 3, 2022.
Director Kevin Reynolds was two movies removed from 1995’s Waterworld, an expensive post-apocalyptic action movie set mainly at sea, and a movie that does not deserve its disastrous reputation. It’s a pretty fun sci-fi action movie with a great Denis Hopper villain and plenty of splashy, big screen spectacle. It was turned into a longstanding and well-received Universal Studios stunt show if it’s any consolation. Reynolds hasn’t really made much of a career after the long shadow of a supposed costly flop (only two movies since Monte Cristo), but if Renny Harlin, he of the also super expensive, studio-killing flop Cutthroat Island, can continue churning out genre dreck, why can’t Reynolds? The man has a natural feel for big screen spectacle, and with 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he’s proven that he can capture traditional settings and make them feel in keeping with modern tastes, and he can capture futuristic settings while making them feel grounded.
I’m sorry, Mr. Reynolds, because you did not “screw something up” with this movie (fun fact: Reynolds was the screenwriter for Red Dawn). However fair or unfair, the man is defined by his relationship to Kevin Costner, most recently with the 2012 Hatfield and McCoys miniseries and beginning with 1985’s Fandango, which began as a student film that Costner lost out on a role for. None other than Steven Spielberg recruited Reynolds to make a feature version of his short.
It’s strange to go back to The Count of Monte Cristo because of Caviezel’s god and martyr complex. I’m speaking of his 2004 portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s biblically successful Passion of the Christ, but he’s gone even further now, fully adopting the QAnon conspiracy of a cabal of liberal elites harvesting the blood of children, possibly while trafficked in Wayfair furniture, for Satanic rituals. His persecution complex was already alive years ago, saying he was made a “pariah” in Hollywood after Passion of the Christ, despite its international success, and ignoring the fact he starred in a TV series on CBS that ran for five seasons. I guess that’s what he means when he stars in QAnon-related biopics that nobody wants to release (Sound of Freedom is slated to have been released in January 2022, but I cannot find any evidence this has happened). It’s just sad to recall an actor before they so thoroughly declared themselves to be dangerous and/or crazy, but I’m sure to those who knew him, these uncomfortable impulses and proclivities and conspiracy leanings were already there.
The best reason to watch The Count of Monte Cristo is the supporting cast. Pearce is delightfully wicked and enjoying himself. Harris has such weathered gravitas to him. Guzman is hilarious and his modern acting approach just does not fit with the overall vibe of the movie, but that disconnect is part of his amusement. Even Cavill is fun to watch, especially since he was only 18 years old at the time (Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays his mother, is only seven years older). You’ll see the early indications of the swagger and presence that will define him as a square-jawed leading man. The Count of Monte Cristo is a well made, exciting, and satisfying revenge thriller, as well as a smart adaptation of a classic work of literature that actively finds ways to improve upon it, insofar as a big screen movie. I’m sorry I was so snide twenty years ago (the Costner jab was an unnecessary cheap shot). It’s certainly swash, with the buckle, and deserves a better grade and better appraisal after all these years apart.
Re-View Grade: B
For writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty, of which I was a great fan, I wrote: “It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere… The film is far more free-floating and meditative … I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment.” Most of those words still apply to 2021’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama, The Hand of God, so why does it feel less appealing this time? We follow a young man in 1980s Naples and his large, boisterous, very Italian family. It’s a movie of moments, several extended vignettes, and it sadly doesn’t add up to much for me. I think that’s because the young protagonist is too blank to care about. He’s a surrogate for the filmmaker, but you never get a sense of his passions or interests or even personality. It’s a movie of people talking to and at him, so it’s hard to work up much emotion for his triumphs and perseverence. There are some memorable parts, like his awkward deflowering to an older woman, and a tragic turn halfway through that sneaks up on you. The life lessons are familiar for the well-trod territory, and the personal details of the era, the community, the 1982 World Cup (where we get the title from) feel richly realized as Sorrentino’s gauzy nostalgia. It’s just that Sorrentino’s ratio of interesting to ponderous moments has tilted into the negative this time. The Hand of God is overlong, free-floating, occasionally beautiful and frustratingly inaccessible.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Actress Rebecca Hall’s debut as a screenwriter and a director was snatched up by Netflix and now poised as an Oscar contender. It’s set in the 1920s and follows two women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga). Both women come from the same neighborhood but have lived different though fruitful lives, though Clare’s fortunes hinge on a secret she hides even from her rich husband. She’s a light-skinned Black woman but she has been posing as being white, and she’s reaped the rewards. As the two former friends reconnect, Clare visits the clubs and parties of Harlem as if a tourist, and she seems to have charmed Irene’s husband to spark unrest in her home. The movie is very tasteful and stately, filmed in black and white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, communicating the boxes these women felt trapped in by society’s racial aptitudes. The problem is that Passing has so much explosive drama at its core but it’s too demure to a fault, which leads to a lot of wheel spinning and pensive glances. The movie almost follows the “uninvited guest” plot device, where Clare makes herself more at home in Irene’s world to her chagrin. There’s a general danger of whether Clare’s secret will come out, especially since her husband is overtly racist, but she seems so blase about her situation. The movie seems to feel like it’s lacking a potent sense of dread for these women, leaving it more implied than felt. It’s a character study but the primary characters seem more like archetypes, symbols intended for a larger social debate after the film’s conclusion. Both actresses are terrific, however, and would be worthy nominees for awards. Negga (Loving) has the more locked-in performance as the woman living her facade, only offering glimpses of what the real Clare thinks about herself. Thompson (Dear White People) is the one trying to hold it all together while she tries to assess whether her former friend has figured out a social cheat code, is deluding herself, or is herself a corrupting influence. The ending is so abrupt that I had to rewind to better understand what had happened. It’s left for interpretation about culpability and intent, but it’s further confirmation that the characters are meant as symbols more than people, and their fates feel a little too tailored for study. Passing is a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but one that left me checking the time a little too often to see how slowly it was passing.
Nate’s Grade: B
I did not expect the new Cyrano to be a musical at all, though it is a reprisal of a 2018 stage musical by Erica Schmidt. This fact made the movie even more entertaining and surprising, separating it from the pack of Cyrano de Bergerac adaptations (there is a 1970s Cyrano musical with Christopher Plummer in a Tony Award-winning role). This is an old story and this new version still taps into the potent recesses of unrequited love, social scorn, and the farcical angle that transitions into tragedy. You still understand why audiences from multiple generations come back to this story to laugh and cry anew (it began as a play in 1897 by Edmond Rostand). However, when modern filmmakers are tackling these tried-and-true stories of old, I expect, or at least hope for, something new to justify this latest cinematic addition. It could be an elevated point of view given short shrift before, allowing us new eyes into an old tale. There are plenty of earlier versions that haven’t been as considerate to minority positions. It could be updating or transposing the story to a different setting. It can be simply making it weird. Director Joe Wright’s 2012 Anna Karenina adaptation was an attempt to do something different, with the strange concept that it was taking place on a theatrical stage. I guess because the elites felt so obsessively observed? It didn’t really work, but I admire Wright’s game efforts in trying something different with an oft-told tale. With Cyrano, the story translates well into the realm of a screen musical, and one where Wright wants to work within that unique toolbox, letting the audience get caught in the sweep of the movie magic.
Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf but one of the smartest men alive in 1640 France. He’s unafraid of jousting with pompous actors, pompous aristocratic dandies, and even assassins (their pomposity is up for debate). His true challenge is telling Roxanne (Haley Bennett) that he loves her. This is made even more difficult when Roxanne falls head over heels for Christian (Kevin Harrison Jr.). She seeks out her good friend Cyrano’s help to inquire about the boy’s feelings being reciprocal. Christian does indeed fancy Roxanne except he’s unable to articulate his thoughts. Cyrano agrees to serve as the carrier of his words and write his feelings for him in order to better woo Roxanne. Letter by letter, flowing with poetic verse, Roxanne falls in love with Cyrano’s soul, thinking it belongs to Christian. This is made even more complicated by a fiendish fop, De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), who expects Roxanne to marry him and give herself over to him, body and soul.
The other thing you need to know is that Cyrano is a deeply un-hip musical, and its square-ness is also part of its offbeat charm. This is not 2017’s crowd-pleasing The Greatest Showman. These songs are not manufactured to be pop ditties fit for radio airplay. These are songs written and composed by the members of the band The National, an alt rock band better known for their soulful dirges (the lead singer performed the mournful end credits cover of “The Rains of Castamere” for that infamous Game of Thrones episode). The songs of Cyrano by Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger are not going to be the ones you clap your hands to and sing along in the car with your friends. There are no catchy anthems here, no inspirational melodies to rise to triumphant fist-pumping crescendos. These are songs that are methodical, mournful, and, at points, atonal, like twisting the words and sounds to fit an unnatural shape. However, this is the same appeal of songs by The National, how they make uniquely composed tunes that challenge and break free of standard melody conventions. For some, they will find the songs of Cyrano to be slow and low in energy, too self-serious to the point of parody. But for people willing to take the lyrics and songs on the terms presented, there is a smoldering sense of splendor to them, something unexpected, just like the character of Cyrano. Beauty found in unexpected places.
There is one song in particular that disarmed me with how affecting it was. “Wherever I Fall” isn’t even a song sung by any of the main characters. It’s the refrain of a bunch of otherwise nameless and faceless soldiers, the ones who know they will not survive a suicide march into enemy fire during the Franco-Spanish War. This is the song for the fallen and it’s heart-breaking. We take turns with each man writing one last letter and offering instructions to the carrier, which take on the form of last rites. Each man reflects on their life and their cherished loved ones that will read their letter after their inevitable demise. The entire construction of the song is heavy with emotional weight, but I was surprised how much it got to me. I was tearing up for men who weren’t even featured as characters before, or at least served as extras in other scenes that didn’t draw my attention. Bonus points for making the first soldier Glen Hansard (Once). “Someone to Say” has a sweet and lyrical melody that comes in and out as a bountiful motif, and it’s the romantic tug for our lovers. “Every Letter” and “I Need More” have a thrumming intensity of strings and heartbeat-like percussion that reminded me of the soaring 1990s/early 2000s singer-songwriters like Tori Amos and Dido. As I adjusted to its somber wavelength, the music grew on me. It’s music for a rainy day made into an old-fashioned musical that isn’t trying to score points for being edgy.
Dinklage (I Care a Lot) is an excellent choice for Cyrano. While he might be the weakest singing voice of the cast, Dinklage is definitely the most accomplished actor and proves it again. His character’s inner struggle and true feelings consuming him is wonderfully portrayed by Dinklage. He has his big outbursts, where he inflicts his wit like a sharp-edged weapon, and others where it’s the total of years of frustration from being sidelined and overlooked and discounted, but it’s the quieter moments where Dinklage retreats behind his sad puppy eyes that got me the most. Bennett (The Girl on the Train) has a spark to her that reminds you why Cyrano would fall in love from a distance. Her light at the beginning of the movie threatens to be snuffed out by bad men, and it feels like a real loss. Bennett and Dinklage are also reprising their roles from the stage musical, so their natural chemistry and comfort with the roles improves the experience. Mendelsohn (Captain Marvel) is a pro at playing those officious, lecherous, pathetic roles, and once again he’s on target. His creepy rendition of “What I Deserve” sounds like the skin-crawling mantra for male chauvinism writ large. It might even make you retch.
Wright’s (Darkest Hour, Hanna) direction makes fine use of the big screen space, and his penchant for long takes and sweeping camera movements for verisimilitude enhance the viewing experience by allowing us to better immerse in the world and appreciate the talents of the professionals. It’s a musical that lets you enjoy it being a movie musical, and its editing is judicious without being disorienting. The movie doesn’t feel like its trapped by its stage-bound origins. The lush setting of Italy and its pristine estates adds an extra layer of enjoyment that makes the movie more transporting.
Cyrano is a sneaky movie, one that seems old and new, serious and impish, square and traditional while still making its own stamp on classic literature. Much of your enjoyment factor will likely rest upon your assessment of the music and songs, which is a fair critical point for a musical. I found them to be romantic and gloomy and so achingly serious that I found it to be adorable. The music worked for me, as a moderate fan of The National, but if you cannot click with the songs or accept that everyone is not going to be a trained singer, then your enjoyment level will certainly dip. I found this movie to be a modestly pleasant surprise that won me over by its depressing finale.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Every year, it seems that Netflix’s crown jewel for their big Oscar hopes ends up getting marvelous critical acclaim, and then when I finally watch it I am left disappointed. It happened in 2018 with Roma. It happened in 2019 with The Irishman. And it happened in 2020 with Mank. I haven’t disliked any of those movies, but I was unable to see the highly laudable merits as other critics. Now here comes their big Oscar play for 2021, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a Western that has been gracing the top of more critics lists than any other American film this year (I’ll be getting to you soon enough, Drive My Car). As I burned through awards movie after awards movie to assess, I held back from The Power of the Dog for a time. I just didn’t want to find that once again I was disappointed with the latest Netflix Oscar contender. I’m still chewing over my feelings with The Power of the Dog, which has a lot going on under the surface and a palpable tension that you’re unsure of how and when it will erupt. It’s also a movie that touches upon repression, toxic masculinity, manifest destiny, grooming, emotional and physical manipulation, and the danger of unstable men who are unable to process who they really are.
Set in 1925 Montana, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jessie Plemons) own and operate a cattle ranch. George marries a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and brings his new wife and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live at the ranch. Phil resents his new sister-in-law, looks down on her son, and torments both repeatedly. Rose sees Phil as an enemy, someone who will not stop until he forces her out, and his target becomes her son, Peter.
This is less a traditional Western in several respects and more a tight character study that happens to be set at the conclusion of a Western fantasy for America, transitioning to modernity. It goes against our preconceived notions of a Western, not in a deliberately deconstructive way like 1992’s brilliant Best Picture, Unforgiven, but more in providing contrary thematic details that often get squeezed out. I was expecting the movie to take place maybe during the 1870s or 1880s, but the fact that it’s taking place five years removed from the Great Depression offers different story opportunities and larger reflection. There’s a reason this story is told well after the halcyon days of the Old Wild West. The movie is about certain characters holding onto an exclusive past that has eclipsed them and others ready to move forward by shuttling over their past and the obstacles standing in the way of personal progress.
There are thematic layers expertly braided together that touch upon the larger question over what it means to be a man in society. Each of the primary male characters (Phil, George, Peter) is an outsider to some degree, someone who doesn’t neatly fit into what constitutes a conventional man of the times. George is soft, empathetic, meek yet in a position of power from his family’s status; Peter is rail-thin, academic, odd, effeminate at turns, a dandy presented for ridicule; Phil is the one who presents as a “man’s man,” a hard-driving, hard-drinking man of the land who imposes his will on others. However, deep down, Phil is hiding a key part of himself that would conflict with his society’s view of masculinity. Each man bounces around points of conflict and connection with one another, familial bonds fraying, and a slow-burning battle for supremacy escalating.
The movie could have also been charitably nick-named “Benedict Cumberbatch is a jerk to everyone,” as this is much of what Campion’s script, based upon the 1957 novel by Thomas Savage consists of. The movie is absent a primary perspective. We drift from person to person in the small-scale ensemble, elevating this next character and their views and worries and priorities. Phil could be deemed the primary protagonist and antagonist, especially the latter. He’s a mean man. Phil is a man who likes to make others uncomfortable, who needles them, and he takes great interest in targeting Rose, partly because he doesn’t like the influence she has on his only brother, and partly because he can get away with it. When he sets his sights on Peter, you don’t quite know what this hostile man will do to get his way. Will he manipulate Peter to turn him from his mother? Will he endanger Peter as a threat to Rose? Will he go further and possibly kill Peter? Or, as becomes more evident, does he see Peter in a very different light, a special kinship that had defined Phil’s own secretive past.
I suppose it’s a spoiler to go further so if you want to, dear reader, then go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. Phil reveres “Bronco Henry,” a deceased rancher that taught him many things when he was younger. The movie heavily, heavily implies that this long-departed older man had a romantic relationship with Phil when he was much younger, something the grown Phil cherishes, caressing himself in private with a scrap of fabric belonging to Henry. The lazy characterization would be, “Oh, Phil is homophobic because he’s really gay, and he’s angry because he cannot accept himself.” With Campion, Phil could be viewed as a victim too. He was likely groomed by an older man, and maybe that relationship was viewed by Phil as more romantic and consensual than it was, but it’s the lingering nostalgic memory of the intimate happiness that he holds onto, afraid to move on because of the danger of letting go and the danger of possibly reaching out, being vulnerable again. Yes, dear reader, this is more a gay cowboy movie than Brokeback Mountain (which, to be fair, were sheep herders). Savage himself was also gay. As Phil takes Peter under his wing, you don’t know whether this man is going to kill or kiss him, and the tension is ripe enough that either way it can ties you up into anxious knots.
The acting is extremely polished all around, with each performer having layers of subtext to shield their true intentions. Cumberbatch (Spider-Man: No Way Home) is a thorn in so many sides and it isn’t until much later that the veil begins to drop, ever so slightly, allowing you to finally see extra dimension with what appears to be a bully character for so long. He might just be too impenetrable for too long for some viewers to develop any empathy. Plemons (Jungle Cruise) and Dunst (Melancholia) are sweet together, and I enjoyed how each one leans upon the other for support. Rose is the butt of much of Phil’s torment and teasing, so we watch Dunst break down under the constant abuse of her berating brother-in-law. When her character sees a way to gain an upper hand, it becomes like a light in the darkness for her momentary relief. I felt heartbroken for Rose as she studied a piano tune for weeks to impress esteemed guests of her husband’s, only to succumb to her nerves and insist she couldn’t play because she didn’t think she could be good enough. Then to watch Phil cruelly needle her further about her disappointment by whistling that same tune is even worse. This is the best acting of Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) since he was vying with Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game) for every preteen lead in big studio features. There’s a deliberate standoffish quality to the character, to Peter’s way of viewing others. It’s like he’s part alien, studying the things that make people tick. Like Cumberbatch, there are multiple layers to this performance because his intentions are equally if not more guarded. You almost need to watch the movie a second time to better identify what Smith-McPhee is doing in scene after scene.
The Power of the Dog is a terrific looking and sounding movie. The photography is beautiful, the New Zealand landscapes are awe-inspiring, the production design is handsome, the musical score by Johnny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) is discordant strings that enhances the tension permeating through the movie. Campion hasn’t directed a movie in over ten years, and this is only her second movie since 2003’s misbegotten erotic thriller, In the Cut, starring an against-type Meg Ryan. It feels like she’s had no time away with how controlled and resonant her directing plays. I wish her script was less ambiguous to a fault; it errs somewhat I believe by holding out key revelations about Phil for too long, leaving us with the man being an unrepentant bully for too long. There are significant turns in the concluding minutes that will reorient your interpretation of the entire film, and I have every reason to believe that when I watch The Power of the Dog another time it will be even more impressive.
Congratulations, Netflix, on breaking your streak of disappointing me with your prized awards contenders. I’ve included many Netflix movies in my best lists, and worst lists, over the years, as that is the lot when you have such an enormous library in the prestige streaming arms race. The Power of the Dog is an intimate and occasionally even sensual Western that pushes its put-upon characters to their breaking point, and perhaps the audience, while rewarding the patient and observant viewer. There’s gnawing, uneasy tension that gets to be overwhelming, but the movie benefits from the unexpected destination for where that tension will lead. Will it be violence? Will it be passion? Will it be a crime of passion? The acting is great, the artistic quality of the movie is high, and each scene has much to unpack, allowing for further rewarding examination. I wish there was more of the last half hour when things better come into sharper focus, and I wish the movie was a little less ambiguous for so long, but this is one of the better films of 2021 and Campion’s best movie since 1993’s The Piano (I fully expect her to become the first female director nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar). The Power of the Dog is a lyrical, surprising drama, a sneaky character study, and proof that my Netflix overrated front-runner curse has been lifted (for now).
Nate’s Grade: A-