If you ask anyone who their least favorite Avenger is, every one of those participants will have the same exact answer: Hawkeye. If you ask that same group who is their second least favorite Avenger, chances are that a clear majority are going to next say Black Widow. The character has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2010 in Iron Man 2, a full decade of idling to gain her solo movie to the point it became a long-running question in the fanbase. Then they killed the character in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and then also announced she would be getting her solo movie, and the fanbase said, “Wait, now?” Delayed a full year thanks to COVID-19, Black Widow is Marvel’s first theatrical release in almost two years and will likely benefit from some low expectations and eagerness to get back to the big screen spectacle of summer movies.
It’s not Black Widow’s fault that she’s paired with a super soldier, essentially Batman in a flying suit, a nigh indestructible god, and a giant raging id monster. There’s a significant gap between that upper tier of the super powered Avengers and the two non-powered members, Lady with Guns and Guy with Bow and Arrow. It’s hard to compete with all of that, and the glimpses we’ve been given with previous MCU movies haven’t exactly been the most nuanced or dimensional for Black Widow (remember her dubbing herself a “monster” because the state took away her ability to bear children?). We’ve had hints about past troubles and regrets, but it’s never been explored with any significance… until now.
Taking place shortly after the events of 2016’s Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from American authorities. She reunites abroad with her estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who has recently broken free of the chemical mind control of the sinister Widows program. Yelena and Natasha were living as sisters for three years as a cover family of Russian agents, with Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) as their parents. They were whisked back to Russia, separated, and thrown back into the Widow program where they were trained to be elite assassins by Dreykov (Ray Winstone, barely flirting with a Russian accent). The combative sisters are being chased by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, other killer Widows still under the chemical-induced mind control, and Dreykov’s best hunter, the ruthless Taskmaster, a masked warrior who can learn and mimic the moves from other fighters. Natasha and Yelena decide the only way to stop Dreykov is to reunite their old family once again.
I’m a little confused by the general indifference Black Widow seems to have generated from critics and fans because I thought, while with some flaws, that this is still a good movie that I would say is on the cusp of being above average for the MCU’s already high bar. Perhaps, again, this movie is benefiting from lowered expectations. I wasn’t going in with too many demands considering my personal investment with the Black Widow character was minimal prior to her sacrificial death. I wanted a fun movie that provided further insight into her character, considering this would likely be the last time we see Natasha in the MCU. I was surprised how emotionally engaged I became with her movie. While the action is fine, it was the dramatic parts that really grabbed me. This is the first MCU movie where I was looking forward to the breaks in action more than the actual action. The pre-credits flashback (to mid-90s Ohio no less) sets up this fractured family dynamic that serves as the core of the movie, the question over whether these relationships ever really mattered on a deeper level or whether each person was simply playing their assignment. It makes for intriguing drama about vulnerable characters sifting through the small measures of happiness they’ve had and the difficulty of reaching out to people that are important to you. Natasha is in a delicate yet reflective place considering her isolation. The movie is structured like a Jason Bourne-style spy caper, jumping from one locale to the next, but it’s more of a family drama about hurt people reconciling and reconnecting. On its own terms, it’s a real family movie.
There are some major themes and some serious subjects with Black Widow and they are well handled and tied to the character journeys. The opening titles, set to a melancholy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” covers human trafficking. This is a story about the systems of abuse, primarily abusive men demanding control from throngs of women, and it’s about overcoming abuse and establishing support systems. For Natasha, she made some hard choices to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D., and many others have suffered because of her decision to escape. Many women could not escape their tormentors, and the level of control only became more methodical. Yelena talks about being conscious of everything but unsure what parts of you are really your own doing, and this seems eminently relatable about victimhood. The movie is about breaking free of unhealthy relationships, coming into your own control, and finding healthy families even if they are troubled and a work in progress. That’s why the family moments resonated as much for me. Real attention was given to the supporting characters in Natasha’s orbit.
To that end, the villains exemplify the themes by design, especially Taskmaster serving as a literalization of Natasha facing off against the sins of her past, much like in 2017’s Logan where Old Logan fought young Logan. Fans of Taskmaster from the comics may well be disappointed by the adaptation because the character was very sardonic and, in here, never utters a word (there is a certain Deadpool-in-X-Men Origins: Wolverine reminiscence). More could have been done but the villain represents the consequences of abandonment. I appreciated that even until the final moment, the villain could be redeemed and meant something more than simply another masked heavy to be blown apart. Dreykov, on the other hand, is just a typically awful abuser and his lack of definition fits. He’s a general stand-in for the toxic control of men accustomed to power and the dismissal of female agency. He’s dull but more a designated symbol.
The traveling Black Widow family van is the real draw of this movie. I have been a Florence Pugh fan since her star making turn in 2017’s emotionally disquieting Lady Macbeth, and I welcome her and Yelena into the MCU with open arms. Pugh (Midsommar) is terrific and full of sarcastic wit, at one point criticizing Natasha’s familiar three-point “superhero landing.” She’s also convincing in all the action and gunplay. Even better, there are several dramatic scenes that allow the talented actress to tap into her prowess. She could make me cackle, then the next minute impress me with the finesse of her leg-swinging attack movements, and then the next make me feel something as she tearfully reflects that her cover family was the best years of her life (as the youngest, Yelena had no idea until they ran off that they were all Russian agents). Her combustible yet affectionate relationship with Johansson imbued so much more emotional investment into the Black Widow character for me. Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) is inhaling any available scenery as a past-his-prime Russian super soldier still holding onto his glory days as a communist answer to Captain America (he eagerly asks Natasha if Cap ever mentions him, so hopeful it’s adorable). He’s a regular source of comedy but also has a credible paternal warmth to him as he tries to don the mantle of fatherhood like a costume that no longer fits quite as well. Unfortunately, Weisz (The Favourite) isn’t on screen as much as the other members of the family unit but I still greatly enjoyed watching her finely attuned deadpan delivery.
From an action standpoint, Black Widow will mostly suffice but there is little to really get the blood pumping. The chases and fights are entertaining without delivering anything new. The third act involves an extended set piece with characters plummeting from the sky amid fiery debris. It’s at least visually interesting and the action high-point of the movie. Under director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome), the action is easy to follow even as it escalates into big video game carnage and explosions. The lack of development in the action would be more of an issue for me if the non-action elements, the story and acting, weren’t as involving. I feel like Shortland was hired for the dramatics and performances and character moments, less so the explosions.
It took eleven years, one more thanks to COVID, but Black Widow finally has her starring vehicle and the MCU is finally back on the big screen (or your home screen via Disney Plus and thirty additional dollars). I watched the movie with my girlfriend and cheerfully noted it would be the first theatrical Marvel movie we watched during our year-plus courtship, thus a real milestone in modern geek dating (we’ll have many opportunities ahead as there are six more Marvel movies scheduled between now and summer 2022). I was surprised how much I enjoyed Black Widow once it had reassembled its family dynamic and I hope to see the extended Romanoff family members in future MCU editions. It’s a late but welcomed swan song for Natasha Romanoff and her checkered past. For the first time, I felt for her character, and part of that was the result of enjoying her family nucleus and the pathos they brought. Black Widow is a serviceable action movie with fun characters and potent dramatic interactions with heavy, well-realized themes. I’m baffled by the general critical indifference (I have a lot fewer qualms than I did with 2019’s Captain Marvel). It’s the rare big movie where the quiet moments are the high-points, and twenty-plus movies in, that’s at least something new from the juggernaut that is the MCU.
Nate’s Grade: B+
As soon as I saw the name Yorgos Lanthimos attached to the royal costume drama The Favourite I knew it would be one of my most anticipated films of 2018. I’m not naturally a sucker for these kinds of movies without some interesting new angle (Mary Queen of Scotts, we’ll meet soon), but Lanthimos has quickly become one of my favorite (favourite?) voices in cinema, rivaling perhaps even the esteemed Charlie Kaufman. His movies are so wonderfully weird and tonally distinct. A Lanthimos joint, if you will, is two hours of surprises and expanding the surreal with assured foresight. He’s earned such a highly regarded reputation as far as I’m concerned that I’ll see any movie with his name attached in any creative capacity. The Favourite is a different kind of costume drama.
In the early 18th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is leading her country through a protracted conflict with the French that is weighing heavily on everyone. Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is the Queen’s childhood friend, close confidant, and secret lover. She’s also perhaps the real power behind the throne, directly influencing the Queen to enact her own bullish policies. Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of a parliament, is worried about the country going bankrupt from the military expenditures. Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin to Sarah and someone seeking to save her once proud family’s name. She rises through the ranks and becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections and a threat for Sarah to maintain her position of power in the court and with the Queen.
What distinguishes a Lanthimos experience is the development and commitment to a distinct vision and the sheer unpredictability. You really never know where the man’s films will go next. One minute you’re following a man struggle to find a romantic partner, and the next they’re talking about turning people into lobsters. One minute you’re watching a family deal with a creepy stalker, and the next people are debating which family member should be killed in the darkest family game night ever enabled. Even though Lanthimos did not write The Favoruite, it still feels of his unique, deadpan, darkly comic worlds and his fingertips are all over it. The story is already playing fast and loose with the history (it’s pretty unlikely Queen Anne was a lesbian, despite the centuries of character assassination from Sarah) so its curiosity where it might go next is electric, especially when it shows some bite. This is a movie that’s not afraid to be dark, where characters can behave badly, testing our sympathy and allegiance as they fight for supremacy. I love how unapologetic the characters are in their pursuits. They will scheme and manipulate to whatever extent works and demonstrate abuse of power for power’s sake (poor bunny). “Favor is a breeze the shifts direction all the time,” says Harley. “Then in an instant you’re back sleeping with a bunch of scabrous whores.” The ensuring two hours of palace intrigue and political gamesmanship is given a sordid boost from the historical deviations, making the political more personal and even more intriguing. I cackled often throughout with the amazingly witty one-liners and curt insults as well as the wonky asides and tonal juxtaposition. It’s a funny movie for offbeat audiences who enjoy offbeat humor.
This is a costume drama that is radical amongst the stuffy world of prim and proper Oscar bait involving kings and queens and the ostentatious royal courts. I’d say it reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and how it broke from the long film tradition of costume dramas, but I’ve never watched Barry Lyndon, my lone Kubrick omission (what, do you have three hours to spare?). Lanthimos has an anachronistic visual style that allows The Favourite to feel modern and different as it plays in familiar terrain. What other Oscar drama can you expect to see a modern dance-off in the queen’s court? The visuals make use of very stylized deep photography with the use of fish-eyed lenses and a locked camera position even while panning and moving. It’s not exactly the colorful, punk rock aesthetic of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette but it gives the film a dreamlike, odd sensibility. It’s a nice visual pairing that achieves the same effect as the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tom McNamara; it piques your interest, drawing you closer with each moment.
Lanthimos requires a very specifically attuned ironic wavelength that comes across as purposely deadpan, muted to better make the bizarre as the mundane. It’s a type of acting that can be very restrictive unless an actor can tap into that specific rhythm. The three women that top line The Favourite are each terrific. Colman (taking over Queen Elizabeth from Claire Foy in Netflix’s The Crown) is the standout as the temperamental monarch. Her favor is the prize and at some level she knows that people are playing games with her. It’s hard to know what degree of self-awareness Queen Anne is capable of considering she is beset by maladies both physical and mental (she really did lose 17 children in her lifetime, a dozen of them miscarriages). Because of all of this, the unpredictable nature of the Queen matches the unpredictable nature of the film, and one second she can be childish and defiant, the next playful and warm-hearted, the next manipulative and pushy, the next easily cowed and embarrassed. It’s a performance that has definite comic high-points as she howls at her servants and confuses her confidants, but there are layers to the character that Colman digs into. Sure she can be volcanic in rage or extremely funny when giving into the Queen’s whims, but it’s the degrees of sadness and vulnerability that creep through that round out the performance and person.
Weisz (Disobedience) has already starred in one kooky Lanthimos film (The Lobster) and easily slips into those peculiar comic rhythms again like a nicely fitting dress. Hers is the “fall” of the rise-and-fall tale, so she begins self-satisfied and ends humbled, except under Weisz she is never truly humbled. Her spirit does not break regardless of her unfortunate circumstances, including at one point being held hostage at a brothel. Even when she knows she must write a gracious letter she can’t help herself, composing drafts that keep veering into profane insults. Weisz is deliciously deadpan and never abandons the confines of that narrow acting range required for a pristine Lanthimos performance. Stone (La La Land) is the freshest face of the troupe as the underestimated young companion who rises through the ranks thanks to her cunning. Stone adopts a solid British accent, which is helpful, but her intonations are perfectly suited for Lanthimos. There are small, stranger moments where the character is breaking the facade with the audience to reveal an eager peculiarity, an imitation of a monster that’s random, or the most delightfully dismissive “yeah, sure” snort in the history of film. Stone is a versatile talent with comic bonafides, so it’s fun and satisfying to see her expand her already impressive, Oscar-winning range.
This is a movie that does not work without a distinct vision, sure handed direction, and pitch-perfect acting, all seamlessly working in tandem to create such a finely crafted dark comedy that can go in many perversely entertaining directions at a moment’s notice. Lanthimos and his cadre of award-worthy actresses have great, prankish fun playing dress up in their fancy locations and making a costume drama with a dash of anarchic farce. The Favourite doesn’t quite rise to the top of my own list of Lanthimos favorites (I’d probably rank it a noble third) but it’s still a razor-sharp, sardonic, unpredictable, and wonderfully, vibrantly weird movie worth celebrating.
Nate’s Grade: A
When people decry the relentless slate of sequels, remakes, and redundancy from the Hollywood assembly line, they’re looking for something original and different, and there may be no movie more different this year than Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. David (Colin Farrell) is the newest guest at the Hotel, a place for singles to find their true love. He has 40 days to fall in love with a compatible mate or else he will be transformed into an animal of his choice (hence the title, David’s choice). The people at the hotel are all in competition to find their mate. Outside the confines of the hotel, in the woods, are dreaded single people, those who ignored the rules of society. They are to be feared and hotel guests are rewarded for capturing wild singles on weekly hunting trips. One way or another, David is going to have to decide his place in society as a person or animal.
The Lobster is daringly different, wildly imaginative, and drops you into the middle of its cracked, alternative landscape and expects you to pick things up as you go. It’s something that the writer/director already achieved with chilling, car-crash fascination in Dogtooth, a dark parable about extreme parental protection that crossed over into abuse. This is a world that opens with a distraught woman driving a long distance just so she can shoot a donkey in the head. Who is this woman? Why would she purposely murder this animal? Why is she so emotionally invested? And with that jarring act of peculiar violence, we’re off. We’re never told how this world came to be, it just simply is. There isn’t any extensive exposition save for one initial sit down David has with hotel management to determine what animal he’d like to turn into at the end of his stay if unsuccessful in love. There’s a genuine sense of authenticity to this deeply weird place and the characters all play it with straight-laced absurdity, which makes the satire land even harder. It sells even the most bizarre aspects, like the ongoing visual incongruity of wild animals just trotting around the background. You can sit back and think, “I wonder what that peacock’s story was, or that donkey, etc.” Its abnormal background pieces that add to the context of the world. I loved discovering new little wrinkles and rules to Lanthimos’ world that made perfect sense within its parameters. In a world where coupling is the only goal, of course masturbation would be a punishable crime. I enjoyed that there are other means guests have to stay at the hotel, chief among them hunting down the loners in the woods, which allow the more awkward or anti-social guests added time at the expense of others. Even in a world this bizarre, there are people who are making their own way, including the revolutionaries in the woods (more on them later). The movie is exceedingly funny and so matter-of-fact about its peculiarities to make it even funnier.
The movie straddles the line between skewed ironic romance and cynicism, so I’m not surprised it’s rubbed people the wrong way. This can be a pretty dark movie and that’s even before the violence against animals/former people. It’s certainly written from the point of view of someone who is single and those currently in that category will likely relate the most to the film’s strident social commentary. “It’s no coincidence the targets are shaped like single people,” a man says in reference to target outlines. The pressures can seem absurd in their own regard, and the film has a clever concoction where the “happy couples” are merely two people who share a superficial physical trait. These two people are near-sighted. These two people get nosebleeds. These two people have a limp. Even the characters are named after their physical depictions, like The Limping Man and Short-Sighted Woman. It’s not exactly subtle but the satiric effect is still effective. The hotel manager says, to a newly cemented couple, “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children, that usually helps.” The humor can be very dry and very dark, never stopping to inform you where to laugh. There’s a sad woman played by Ashley Jensen (TV’s Extras, Ugly Betty) who is desperate for companionship, offering sexual favors to any man who might just alleviate her loneliness. She is ignored and often threatens to kill herself, and then one day she does it by jumping out a hotel window, but she’s not successful. It’s one more dark, awful ironic point of suffering for this woman, and she screams in agony while others ignore her, including a clearly affected David, still trying to play indifferent to win over the hard-hearted woman he sees as his best way out of the hotel. It’s a hard moment to process but one that made me admire the film even more for the cold courage of its convictions.
Supplementing the dark satire is an off-kilter romance that emerges halfway through the film once David escapes the hotel. He finally meets up with the source of our narration, the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). It’s here that the movie shows glimmers of hope for the hopeless as David and this woman are drawn to one another. They’re in a world of outcasts but the rules of those in the forest do not allow coupling. They reject the expectations of the ruling order, and so they must remain resolutely single. the only time David and the Short-Sighted Woman can be open with their affection is when they go undercover into the city, posing as a couple, and getting a chance to kiss with abandon, all as a cover of course. They build up their own secret non-verbal language to communicate their feelings, much like a couple builds its own personal shorthand and inside jokes. The loners are only to listen to music individually and dance the same, but David and the Short-Sighted Woman synch their CD players to listen to the same track, to simulate like they are sharing a dance together even if not in proximity. It’s here where The Lobster becomes a beguiling and surprising love story and one where the heartless may grow a heart, watching two odd people find one another in such an odd world. However, Lanthimos does not let this emergence of romance blunt his message. The loner leader (Lea Seydoux) suspects coupling in her group and goes to some pretty drastic lengths to test the fortitude of feelings between David and his secret girlfriend. It’s like getting cold water dumped on the runaway spell of optimism. The fitting ending is left in ambiguity for the audience to determine whether they were meant to be after all.
It’s also in the second half of The Lobster that the movie loses some of its grandeur and momentum. We’re introduced to a new primary setting with new rules to adapt to and a new order to follow, and there’s a general interest to discovering another competing area of this landscape with a diametrically opposed social order. They punish people by mutilating parts that come into affectionate contact with another person. We see a couple with bandages around their red, swollen mouths, and then the reference of the “red intercourse” makes your imagination fill in the horrific blanks. David has left one regime dictating his life to another regime dictating his life, but they just aren’t as interesting. It feels like the film is starting to repeat itself. I would say the second half world building isn’t as compelling as the first but that’s why the romance emerges, something for the audience to root for. Now that he’s finally found someone he connects with they’re not allowed to be together. There’s never a shortage of irony in a Lanthimos movie.
The actors are perfectly in synch with the strange rhythms of this world, and Farrell (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Weisz (The Light Between Oceans) deserve special attention for their committed performances. Farrell gained 40 pounds for the role, which seems to have translated right into his stint on season two of HBO’s True Detective. He’s a schlubby guy that’s still mourning the deterioration of his marriage and larger society is insisting he get over it. He has only 40 days to recover or he’ll be plucked from the ranks of humanity. There’s great sadness tinged in his nonchalant responses to the absurd realities of this world, and Farrell keeps finding ways to make you laugh and wince. Weisz is our placid voice into the strange new world and it helps establish a sense of grounding as well as connection to her character when she eventually emerges. She injects a palpable sense of yearning to her character, especially once David is in reach and they begin their relationship. It’s got the cute romantic comedy staples but on its own terms, and seeing Weisz smile warmly is a pleasure in a morbid movie.
The Lobster is a romance for our age and an indictment of the romance of our age, an era where the swipe of a finger on an app is the arbitrator of contemporary dating. It’s a satire on our fixation of coupledom and being in relationships even when they’re not sensible. It’s a cracked fairy tale that punctuates the romantic love we’ve watched distilled to an essence in Hollywood movies. It’s a surreal and dark movie that manages to become emotionally moving and poignant, leaving on a note of uncertainty enough for different factions in the audience to interpret as either hopeful or hopeless. The Lobster is a unique movie with a singular artistic voice that dominates every shape of the narrative, the characters, and the boundaries of this fantastic alternative world. I imagine my depth of feeling for the movie will only grow the more I watch it. This isn’t an overwhelmingly dark or unpleasant movie without the presence of some light. It’s not an overly off-putting movie without an accessibility for a curious audience, whether those people are single or in happy relationships. The movie is inventive, transporting, but still relatable, rooting the nexus of its weirdness on the same awkwardness and anxiety everyone feels with the prospects of prolonged romantic courtship. If 2016 was a year that celebrated the oddities of cinema getting their due, then The Lobster is a captivating and unusual creation deserving of its spotlight and surefire future cult status amidst lovers of the weird.
Nate’s Grade: A
A melodrama through and through, The Light Between Oceans is at its core a pretty-looking movie about pretty-looking people being sad. The premise almost seems like a parody of prestige indie filmmaking in the 1990s. Tom (Michael Fassbender) is a shell-shocked WWI vet-turned-lighthouse keeper in Australia who falls in love with mainland lady, Isabel (Alicia Vikander). They marry and have difficulty conceiving, with Isabel enduring two grueling miscarriages. Then one day a dingy washes ashore with a crying baby inside and a dead man. Rather than alert the proper authorities, they decided to bury the man and raise the child as their own. Years later, the couple discovers the girl’s real mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who has been racked with unanswered grief ever since. The couple is then thrown into an emotional crucible testing their ethics and moral compromises and the question of ultimately what’s in the best interest of this little girl. It’s a movie that’s geared to put you through an emotional wringer, and the actors do their part. Vikander (Oscar winner for The Danish Girl) is downright luminescent and dives deep into all of her character’s varied and heightened emotions. The scenes of her dawning realization of the miscarriages and her helplessness are heartbreaking without being maudlin. Weisz is shaken to the core when her identity is robbed from her; she’s so fragile and holding on to hope so hard you might think she’ll collapse any moment. Fassbender internalizes the most and fully communicates the inner struggle of his character’s guilt. Director and chief adapter Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) has made an intimate relationship drama in a beautiful, sea-swept location, and the kind of Big Feeling classy melodrama you came to expect from Anthony Minghella. The problem is that Cianfrance’s characters are held too much at arm’s length for resonance. We empathize but not nearly as deeply as we could, and by the end the movie washes away like the surf.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Usually when I’m watching a bad movie I have to stop and think where did things go so wrong, where did the wheels fall off, what choice lead to the disaster I am watching play out onscreen. In the case of Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, a Wizard of Oz prequel that pretty much hovers over the cusp of bad for its entire 130 minutes, I have to stop and think, “How could this movie ever have gone right?” I don’t think it could have, at least not with this script, this cast, and the edict from the Mouse House to keep things safe and homogenized, smothered in CGI gumbo and scrubbed clean of any real sense of venerable movie magic.
In 1905 Kansas, the magician Oz (James Franco) is used to bilking country folk out of their meager earnings. He’s a con man and runs afoul with a strong man in his own traveling circus. He makes a hasty escape in a hot air balloon and, thanks to a coincidental tornado, is whisked away to the Land of Oz. The people have long been told that a wizard would come and rescue them from the tyranny of the wicked witch. Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), sisters controlling the Emerald City, task Oz with killing the other witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams). If he succeeds, Oz will become king and riches will be his. Along his journey he collects a band of cuddly sidekicks (flying monkey, China doll, munchkin) and learns that he may indeed be the hero that Oz needs to save the day.
Oz the Great and Powerful is really just 2010’s Alice in Wonderland slapped together with a fresh coat of paint and some extra dwarves. I say this because, like Alice, this movie suffers from a plot that feebly sticks to the most generic of all fantasy storylines – the Great prophecy speaks about a Great savior who will save us from the Great evil. Naturally, the so-called chosen one has internal doubts about the burden they face, initially ducking out before finding that inner strength they had all long to prove they were indeed the one prophesized. It even got to the point where I was noticing some of the same plot beats between the two movies, like how last in the second act we spend time with a woman dressed all in white who we’ve been told is the villain but who is really the good guy. Then there’s the now-routine rounding up of magical creatures to combat the evil hordes in a big battle. Considering Alice was billion-dollar hit for Disney, it’s no surprise they would try and apply its formula to another magical universe hoping for the same results. Well I thought Alice was weak but Oz is even weaker. However, at least nobody absurdly starts breakdancing by the end. Small victories, people.
Beyond the formula that dictates the plot, the characters are poorly developed and broach some off-putting gender stereotypes. The character of Oz is portrayed as a scoundrel who eventually learns to be selfless, but I never really bought the major turning points for his character arc. Do all major characters need to be flawed men in need of redemption in magical worlds? I understand what they were doing with his character but I don’t think it ever worked, and certainly Franco’s performance is at fault as well (more on that later). The ladies of Oz, however, just about constitute every female stereotype we can expect in traditional movies. One of them is conniving but given no reason for why this is. One of them is pure and motherly. And then one of them gets lovesick so easily, falling head over heels for a boy in a matter of hours that she’s willing to throw her life away in spite. And all of these witches, who can actually perform magic unlike the charlatan Oz, sure seem like they don’t need a man to run the kingdom for them and tell them what to do. It’s sad that a conflict that involves feudal power grabs should devolve into a misconstrued love triangle. Then there’s the role of the little China Girl (voiced by Joey King) who adds absolutely nothing to the story except as another female in need of assistance and doting, except when she inexplicably behaves like a surly teenager in a tone-breaking head-turning moment. Oz keeps resting the very breakable doll on his shoulder, like a parrot. I suppose it’s better than tucking her in his pants.
The movie is also tonally all over the place. It wants to be scary but not too scary. Personally, I always found the talking trees to be spookier than the flying monkeys but that’s my own cross to bear. It wants to be funny but often stoops to lame slapstick and Zach Braff (Garden State) as a goofy flying monkey sidekick. It wants to be exciting but it never takes a step beyond initial menace. Its big climactic battle is more like a children’s version of something you’d see in the Lord of the Rings. The movie fails to satisfyingly congeal and so every set piece feels like it could be from a different movie.
Some notable casting misfires also serve to doom the project. I like Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as an actor, I do, but he is grossly miscast here. He does not have the innate charm to pull off a huckster like Oz. Franco usually has an off kilter vibe to him, one that’s even present in this film, that gives him a certain mysterious draw, but he does not work as an overblown man of theatricality. Combined with lackluster character, it makes for one very bland performance that everyone keeps marveling over. It’s like all the supporting characters, in their fawning praise, are meant to subconsciously convince you that Franco is actually succeeding. Kunis (Friends with Benefits) is also a victim of bad casting. She can do the innocent ingénue stuff but when she (spoiler alert) turns mean and green it just does not work. When she goes bad she looks like Shrek’s daughter and she sounds like a pissy version of her character from Family Guy, which is ineffectual to begin with. Kunis cannot believably portray maniacal evil; sultry evil, a corrupting influence like in Black Swan, most definitely, but not this. There are lines where she screeches at the top of her lungs and it just made me snicker (“CUUUUUURSE YOOOOOOU!”).
I had faith that a director as imaginative as Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Drag Me to Hell) would be a stolid shepherd for a fantasy-rich project such as Oz. I never got any sense of Raimi in this movie. It felt like he too was smothered completely by the overabundance of special effects. It’s a common complaint that modern movies are buried under an avalanche of soulless computer effects, but usually I find this bromide to be overstated. Having seen Oz, I can think of no more accurate description than “soulless computer effects overload.” At no point in the movie does any special effect come close to feeling real. At no point do you feel immersed in this world, awed by its unique landscapes and inhabitants (it feels often more like the land of Dr. Seuss than Oz). I chose to see the film in good ole standard 2D, though the 3D eye-popping elements are always quite noticeable. At no point do you feel any sense of magic, the most damming charge of all considering the legacy of Oz. The original Wizard of Oz holds a special place in many a heart. We recall feeling that sense of wonder and magic when we watched it as a child, the idea that movies could be limitless and transporting. While watching Raimi’s trip to Oz, I only felt an overwhelming sense of apathy that grew disquieting.
Then there’s the matter of the questionable messages that the movie posits. It celebrates the power of belief, which is admirable, but it’s belief in a lie. Oz is a fake, yet the movie wants to say that faith in false idols is something worth celebrating. Oz and his cohorts put together a deception to fool the denizens of the world into a false sense of security. Everyone believes in the Wizard of Oz so he has power but it’s all a sham. We’re supposed to feel good that these people have been fooled. Didn’t The Dark Knight Rises basically showcase what ultimately happens when a society’s safety is based around a lie and false idols? I understand that as a prequel one of its duties is to set up things for when Dorothy comes knocking, but do I have to be force-fed disingenuous moral messages?
Oz the Great and Powerful is a wannabe franchise-starter that feels like it never really gets started. There’s a generic hero’s journey, some underwritten characters, mixed messages, and poor casting choices, namely Franco and Kunis. The sense of movie magic is absent and replaced with special attention to marketing opportunities and merchandizing (get your own China Girl, kids). It feels more like the movie is following a pre-planned checklist of stops, cribbing from Alice in Wonderland playbook, and trying to exploit any nostalgia we have for this world and its characters. Except we love Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the cowardly Lion, and Toto. I don’t think anyone really had any strong affection for Glinda or the Wizard. Just because we’re in the same land with familiar elements doesn’t mean our interest has been satiated. The Wizard of Oz backstory has already been done and quite well by the Broadway show Wicked, based upon the novels by Gregory Maguire. That show succeeded because it focused on the characters and their relationships (extra points for a complicated and positive female friendship dynamic). We cared. That’s the biggest fault in Raimi’s Oz, that amidst all the swirling special effects and fanciful imagination, you watch it without ever truly engaging with it. You may start to wonder if your childlike sense of wonder is dead. It’s not; it’s just that you’re old enough to see a bad movie for what it is.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Jason Bourne spy series has been a financial wellspring for Universal studios, so when Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (United 93) decided they had enough spy capers and hijinks, you can understand the studio’s concern. They elevated Tony Gilroy, a writer from the beginning of the series, to director. Gilroy has done some well-received directing gigs of his own now (Michael Clayton), so his ascent made sense from a continuity standpoint. I did wonder how much liberty the studio was going to give him, whether he was going to be boxed in to a style that had worked for the series. I never knew I should have had bigger misgivings, namely that The Bourne Legacy would ransom its conclusion and force the audience to make Legacy a hit.
Apparently Jason Bourne wasn’t alone. The C.I.A. has a team of six different super agents, each undergoing rigorous training and chemical alterations to their DNA via a series of daily pills. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is out in the Alaskan wilderness when the C.I.A., led by Col. Eric Byer (Ed Norton) and Adm. Mark Turso (Stacy Keach), burn all their agents. They plan on starting over and that means eliminating all evidence of the spy program that gave birth to Bourne. That means Cross has to go as well. That also means the chemists and scientists working on the program must also be silenced permanently, and Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) narrowly escapes a workplace shooting. Cross seeks her out for her medical expertise. They both have a common enemy that wants them dead. Together, the duo heads over to Manila where Shearing’s company manufactures the super meds and so Cross can become a permanent super agent.
What the hell did I just watch? I know it’s labeled The Bourne Legacy. That part I get. What I don’t understand is that the filmmakers are trying to extort the viewing public into granting a Legacy sequel. Let’s cut to the chase. This movie has no ending. I don’t mean a bad ending. This movie is completely absent an ending. Not just an ending but also a third act. It’s like the filmmakers lopped off the third act and said, “If you want to see where this story ends up, you better get us a sequel.” There is no resolution for ANY STORYLINE in the entire movie. None. The good guys are still scrambling, figuring out how to blow the big bad conspiracy. The big bad conspiracy is still alive and kicking. The patsy for their wicked shenanigans is still the patsy. There is nothing that can be construed as an ending. At least the Damon Bourne movies each had a beginning, middle, and end and tied up their film plots. Sure the characters carried over and there were some larger, overarching storylines, but at least those movies felt complete. The Bourne Legacy is badly incomplete, a gaping void of a third act, and a blunder that makes me question the sanity of the filmmakers. How could you make a big budget summer action movie and not provide any semblance of closure? When the Moby tune kicked in on the soundtrack, I sat stunned, pinned to my seat in disbelief. “No, it can’t be over. They couldn’t possibly just end things here.” Oh, and they do. So enjoy 2/3 of a movie, folks.
With the anticlimactic end in mind, I now understand why the first hour felt so draggy. It’s because they had to fill out a two-hour running time. Especially for the Bourne franchise, the first hour seems to really be paced lackadaisically. For an action movie, it sure takes its time to get going. I wouldn’t have minded if I felt like we were setting up something exciting, but really the story is about a super agent who just wants to get his meds. He travels across the U.S. and the world so he can get his pills, and then he does, and then the movie abruptly ends. I’m simplifying matters in a crass way, I admit, but doesn’t this storyline just feel a tad slight? Legacy also starts to feel like a retread when it comes to its plot mechanics. The C.I.A. is burning all their super spy agents through suicide pills. They are destroying everything before Congressional oversight can reveal their true dastardly deeds. But then we need an antagonist, right? So the government goons reveal they have a SECOND even more super secret program to train super assassins/spies (“It’s Treadstone without the inconsistencies”). How far are they going to take this? Is there going to be a third super duper ultra secret level of killer spies? It’s repeating the same steps the franchise has already taken, the expert spy vs. spy clashes, but now it’s starting to get silly in a way the franchise had previously avoided.
The action sequences are serviceable but they’re not any better than what the franchise has produced before. Cross has a few nifty escapes but nothing that reminds you of Jason Bourne’s sheer ingenuity. What other man can take down bad guys simply with a rolled up magazine or a book? Aaron Cross just can’t compete with that. The final motorcycle chase is nice but it just seems to be repeating the same danger with little variation. The best action sequence is actually a bit macabre. It involves a workplace shootout. To even call it an action sequence is a bit of a disservice since it’s actually a tense and horrific scenario that is coming eerily all too familiar in the news. Weisz’s character has to hide while her co-worker methodically guns down his fellow lab workers. Oh, and he also took off the door handles, making it dire for help from the outside to get inside. It’s a horrific sequence that’s played out to stomach-knotting levels of tension, as the dread slowly mounts and the pessimistic inevitability looms. Now, obviously Weisz was going to survive, as we know this, but the sequence still resonates with real, primal terror.
So what does The Bourne Legacy have going for it in its favor? Well the duo of Renner and Weisz is a pretty good pairing. Renner (The Hurt Locker) has been rolled out as the next thinking man’s action hero, and he finds interesting depth to his spy character in a rather routine plot. But he’s even better when he’s onscreen with Weisz (The Constant Gardener). There’s plenty of shouting matches and intensity but they have workable chemistry and Weisz’s character gets to be an essential part of the spy heroics rather than a tagalong. I cannot fault the actors for the film’s flaws.
I understand why the Universal suits felt like they needed to pump new blood into their lucrative Bourne franchise. After a while, an amnesiac super spy is going to hit a breaking point; he’s going to run out of essential memories to recall (Bourne 5: where Jason Bourne gets back the memory that he does not like Indian food). I like Renner and Weisz. I even like Tony Gilroy as a director. What I do not like is only getting 2/3 of a movie. Whose bright idea was it to just lop off the third act and provide no resolution? The ending is so unbelievably jarring, so staggeringly incompetent, that I have to dock this movie major points. I can’t say the ending out and out ruins the film considering I was only marginally liking it beforehand. The Bourne Legacy is proof that sometimes imitation is not the best substitute for ingenuity. Gilroy is no Greengrass. Cross is no Bourne. Legacy is no complete movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Lovely Bones, based upon Alice Sebold’s 2002 best-selling blockbuster, is about some heavy stuff. It’s told entirely from the point of view of a dead teenage girl. She was raped and murdered by a skeevy neighbor, and now she gets to watch her family get torn apart through grief. For most filmmakers, this material would not be considered a “breather,” but then most filmmakers are not Peter Jackson (to my knowledge, only one is). The man known for epic fantasy adventures and lavish special effects applies his skills to bringing Sebold?s beyond-the-grave drama to life. The Lovely Bones has enough skill and craft to its merit, but Jackson’s rep as a filmmaker cannot save this poor adaptation. Who would have thought that the lord behind those Rings pictures could be felled by a teenage girl?
“I was fourteen years old when I was murdered,” Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) informs the audience. In 1973, young Susie Salmon (like the fish, we will be told many times) is walking home from school one night. Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci) approaches her and asks her to be the first kid in the neighborhood to see his underground clubhouse he built. She follows inside and will never make it back out alive. The police discover Susie’s knit hat and massive amounts of blood in the earth but no body. Susie’s family is a wreck. Jack Salmon (Mark Wahlberg) consumes himself with the mission of finding his daughter’s killer, alienating his wife, Abigail (Rachel Weisz). Mr. Harvey watches the stalled police investigation with growing pleasure, knowing he has gotten away with yet another child murder. As the years pass, he sets his sights on Susie’s younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver). But Susie is not completely absent during this period of time. She awakens in a magical, CGI-attuned spiritual realm known as the “in-between.” It is here that she spies on her family and her murderer and tries to pass time.
Since most of this story is told after her death, and because Susie died when she was a blossoming teenager, apparently she’s doomed to live the rest of her quasi-afterlife in that awkward visage. Imagine being a 14-year-old for eternity, and the only clothes you have to wear are ugly mustard-colored corduroy pants? That sounds more like hell than heaven. So Susie gets to interact in an afterlife built upon the mind of a teenager, which means that the afterlife involves pretending to be on magazine covers and dancing to disco music (again, heaven or hell?). I know that Jackson was asking for trouble by even attempting to interpret the ethereal, but his candy-colored version of Susie’s afterlife comes across like a bright, shiny doctor’s waiting room (“God will be with you in just a few minutes. Please enjoy our magazine selection in the meantime.”). It’s like you have to find peace before going through them pearly gates. Heaven doesn’t want your negativity so you are forced to chill in a screensaver.
There’s going to be some natural disconnect in trying to showcase a realm beyond human comprehension. I accept that, but why does Susie even bother staying in this “in-between” world? She spies on her family in grief through the years but she has no power to change things; that is, until she does for some inexplicable reason. And what does she do with that inter-dimensional power? She inhabits some girl’s body so she can snag her first kiss that her murder denied her. She passed up heaven and chose not to tell people about her body being disposed of. That doesn’t sound like she really reached any sense of enlightenment. But I digress. Why would Susie stay in this “in-between” when it only makes her sad? She’s fairly powerless and, honestly, does anybody really want to delay entering into heaven? Why does Susie get to pal around with all the other Mr. Harvey murder victims like some celestial support group? None of this can be explained because we’re dealing with a topic that defies rationale explanations. However, this “in-between” spiritual land feels like a visual leftover from the 1998 film, What Dreams May Come. That was another movie where I could never explain why anything happened.
Actually, the entire movie lacks any cause-effect continuity. The Lovely Bones feels bereft of any connective tissue. Characters will make huge decisions or be granted epiphanies because the plot demands it. I have no idea why Jack suddenly figures out that Mr. Harvey responsible for his daughter’s death. He thinks back to a memory and then all of a sudden everything makes sense, but only for his character. For me, none of it made sense. The entire investigation of Mr. Harvey doesn’t really hold up upon reflection. Jack personally looks into every shifty person in town but somehow overlooks the creepy loner across the street that builds meticulous dollhouses for fun? Mr. Harvey also likes to sketch out his murder pits, but just stop and think about Susie’s deathly hobbit hole. The man digs an entire underground lair in a cornfield. Wouldn’t it take hours if not days to refill the whole thing to cover his tracks? For a prolific serial killer, Mr. Harvey seems to be somewhat careless about leaving behind evidence (a safe filled with your victim’s remains?). I guess this is why Susie has to tell us at the onset that people were ignorant to all this unpleasantness in 1973 (I guess that means common sense was acquired in 1974). Why does Abigail all of a sudden desert her family? She can’t take the grief, so she ditches her two other younger children to live the life of a migrant worker. And why does she come back? How can two brown-eyed, brown-haired parents have three blue-eyed, blonde-haired kids? The entire movie lacks vital coherency and context.
From a tonal standpoint, The Lovely Bones never quite settles down and figures out what film it?s going to be. It veers from sentimental melodrama, to thriller, to headache-inducing camp (Sarandon’s boozy grandmother is terrible at housework — hilarious!). Jackson and crew jettison large amounts of Sebold’s text, leaving behind a New Age-y heaven and a fairly lame murder mystery where we already know the guilty party. The drama then pretty much boils down to whether or not Mr. Harvey will get caught.
You can tell that the serial killer segments grabbed Jackson’s interest the most because every sequence with Mr. Harvey feels more predicated and textured, like Jackson is applying more skill to showcase the twisted mind of a sick man. Jackson exerts far more energy into exploring the dark reaches of Mr. Harvey than he does the mourning of the Salmon family. We are denied the complexity of grief and remembrance. As presented, the Salmon family gets to weep and shout but nobody really tackles the issues or moving forward and acceptance of loss. Instead, we watch Mr. Harvey twitch and squirm and plot his next move. Tucci is appropriately scary, aided by an ominous comb-over. The segment when a ghostly Susie stumbles into Mr. Harvey’s bathroom is the best moment of dread. The bright white room is splattered in trails of dirt and streaks of hardened, dark blood, while Mr. Harvey rests in his bath with a washcloth covering his face. It seems like Jackson decided that what fans really wanted from a Lovely Bones movie was more serial killer screen time. If the family drama was going to be this boring, then I say devote the whole movie to the creep.
The acting is another curious detraction. Ronan (Atonement) fits the part but Jackson forces her to speak in this annoying, pseudo-spiritual whisper, like once you?ve attained the knowledge of the afterlife you become very soft-spoken. She shows a decent range of emotions but even she can?t quite figure out her character. Wahlberg seems miscast in his role and pretty limited in his depiction of obsessive grief. Weisz gets to cry her eyes out the most but then her character sits out the second half of the flick. Sarandon is only playing the role she was given, so I’ll be fair in my criticism, but her brassy, alcohol-swilling grandmother is like an unwelcome party crasher. She’s broad and loud and mostly cartoonish. I understand Sarandon was serving as comic relief amidst all the heavy drama, but it doesn’t count as relief when you wince at her presence. Tucci gives the mot layered, nuanced performance. He tries to relive each kill but soon enough the memory fades, and he feels the unstoppable impulse to feed his demons. Tucci is deeply scary, though he kind of talks like the roof of his mouth is stuffed with peanut butter.
Heavenly Creatures showed the world that Jackson could do so much more than campy, splattery gore and crude humor. It beautifully dealt with the scary, bewildering world of fantasy and budding feminine sexuality. Now after four grandiose movies, The Lovely Bones was supposed to be a trip back to that smaller, character-driven territory that Jackson first charted in Heavenly Creatures. Now I wonder if Jackson has the ability to return to smaller scope pictures. He and his screenwriting brain trust, Philipa Boyens and Fran Walsh, have softened the harder elements from the novel, completely eliminating any sexual emphasis. This PG-13 take is heavy on ponderous acid trip visuals and light on coherence, and when you can?t understand why things are happening after a while you stop caring why. After a while, I just stopped caring about Susie Salmon (like the fish).
Nate’s Grade: C
Con movies work thanks to P.T. Barnum’s belief that the audience wants to be fooled. We all enjoy being conned to some degree. The excitement of con movies is being outsmarted and figuring out how it was accomplished. The Brothers Bloom, by writer/director Rian Johnson, one of the more exciting new filmmakers in Hollywood, is a con artist caper that understands the rules of the game and then aspires to transcend the game. Whether or not it succeeds depends on how much whimsy you can stomach in a two-hour duration.
Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are a pair of con artist brothers. Stephen has been drawing up elaborate schemes ever since childhood, and he always uses his brother as the face of the operations. The brothers have a third member to their team, the mysterious and mute Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), who, we’re told, just appeared out of thin air one day and they expect she’ll leave in the same style. Bloom is tired of playing characters and roles and wants out, but his big bro comes back with one last con in the works. Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) is rich, peculiar, and lonely, ripe for the taking. Bloom snares her with the exciting prospect of being apart of an adventure. There’s a globetrotting plot to profit from selling a book to some shady characters (Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell), and it’s just what Penelope needs to feel alive and leave the confines of her large cage-like home. Naturally, Bloom falls for the “mark” and feels conflicted, but was this part of Stephen’s plan all along? Is he setting up some form of a happy ending for his little brother? Is Penelope in on the con? Who’s conning whom?
The Brothers Bloom is steeped in whimsy and at times runs dangerously close to falling into the inescapable gravitational pull of “cutsey.” Some have compared the film’s quirky, precocious style to Wes Anderson, but the movie reminds me more of the style of Barry Sonnenfeld, a filmmaker who made outsized whimsy seem like everyday reality; Anderson’s movies seem to exist in their own impeccably handcrafted worlds. I loved the opening 10-minute prologue which explores the childhood history of Stephen and Bloom, examining their first con on local rich kids. It’s quick-witted, snappy, and even has Ricky Jay provide narration, reminiscent of Magnolia or the David Mamet con movies. The Brothers Bloom has a sunny disposition that doesn’t come across as smug. Stylistically, the movie never crosses the line into feeling overly mannered. The Brothers Bloom exists in some unknown time period. The cars are modern, the clothes are from the 1930s (everyone wears a bowler hat with such flourish), and the sets look like they’re from the 1960s. There is no dependence on technology, just good old-fashioned brains and charm.
And yet this is more than an exercise in style. Just as he did with the adroit, neo-noir movie Brick, Johnson takes a genre and subverts its expectations. The Brothers Bloom treats cons more as storytelling, and it positions the film and its characters in an interesting new light. Bloom yearns for an “unwritten life” because all he’s known have been roles in his older brother’s games and cons, and the poor sap doesn’t even know if he has an identity beyond fabrication. Stephen has also begun to blur the lines between reality and his cons, and his life’s ambition is to stage the perfect con where “everybody gets what they want.” Get that? The Brothers Bloom aims for deception that gives everyone, including the deceived, a happy ending. It almost sounds like a charitable goal. Johnson has injected the con artist genre with some pathos and self-reflection. Too many con artist movies are only good for one viewing; once you know the particulars of the con, do you feel invested in watching it play out again? Johnson puts some melancholy into the mix and it gives the film more weight than being the sum of its many quirky parts.
The acting across the board is superb. Ruffalo is his typically low-key yet engaging self, and he seems sincere even when you know he isn’t. His love and concern for his little brother is touching. His schemes are all for his brother to get out of his shell and experience some level of happiness. Brody embraces the weariness of his character. He is confused and tired and feels like he cannot trust human connections; he’s paranoid that all roads lead back to some machination from his brother. His affection for Penelope is like an awakening for his character, and yet he cannot fully give into it because is it genuine? This incredible level of uncertainty with every aspect of life casts a heavy toll, and Brody convinces you of that toll. Kikuchi (Babel) makes great use of physical comedy and has a lot of fun with her mysterious character. She’s mute for practically the entire film yet manages to communicate plenty. But it is Weisz (The Fountain) that steals the movie and steals your heart. Her screwy eccentric is deeply lonely but radiates a ditzy glow. She fully embraces the prospects of adventure and bounces in glee. This woman is powerfully adorable.
There are a handful of missteps in the narrative. The movie likely lasts twenty minutes longer than it needs to, with false endings and even a false third act. Audiences are used to con movies revealing the larger scope by the end after a bevy of last-minute twists. This is not the case with Bloom. The movie gets more muddled and introduces new conflict that isn’t ever really resolved. Audiences expect clarity by the end of the third act, not confusion. I feel like I’m missing something with the duplicitous Diamond Dog character (Schell), and maybe that’s the point; perhaps I’m supposed to be in the dark about his connection to the brothers Bloom. I won’t get into spoilers, but I was expecting more reveals at the end of the movie, perhaps Stephen showing one last final box, and the movie gives you nothing. I suppose the purpose is to play against con movie conventions and the surprise is that there is no real surprise by the end, no “I was in on it” or “It was all part of the plan” a-ha moments of ironic revelation. That’s nice but it doesn’t always make a movie more satisfying. The ending would be more moving if the audience didn’t already feel spent by the time they have to process something more emotional.
Johnson’s follow-up to his immensely entertaining debut is a solid winner, though it leaves you hanging and wanting at the end. The movie is quirky and heavy on the whimsy, and yet it also squeezes in some pathos. Yet the movie falls short of its ambitions and the talent of Johnson. The Brothers Bloom will seem enchanting to some and insufferable to others; it defies expectations and genre conventions, and sometimes would be better off adhering to them. It’s an amusing caper comedy but it could have been something even more special. It just needed a little less narrative sleight-of-hand.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Adam Brooks has spent his whole career in the romantic comedy gutter. His screenwriting credits include French Kiss, Practical Magic, Wimbledon, and the second Bridget Jones flick. Not a whole lot of quality there. Definitely, Maybe is Brooks fourth writing and directing effort but the first to get a major push from the Hollywood studios. Maybe the same purveyors of formula fluff realize that Brooks finally has something good on his hands.
Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) picks up his ten-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) from school on perhaps the worst day of the school year: sex education day. Kids are crying, parents are stammering to explain, and Maya casually exits her classroom, walks up to dad, and says point blank, “We need to talk.” She wants to know all about the story of how her father and mother, now divorced, met. Finally Will agrees but decides to play a game. He will changes names and identifying characteristics and Maya will have to guess which of his three loves became her mother. Emily (Elizabeth Banks) is Will’s college sweetheart from Wisconsin. Summer (Rachel Weisz) is an ambitious journalist with a taste for older men. April (Isla Fischer) is a Bohemian free spirit that Will meets working on the 1992 Bill Clinton presidential campaign. Maya sits in her bed and pays rapt attention to what she calls a “mystery romance.”
Miraculously, Brooks has written a romantic comedy where the characters are, dare I say it, well developed human beings. These folks are more than stock roles for the genre; in fact, each woman is smart, genuine, charming, fun, and desirable, and yet each woman also has her own set of realistic flaws. Brooks makes sure that we, the audience, admire each woman and recognize that any of the three would make a fine selection. These characters feel real, which is almost unheard of for a genre about ticking biological clocks, cloying and precocious tykes, irrationally sexist and self-absorbed characters, forced misunderstandings that lead to contrived reconciliations that involve some form of chase. Having recently seen 27 Dresses, which plays close to the typical rom-com formula, I appreciate Definitely, Maybe even more.
This is a romantic comedy that respects its characters and respects its audience. The people might make bad or impulsive decisions but Brooks doesn’t pass judgment, and, my God, it’s refreshing for the genre. I rolled my eyes when I read blurbs about Definitely, Maybe being “the best romantic comedy since [1976’s] Annie Hall.” While I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, Definitely, Maybe is definitely the best and most enjoyable conventional Hollywood romantic comedies in years (For those wondering what non-conventional romances got me jazzed, here is a small list: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Amelie, Secretary, Once, Sweet Land, A Very Long Engagement, Brokeback Mountain, Aimee and Jaguar, and Before Sunset).
Brooks chronicles Will’s romantic escapades along the timeline of Bill Clinton’s rise in national politics, which is an interesting way to look backwards in time and still be relevant to modern audiences thanks to Mrs. Clinton’s race to reoccupy the White House. I found it interesting that Will’s emotional journey seems to be charted along the same ups and downs as Bill Clinton’s time in office, so when Clinton is mired in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and questioning the definition of the word “is,” Will has lost his idealism and grown into a cynic. He even openly criticizes with great frustration and ire the man he helped put into office. Will’s enthusiasm and disenchantment for Clinton mirrors his budding relationships with women.
Definitely, Maybe has a handful of memorable moments and some amusing dialogue, but Brooks has crafted one hell of a meet-cute scene between Will and April. After an initial first meeting at the campaign headquarters, Will is purchasing a pack of cigarettes when he spots April purchasing a pack of organic cigarettes. He playfully mocks her more expensive purchase. She counter punches and says that her brand is made from better stock and will actually smoke slower, thus being the better purchase. He challenges her to a smoke-off and the two step outside, light up, and for the sake of scientific research they take equally long drags, and sure enough Will’s cigarette cannot last as long. They laugh and eventually Will visits April’s apartment and learns about her poignant search for her lost copy of Jane Eyre out there that has her father’s inscription. It’s a great scene that allows both actors to size each other up.
Thanks to each woman being presented fairly the movie doesn’t make it obvious which woman will eventually become Maya’s mother. The ladies fade in and out through the plot. The guessing game gimmick grabs our intrigue early and Brooks doesn’t tip his hand until the film’s end. What I find interesting is that Will changes with each woman and could feasibly be happy with any of the three, a desirable predicament if ever there was one. The movie even tackles divorce sincerely and without any doom and gloom overly dramatic pronouncements. Definitely, Maybe doesn’t go out on a limb and certainly isn’t remotely edgy, but the flick has a soothing, amiable adult spirit. It may not be revolutionary but simply telling a good story with mildly relatable characters seems like a great step in the right direction for this oft-sneered at genre.
Reynolds knows how to work his suave charisma to a fault. He’s certainly a capable leading man for romantic comedies and he can deadpan with the best of them. He seems like he could use a bit more direction, because there are moments where he seems to be falling back on his standard sly, indignant persona that has characterized his comedy work from 2002’s Van Wilder and on. His interaction with all three women produces varying spikes on the chemistry chart, and for my money he scores the best sparks with the subdued seduction of Weisz.
The women of Definitely, Maybe are the real winners here even if only one will eventually take home Will. Fisher becomes the heart of the movie and, given the most emotional material, shines the greatest. Banks is wholesome and easy to get cozy with. Weisz is the most enigmatic of the three and offers a beguiling yet very knowing charm. She has a very seasoned sensibility. Her on-again off-again affair with an aging literature professor (a fabulous Kevin Kline playing a fabulous blowhard) adds an intriguing dynamic to her character. The only irritant for me was Breslin’s acting, which was just off enough to annoy me.
Definitely, Maybe is a romantic comedy that proudly treats its characters with respect and develops them into relatable, authentically human characters in a typically inauthentic universe. Brooks mines a gimmick for all its worth, but even after the signs become clear the film is still pleasurable in its predictability thanks to the great characters. It’s rare to see a romantic comedy that bestows a moderate amount of characterization; usually these roles just fall under archetypes. Brooks has shied away from the trappings of the genre (there isn’t a single sing-a-long!) and crafted a genuine romantic comedy that doesn’t rely on sentiment and easy answers even as it heads toward happy ending material. The movie even tackles divorce from a non-judgmental yet honest approach. As far as I’m concerned, Brooks has made amends for his previous screenwriting duds and made a movie that men can truly enjoy as they’re dragged into the theater by their significant other. I would definitely recommend Definitely, Maybe to fans of the genre. This is one worth seeing, folks.
Nate’s Grade: B+
After six years of anticipation, I cannot escape my crushing disappointment with writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s long-awaited follow-up to one of my favorite films, Requiem for a Dream. While the film manages to be visually resplendent, there is no emotional involvement at all because of how abbreviated the story is. This thing barely covers 90 scant minutes and, this may be the first time I’ve ever said this, but The Fountain needed to be an hour longer, minimum. The separate time frames bleed into each other and there’s a lot of repetition, but then we discover that the cutaways to the 16th century and the visions of the LSD-heavy future are simply side trips detailed in a book. The real meat of the story is on one man losing the love of his life to illness and how they come to grips with eventual loss; however, I can’t feel any empathy when he movie fails to take any time to set up characters. Aronofsky keeps things interesting, and rather weird, but this romantic fable ends up being nothing more than a misguided folly thanks to a total lack of breathing room for the characters to live. This was probably my single biggest disappointment of all the 2006 movies.
Nate’s Grade: C