In 1936, Jesse Owens (Stephen James) is an American track star that seems destined for magnificent glory. Under the guidance of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), from THE Ohio State University, Owens is smashing track and field records. The culmination of his athleticism occurs at the Berlin Olympics, where Owens earns multiple gold medals and shows Adolph Hitler just how masterful his master race is.
It’s difficult to declare Race a bad movie but it’s so formulaic and by-the-numbers that I walked away thinking that Jesse Owens deserved a much better movie. I kept waiting for the movie to properly communicate the totality of what Owens accomplished, let alone in a time period where the culture at home told him he was an inferior American citizen, and it just never coalesced into a stronger message. We’re talking about a man who bested the best of the world in front of Hitler. This is ready made for cinematic drama, and perhaps that’s the problem with the screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Frankie & Alice) because it always seems to fall back on the lazy and expected choice. Part of this is the reality that Owens was just that good as a runner; we only see him lose once in the entire movie. This anticlimax makes it difficult to stir up plenty of suspense around the larger and larger stages for the sports triumphs. The knowledge of Owens’ wins may be commonplace but we should still feel the stirrings of good storytelling and payoffs to well-established work, and that’s just not there. I loved watching the deluge of unhappy Nazi reaction shots to Owens’ victories (never enough footage of unhappy Nazis) but that doesn’t count as a satisfying conclusion to Owens’ story.
The character of Owens is somewhat lost in Race. It’s reminiscent of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 where the character of Robinson was kind of, well, boring. He’s a character who endures the suffering and indignities of others and perseveres, and this is likely why both films turn their stories of African-American tales into buddy pictures with Strong and Supportive White Men. Much of Race is presented as a buddy picture with Owens and Snyder, and both actors have such an amiable chemistry that they sort of treat the entire movie like a laid back adventure. They’re easing on through a segregated America. Too much of the movie is Owens and Snyder just cracking wise and going from scene to scene. James left a stronger impression as John Lewis in last year’s Selma. He’s too often merely stoic without more to work with. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) is right in his comfort zone with his performance and doesn’t stray far from his range. I credit the film for not ignoring some of the messier parts of Owens’ story, namely his out-of-wedlock young daughter and him cheating on his hometown girl with a fame-seeking starlet. He’s allowed to be seen making mistakes, but the movie doesn’t allow him to live with them (note: not referring to his daughter as a “mistake”). Whenever Owens might be in a horrible predicament from his own internal decision-making, the movie almost callously breezes by without much contemplation. It’s as if every conflict is in service to the Main Conflict – sticking it to Hitler. The pressure to bow out of the Olympics to make a statement about the treatment of black people in America could have been a soul-bearing moment, but we just move along and barely feel the weight of the pressure. Yes, we know that Owens will travel abroad and win golden glory, but make the decision count.
Another aspect that dooms Race to its limited appeal is the mediocrity of its direction and, in particular, how shockingly terrible the movie is edited. Director Stephen Hopkins seems to have been in movie jail ever since 1998’s Lost in Space. He’s only shot one movie between that bomb and Race, which happened to be The Reaping, a 2007 movie I almost liked by its twist ending. He doesn’t exactly bring much to the material to elevate the races or seem that interested in taking advantageous of the suspense opportunities. There’s one great sequence where Owens first enters the Olympic stadium and the camera tracks his movements where you feel the awe. There aren’t enough moments like this that take full advantage of telling Owens’ story in a visual medium. The other technical misstep is that this is one of the worst edited movies I’ve ever watched in a theater. If you generally pay attention to the editing, it’s generally a bad sign since it’s a facet of filmmaking that is best made invisible. There is one sequence where Owens sits in Snyder’s office and the 180-degree rule is broken over ten times… in one scene! The editing will frequently flip is scene orientation, jumping back and around and creating subtle visual compositions that create incongruity in the brain. Part of this blame deserves to be laid with Hopkins, who chose to shoot his film at these uncooperative angles. It was something that bothered me throughout and would rip me out of the movie.
The most perplexing storyline in Race involves the very positive treatment reserved for a controversial filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), best known for her propaganda films declaring the power and righteousness of Hitler’s Third Reich. Huh, why does a movie celebrating American heroes spend do much time positively portraying a Nazi propagandist? She becomes a translator for Goebbels and the American Olympic committee, but she’s also determined to have her vision respected when it comes to her Olympic documentary that is being produced by the Nazis. She doesn’t seem to mind about Owens trouncing the Aryan myth of racial superiority because she just wants to make the best movie and Owens is her storyline. She is portrayed as a sympathetic go-between for the Americans, someone fighting within a corrupt system to maintain her dignity and ownership in an industry that is dominated by men (she’s criticized for wearing “masculine” clothing). I’ll admit a general ignorance to Riefenstahl’s life and career outside of her most famous documentaries, which I should continue to stress are Nazi propaganda films, but this woman was a member of the Nazi party and responsible for some of the most indelible and damaging imagery justifying Hitler’s genocide, and to prop her up as a character worth rooting for and a champion to Owens just felt wrong.
Has there ever been a more self-satisfied yet facile title than Race? The double meaning is a bit too obvious and yet simple enough to be annoying. In a way, the title encapsulates the movie as a whole. It’s well-meaning but far too by-the-numbers and satisfied that it’s doing Important Work honoring an American sports legend when it’s barely giving us much of a reason to care about him as a person and less reason to root for him other than added Nazi discomfort. Owens becomes a boring centerpiece in his own movie, and his relationship with Snyder feels too ill defined, repeatedly approaching buddy comedy. The historical asides are momentarily interesting but don’t add up to much. The movie has some strikingly awful editing and lackluster direction that hobbles the storytelling. It’s a movie that hits all the checklists for sports biopic but won’t veer too far from its predicated formula. There’s a short scene at the very end that hints at what kind of better movie Race might have been. After his worldwide validation at the Berlin Olympics, Owens comes home to America and is forced to use the service entrance for his own honorary dinner. This American hero has to shamefully take the back entrance to be celebrated. It’s a stark wake-up call just how far the country had to go as far as race relations. This national cognitive dissonance, celebration and segregation, would be ripe for a searing human drama with plenty of emotion. That would be a good movie. Race is only an okay movie, and given Owens’ place in history, that’s not good enough.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Why haven’t there been more tank movies? We have a slew of war films in all shapes and sizes and yet there are hardly any movies from the unique point of view of the battle-tested tank crew. Perhaps it’s the claustrophobic shooting conditions and limited breathing room, but then both of those are usually assets to the submarine sub-genre, and we got plenty of movies set primarily in less-than-spacious submarine quarters. Maybe it’s the sheer cost, since a submarine can be replicated with a model and a tank requires its own onset crew just to get exterior shots. Then there’s the issue of just watching close-ups of people looking through telescopes, squinting, and pulling triggers. I don’t really have a working hypothesis to explain the paucity of tank movies from Hollywood but now there’s at least one mainstream effort on the big board.
Fury follows the brave men of the titular tank that’s traveled from Northern Africa to France and now Germany in the dwindling days of World War II. Norman (Logan Lerman) is the new guy, replacing a fallen comrade on Don “Wardaddy” Collier’s (Brad Pitt) crew. The average life expectancy on a tank was only a handful of missions, but under Collier’s leadership his squad has defied the odds. Now the presence of a rookie puts all their lives in danger especially so close to the end of the war.
Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch, Sabotage) delivers a meat-and-potatoes kind of war film, a movie that knows what it’s doing and how to satisfy its audience but rarely steps outside of this mission to resonate further. There’s a requisite pathos and air of contemplation to the proceedings, especially with the conflict of Norman’s innate goodness getting in the way of killing soldiers, armed and unarmed, in the line of duty. What does it take to be a soldier? Can you still recover as a man or does one have to shut off those elements of concern, the quibbles over moral actions that would otherwise haunt. In one sense, it’s a little contrived that the new recruit has to be so green to the battlefield that everything needs to be taught to him including the us vs. them mentality of war. On the other hand, it provides an ongoing source of conflict that leads to some striking moments, like when Collier literally forces Norman’s hand to get him his first kill. Much like Saving Private Ryan once it settles down, the movie progresses as a series of vignettes that showcase a variety of consequences and realities of the war. Naturally some are more engaging than others, but for the majority Fury holds your attention nicely. Ayer’s direction of action is astute and a tank-on-tank battle is wondrously taut thanks to the stubborn and fascinating tactics of tank warfare. I just don’t know how all these guys can make out whose order is for whom with all the other noise going on.
It’s during the concluding act where the movie abandons most of its sense of realism to completely double down on exaggerated action movie heroics, and it’s unnecessary. Beforehand, we’ve been treated to this crew and their town-by-town escapades, watching them come together but also watching them deal with the vagaries and lasting traumas of war. And then it suddenly shifts gears and becomes a last stand movie where our small crew in one immobile tank has to take on, literally, 300 Nazi soldiers. Ayer makes a specific point of clarifying them as Nazi S.S. men and not your casual German soldier. Pitt and company all decide to stay and fight valiantly rather than hide, and so we’re treated to their preparations for what is sure to be an Alamo in a tank. It then just becomes a rote action movie where they fire into the smoke, more Germans keep coming, and we just patiently watch them run through their last remaining desperate options for defense. Ayer doesn’t falter with his depiction of the action or the logical nature of his plot beats, though I don’t know why they didn’t keep more of the gun ammo in the tank. There’s a repetition and expectation of casualties with this section, perhaps intended to magnify their sacrifice and heroism but it feels too forced. The movie was working perfectly fine prior to this new shift in tone. Now we have Germans that are plainly idiotic, with poor marksmanship, and who can’t just wait out the tank. They have rocket-propelled weapons and the tank only shoots in one direction. The ending action assault still works as an entertaining barrage of blood and violence, but if you were liking Fury for what it was then be prepared to be a little disappointed.
What really hooked me with the film was an extended sequence that doesn’t even involve the tank at all. Stopping to regroup with their company in a small, bombed-out German town, Collier and Norman enter the home of two women, Irma and Emma. Initially the scene plays out like they’re scouting for any hiding soldiers, so there’s an initial carryover of tension. Then the gentlemen stay and the scene transforms organically into something more interesting. The scene is allowed to linger, and we see a different side of Pitt’s tank captain. The women set up a dinner and there’s a moment of reserved calm. Norman and the youngest German woman get some privacy, much to the knowing approval of the other two older adults in the room. Then just as their little scene has reached serving time, the other members of the tank storm the room, drunk and confused. They came seeking to deflower Norman with an ugly prostitute they each had a turn with. Their eyes settle on the young, much prettier women, the food about to be served, and you can feel the resentment starting to build, the old conflicts and tensions sneaking back into the scene, particularly a sneering Jon Bernthal (Wolf of Wall Street), who relishes being hostile. You don’t know where this is going to go. Are they going to make a fuss? Will they mistreat the German civilians, maybe even assault them, and if so how will Collier and Norman respond? What will they say about the appearance of preference with these civilians than with their tank company? How far will this go? I am not kidding when I say that for a movie with plenty of war violence, this was the tensest scene in all of Fury. It plays out so naturally, leisurely, but every moment pushing forward and building in tension. It’s a shame then how Ayer decides to conclude this entire episode, glibly turning these women from characters into a cheap plot device. Until then, though, it’s a 12-minute oasis from the genre machinery of war movies.
The other aspect where Fury falters is when it comes to fleshing out the characters in that dangerous tin can. With war movies the characterization can often get lost in the shuffle of violence and messages, so there’s something of a sliding scale; if you can get one good sequence, perhaps one solid insight into a character that opens them up as more than “Hispanic Gunner” or “Vaguely Southern Religious Marksman” then you call yourself fortunate. The characters don’t stray far from their archetypical orbits: the rookie, the hotheaded one, the Bible-quoting philosopher, the commander who hides his fear and… the Hispanic Gunner (sorry Michael Pena). The assembled actors do fine work with what they’re given, but so much of the part is reactionary to off-screen, out-of-the-tank action. Pitt (World War Z) has a stolid clam that commands leadership but boy does his character lack a personality. He’s just settled into that authority figure role. Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac) gives a performance with enough edge, the emotions just peaking through during key moments, to leave you wanting more, both from the character and the actor. Lerman (Perks of Being a Wallflower) is suitably wide-eyed and out of his element early, finding his requisite spine and becoming a “man” over the course of the film. It works as a point of view entry into this world though his character can come across as naive and then later also unjustly criticized. After two hours with this crew, you won’t be fighting back too many emotions as they make their last stand and their numbers dwindle.
Fury is a fairly gritty, bloody, and sturdily entertaining World War II action thriller that is unwaveringly serious for a solid two acts until an all-out assault into over-the-top action movie land for its final, admittedly enjoyable, conclusion. It decides to just skimp out on the characterization so as to spend more time pumping up the virtues of tone and action. The film never bored me, and during stretches it was riveting with suspense and a gritty realism, all before retreating back to archetypes and Hollywood standoffs. For long stretches it’s a series of vignettes but there are moments that rise above, which cut through the carnage and stay with you. Ayer’s direction of action is rather impressive and this is easily the finest work behind the camera for the famous screenwriter. In many ways, Fury is a no-nonsense throwback to World War II war movies, with a similar no-nonsense pack of characters. An older audience will definitely find the movie appealing. It does more than enough well to recommend but just don’t expect the next Saving Private Ryan in terms of lasting impact. Still, give me more tank movies, Hollywood.
Nate’s Grade: B
Ever since Marvel’s Avengers destroyed the box-office in 2012, every studio with super hero franchises has been looking to follow suit. It’s not just about comic book franchises; it’s about building a comic book universe. It’s been a long dark period for the X-Men ever since the regrettable 2006 debacle The Last Stand, which callously killed characters, butchered others, and botched the most famous storyline in the history of the comic. In 2011, Matthew Vaughn proved there was still life to be found in the franchise with his terrific 60s-era prequel, X-Men: First Class. Now, post-Avengers, Fox is salivating at combining the past X-Men and the present X-Men into one colossal movie with a colossal budget. Back on board is director Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men films and the man who helped kickstart the modern superhero era. If that wasn’t enough riding on the film, X-Men: Days of Future Past also follows the second most famous storyline in the history of the comic.
In the horrible future, killer robots known as Sentinels hunt down mutants. These are the invention of Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), a military scientist who was killed back in 1973 by the vengeful shape-shifting mutant, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The murder convinced humans to subsidize Trask’s killer robot plan of defense. Thanks to experiments replicating Mystique’s mutant ability, the Sentinels have the ability to adapt to any power, turning them practically indestructible. In the future, the Sentinels are eradicating all mutants, mutant sympathizers, and eventually human beings. Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) have teamed up with a small band of surviving mutants, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Thanks to the phasing powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they can send Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973 so that he can prevent the Trask assassination. The only ones who can help Wolverine is the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), former mentors to Mystique. Except Xavier is a recluse and strung-out on drugs to dull his powers and Magneto is locked away underneath the Pentagon.
The X-Men films have always had a topical advantage to them that provided a weightier sense of drama than your typical story about a reluctant soul blessed with amazing powers. The mutant allegory automatically applies to any sub-group facing oppression mostly through fear and ignorance. What other superhero franchise has two opening scenes in a German concentration camp? The stakes are even larger with this movie because of the Horrible Nightmare Future that must be prevented. Now we all assume said Nightmare Future will be avoided by film’s end, so the movie provides a proverbial reset button that the filmmakers can have fun with, and they do (look out future mutants). Excluding the Nightmare Future framing device that becomes an unnecessary parallel storyline, the majority of the film takes place in 1973. If X-Men: First Class tapped into the groovy optimism and “take me for what I am” sense of social justice of the time, then this film certainly taps into the disillusionment of the 1970s, where the promise of reform and hope morphed into anger and cynicism (hey, that’s like us today!). This loss of innocence is typified in Mystique, who becomes the central figure of the movie in many ways. Her seething desire for vengeance is what animates her, as well as the pain of betrayal from the men closest in her life, as well as the world who once held such promise. Also, Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) has become one of the biggest female stars on the planet, so it makes sense to bolster her role. The central conflict is stopping an assassination, one domino that leads to many others, but it’s emotionally about Mystique having to confront her feelings of hate. It’s another platform for the ongoing conflict of perspectives between Xavier (restraint, tolerance) and Magneto (strong defense, eye for an eye). But as I found in First Class, it’s hard not to agree with Magneto as human overreaction leads to rash and thoughtless actions, like Horrible Nightmare Future.
That’s not to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past fails to deliver when it comes to the popcorn thrills and action highs we crave in our finest summer blockbusters. The action set pieces are large without dwarfing the characters, playful and imaginative without losing a sense of edge and danger. I loved how the character Blink (Bingbing Fan) would utilize her mutant power of opening portals as a fighting strategy. It makes action sequences so much more inventive and visually exciting to throw a series of portals. The pacing is swift short of the second half of Act Two, gearing up for the climactic showdown in D.C. that dominates Act Three. The time travel story starts with a lot of exposition but it gets smoothed out as it goes, the rules of the story fall into place. Every action sequence hits, some admittedly better than others, but it’s the small touches that Singer injects that made me smile most. I enjoyed Magneto pointing a gun, being toppled, but still using his power to have the gun fire in midair. I enjoyed the animalistic nature of the Beast/Wolverine brawl. Jackman is looking even veinier than usual in his bulked out form. Thankfully the fish-out of-water timeline jokes are kept to a minimum. Wolverine is the perfect glue to hold both timelines together. And then there’s that standout Pentagon prison break sequence (more on that later). Singer might not have the most natural instincts developing and staging action, but the man is a surefire talent when it comes to staging eye-catching visuals (I would say the same about Christopher Nolan). Even his unfairly maligned Superman Returns is proof of the man’s cinematic gifts. As far as entertainment value, this is right up there with X-Men 2. I still view Vaughn’s savvy First Class as the best X-film of the bunch, which has only gotten better the more I’ve watched it.
And if that wasn’t enough, Singer’s new film does what every fan has been hoping for: (spoilers) it erases all the crummy X-Men movies, namely 2006’s Last Stand and the first Wolverine solo effort, from the official timeline. It’s time to start anew, toss out the old stuff nobody liked, and forge ahead with a new unified timeline. There can be two parallel X-Men franchises, one present/future and one with the prequel casts, and they can go on forever as desired, or until the prequel cast prices itself out. In one fell swoop, Singer and company have reset the mother franchise and given fans new hope about the possibilities. Make sure to stick around to the very end of the credits for a scene that indicates directly who the next major villain will be in the 2016 sequel.
Let me take time to single out just how expertly Evan Peters (TV’s American Horror Story) steals the entire mutant-heavy movie. First, he’s the most comically attuned character, which is a nice break from how serious, and rightly so, every character is so often. Quicksilver provides a whole new jolt of entertainment, and when he checks out after the prison break sequence you’ll dearly miss him. The character is a rapscallion (as my late grandmother might have termed) that enjoys using his super speed powers to mess with people, to test his limits, to see what he can get away with, and a Pentagon jailbreak is right up his alley. Ignore the silly yet period appropriate outfit and ignore what initially seems like Peters’ smirking self-involvement from trailers and ads. When this character is onscreen the movie has a joyful sense of irreverence. He is instrumental to freeing Magneto and the onscreen depiction of his super speed is the best illustration of the power ever conceived in film and TV. There is a segment sent to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and some wonderful special effects, which is just so playful, so giddy, and so cool that it very well might be my favorite moment in any superhero movie… ever. It is definitely an applause-worthy moment and my audience responded in kind. Quicksilver is a perfectly utilized supporting player in a movie stuffed to the gills with characters.
The time travel geek in me has a few quibbles with the parallel lines of action from past and present. Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back in time but he film plays out like it’s happening simultaneously to the events of the future. So if Wolverine is pulled out in the middle of the movie, he’ll have failed his mission to change the future, even though by going back in time he’s already, blah blah blah butterfly effect. Anyway, I understand how they want to make the future story have a sense of urgency but it’s not like waking Wolverine from a dream; the times are not happening concurrently. He’s in the past, meaning that the moment he goes back there, the future will already be altered due to the consequences of his actions, for better or worse. There is no race against time to keep his consciousness back in time until he complete his mission. I can see why they went this route for a summer blockbuster, but that doesn’t quell the quibbles.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a time-hopping, unabashedly fun time at the movies; well as fun as preventing nightmarish futures built from the consequences of oppression and prejudice can be. With Singer back in the saddle and the bridging of the two X-Men universes, the series is back on track and once again the promising font of stories and characters. The newest X-film is one of the most entertaining, funny while still being dramatic, and while burdened with the largest cast of any super franchise, finds notable moments for its characters big and small to remind us that these people matter. While less philosophical and funky than First Class, this is one of the best films in the franchise, on par with X2. The action sequences and visual eye-candy are great fun with some inventive and memorable touches. It’s also nerdy fun getting to watch the past and present interact, and for many this is their first return since 2006’s crappy Last Stand. It’s not a perfect movie; I wish there was more early Sentinel action, I wish Dinklage had much more to do, and I wish that the plot didn’t so transparently hinge on Xavier not having his powers. The slate is clean and all X-Men fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The future is once again rosy. The X-Men, and not just Wolverine, are relevant once again.
Nate’s Grade: B+
When Danish film director Lars von Trier said he wanted his next movie to be “porn” he wasn’t kidding. The controversial filmmaker wanted to explore the world of a woman addicted to sex, following her history of varied experiences over the course of two movies/volumes. Actors lined up for the notoriously demanding filmmaker. During the sex scenes, computer effects magic married the actors’ faces and upper bodies with the lower parts of porn stars. Upper half, Charlotte Gainsbourg, lower half, some pornographic double, all spliced together into one onscreen human being. Think about that little special effects ground-breaker, putting Hollywood faces into hardcore sex scenes. Knowing von Trier’s pessimistic tendencies, and his penchant for heaping abuse upon his female leads to the point of uncomfortable exploitation, you may rightly cringe about the prospect of a von Trier “erotic” movie. That’s the funny thing about Nymphomaniac; it’s all about sex, sometimes graphically so, but it’s never erotic. It’s an intriguing, sometimes maddening look at human sexuality and our inhibitions and frailties, until a horrible ending spoils it. In the end, von Trier just couldn’t help himself.
The story boils down to this: Joe (Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as the younger version) is found beaten and unconscious in an alley. The kindly, monk-like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, brings her back to his home, and tends to her wounds. Joe says she brought all of her pain upon herself. Seligman finds this hard to believe. She uncorks a lengthy series of tales about her sexual awakening and desires.
In many ways, Lars von Trier is the best and worst candidate to present a four-hour opus on the life and times of an avowed nymphomaniac. The man approaches the idea of sex addiction in practically the most clinical way possible while still being cinematic. You can practically envision Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier, countering Joe’s sense of shame with a broader, scientific perspective. Really, this is the tale of a woman spilling her guts about all her dirty little secrets and a man nodding along, asking questions, and dismissing her self-loathing with his reason and empathy. It’s sort of like being inside a therapist’s office. I can’t say whether or not I find all the analogous asides to be interesting or simply insufferable pretension. While Joe is detailing her behavior, Seligman will stop her and provide further context, often bringing in such subjects as fly fishing, the mating habits of fish, the Fibonacci sequence, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical music. It’s almost absurd how encouraging Seligman is, dismissing every action of Joe’s sordid past through an example. After a while, it almost becomes a humorous game all its own, as we know Seligman will use every story as a stepping off point to some weird outside connection. Every item in Seligman’s bare bedroom inspires a story from Joe, which leads to a suspicion that she is something of a salacious Keyser Soze, piecing together her story on the spot; some of the coincidences with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) seems just a bit too much. Seligman’s enlightened and intellectual asides force the audience to consider deeper meaning with Joe’s actions. Is she irredeemable, does she have control over what she’s doing, is she doing anything even bad? Over the four hours of psychological examination, the doctor is out. Nymphomaniac, especially in Volume Two, is the best film yet on sex addiction. It doesn’t demonize the behavior, it doesn’t treat it as sensationalistic, and it doesn’t overtly judge its lead characters and the choices they make, nor does it spare them the devastating consequences.
The graphic nature of the film is getting all the headlines but Nymphomaniac treats its heroine as an addict trying to get a hold of herself. We begin with young Joe innocently discovering her sexuality, especially discovering the pull she can have over an almost endless parade of weak-willed men who will follow her every whim. If that was the only plot, then there would be little separating von Trier’s film from any late-night cable erotic series (“Oh, let me tell you the time I met this man and we did this…” –Repeat). Over the two movies, we get a stronger sense of how utterly trapped she is by her urges, by her addiction. When she’s dealing with the undignified death of her father, Joe finds whatever solace she can with a willing bedmate. She places herself in precarious situations chasing after that orgiastic high, which disappears at the conclusion of Volume One. The cliffhanger separating the two volumes is that Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure, which is rather problematic for a nymphomaniac. And so in Volume Two, Joe desperately searches for a means to get her groove back, at one point abandoning her own child so that she can pursue her kink. Joe goes to counseling, joins a sex addict group (she bristles at the term and prefers “nymphomaniac”), and tries to detox, at one point removing everything vaguely sexual from her apartment, including anything knob-shaped.
The film is structured as a series of vignettes and anecdotes, broken up with von Trier’s tried-and-true onscreen chapter system. As expected for a film based around anecdotes, some stories are more interesting or revealing or simply entertaining than others. The stories are a little more whimsical in Volume One but by the time we get to Volume Two, they become more punishing and sad. It’s one thing to bet your promiscuous gal pal who will have sex with the most people on one train ride home, or on a prank to stick a restaurants dining utensil up your vagina, but it’s another when an adult woman, night after night, leaves her toddler at home so she MAY have the opportunity to have her behind whipped. The young Joe stories are easier to shake off as youthful experimentation and thrill seeking, which Seligman rationalizes as well. However, they set up just exactly the path that the adult Joe was destined for. The tales in Volume Two have to ratchet up the stakes, given Joe’s absent mojo, so what was once titillating can become downright disturbing. von Trier’s four hours offer plenty of feel-bad feel-good opportunities along the human sexuality sphere. Adult Joe thinks introducing a language barrier could be enticing, so she asks an African immigrant if he’ll have sex with her. He agrees, but brings his brother along. The two men bicker in a different language, while Joe sits there, head slumped against her hand, comically waiting for these two naked men, their penises wagging in the foreground of the camera, to get to business. It’s quite a funny and ludicrous turn of events.
One story in Volume One stands out for its raw emotional power. Joe has a whole schedule of lovers visiting her door. Well one such older man wanted to have Joe all to himself but her price was high: he had to leave his wife, “Mrs. H.” Surprise, he does, and Joe is already uncertain if this new arrangement is what she wanted; her offer was better in the theoretical sense that he would never cross that line. Well the misses (played with chomping disgust by Uma Thurman) comes for a visit and she brings her kids along. She wants her children to see what their daddy traded them away for. At first, the wife acts civil with some stinging passive-aggression, but the uncomfortable incident is dragged out, and the emotions reach a fever pitch, with crying all around. It’s so uncomfortable, so potent, and so memorable, forcing Joe, and the audience, to think of the ripples of consequences from simple sexual dalliances. While Joe is having her fun, unbeknownst to her, there are far-ranging consequences that she, and by extension the audience, choose to ignore because all those pesky details would get in the way of our fun.
The most troublesome storyline is also one of the longest, with Joe having her backside swatted by a no-nonsense sadist played by Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge). This guy insists there will be no penetration and his rules are to be followed strictly. It starts out intriguing to get a sense of who this guy is and what his practices will be. Joe has to sit with other women between the hours of 2-4 AM, and maybe she’ll get picked. Night after night, she goes through this setup, so desperate to feel the spark of desire again. This situation feels like it goes on forever. There is no easy climax. Rather it sets up the darker turn for Joe’s character, as she gives up being a mother and a wife. To make ends meet she becomes a debt collector, using her knowledge of men, particularly heir weaknesses, to coax them back into paying. There’s one disarming moment when she takes great pity on a pedophile that will surprise you, and it’s the only incident that causes Seligman to disapprove. Her boss (Willem Dafoe) advises her to think of an eventual replacement she can groom, and his method is singling out a young girl with no support, becoming her world, and slowly manipulating her to do your every wish. In a von Trier film, that is what a retirement 401k package looks like. This whole storyline, including her young mark (Mia Goth) romantically falling for her would-be maternal figure, just feels misplaced, like von Trier doesn’t know how to bring his four-hour opus to a close.
That’s because he doesn’t! This paragraph is going to delve into the conclusion of Nymphomaniac, so be warned that there will be major spoilers being discussed. If you wish to remain pure, skip to the next paragraph. During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. And there’s truth to what he says, namely that the world judges Joe far more harshly for her actions because she happens to be a woman committing them. If a man was performing the same stunts, or left his family, he would not be seen as damningly. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.
It’s a shame because Gainsbourg gives a terrific performance as the older Joe. The actress is no stranger to von Trier and his sadomasochist ways, having also starred in Antichrist and Melancholia. You get a sense of her character’s desperation, the thrills of her youth now gone. She’s also grappling with her own fallibility, the anger that comes from that, her antipathy with others, and the regrets and jealousy that penetrate her hard exterior (no pun intended). She’s trying to act above society, an operator who plays by a different set of rules, but it’s fascinating when the emotions reveal themselves from the sensations. And Gainsbourg puts all of herself into this role, submitting to her character’s many mental and physical tortures. Even if she has a body double pasted in, it’s still representational of her and Joe. Gainsbourg manages to draw us in, not wanting our sympathy but eventually earning it. Martin, as young Joe, gets just as much screen time as Gainsbourg, but there’s a vacancy there to her acting, a certain passivity that makes young Joe feel more like a spectator than a participant in her life. Skarsgard (Thor: the Dark World) is an appealing foil for Joe, almost comical in how accepting he is and how excited he can get with his digressive connections. The only other actor of note in the large ensemble is LaBeouf (Transformers) who affects a strange accent but sticks with it. We’ll see if his self-imposed exile from Hollywood and acting sticks as well.
I’ve spent this entire review talking about everything else rather than detailing the nature of the graphic sex, the point that earned Nymphomaniac much of its curiosity with the general public. That’s because the explicit nature of the sex is inconsequential. I understand that that may sound odd for a movie literally called Nymphomaniac, but that’s because von Trier’s movie is less interested in the salacious and tawdry acts and more about deconstructing a life lived and the increasingly fraught rationale for her choices. Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, the graphic sex is the headliner, and it is occasionally graphic and unsimulated, with more than a few vaginal close-ups. The sex is incidental, a symptom of the human condition, and von Trier’s less-than-sensational look at such a sensational topic grounds the movie intellectually. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is posing questions, pushing his audience to question our own views on sexuality and concepts of normalcy and what is and isn’t in good taste. We’re prurient creatures lapping up all the dirty details and copious amounts of nudity, but the introspection is what sticks, and it’s an incisive character study that opens up in many beguiling, illuminating, and surprisingly relatable ways…. Until the end. There’s no way to account for Nymphomaniac and just forget the ending. Four hours and for what? I cannot fathom what von Trier was going for rather than a return to his M.O. of humanity resorting to casual cruelty. If you can bear it, Nymphomaniac is a fitfully entertaining film, provocative to the end, and then it all slips away thanks to cinema’s worst practical joker.
Volume 1: B-
Volume 2: C+
The Ending: F
Nate’s Grade Overall: B
Wes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.
In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.
For Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.
The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.
The fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.
The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?
Nate’s Grade: A
Safe to the point of unyielding boredom, Son of God is a film that is too fearful to be anything but bland. It’s a resuscitation of the life and times of Jesus Christ, but it’s so static because it’s a collection of the Jesus Greatest Hits checklist. This is more a jumble of scenes than a movie, with little room given to flesh out the man who asked others to eat of his flesh. If anything, the one takeaway it presents is a more rounded and surprisingly empathetic perspective on why the leaders of the time felt threatened by Jesus. There is nothing here that stands out, that separates it from the glut of Biblical dramas of the past, beyond a penchant for reaction shots of an anguished Mary (Roma Downey, a producer as well). Son of God is shot and acted with the limited vision of a TV movie, and it’s easy to see why. The movie is actually partially culled from footage of The Bible miniseries that aired on the History Channel in record numbers. With that context, it’s easy to see the movie as a crass brand extension. I almost fell asleep at several points chiefly because I knew exactly what was coming and had little engagement with those onscreen. Just because you got Jesus up there doesn’t mean to get to slack when it comes to characterization. Even Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ brought the cinematic spectacle. This is just a bland movie that only preaches to the converted.
Nate’s Grade: C
In 2007, the gory, shouty, beefcake-y action flick 300 came out of relative nowhere and took the world by storm, earning over $400 million worldwide and launching the careers of Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Watchmen). The movie burrowed itself into pop culture, readily mocked and parodied along with its highly stylized action. So where to go next? Also based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, though one that is incomplete as of release, 300: Rise of an Empire is a return to the same stylized excess that made careers. Except now seven years later, what once dazzled seems empty; visually alluring but hollow by all accounts.
Following the brave stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is pushing forward with his plans to subjugate the city-states of Greece. Long ago, Themistokles (Sullivan Stepleton) killed King Darius during Persia’s first invasion attempt. Xerxes has sworn vengeance since, goaded into action by his second-in-command, general Artemisia (Eva Green). She commands Xerxes’ mighty naval fleet, and she looks to “dance across the backs of dead Greeks.” The many city-states of Greece are squabbling over an appropriate response; Themistokles argues they should unite, while others contend for surrender to Xerxes. Themistokles rallies what armies and ships he can to meet the Persians on the sea and prevent the overpowering invasion.
The difficulty with a follow-up to 300 is that Snyder’s highly stylized original has been copied and pasted so many times by cheap imitators, so what’s new? The film’s visual style follows the original closely, all those gauzy panoramas and human bodies lovingly showcasing in slow-mo the ugly beauty of bloodshed and violence. The rippling muscles, the glistening sweat, the geysers of blood; it’s all here and in displayed in fawning 3D detail. I didn’t see the film in 3D, but I noticed that every campfire scene was littered with annoying floating embers. However, Rise of an Empire manages some pleasant surprises because a majority of its action takes place at sea. This is a movie devoted to ancient maritime combat, and that’s pretty interesting. The scope of the action is much larger this time, with far more than 300 soldiers in play. The naval battles are brought to life with Hollywood excess but they’re still fairly exciting and fun to watch. The action is well orchestrated, usually easy enough to follow, and suitably thrilling, with each sequence differing from the last. The pumping score by Junkie XL works as a strong driving force with pounding percussion and horns (check out “History of Artemisia”). There are also less nutty monstrous evil henchmen this go-round as well, which helps bring a needed sense of internal reality to all the fantastical action. There are no goat people and blade-handed executioners this time. I don’t think anybody is going to take the movie to task for historical accuracy, but it’s appreciated all the same. Though who’s going to hire Blade Hands now? The guy has a very limited skill set for a workplace.
Plot-wise, the first 300 film was an underdog tale, a group of proud warriors fighting against overwhelming odds eventually giving their lives for the cause. It’s an early chapter in the Noble Lost Cause storytelling playbook, meant to inspire. It’s a Greek Alamo. The problem is when you pick up the story after the Noble Lost Cause. Now the Greeks have to fight the whole of Xerxes’ mighty forces with their own, and while it’s still an underdog story at its core, watching one huge army fight a huger army doesn’t have the same entertainment value. That may be why the film also works as a prequel. There are three flashbacks to fill out the first act’s worth of table setting: the initial war with Persia, Xerxes, and Artemisia. We get storylines happening concurrently with Leonidas and his men, though Gerard Butler declined to reappear in the film. You definitely miss his animalistic fire and screen presence. Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s much of a story here besides a big-screen version of Stratego, where the Greeks move, then the Persians, now everyone is dead or defeated. That’s a glib oversimplification, yes, but the plot boils down to an increasing series of episodes on how the Greeks repel the Persian invaders. Without greater characters and storylines to populate the downtime, it all becomes soulless exercises in CGI bloodshed chasing after whatever is cool looking.
The big problem with 300: Rise of an Empire, despite the ever-present sameness of it all, is that the heroes are bland and the villains are charismatic, which makes it easier to root for the bad guys, which I heartily did. The heroes are chiseled from the blandest of hunks of one-note characterization, with only three real characters being formed. There’s Leader Guy a.k.a. Themistokles, who wants to unite Greece into one power. There’s Father, a.k.a Scyllias, who has a slight scar on his jaw to better identify him, and then there’s his Son, a.k.a. Calisto, who wants to fight. Ladies and gentlemen, that is it, which is all you get when it comes to your heroes. What a shameful pittance. There aren’t even flamboyant supporting characters in their ranks. The heroes are boring, and the father/son storyline plays out exactly as you’d expect, which is a reverse from the original 300. These are not characters you’d follow into uncertain danger. These are characters leftover after all the good ones have been prematurely slain. These are some lackluster leftovers.
Now, let’s take a look at the enemy camp, namely with chief antagonist, Artemisia. It helps leaps and bounds that she is played by Eva Green (Casino Royale, Dark Shadows), and it’s even more helpful that Green gives it her all, sinking her teeth into the campy villainy. Artemisia is a fierce sword fighter, no-nonsense general, and overall badass supreme. She kisses decapitated heads, is not above fighting topless, and wears wicked outfits with spikes and all sorts of goodies. Every time she departs a scene, you’re left counting down the minutes until you see her again. She’s so delightfully entertaining, chomping at the bit for vengeance and Greek blood. She’s also a woman commanding warships in 500 BC, not exactly a time that recognized women as equals. Another wrong move on the filmmakers’ part was illuminating Artemisia’s back-story. We learn via flashback that Artemisia watched her family get raped and slaughtered by the Greeks. She was sold into sexual slavery at a young age, imprisoned in the bowels of a Greek ship, repeatedly raped for years. Then when these horrible men had had their fill, she was dumped onto an anonymous road and left to die. After seeing this sequence, what person isn’t going to welcome Artemisia? Does she not deserve her vengeance? I was emotionally engaged with her from that moment onward, and so I rooted for her to burn Greece down and vanquish our lame heroes.
The rest of the actors on screen are rather bad. The beefy men on screen could have used some extra work on their underutilized acting muscles. Stapleton (Gangster Squad, TV’s Strike Back) is absent any notable charisma to distinguish him from the stubbly-bearded pack of screaming male heroes. Santoro (The Last Stand) has a certain dour intensity to him, though he spends much of the film watching from a distance. The rest of the cast doesn’t even merit mentioning because the film treats them like featured extras rather than genuine characters. Only Lena Headey’s (TV’s Game of Thrones, The Purge) handful of scenes will grab your attention. It’s ironic that a film that glorifies the heroics of male soldiers, as well as the their chiseled physiques, and the only two women in the entire film are easily the most memorable and entertaining people. Dump the dudes.
While it offers enough thrills and visual power to satisfy a trial viewing, 300: Rise of an Empire is just too empty a spectacle to warrant anything beyond a cursory glance. Director Noam Murro follows Snyder’s blueprint to the best of his abilities, soaking the screen in blood, rippling flesh, and visual grandeur, but the movie goes into convulsions when somebody is forced to talk without kicking people in the face. The plot amounts to little more than a series of attacks played out like stages in a video game. While the original is no masterwork, at least it had characters that we could gravitate toward. Absent any hero worth rooting for, it’s no wonder that Green and her memorable villain reign supreme. She is excellent and has a reasonable motivation for her vengeance. If it had been her movie, 300: Rise of an Empire might have developed into a worthy spectacle anchored by its fiery heroine. Alas, the actual movie is just a Saved by the Bell: The New Class of half-naked men going off to CGI battle, and that’s just not enough.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Every now and then you get to witness a special movie that doesn’t so much offend as it inspires, and what it inspires is a question you grapple with during the entirety of its run time, mainly – How did this get made? At any point, did the producers or actors or anyone stop, take a moment to reflect on the movie they were participating in, and think, “Wait, what is going on here?” Bad movies made by hacks are easy to shrug off because, well, hacks don’t know any better but bad movies (see: InAPPropriate Comedy, or better yet, bleach your eyeballs first). With Winter’s Tale, there are people who should know better, people that have been awarded Oscars. These people should resolutely know a terrible movie while they’re making it. Maybe they did. Look deep into their eyes.
In 1918, Frank Lake (Colin Farrell) is an orphan long abandoned by his family so he could have a better life in America. He hasn’t taken this message to heart. Frank worked as an expert safecracker under the employ of local crime boss Pearly (Russell Crowe), and Pearly hasn’t taken kindly to Frank leaving. Frank is able to escape Pearly’s goons and finds love with Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a wealthy heiress afflicted with consumption. Pearly doesn’t want Frank to get away because Pearly is really a demon in the employ of the Devil (Will Smith, yes you read that right). In the battle of good versus evil, Frank and Beverly appear to be at the focal point.
I have to give writer/director Akiva Goldsman some credit for making an unabashedly earnest movie in an era of irony and ready-made snark. His goopy romantic fantasy longs to exist in a simpler era, but even then Winter’s Tale would fall apart on many levels. Its sheer unbending corniness is both a blessing and a curse. Magic realism is one thing (check out 2001’s Amelie as a how-to guide), but what Goldsman seems to be going for is a modern fairy tale (our maiden locked away in her tower, true love’s kiss, etc.). The film wants the audience to fall under its spell but instead will likely elicit numerous unintentionally hilarious moments; I was laughing to myself throughout, trying to comprehend all of the hokum and poor decision-making (Will Smith as the devil?).
Let’s begin with the fact that the movie is an obtuse fantasy that feels like it makes up its plot and its rules as it goes along. Bleeding fantasy and fantastical creatures into the everyday world is a marvelous conceit but it needs finesse and careful rule building. Otherwise it doesn’t so much feel like a story with a sense of internal logic as it does a bedtime story that can always just create a new shortcut or extension. The very first few minutes of the film will already push your credulity to the test. We see an adult Peter on the run from Pearly and his goons and all of a sudden he runs into… a white horse. Ah, but this is no ordinary horse, this is a magic flying horse, and Peter flies away to live another day. Yep, within minutes, we’re given a magic flying horse. No groundwork. Worse, the horse just randomly appears when the plot demands, and I think the horse is supposed to represent the side of God in this cosmic battle between good and evil. Whatever, there is a magic flying horse. From there the film gets even cornier. It’s the type of movie that posits the stars are really human beings, and so, in the end, rather than having our hero ride off into the sunset he (spoilers be damned) flies off into space on his magic flying horse and he BECOMES a new star, resting beside the star meaning to represent his beloved (never mind that these stars would be millions of light years apart). If you can read that sentence without rolling your eyes then congratulations are due.
Another problem is this massive time leap that creates far more plot holes. After Beverly succumbs to her illness, which I might add happens literally SECONDS after she’s done having sex for the first time (Colin Farrell killed her with his penis), the film leaps forward to present-day. However, Peter was given immortality through Beverly’s miracle. I suppose you could view miracles as a byproduct of sex. At first glance, this almost seems like a cruel gift; your love is dead and now you have to live forever without her. For no discernible reason, Peter also suffers amnesia, because, really, why not? All he does day after day, presumably for… 90 years, is sketch the same image of a redheaded girl in public places. In the intertwining years, why hasn’t evil Pearly picked up on the fact that Peter is still alive? He’s only been sketching the exact same image. Also, how does Peter even support himself? How does he feed himself? Who are his friends? These are the questions that arise when you take this foolish route with the plot. It could have been avoided with a simply Rip Van Winkle-style hibernation or time jump. Another problem is that Peter grew up with the 90 years of history, meaning he should know what things like the Internet and library cards are. He’s not a man out of time. The solution to Peter being confirmed is to seek out the still-living Willa (Eva Marie Saint, nice to see you again). The problem with this is that Willa should at least be over a hundred years old if you do the math. If the purpose of the leap forward was to just save another character we hadn’t seen previously, why does it have to be 2014? Why couldn’t it just have been 1940 or any other earlier period?
And the central romance between Frank and Beverly is just so boring you wish Frank would move on to someone new. Presumably they fell in love at first sight, which just so happened to be when he was in the process of robbing her home. Ah, but you see, her love redeems him because that’s really the whole role of the sick love interest in movies, to make the other figure a better person through this shared experience of grief. So in this regard it’s no surprise that Beverly lacks defining characteristics outside of her ailment. She plays the piano and falls fast for Farrell’s bushy eyebrows, but that’s all we got here. The entire second act of the film follows their abbreviated courtship, but there’s no real moment where you buy into their romance. Like most of the film’s storytelling, we’re told something is and expected to buy into it 100 percent without flinching. They’re in love, what more do you need? Well, some interesting characters would be a start.
I’m fairly certain that all of these actors were doing Goldman a favor by appearing in this nonsense, but only Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks) walks away favorably. He is the best person onscreen who burrows into their character, ignoring the absurdity of every moment, yearning so hard that you almost want to give in. You won’t. Many will best remember Findlay as the Lady Sybill on TV’s Downton Abbey (she was also the reoccurring ghost on the BBC’s Misfits). Here she gets little else to do but smile and give those knowing looks that all afflicted characters give, as if their illness has opened up the secrets to the universe for them. Crowe’s performance will likely draw up comparisons to his maligned work in Les Miserables, a performance that wasn’t as bad as advertised theater snobs. This performance, however, is as bad, as his Irish brogue seems to overtake him and he comes across like a hotheaded big bad wolf. Jennifer Connelly’s appearance isn’t even worth mentioning as it is that slight beyond the fact that she’s the mother of a terminally ill child (you really thought the movie had any sense of restraint?). The film has numerous well known actors for flashes, like Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Graham Green, Matt Bomer as Frank’s immigrant father. One suspects their brief time was either a sign that the screenplay evolved as production went or that they were repaying a debt.
I will say the only saving grace in this entire blunder is the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ). Even when the cheesy special effects take flight, Deschanel makes sure the images are worth watching, having a special skill with the cool hues of the wintry color palette. I wanted to at least credit one redeeming aspect.
The inconsistent plotting and rules, the corny and overly wistful characterization, the overwhelming silliness of every single moment, Winter’s Tale will spark far more guffaws and derision than plaudits. It’s a movie that bludgeons you with its unrelenting maudlin nature disguised as romantic fantasy. The source material is beloved by some but it all comes across as nonsensical twaddle onscreen. Goldsman’s screenwriting credits run the gamut from award winning (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man), to big budget to notorious stinkers (Batman & Robin, Lost in Space). It’s hard to judge the man’s talents with such a wide range of quality. However, I can question the finished results of Winter’s Tale and openly wonder what in the world convinced Goldsman to cash in all his Hollywood cache to direct this dreck. I’m almost tempted to encourage people to watch Winter’s Tale just to try and make sense of it themselves, to try and take in 118 minutes of earnest bad decisions. Whether it’s the magic flying horse, the 100-year-old news writer, or the fact that we’re dealing with a bad guy named Pearly, or Will Smith as Lucifer, but sometimes Hollywood unleashes a disaster that begs to be seen.
Nate’s Grade: D
An all-star cast, a true-life tale that incorporates a treasure hunt, a race against time, Nazis, and fish-out-of-water tropes as non-soldiers are placed in harm’s way, plus the skills of George Clooney behind the camera; in short, how could this go wrong? With that plot makeup and this cast it would take more effort to tell a boring big screen adventure of the real-life Monuments Men (and women). And yet, the movie found a way. It’s by no means a bad film and its heart is in the right place, but allow me to explain why The Monuments Men sadly fails to live up to its mission.
It’s 1944 and Adolf Hitler doesn’t just have his sights on constructing a permanent empire, he wants all the world’s art treasures as well. The Nazis have been plundering famous works of art, and while the war is coming to a close with the Allied invasion, the fate of these priceless works of art may be in jeopardy. Frank Stokes (Clooney) is tasked with putting together a team to save Europe’s art from the Nazis. He puts together an unconventional group of soldiers (Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville) and search for the hidden loot.
The film looks like it’s going to be a high-concept heist film when it reality it’s a series of vignettes that do not add up to a solid whole. Early on, the Monuments Men team is scattered to the wind, divided into pairs, and so we have four or five competing storylines that don’t develop as desired. To be fair, there are some very good scenes, well executed and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Men Who Stare at Goats) where the conflict is turned up, but the film cannot escape the fact that it feels more like a series of scenes than a cohesive story. Not all of the stories are equal in their interest as well. The Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Damon storyline in France amounts to little else than her stalling for as long as the plot necessitates, then handing over the Very Important Info, then she’s swept aside. The comical asides, notably with Murray and Balaban, feel like scene fillers when there could be stronger material. Once they’re reunited as a group, you wonder why we even needed the time apart. Perhaps it’s an attempt to showcase a wider sampling of stories and perspectives on a complicated war, which is fine, but the characters don’t get the same complicated examination. Despite physical descriptors, these guys are fairly one-note and stay that way, which is a real shame especially when we start losing Monuments Men. The attention is split amongst a bunch of characters lacking proper development. If I felt like we knew these guys on any substantive level, I would feel more at their untimely passing.
Another issue that exacerbates the directionless feeling pervading the film is that it lacks a clear and concise goal. I understand they’re saving and rescuing art, but that’s kept vague until the very end of the film when it becomes more concrete. Until then, the guys are just traveling from place to place, retrieving this piece or that, having comic misadventures, and the movie just feels like it needs a stronger guiding force to corral all these stories, a concise goal that each scene builds onto and where the urgency increases. Late in the film, I got a glimpse of exactly what kind of movie Monuments Men could have been. Once the war is over, the Germans are replaced as antagonists by the Russians (two-for-two with classic American movie villains) and it becomes a race against time to get to the art before the Russians confiscate it. There was always a ticking clock in the film, as Hitler was assembling his art and his command would destroy them in spite of returning them. However, in the very end of the film, the urgency is cranked up, made real, and for once the film emerges with a sense of suspense. I think it would have been a more engaging film experience if the scope of the film were narrowed simply to the material covered in the climax, namely beating the Russians to the art reserves. It practically has a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel with two parties trying to outrace the other to the next precious treasure. How cool would that movie have been?
Another problem is the film’s seesaw tone never really gels together in a satisfying manner. The film awkwardly switches gears from drama to comedy to action without smooth transitions. Clooney wants his film to be a comical buddy comedy but also a poignant remembrance of the lives lost so that we can enjoy our great treasures. Clashing tones take away from the effectiveness, making us feel that Clooney didn’t feel confidant with either direction to make a movie. Alexander Desplat’s overbearing musical score instructs the audience what they should be feeling at any given moment. It vacillates without similar transitions informing you with little transparency that you should feel whimsical, now sad, and now heroic, now go back to whimsical. The entire film, from a story standpoint to a technical standpoint, cried out for a greater sense of unity.
Then there’s the question of whether art is worth people giving up their lives, and this is a valid question that deserves consideration. I was never in doubt what Clooney and company would say to this ethical query, but it’s as if Clooney has little faith in his own audience. He gives three separate speeches about the significance of art and culture and why it is worth dying for. I expected one hefty speech, but three? It’s like Clooney is afraid his audience will waver when blood starts to be shed, and so we need to be reminded by the professor why art is significant to mankind’s value. The point has been made; it doesn’t need to be belabored. The film even ends on recycling this debate, with Clooney putting one final stamp of judgment before the credits roll.
One gets the sense while watching The Monuments Men that it would make a better documentary than a fictional feature film, at least this incarnation of a fictional film. Hearing from the men who lived it will be far more interesting than watching the comic squabbles of Clooney’s crew through Europe. I was instantly reminded of an engrossing documentary from a few years ago called The Rape of Europa, which looked at the subject of saving the arts from Hitler, not specifically the Monuments Men. That documentary was filled with so many different fascinating stories, I remember thinking that any one of them could have made a stellar movie. Monuments Men is further proof that a sharper, more contained focus would be best rather than trying to tell as many war stories involved on the topic. Clooney has proven himself an excellent director and despite his film’s faults it’s still an entertaining film in spurts. I just think we all expected better given the pedigree of talent involved and the can’t-miss quality of the history.
Nate’s Grade: B-
“There’s no success like failure. And failure’s no success at all,” Bob Dylan wrote. He could have been talking about any number of characters in the oeuvre of master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Losers and has-beens and could-have-beens fascinate the brothers, and their newest film certainly follows this model. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling musician in the 1961 Greenwich Village, New York folk scene. He rotates crashing with various friends, unable to scrounge up enough money to ever pay his own way. His musical partner recently killed himself and Llewyn has been trying to get traction with his first solo record. His world gets even more complicated when Jean (Carey Mulligan) reveals that she’s pregnant; the baby’s father may be Llewyn or Jean’s husband and fellow performer, Jim (Justin Timberlake). Llewyn can’t catch a break.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a classic Coen creation, a character study of a misanthropic loser trying to find direction in a comical universe of indifference. I greatly look forward to every Coen picture and that’s because nobody writes characters like they do. There are no throwaway characters in a Coen universe. Even minor characters like the elevator Attendant or Manager’s Secretary are given sparks of personality, each fully formed figure creating a richer canvas. There is great pleasure in just listening to their characters speak, in natural cadences yet elevated with grace. Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception. Their storytelling is always rife with wonderful comic surprises and pit stops. The Coens are such brilliant technical craftsmen, that every shot is gorgeously composed, even without longtime cinematographer Roger Deakens (to give you an idea how old this movie was, Deakens was busy filming Skyfall). The music, supervised by O Brother maestro T. Bone Burnett, is impeccably performed and quite lovely to the ear, if you’re into folk music arrangements. If you’re not, well, it’s going to be a long movie experience.
But here’s the problem with Inside Llewyn Davis: the film will likely turn off most people. It’s not a comforting movie by any means. We’re stuck following a self-destructive struggling musician bounce around couch-to-couch, chasing dreams that will never seem in reach. And Llewyn is a tough character to love. He’s surly, careless, selfish, egotistical, and also jaded. And he’s just about the only character in the movie. Most of the other famous faces are fleeting supporting players. Only Mulligan (The Great Gatsby) is given a plurality of scenes to expand her perturbed character, and even those may not be enough. Much like Llewyn’s musical direction, this is a one-man show, and he’s not cuddly. But an unlikable protagonist is not uncommon. The Coens tease so many different directions for Llewyn to go that it’s likely that audiences will feel some degree of disappointment where the film does end up. It’s a circuitous path, proving Llewyn is the architect of his own fate, but at that point audiences may not care. They may just be happy to watch Llewyn punched in the face. The plot is pretty light, running into a series of various self-contained scenes, and there isn’t much in the way of closure. I’ve watched the film twice and while I appreciate it more I’m certain that Llewyn Davis will leave a majority of people feeling cold, more so than even A Serious Man.
Unlike former Coen creations, notably in A Serious Man and Barton Fink, our titular character is the architect of his own misery. He is a musician that identifies with an older class of folk artists, something that strikes him as genuine and touching the soul. He cannot stand artistic compromise. He won’t even accept a winter coat from his music manager. He wants no handouts. He chastises Jean about her and Jim’s attitudes toward the business, calling them “careerist” and “a little bit square.” To Llewyn, to sell out is the worst crime. Jean says that they’re just doing what they can to raise up the musical ranks, and maybe the songs aren’t top-notch, like a catchy but instantly dated novelty song about the Space Race (the sure-to-be Oscar-nominated “Please Mr. Kennedy”), but they’re commercial, they’re finding an audience, they’re making inroads, partially as a husband/wife act and partially due to their own physically attractive appearances, and it frustrates Llewyn greatly. A great example is early in the film a young Army vet on leave performs a wonderfully pure song with a beautiful voice. Llewyn scoffs at the mawkish nature of the tune. “He’s a great performer,” Jim advises. Llewyn takes umbrage at the distinction; a performer is not the same as a musician. The people getting ahead are the performers, the sellouts. One of Jean and Jim’s rising hits, “500 Miles,” lyrically suggests it was an old slave song that has been repackaged and homogenized for safe consumption. Llewyn is going to stick to his guns and make it on his own terms, with expected results. Late in the movie, after Llewyn performs before a record exec (F. Murray Abraham), so aching and affecting as he puts it all into the song, the exec simply responds: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” However, the exec offers Llewyn a chance to be in a trio he’s putting together, if he cleans up and knows how to keep to the background. It’s a real opportunity. Just not for Llewyn.
It all comes down to legacy and Llewyn contemplating what his will be. His singing partner is now defined by his death, finding cruel irony in their song, “If I Had Wings.” His father is known for his long dedication to the Navy, but now he sits alone in a nursing home, a prisoner to his own infirmary and defeated mind. A road trip partner, the pompous jazz musician Roland Turner (a royally hilarious John Goodman), seems like a Ghost of Christmas Future visit from a possible future Llewyn, the artist who’s an iconoclast only in his own mind. Throughout the film, Llewyn is beset with choices, different options he could take, one in particular stemming from a revelation involving an old girlfriend. And yet, much like the thematic nature of folks songs, we’re told, Llewyn looks for something new with something old, be they routines, goals, or occupations. The folk music scene is on the cusp of change with a more commercialized pendulum swing, as evidenced by a surprise new performer at the Gaslight in the closing minutes. Llewyn is contemplating his life beyond the world of show business and where he goes next.
And if there is a sad aspect to the Coens’ tale, it’s that Llewyn really is a talented musician. This is a breakout role for Isaac (Drive, Robin Hood) especially when you consider that he did all his own singing and guitar playing. It’s one of the most astonishing musical performances by an actor I’ve ever seen in a movie. The level of craft at command, the different slivers of passion he carefully puts into the performances, the trembling emotion, the merging of himself with the song. There’s a reason the Coens open the movie with Isaac performing the full rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” It crystallizes right away where the man’s talent level is, both the character and the actor. We’re left to then wonder why he hasn’t found his place in the industry, and the rest of the film is the explanation. This is the first film since perhaps 2007’s Once where full-length performances of songs really do move the story forward (I’m obviously excluding traditional musicals). Some have labeled the heavy use of song as lazy, distracting from an undercooked narrative, but I can literally go through every song in the film and justify its existence. Each tune, and the performance and performers, gives insight to character, plot, and state of mind.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an easy movie to admire but a harder one to love, unless you’re a fan of the Coen brothers or folk music in general. The protagonist is unlikable, his struggles his own doing either by hubris or integrity, the plot is rather loose with scattered supporting characters, and the film ends on a somewhat lackluster note that feels inconclusive. But then I keep going back to the richness of this world, the pop of the characters, the lyrical beauty to the unvarnished songs, and the concept of folk music as its own sense of purgatory (here me out, folk fans), the idea that we seek something new with something old, and so we follow in circles, like Llewyn’s onscreen journey. Isaac gives such a strong performance that you almost wish his character could catch a break. Almost. This is another technical marvel from the Coens, filled with their dark humor and their sense of cosmic melancholy, but Inside Llewyn Davis may ultimately find some strange sense of uplift as Llewyn continues to hold to his ambitions even as the world around him is changing, losing sight of artists like him. As long as we have the Coens, the Llewyn Davis’s of this world will get their due in one form or another.
Nate’s Grade: A-