Originally filmed in 2014, The King’s Daughter is a curiosity as it’s been on the shelf for almost eight years. As another critic quipped, in the ensuring years, star Kaya Scodelario has been in an entire trilogy of Maze Runner movies. I don’t know what this Chinese-by-way-of-French production was going for as we follow the court of King Louis XIV, played by Pierce Brosnan in an astounding array of outlandishly bad costumes and terrible wigs. He resembles a Vegas magician set back in time. Anyway, he calls to court the young Marie-Josephine (Scodelario) who has been raised by nuns since she was dropped off as a baby. If you can’t already see where this is going, then I can’t help you. But wait because there’s also a mermaid (Bingbing Fan, who in the years since this movie possibly served time in China’s prison for tax evasion) in the basement being held captive because Louis thinks eating her heart will be the key to him becoming immortal. So, yeah, what is this? It’s striving for a fairy tale/storybook sort of feeling but it’s a plot that will only work with the youngest of children. The characters are simplistic and boring, and once the mermaid is introduced it becomes like a costume drama version of Free Willy. Even with being on the shelf for eight years, the finished film still feels rushed, and the special effects for the mute mermaid are a colorful mess. Fun fact #1: the director is responsible for 4 Baby Genius sequels. Fun fact #2: this will be the late William Hurt’s last movie to his career. The King’s Daughter is a movie that makes you ask, “What were they thinking?” quite a lot, and the best decision was to withhold it from mass viewing for eight years.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been eyeing a superhero costume for over eight years. He’s been attached to a Black Adam project since 2014. The character is best known in DC comics as a villain for Shazam, although the mythology and rules of that universe get some revisions under this new vehicle. Johnson plays a Middle Eastern godlike figure who shuns being a selfless champion of the little people. If you’re an easy sell for superhero movies, there’s enough visual bravura and smash-em-ups to at least sate your appetite for CGI fisticuffs. By the lowered standards of the DCU, this is a thoroughly average movie. It has a certain childlike Saturday morning cartoon appeal that doesn’t try too hard to be taken seriously and goes about its business with a workmanlike degree of efficiency. The action is easy to follow and the obsessive slow-mo style feel like comics splash pages come to vivid life. I liked the warm, golden color palate and Mid-East setting as distinguishing features. There is an audience for Black Adam, I am certain, but it’s also getting harder to just accept average superhero movies given the glut of superhero cinema. The hero’s journey of this would-be villain becoming more a grumpy antihero is rote and predictable, including a really lame villain to make Black Adam look less bad in comparison. I didn’t care about big CGI demon goon fighting for control of a magic throne. The character arc is supposed to be about agency and responsibility, but it gets reduced down to a morally simplistic “I guess I won’t kill all the bad guys all the time” re-evaluation. The plotting and structure is also misshapen; the entire first half of the movie feels like the second half of some earlier movie we missed out on. The fighting can also get annoyingly repetitious. The Justice Society has two major members, Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Fate and Aldis Hodge as Hawkman, and the rest are afterthoughts, as if the producers leveraged including more big screen debuts in case the central character wasn’t enough of a draw. Anyway, the Justice Society and Black Adam go through half a dozen fights and I just got bored by their bickering. The premise of a Middle Eastern superhero, a champion for the Muslim world, would be a radical idea worth exploring the geopolitical ramifications, especially the fears this could raise in conservative and twitchy Western societies that this could be seen as akin to a superhero arms race. That direction might veer away from the intent of the character but that’s also the far more interesting story. Still, it’s The Rock as a superhero, and his enormous charisma can carry even an ordinary action movie to greater heights.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Do we need another rendition of good ole’ Cinderella, especially only a few years after the Disney live-action version? The new Cinderella starring pop star Camila Cabello is a surprise jukebox musical, and it’s irreverent where it should be and progressive where social critiques are warranted with the source and historical context. In short, it’s a fleeting but fun experience that’s a winning 100 minutes for families with young children and adults who enjoy a peppy, self-referential musical. Written and directed by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect), this movie is packed with singing and dancing to the point that the talking only makes up perhaps twenty percent of the movie. This choice proves to be a durable source of energy and keeps the pacing running smooth. It’s also convenient because we don’t need extra time explaining the setup and character dynamics that we’re all so familiar with at this point thanks to the umpteenth renditions. The mash-up of popular songs kept me amused and guessing what would appear next, and the original songs contributed by Cabello have a nice soaring uplift to them as well as memorable hooks. There’s a “What a Man”/”Seven Nation Army” mashup at a ball that gave me strong Moulin Rouge vibes, especially with all that chaotic sashaying petticoat editing. The movie is also funnier than I expected, with consistent wise-cracking and one-liners that had me laughing and critiques about the patriarchal system from a progressive, feminist perspective. The evil stepmother, played by Idina Menzel (Frozen), is even given her own song detailing her tragic history of being a musical prodigy who had to give it all up in a society that only valued her as marriage material. Even she gets consideration and empathy. The winking feminist criticisms won’t be new to anyone over the age of twelve, but it’s still welcomed even as the film skates over the discordant plot elements to keep things light. The film delivers some bon mots of political thought to go along with its sugary sweetness of a contemporary sing-a-long musical that is easy to digest. Cabello has a natural charisma to her and is surprisingly adept with comedy, able to turn on a dime and deliver a hilarious self-effacing remark. She’s far better at acting than you might believe. If you have no interest in another version of Cinderella, I understand the fatigue with the property. However, this Cinderella understands your fatigue, provides something light and airy, with actors who seem to be legitimately having fun, and it’s got a consistent feminist perspective that chides the prevalent problems with the source material. It works as a family film and even as a diverting jukebox musical for adults whose tastes run a little sweet and a little tart.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Only Living Boy in New York may have made me hate New York. I was rolling my eyes at about every moment of this movie, not just because it wads cliché, not just because it confused the cliché with transcendent and relatable commentary, not just because the characters were aggressively loathsome and inauthentic, and not because it appears to be someone’s idea of Graduate Lite (though, yes, these are all contributing factors). It’s because the movie takes the easy way out at every route and wants to be congratulated for its artistic integrity.
Thomas (Callum Turner) is a twenty-something who feels that New York City has lost what made it special. He’s drifting through life, thinking about becoming a writer, and also trying to romance his best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). His mother (Cynthia Nixon) self-medicates via dinner parties. His father (Pierce Brosnan) has a different approach, namely sleeping with another woman, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). Thomas follows Johanna and makes his presence known to her. He convinces himself he’s falling in love with her and impulsively chases her as a romantic option as well.
I think the movie wants me to be charmed by its male lead, the young protagonist that looks like a lanky Richard Gere. This twerp made me so angry and he pretty much embodied a creepy blend of entitlement. He’s tired of being in the friend zone with Mimi, but he keeps pushing, sneaking unauthorized kisses, and trying to wear down her defenses after she’s told him no. She’s annoyed that her friendship is by itself not good enough for him, and even though they had one “magic night,” that he won’t accept her repeated stances about not wanting to be together romantically. But what’s a woman’s ability to choose matter to Thomas, who we’re constantly told from every other character in this stupid movie, is clever, bright, good, virtuous, and a prized talent in the making. The movie never shows you these things, never provides evidence of his talents or even his virtues, and so it becomes another series of empty gestures. He’s just so captivating that all the women of New York can’t help themselves around him. This wouldn’t feel so tone deaf and backwards if the film did a better job of making Thomas feel like a living, breathing human being rather than some misguided, coming-of-age hipster creep.
The premise here has promise, a wayward son who ends up having an affair with his father’s mistress. That could work and devise plenty of palpable dramatic tension. Except because we never get to know Thomas beyond a superficial level, the affair only feels like another conquest of entitlement. Even a more interesting subtext, punishing his father for putting their family dynamic at risk, is only kept at a distance. What does Thomas learn about himself, his father, Johanna, or the world through his affair? If you cannot come up with a good answer then that means your plot point is lacking substance. Perhaps they just like the danger or the attention of one another, and yes Beckinsale (pick an Underworld movie) is an attractive woman so that’s a plus for a horny young lad. Most frustratingly, nothing seems to be pressed by this affair. It pushes some eventual third act confrontations but Thomas and Johanna’s tryst, for lack of a better term, just kind of lies there. It doesn’t do much, which is strange considering what it involves. It feels like its real purpose is to engineer jealousy from Mimi, which is gross. Johanna is never more than another trophy for the most blithe boy in New York.
The drama is pitched to a level that feels like it dances into self-parody, except it plays everything so unrelentingly serious. The narration begins by calling out life moments pulled from movie watching, but then it presents these very moments without any ounce of satire. We open with a New York dinner party where the attendees lament how the city has lost its soul (“The only soul left is Soul Cycle,” someone says like the worst 1980s stand-up comedian). Oh no, CBGB’s closed down. Oh no, there are Starbucks on multiple corners. Oh no, a city of ten million plus people is now only a commercialized hell, worry the rich elites from their ivory towers and their faulty memories of New York City being more pure when it was older. Not one character feels like an actual human being in this screenplay by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty). This is the kind of elitist, out-of-touch, artificial, self-involved characterization of New Yorkers that hacky conservative writers like to cling to when criticizing their big city targets.
The actors do relatively fine work with what they’re given, though special mention to Brosnan who tries his hardest to imbue notes of complexity in a character that, for 90 percent of the movie, is set up as a snide and disapproving patriarch. I don’t want to give up on Turner (Assassin’s Creed) as an actor because the part did him no favors. Mostly I just felt sorry for them. Cynthia Nixon deserves better. The charming Kiersey Clemons (Dope) deserves better. Jeff Bridges is an executive producer, so he deserves what he gets as an alcoholic author/mentor with an out-of-nowhere ending that feels pulled from a soap opera. These characters are powerfully boring, shallow, and unappealing.
At only 88 minutes long, The Only Living Boy in New York still feels punishing in length, protracted, and not worth the overall effort. Even the title makes me irritable. It’s a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song that you better believe will get played, one more desperate attempt to glom onto the legacy of The Graduate. The title refers to Thomas, our entitled hipster of a lead, but does that mean that he’s the only one who really feels things, man, because the rest of us are just dead to the world, living our lives, and this hip young man just sees through all the nonsense of the day-to-day and, man, if only we could give him the platform he so rightly deserves then we’d all be better off. I wanted the cameraman to abandon the film and run a few corners and join a new set (it’s New York City, so by the law of averages, there has to be another film shoot a few blocks away). The Only Living Boy in New York is insufferable, haughty, pretentious, privileged navel-gazing masquerading as deep thought; it is smug New York hipster twaddle.
Nate’s Grade: D+
If you’re looking for a pristine example of mediocrity, then let Percy Jackson serve as the new definition. From the acting to the special effects to the story, this movie barely registers anything other than a disinterested shrug. Based on a series of young adult books, clearly the producers were eyeing a potential lucrative franchise, which may explain why they hire Chris Columbus as director. The modern-day scions of ancient Greek gods is an intriguing starting point, until you realize that the film is just going to become one big, dumb retread through Greek mythology without a hint of wit. It’s Greek mythology turned into a kid’s book report who never read deeply into the source material. The film’s best asset is its collection of adult actors (Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Rosario Dawson), which take your mind off the fairly bland teen actors in the lead. Percy Jackson would be a more forgivable drag if it presented any moments of wonder that didn’t feel trite. The plot has the maddening habit of making characters stupid for plot reasons (hey Lightning Thief who wants to start a God-on-God war, when you have Zeus’s lightning bolt, thus sealing an impending war, don’t stop and monologue!). Yet the film has enough going on that you can follow it with ease and a minimal commitment. Consider putting on Percy Jackson when you need to do some household chores; it deserves that kind of attention.
Nate’s Grade: C
How much time do we give before our memories are used as unnecessary and cheap dramatic ploys to wring out tears? Remember Me will test your sensibilities on what should be classified as art and what should be designated as hacky, shameless exploitation.
Tyler Hawkins (Robert Pattinson) is a troubled 21-year-old college student in New York City. He’s mostly estranged from his rich, distant father (Pierce Brosnan). Tyler’s older brother hanged himself five years earlier, and that personal tragedy still lingers. Tyler quotes poetry, writes letters to his dead brother, and has his share of run-ins with the police. Sergeant Neil Craig (Chris Cooper) busts Tyler and his friend (Tate Ellington, mostly annoying) one night after the duo tries to clear up a brawl. Then the boys discover that the sergeant’s daughter, Ally (Lost‘s Emilie de Ravin) also attends their college. They devise a sketchy means of getting even: Tyler will date Ally. A subway mugger killed her mother when she was 9 years old, so the two bond over family misfortune. He asks her out for dinner and she appears cautious, but it isn’t long before love is in the air. Dad doesn’t approve but that won’t stop Ally from spending time with her special someone. Suddenly Tyler is vulnerable and coming out of his shell. It looks like things might work out though you don?t really comprehend why, then things take a sudden turn and very much do not work out. More details on that plot development later.
Remember Me does not work for many reasons, but as designed, it was never going to work. Allow me to go into greater analysis, which will naturally unleash a horde of spoilers concerning the film’s conclusion.
This movie will not work; in fact it refuses to work from a conceptual standpoint. The story seems retrofitted to lead directly to the ending. Screenwriter Will Fetters seems to have followed the M. Night Shyamalan approach to screenwriting and come up with a twist ending and worked backwards. You see dear reader, the film climaxes on a day burned into the memories of everyone who lived through it — September 11, 2001. The movie plays coy with its timeline the whole time, never drawing too much attention to its exact setting. Tyler even goes to see American Pie 2 to lift his spirits, and who besides people who are crazy about film release dates would know that was released back in August 2001? There’s also a jump forward of ten years from the murder of Ally’s mother in 1991, but that’s the last time the movie ever reminds you about time. Instead, it makes sure that all the pieces will be in place so that Tyler will be standing on the 90th floor of the World Trade Center, looking off into the horizon for the last day. Fetters’ story uses a national trauma as a dramatic tragedy for his doomed lovers. But here’s the thing: anything else would have worked the same. Did Tyler really have to die in the 9/11 attacks? Could he not have had an accident, gotten mugged, hit by a car, or any number of other missteps that would have the same effect? The emphasis isn’t on the relationship of 9/11 to the characters; 9/11 just serves as the event to wipe out one half of our relationship. But any other event would have resulted in the same effect without coming across as so icky and exploitative. The movie does not work because it’s designed as a ?gotcha? ending but the only “gotcha” is that 9/11 is shamefully used to spin this illusion that Remember Me is meaningful and transcendent.
The other half of this argument could go as such: Fetters was trying to tell but one tale of the many that lost their lives on 9/11, illuminating the fantastic human toll and how each number was a person with a family and friends that will forever miss them. That would have been sufficient. Hollywood and the cinema have a history of taking national tragedies and showcasing individuals who were lost. I even declared United 93, the docu-drama painstakingly detailing the final moments aboard that downed airline, the best film of 2006, and four years later I still stand by that declaration. Artists can take collective pain and showcase triumph and substance, allowing us a cathartic means for therapy and working through trauma. I believe with every fiber of my being that art has the power to heal and elucidate.
However, Remember Me is not that kind of art. If Fetters had a strong desire to showcase one of the lives lost that horrific day, that’s a noble effort. But the drama of Remember Me is stagnant and suffused with stereotypes and one-note characters bumbling around, uncertain what exactly they should be doing. It almost seems like everyone is simply waiting for the Big Event at the end, and that in itself is disquieting. The character dynamics of this movie couldn’t get more cliché. This sloppy, overcooked weepie has the Bad Boy and you know he?s troubled because he has stubble and smokes. Pattinson also spends 80 percent of his screen time looking forlorn. I’m sorry, but looking off screen and being forlorn are not replacements for good character development. He’s lost a brother and he?s mad at his distant, workaholic father, but you might as well describe him as Boy. That’s pretty much his extent in this film. His love interest could equally be named simply Girl. The two have a shared history of family tragedy, but then what? Do we learn anything about Ally as a person, about what draws her to Tyler (besides that haircut, of course), or how her life is made more whole thanks to the brooding bad boy? No. It would be generous to even refer to these characters as archetypes. They are characters in name only. Fetters has cobbled an equation that simply boils down to Boy + troubled past + Girl + troubled past = perfect future. Even worse, their whirlwind courtship feels like it exists in some movie world where gazes and hugs substitute for the excitement of romance, of feeling out the interested party and becoming overwhelmed with the sheer possibility of a relationship. This is only a love story from a the standpoint of that equation. You never believe for a second that anybody matters because they only feel like puppets meant to go through the motions until the film reaches its anvil of a climax. Then, you see, we’re supposed to feel because there is death, except I didn?t see any convincing signs of life beforehand.
The rest of the story is awash with bizarre and mostly lame elements meant to heighten the ensemble drama. For whatever reason, Tyler’s friend coaxes him into initially dating Ally as a contrived means of sticking it to her father. This tiny yet stupid hurdle will of course be revisited when the film’s second act break comes calling. But why does this past run-in even matter? Romantic comedies have all sorts of plots where the couple begins their time together through some duplicitous guise, and of course the truth drops just as guy and girl are starting to really like one another. But in Remember Me it isn’t a bet or something nefarious that brings boy and girl together. If anything, the run-in with dad could be seen as an introduction. The “get revenge” idea isn’t something that’s ever revisited by Tyler or his friend, nor do they at any point provide further detail. It remains a vague notion from beginning to end.
Then there’s Tyler’s own family drama. The strangest plot addition is when Tyler’s younger sister attends a birthday party. It is at this birthday party that a cohort of mean girls gives Caroline Hawkins an unflattering makeover. This bad haircut is then played for ridiculous dramatic overkill. Everyone around the kid is speaking in hushed tones, trembling, recollecting as a family unit, and pretty much acting like Caroline had been molested when, at worst, she got her hair cut by some mean girls. Tyler even escorts his kid sis to school and almost decks one of the little girls responsible, instead choosing to huff and puff in her face like a raging bull. I guess when you’re Pattinson and a good third of your acting comes from your haircut, you take follicle care very seriously.
Remember Me is so anxious to be poetic. It’s not. It’s pedantic and faux intellectual. It wants to be a moving romance. It?s not. It?s two pretty but bland characters that just seem to play around furniture and eventually do it. They’re as interesting as bland pretty people usually are in these things. It wants to be a significant drama that manages to say something big. It’s not. It’s a slapdash effort revolving entirely around the eventual reveal of a “gotcha” ending that does nothing to justify all the strained spinning. At best, the ending is in poor taste and a cheap trick to gin up sympathy and give the impression of substance. At worst, it’s ugly exploitation that reduces a national tragedy into a last-ditch effort to cover the empathetic deficiencies of a lackluster drama. Flogging national suffering to make an audience feel for your bland characters after an empty 100 minutes? That’s offensive. Remember Me isn’t worth any outrage. It?s a pretty but mostly empty venture designed around a twist. It is anything but worth remembering, even in disgust.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Ewan McGregor (Angels & Demons, Big Fish) stars as The Ghost (no, he never earns a name even in the closing credits). He’s an expert ghost writer for best-selling autobiographies, and his services have been enlisted for his biggest client yet. Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is a former British prime minister currently embroiled in a legal scandal. He’s being accused of handing over British citizens to the United States to be tortured, all in the name of the War on Terror. Lang and his wife (Olivia Williams) have holed up in a fabulous house along Cape Cod, hiding from swarms of international media. The book’s due date is soon approaching and nobody is really pleased with the first draft. Mike, the first ghost writer, can’t help with the revisions on account that his abandoned car was discovered on a Massachusetts ferry and his body washed ashore the next day. The Ghost begins to suspect that Mike somehow stumbled across some very potent and damaging information, and the secrets are hidden somewhere in that manuscript.
Consider me pleasantly surprised at how effective this small little political thriller turned out to be. It doesn’t have an overworked narrative agenda, but the few things it does it does quite well. Firstly, it’s a pleasure for a thriller to actually make the audience feel as paranoid as the main character. He treats the idea of a conspiracy as nonsense to begin with, but then he starts to second-guess that car traveling behind. What about that guy two blocks down talking to himself? The screenplay achieves a palpable sense of paranoia, nicely placing you in the emotional state of our lead. You may run questions through your head as well, wondering who can ultimately be trusted, who to turn to next, what information to divulge and to whom, whether to get into the mysterious car or not. The best “thriller” moment is the Ghost waiting in his car and driving for cover, but even that is done in a style that doesn’t feel ripped from an action blockbuster. I’ve watched so many thrillers that get by on studious attention to the routines of the genre, and while The Ghost Writer doesn’t exactly break new ground, the movie keeps the threat of danger real. Actually, on that very note, The Ghost Writer does something unexpected, which is that it begins to lull you into a false sense of security or complacency, and then it robs you of that sense of security in the end. I enjoyed the film’s climax, though even at my screening I heard dissatisfied grumbles on the way out.
The movie is without exchanges of gunfire, explosions, or any nefarious, shadowy individual pressing a red button and laughing maniacally. The Ghost Writer exists in a world very similar to our own. It’s a conspiracy thriller in the same vein as The Constant Gardener or Michael Clayton. The menace is far more subdued; the danger getting tighter as we push forward yet the threat feels deceptively relaxed. It’s the kind of conspiracy thriller that feels like a workable conspiracy, which means that most of the dirty work is implied or done behind the scenes. This means that you have to work a little harder to engage with The Ghost Writer because it chooses not to spell out its litany of danger and those who are dangerous, but it also makes for a more effective experience of paranoia. The film even seems to follow this edict in its visual presentation. The movie has an eerie cool feel to it thanks to the downcast, icy blue-hued cinematography and sleek, sparse art direction, suggesting something is amiss but you can’t quite put your finger on what. It’s also continuously raining, a favorite, if overused, cinematic metaphor.
The Ghost Writer intelligently explores a current international imbroglio, making the political crisis relevant without reaching for a soapbox. The politics of torture is a topic that doesn’t appear to be disappearing any time soon. Torture also provides a fine, morally queasy subject matter to dive into and pick apart. Willful involvement in torture presents several ethical challenges for a character (unless you’re Jack Bauer), which can prove to be a meaty area to watch gifted actors chew over all that rueful decision-making and hand wringing. But alas, this is not a message movie like the slew of 2007 Iraq/torture films that fell flat, mostly because those lukewarm-to-awful movies felt a message supplanted entertainment. The Ghost Writer is a piece of entertainment first, an adult and a cerebral movie that has a striking sense of humor. The dialogue is surprisingly quippy, full of great one-liners amidst all the peril and uncertainty. So while the movie has some points about global politics, ownership and responsibility, the role of media and rewriting history, the movie doesn’t commit entertainment suicide trying to service a message.
Personally, I found the behind-the-scenes work of a ghost writer to be just as interesting, if not more so, than the conspiracy unraveling. The editing process can be fascinating for such a high profile political leader; deciding what moments to emphasize, what moments to forget, what narrative will be fashioned to make sure that a politician comes out on top, spiting his enemies without looking bitter. It’s a delicate balancing act and a precarious responsibility for the ghost writer, controlling a human beings life story for the annuls of mass market history. And these ghost writers get no recognition, even after mimicking the speaking/writing styles of their subject, and these are often subjects who are used to having their thoughts and opinions groomed, tested, and prepared by others, so what difference does their autobiographies make? I believe Sarah Palin could not write her own name without the aid of a ghost writer and/or a bevy of trained subordinates. While this storyline pretty much expectantly falls by the wayside once the conspiracy stuff emerges, I felt that the movie did a respectable service to honor ghost writers everywhere (Palin’s own ghost writer was Lynn Vincent).
The cast all seemed to dig their juicy roles, judging from the performances. Brosnan and Williams are obviously playing versions of Tony and Cherie Blair, so it’s fun to watch both actors enjoy their thinly veiled roles. Brosnan (Mamma Mia) is terrific and Williams (An Education) has this disquieting calm about her that only breaks in a handful of telling moments. Many actors have these small, sometimes one-scene, parts but they make the most of them. Kim Cattrall is spunky as Lang’s loyal personal assistant (her accent isn’t flawless, but that alone is better than her work in the Sex and the City movie). Tom Wilkinson (Duplicity) also shows up as an Ivy League professor with a mysterious background, and the man knows exactly how to play a treacherous gentleman. You may be shocked to see a bald-headed, bulldog-looking Jim Belushi appear on screen, and he’s good too as a publishing exec with no patience for niceties. But the movie is McGregor’s and the actor does not disappoint. It’s pleasing to watch his character transform from observer to actor. He’s a charismatic guy that speaks his mind and a worthy hero to root for.
And it took until the final paragraph for me to mention director Roman Polanski’s current legal woes. The Ghost Writer was Polanski’s last film he directed before being obtained by Swiss authorities and set to be expedited back to California for a 30-year-old rape charge. It’s hard not to read somewhat into the premise: a man hiding from authorities with a charge hanging over his head. This may well prove to be the last film we’ll see from the 77-year-old director judging from the pending legal issues. If it does indeed serve as the last piece in the career of a talented director, it will at least be a high point. At least Polanski’s last film wasn’t the abominable Ninth Gate.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Mamma mia here we go again. This movie is going to be a middle-aged woman’s dream come true. It boasts a cast whose median age is in the mid 50s, one former yet still dashing James Bond, lots of good vibration getaway vibes, songs by a pop group whose heyday was over 30 years ago, and a heaping helping of girl power. In short, Mamma Mia will entertain the same mixture that made Sex and the City a monster hit, notably middle-aged women, teen girls, and gay males. I’ve seen the stage show and enjoyed it, as have millions of others around the world, but the movie fails to capitalize on reaching a broader audience. Mamma Mia is content to serve the faithful and delivers a less than satisfactory product. The world of cinema is not the best place for this material.
Raised all her life on a Greek island in a Mediterranean paradise, Sophie (Big Love‘s Amanda Seyfried) is getting married. Her disapproving mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), runs a hotel and has raised her daughter by herself. Then one day Sophie goes through her mother’s diary and discovers she has three possible fathers, Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), or Sam (Pierce Brosnan). She invites all three to the island to vet her real father. In agitated response, Sophie invites her old gal pals Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) to help her during this paternity crisis. Over time old loves will be rekindled, new love will bloom, and there will be a lot of singing.
Let Mamma Mia stand as a future testament as to why you do not generally let someone helm a film when they have no film experience whatsoever. The creative talent behind the hit Broadway musical refused to grant anyone in Hollywood the rights to their worldwide sensation. So the stage director, Phyllinda Lloyd, is now also the film’s director, and oh my goodness was not the right choice. Her film inexperience shows with every second. The movie just doesn’t look right from beginning to end. There’s a noticeable “off” sensation due to Lloyd poorly shooting her scenes, editing her scenes, and directing her actors. I kept wanting, through sheer force of will, to nudge the camera angles, to change the composition a tad to make them more visually appealing, because Lloyd shoots the movie in bland static angles with minimal coverage. Mamma Mia looks so amateurish and fussily so, like Lloyd is purposefully thumbing her nose at the art of cinema. Lloyd also doesn’t bother to place any choreography in her scenes, and her actors just sort of spin and sway to the music like they were dancing in front of a bedroom mirror. It’s remarkable that a movie with so much riding on it looks so shoddy.
Presented in the reality of a stage, Mamma Mia is a shallow but fairly fun time. The movie version transports the musical into an actual Greek locale, which, to knock Lloyd yet again, she makes no real use out of (she mostly shoots her actors against rock faces and under harsh, glaring sunlight). What works on stage, when presented under the pretenses of the real world, comes across as incredibly cheesy and goofy beyond all relief (get a load of the high-stepping snorkerlers). The song and dance numbers, the character interactions, the sitcom generic plot (ripped off from 1968’s Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell), they all start to transform into camp and beg for mockery. All of a sudden the entire island turns into a Greek chorus and provides backup during the impromptu singing. It’s strange and comes so late that it never feels properly established. The characterization is pretty slim, and once the movie establishes its characters it pushes the petal to the floor. The plot whizzes by in a whirlwind of one Abba song after another, with minimal breaks in between just to change setting and barely elbow the characters forward. I don’t think the actors had any chance to breathe in between the song numbers because I know I could barely exhale before another song assaulted my senses with forced giddiness.
But here’s the odd thing. The film is so silly and played to constant high-energy capacity that after a while Mamma Mia begins to wear you down. You may begin to smile, you may begin to clap, but you’ll be guaranteed to start humming the incredibly infectious tunes. Mamma Mia is essentially an Abba jukebox with a third-rate story strung along for the ride. As a story, it leaves much to be desired, but as a musical experience it makes you realize how glorious those Abba songs are. They’re like perfect pop bundles that somehow make you feel better even if the lyrics are more bittersweet than you realize at the time. The 18 Abba songs showcased, along with a few others during a weird curtain call sing-a-long, will certainly lift your spirits just as long as you concentrate more on the music than on the often-forced context.
The actors are better than the material, clearly. Streep is her generation’s finest actress but she tries too hard to convince you of the great girl-power fun she’s having. The singing, on the other hand, is all over the map. Streep and Seyfried have the strongest voices of the bunch, which is good considering they also have the most musical numbers to sing and twirl to. Neither has a particularly sensational voice but then again they certainly distance themselves from their pitiful peers. Most of the other actors just have droning vocals but Brosnan, oh boy, I have to congratulate the man for having the courage he does. You feel embarrassed for the guy; I mean this is James Bond here. I found myself turning away whenever he opened his mouth, not wanting to look the man in the eye. Every time he started singing my theater crowd of Mamma Mia faithful began snickering and giggling. I almost feel so bad that I should send the guy a card saying, “Sorry about the singing, but hey, you’ll always have the paycheck.”
The real audience for a Mamma Mia movie is the fans of the Mamma Mia theatrical show, and the movie is tailored to their interests. The big screen version isn’t interested in converting new fans, hence the amateurish direction and disregard for reaching out for broader appeal. Mamma Mia the movie is pretty much a less zippy and ten times goofier version of the stage show except with bad singing. If that sounds like a fun evening out, then by all means enjoy. This is a mess of a movie and not a terribly good movie at that, and yet the power of those Abba songs will inject enough goodwill that you will forgive some of the movie’s transgressions. Some. Pierce Brosnan’s singing is something that cannot be forgiven nor forgotten.
Nate’s Grade: C+
This is an adequate movie that doesn’t really resonate because at its heart it feels like a lot of interesting ideas and characters that are languished with a sitcom plot. I never thought Pierce Brosnan’s performance as the aging hit man was as funny as the film thought it was. The Matador is actually a more interesting movie than funny or amusing. The movie doesn’t go deep enough; the story isn’t as refined as it could be, and there are so few set pieces that this flick could have worked as a play. The end feels a bit too tidy and asks Greg Kinnear’s ordinary husband character to act out of character. There?s an extended talk in The Matador between Kinnear and his wife and Brosnan upon his unexpected visit, and it feels like a sitcom like the wacky neighbor next door has come over and hatched a hilarious scheme. I enjoyed the characters but they really just sit and stew in a really weak story. The characters are richly drawn but have nowhere to go.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Pierce Brosnan returns for his forth outing as super-spy James Bond, this time trying to thwart, here goes, a former North Korean militant who has switched genes to look like a wealthy Anglo-Saxon playboy. And what does this stupid evildoer want? To erase minefields in Korea with a giant reflective mirror in space that channels a giant solar beam of DOOM! Commence smacking of the forehead.
Berry may have an Oscar but she is not terribly great in Die Another Day. She is so awful that if she sucked anymore she would physically implode. Heres an example: she literally stabs someone with a book and glibly says, ”Read that, bitch.” Ugh. Want another? When asked by a diamond-studded baddie, whom sent her, Berry’s defensive reply is, “Your Mama.” How in the world did this person become a secret anything?
The Bond series has always been great escapist fare but its age is becoming much more apparent. Die Another Day starts with a montage of Bond being tortured in Korea. When he’s released our dapper gentleman looks exactly like the American Taliban, with flowing hair and beard. He’s been abandoned by his people out of the fear he has confessed vital info while under 14 months of torture. Yes, that’s right folks, 14 months of torture. You think an agent like Bond, who has foiled devious plots 19 previous times, would be worth retrieving.
Brosnan is dandy and a charming actor but even he is showing some gray. It may be time to tap another into the martini-swilling shoes. Dame Judi Dench and John Cleese provide stable supporting bits, but what is Michael Madsen doing in this?
Director Lee Tamahori has directed one of the best films on self-abusive relationships ever (Once Were Warriors) and also directed one of the worst thrillers ever (Along Came a Spider). Tamahori surprisingly brings some slick touches to Bond and seems to be trying to tinker with the stagy formula, and when he gets away with it Die Another Day is thrilling. A car chase set atop a glacier is visually stunning and pulse pounding. Then this chase continues into a melting ice palace. Brilliant if not a tad bizarre. What do ice palaces go for on the open market? Whats the upkeep like?
Die Another Day is the most self-conscious of the Bond franchise with numerous homages and in-jokes. Berry’s introduction is a direct reference to Ursula Andress classic bikini-clad ashore entrance in Dr. No. Bond confesses his relationships with women never seem to make it to second dates, despite the vigorous sex, and a female agent (Rosamund Pike) even jabs, “I know you, sex for dinner, death for breakfast.” The flaccid villain runs a diamond company and actually has a magazine headline that states: ”Diamonds Are Forever.” At least the multiple writers were having some fun.
The producers that hold the Bond rights are likely as stingy about following set guidelines as the ones behind the scenes at Harry Potter. Yes James Bond always has one foot planted in the fantastic, and the emphasis will still be on girls, gadgets and gargantuan explosions, but this formula cries out for some tinkering before more damage can be done. The robust derring-do occasionally lightens Die Another Day but the franchise is starting to look like it needs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if it is to survive in our Mountain Dew, XXX world of tomorrow.
Nate’s Grade: C+