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Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

kuboandthetwostrings-poster13At this point the Laiki studio (ParaNorman, The Box Trolls) has earned as much good will and credibility as Pixar in their pre-Cars 2 prime. I almost was going to write off their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings. For the first forty minutes or so I was somewhat indifferent to it. Sure the stop-motion animation was stunningly realized and the creation of the environments was very meticulous, but I just couldn’t connect with the movie’s story of a young boy, Kubo, and his quest to claim magic items to thwart the advances of his dangerous and estranged mystical family. Then the first big set piece happened and then the next, and then the plot made some deft reveals and provided a strong emotional foundation, and I was hooked. This is Laika’s first real action film and the wide shots and long takes do plenty to serve the action and allow you to further marvel at the painstaking brilliance of these hard-working animators. It’s a full-fledged fantasy epic that tickles the imagination and provides a poignant undercurrent of emotion especially during the final act. As Kubo declares his real strength are his memories of loved ones past, I was starting to get teary. It’s a lovely message to top off an exciting and involving action movie with creepy villains and side characters that do more than throwaway one-liners. Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones) gives a very expressive and emotive performance as our lead. Charlize Theron is outstanding as Kubo’s maternal protector who just happens to be a monkey. Rooney Mara is also genuinely eerie as an ethereal pair of flying sisters trying to snatch Kubo. Matthew McConaughey isn’t the best vocal actor due to the limited range of his vocal register but he’s still enjoyably daft. The Japanese setting and culture are recreated with loving touches that celebrate rather than appropriate. I still regard the arch silliness of The Box Trolls as my favorite film but Kubo is more than a worthy follow-up. The slow start is worth it by film’s end, so stick with it if you start to doubt yourself, because the emotional wallop of Kubo and the Two Strings, not to mention its creative high points, is well worth the invested effort.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

hailcaesarposterThe biggest enemy of the celebrated Coen brothers always seems to be expectations. I count only two misfires during their storied filmmaking careers, but sometimes their larks are pilloried for not quite measuring up to their masterpieces. Hail, Caesar! is on par with Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s still a fun, fizzy, and entertaining film and a celebration of Old Hollywood and its movie magic. Loosely centered on an embittered studio head (Josh Brolin), the film is a series of vignettes highlighting different 1940/50s pastiches, including the realms of Esther Williams, Carmen Miranda, Gene Kelly, and John Wayne. If you’re a fan of the old Hollywood pictures and their stars, the indulgences will play better; you can certainly feel the warmth the Coens have for the films of yesteryear. The plot kicks off with a major star (George Clooney) kidnapped, but it’s really the small side stories and moments that are most memorable, and the Coens are still unbeatable when it comes to being silly and clever. I loved a scene where Brolin asks religious advisors for approval over the script of his biblical epic and they offer legitimate notes over flawed story logic. There’s also a delightful song and dance numbers with a group of sailors lamenting the lack of ladies (“But mermaids ain’t got no gams”). The real star of the movie is Alden Ehrenreich (soon to be young Han Solo) as singing cowboy-turned-actor-turned-studio-sleuth. The sequence where his character tries to rapidly adapt into a “serious actor” on the set of some British melodrama makes for great fish-out-of-water comedy, gamely matched by an increasingly exasperated Ralph Fiennes as the director. The ending doesn’t exactly tie everything together but Hail, Caesar! is more a movie of distractions, of spinning plates, or bumbling bosses trying to hide bad behavior from the press and keep hold of their sanity. If you’re a fan of old Hollywood, there should be just enough to make you smile. If you’re not a fan, then you’ll shrug off the Coens and their latest film lark.

Nate’s Grade: B

Spectre (2015)

MV5BMjM2Nzg4MzkwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA0OTE3NjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_It’s hard to keep a franchise that can almost count its decades on one whole hand fresh and relevant, but Daniel Craig’s time as 007 has done just that. Starting with 2006’s magnificent Casino Royale, we got a grittier Bond, a man with a bruised psychology that was interested in more than just how many bad guys he could callously kill and sexy ladies he could securely seduce. It was a franchise that modeled itself more after the Jason Bourne films, and it worked tremendously, giving the 40-year-old franchise new relevancy for modern audiences that have grown up on the Bond canon. 2012’s Skyfall was the biggest bond hit of all time, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. It was going to be a hard act to follow. Spectre, for all intents and purposes Craig’s franchise farewell, is a lousy swan song. It’s the weakest of the Daniel Craig Bond era but that claim would require me to rewatch 2008’s Quantum of Solace; however, just from memory, Solace had more engaging moments, stunts, and even a better theme song, so I’ll stick with my proclamation: Spectre is the most mediocre Craig Bond.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is hunting the organization responsible for the deaths of those closest to him, namely Vesper (Eva Green) and the prior M (Judi Dench). His path has lead to the nefarious SPECTRE terrorist organization and its mysterious and feared leader (Christoph Waltz), who has his own personal reasons for causing Bond misery.

maxresdefaultThe movie’s biggest mistake was its insistence that the audience will want to know how all the events tie together as a whole. Due to this position, it makes Spectre the awkward retcon exercise it is, trying to provide winks and nods to past Craig Bond outings while saying, “Oh yeah, all that evil stuff, well this guy is The Guy behind it all.” Adding an extra layer of a criminal conspiracy doesn’t somehow make those events more interesting or provide the need for conclusion; it piggybacks off the earlier movies and pretends it has shown its own work. Spectre thinks the accumulated plot events and deaths of three movies is the same as properly setting up a story and its villains, and that’s just not the case. The other problem with trying to connect the dots to three previous movies is that Spectre has even fewer chances to stand on its own merits, which are admittedly fewer. Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) is a bland addition as a Bond Girl, and oh does she pale in comparison to the capable and indispensable Rebecca Ferguson in the latest Mission: Impossible sequel. Their relationship is never as interesting or as properly developed as the film thinks. The stakes of the movie (surveillance abuse) feel too abstract and low-key, or at least poorly articulated, to feel important. If you’re going to turn the focus of the narrative on offering an apparent climax for multiple movies, it better deliver and feel like it was worth the effort, and Spectre just does not feel like that.

The other thing hat just doesn’t work is the bad guy, which is puzzling because Waltz was born to play a James Bond villain. The Craig Bonds have followed the more stripped down route even in their villains, once the parlance of the most colorful megalomaniacs that action cinema had to offer (and there’s also the eccentric henchmen). There’s a delayed buildup to revealing Waltz (Django Unchained) where other characters will talk in hushed whispers about just how dangerous and powerful the man in charge of Spectre is. A nagging problem is that we’re too often told these things without being shown them. A similar problem affected Skyfall where we spent half the film being told how dangerous and skillful its villain was, but at least Silva (Javier Bardem) lived up to the hype when he arrived, at least for a little while before degenerating into your standard psychopath. Waltz has exactly two sequences before the final showdown. That’s it, and for one of them he’s almost entirely in shadow at the end of a large table of shadowy figures. He’s not given a strong angle to play with his villain (spoilers) and his ultimate personal connection to our 007 agent feels far too forced and slight. Just like the rest of its hasty retconing, Waltz’s connection is meant to feel significant but its not dealt in any way like it should be significant. It’s almost a casual toss-off. It’s even worse when Waltz calls Bond his “cuckoo,” meant to be dark but is just really silly. Waltz is completely wasted in what is little more than a perturbed middle manager role. His climactic showdown with Bond feels impractical even for Bond movies. His downfall is even worse and made me laugh out loud how easily it all comes crashing down. If the emphasis of your movie is how the Big Bad is responsible for all the previous misfortune, then you better make sure the character was worth the wait.

spectre-daniel-craig-monica-bellucciSam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) returned to the director’s chair and stages some nicely photographed sequences, but with the exception of a stirring opening sequence, the action of Spectre is quite tame and forgettable. The opening in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations has an interesting atmosphere and an ongoing tracking shot to pull us in from the start. From there, Bond has to take out a high-profile Spectre baddie and their struggle eventually carries over into a helicopter, both men punching wildly and trying to hold on for dear life as the copter whizzes upside down repeatedly. It’s a good set piece with some fun and unique aspects, like Bond escaping the crumbling wall of a building, but it’s the sheer thrill of watching the battle inside the helicopter that makes this opener a doozey. After that, I was sad to discover that nothing could measure up. Skyfall also peaked with its opening action caper but it still held my interest as it barreled toward its conclusion. I was resisting the urge to go to sleep with Spectre. An air chase over the trails of a mountain is interesting but doesn’t evolve, which is something vital to all exciting action sequences. If the action is static, it’s most often not going to be good after the initial rush wears off. There’s a decent car chase late at night in Rome but I got to think why Bond would be fleeing just one henchman even if that paid muscle were played by physical brute David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy). The film’s budget was reportedly $245 million and I just do not know where that money went.

The Craig era will be known for revitalizing the franchise, saving it from its self-parody excesses that were swallowing the series alive. We were watching Craig’s version of 007 become the hardened, quip-heavy, flippant killing machine and womanizer, except that he doesn’t feel like that character by the end of Spectre. If the course of four films was to bring the Bond we know into fruition, then it didn’t quite work, and that personally thrills me. Craig’s character is far more interesting, haunted by the people he couldn’t save, than the action hero Bond staple. However, while Craig’s character maintained a trajectory that staid true to its aim of bringing more depth to its central hero, the series was starting to hew closer to the classic Bond mode of empty bombast, and Spectre is the final proof of this. It’s getting closer to the crazy villains and spy hijinks of old territory. It’s a story that wants climax and resolution but cannot supply it without relying heavily upon the three previous movies to supply the weight this one lacks. It’s a rather lackluster farewell for Craig, an actor who deserved better. Judging by his interviews, I think he’s just happy to be out. He’ll be missed. Spectre will not. Now bring on Idris Elba please!

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

112446_galWes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.

In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.

115032_galFor Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.

The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.

115052_galThe fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.

The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Nate’s Grade: A

Skyfall (2012)

The James Bond franchise, one of the most enduring of all time, has been open to criticism since it came back in a big way with 2006’s Casino Royale. Fans have started to whine that the Bond movies are no longer the Bond they remember, and they’re probably right. In 2006, the producers decided to go back, reboot the series, and introduce a more grounded Bond, a man with more demons than quips. This backlash to a successful reboot seems so funny to me, especially considering the dubious nature of these older Bond movies. Can we all just take a moment and objectively admit that half of the Bond movies are absolutely awful? Skyfall is the third in the new Daniel Craig Bond era, and it’s received universally ecstatic reviews. It’s a fine work, surprising and satisfying in equal measure, but it’s no Casino Royale for me, but what can be?

James Bond (Craig) is recovering from a serious injury after a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), accidentally shoots Agent 007. In her defense, he was atop a speeding train battling a baddie and her boss, M (Judi Dench), ordered her to fire. In the weeks that follow, Bond is struggling to adapt. He’s lost a step physically and now has to deal with his own doubts. Naturally, this isn’t the most opportune time for crises of faith. MI6 is under attack by one of their own, a former agent turned powerful techno-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem). The man has a serious grudge against M and is exposing MI6 undercover agents to punish her. After an attack at MI6 HQ, the agency is left scrambling and sends Bond out to nab Silva, even if Bond isn’t physically ready to return to field duty. Silva is determined to kill M and destroy the agency that left him for dead.

While Skyfall is indeed a good Bond movie and worlds better than 2008’s Quantum of Solace, it still cannot meet the rapturous applause it’s receiving among critical circles. It starts off strong with a nifty action sequence in Istanbul (the go-to action setting for 2012). Bond is chasing a bad guy, and we go from foot chase to car chase to rumbling on top of a speeding train. And there are natural complications that take advantage of geography! When Bond hops on the train, he climbs into a construction crane to fight back, smashing open the back of the train car. It’s a terrific opener that gets things starts briskly, and the sexual chemistry between Craig and Harris (28 Days Later) is palpable. Then the movie pretty much deflates in the second half. There’s a build-up to the villain and his master plot, but once that plot is revealed the film can’t live up to the hype. There are enough plot elements that feel important but eventually get discarded. Here’s a minor example: Bond is given a handgun programmed to his palm print, so it will only fire with Bond wielding it. It’s the only gadget in the movie, so you’d expect it to be utilized in a significant way. One nameless thug uses it then gets eaten by a Komodo dragon. That is it. Seems like an awful waste of funds for it to be thrown away so casually.

The last act has a protracted finale in Scotland, exploring Bond’s ancestral home and his tragic backstory. I’d like to think the insights we’re offered are important but I don’t believe they are. Bond was an orphan (the best recruits, says M) and Albert Finney (Big Fish) was his quasi-father figure/caretaker. It’s not enough to compensate for the slack pacing and encroaching boredom present. The good guys are holed up in an estate, waiting. And that’s what you want in a Bond movie, let alone any action film, for the heroes to sit and wait. An action movie should be building to a climax of intensity, thematically as well as plot-wise. Skyfall is that rare Bond film that flirts with coming undone; each passing action sequence seems less interesting than the one before.

With Mendes directing and Roger Deakens, the greatest working cinematographer, at his disposal, this has to be the best looking Bond movie. The shot compositions are often stunning, making fine use of the visual space and the balance of light and shadow. There are even some shots that might remind you of Mendes previous films like American Beauty or Road to Perdition. Added with some above average action, it makes the thrills an even better sight. There was a fight sequence in a Chinese high-rise almost completely in unbroken silhouette, with the neon tentacles of advertisements dancing in the background. It’s a wonderful image. Even when the movie was losing me at points, I could at least admire the visuals. I was worried that Mendes would not have a deft feel for action. After all, another indie director mostly known for dramatic work, Marc Foster, helmed Solace. That selection did not work out so well, though the script was notably weak. Mendes, on the other hand, can stage some pretty exciting action sequences with judicious editing, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. He’s not exactly a knockout when it comes to constructing action sequences, but the results are more than adequate for a guy whose last two movies were Away We Go and Revolutionary Road.

For the previous Craig entries, it feels like the movies have borrowed more from Jason Bourne than Bond. They’ve gone for a grittier, darker, more realistic portrayal. Skyfall takes a very interesting angle with the character, showing a Bond coming to terms with his physical limitations. It’s a Bond that has to confront his most nefarious foe: aging. Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells the agent that the whole spy business is “a young man’s game.” In the old days, you needed men with lairs in volcanoes and giant doomsday lasers. Now you can send the world into irreversible chaos with a laptop. Skyfall is at its most engaging when it confronts the old world of spies and the scary new world of technology. Can the Queen and MI6 compete or will they be left behind? Bond and his organization must confront their limitations and mortality, and this added dimension of vulnerability makes the series far more emotionally resonant.

Here’s my main problem with the villain: it’s a bait and switch affair that leads to unfulfilled potential. Silva has been spoken of with such awe, a man who could bring governments to their knees with the click of a button. He’s made out to be this dangerous cyber-terrorist genius. So what happens for the second half of the movie? He chases people around and shoots guns. It’s like Skyfall completely forgets what made their villain special. Bardem gives a flamboyant performance with an extra dash of actorly nuttiness, but it’s nowhere near the memorable menace of 2007’s No Country for Old Men. That’s an unfair comparison, I know, but where the movie really starts losing it is when Silva loses it. He becomes just another garden variety psychopath, though one with a creepy oedipal complex. Psychopaths do not work in the James Bond universe. Agent 007 needs a foil that is smart, not crazy and a mad genius rather than mad. I recognize that Silva’s psychological shambles is meant to be a sign of the potential fate of all agents, let alone agents that are given up by M. That doesn’t mean you abandon all the traits that make the villain who he is. The problem with Silva, despite a rather jarring monologue about the effects of surviving a cyanide capsule, peaks with his first appearance. He has a grand entrance and places Bond in a very precarious position, forcing him to confront his physical failures. That’s the villain I want to see. And the awkward handsiness of Silva will also lead many to question whether he’s gay, which wouldn’t matter if the movie wasn’t so clunky.

It also feels like Skyfall may be the conclusion to this incarnation of Bond. I know Craig has been signed for two more films, and that’s great news as he’s fully made the character his own at this point, but the movie seems to setup the Bond we’re better acquainted with. We started from scratch with Casino Royale and now the familiar world, with the reemergence of familiar characters, is coming into focus. The scenes with the new Q (Ben Wishaw), a gangly whiz kid, are enjoyable and they contribute thematically to the old vs. new/age vs. youth conflict at heart. This feels like a transition film, meant to pass from the bruising realism into the polished pyrotechnics of the franchise’s past. There’s a reason the famous gun barrel shot happens to conclude the movie, because by the end of those 142 minutes, it now feels like the formation of James Bond has completed. There are also plenty of in-jokes and references for Bond aficionados to lap up. Even the (lackluster) title song by Adele is in the vein of the old Shirley Bassey numbers.

While not living up to the exultant hype machine, Skyfall is certainly a good Bond movie, though not nearly good enough to be in the conversation of the best. The action starts strong but is prone to diminishing returns especially as the movie transforms into a more ordinary action thriller. The most memorable sequence is in the opening, which isn’t a very good sign for the rest of the movie. It’s still a suitable action movie, and one that pays closer attention at character for a character that’s lived for 50 years in various film incarnations, but just because it pays more attention to character doesn’t mean it does it well. Perhaps I’ve just become spoiled after the artistic and commercial heights of Casino Royale. This is still an entertaining movie that often looks great and has some great actors doing suitable work. We’re still far and away from the loonier Pierce Brosnan episodes, so there is that. I imagine audiences will be more favorable than I am and make Skyfall the most successful James Bond film in history. That’s fine because it feels like, with everything established, that we’re about to hit a new and exciting phase with Craig’s version of the character, and that will leave me shaken and stirred.

Nate’s Grade: B

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

The 2010 Clash of the Titans made some sizable sums of money but it really became famous for one reason – the beginning of the 3D fleecing and the public’s souring on what was supposed to “save the movie going experience.” Clash was converted to 3D in post-production, and its lack of foresight and rushed conversion showed. After the high of Avatar, it only took approximately three months for the public to feel ripped off by 3D. Certain Hollywood bigwigs are concerned that bad 3D conversions will kill the golden goose, and it is having an effect. The percentage of movie audiences seeing big releases in 3D has slipped steadily from 2010. Whether it is the added cost or the underwhelming conversion, movie audiences are warier of the third dimension. And it was Clash of the Titans that destroyed a nation’s innocence. Two years later, the sequel is out and, surprise surprise, you also have the ability to see it in 3D. Either way, this movie will cause you a headache.

In the wake of Perseus successful slaying of the Kraken, he is now a widower with a young son, living their lives quietly, trying to avoid the daring heroics of his earlier life. Fat chance, kid. The gods are at war, particularly Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Aries (Edgar Ramierez) versus Olympian head honcho Zeus (Liam Neeson), Perseus’ absentee father. The titan Kronos will be unleashed from his prison, Tartarus, and this powerful behemoth will lay waste to the armies of mankind. The gods have grown weak due to mankind’s dwindling faith, and as such they cannot conquer Kronos without the help of man. It’s up to Persues, Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), and Poseidon’s demigod son a (Toby Kebbell) to track down the right magic artifacts to take down Kronos.

Once again we have a threadbare story that involves running from one location to another to find a clue that leads to the next location; the plot is just a series of magic-item gathering missions, much like a video game. Greek mythology made regular use of magic weapons to slay great monsters, but the myths at least gave their audience heroes worth fighting for. Worthington’s scowling rendition of Perseus is a bore, and giving him a son doesn’t help much. Just because the guy keeps insisting he has someone to protect doesn’t fill his void of characterization. He’s so free of charisma, so gruff and without any defining personality, that you wish he could find some magic shortcut to find his dumb magic items faster. The whole setup with our villain is also vague, beyond the very specialty of the god in question. And then there’s the whole concept of the gods dying, which was also featured in last fall’s glorious-to-look-at-but-empty-on-the-inside Immortals, another cinematic tussle with the titans. What’s the point of being a god anymore if the defining quality, immortality, can be ripped away? I suppose the screenwriters wanted to raise the stakes when Zeus and other gods enter the fray, dangling the threat that they too could perish. “We may not have weapons, but we’ll fight how long we can,” Zeus declares with modesty, and then he proceeds to zap enemies with lightning bolts. I don’t think a club is going to outrank a giant projectile of electricity. Realistically, I think the whole death-of-the-gods angle, which cold have brought some real somber and existential weight to the film, was just a setup to allow the producers to recast future sequels with less costly actors (goodbye, Neeson and Fiennes; they’ll be no more Kraken-releasing for either of you).

Director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) isn’t going to wow anybody with his addition to cinema, but he can put together a serviceable sequence of action. My favorite sequence in the entire film is when Perseus and crew enter the underground maze of Tartarus. The stone walls are constantly shifting around and the characters are zooming all around the room. It reminded me of the moving staircases in the Harry Potter world or think of it as the real prequel to Cube. And yet, even this nice sequence is limited because Liebesman and the screenwriters don’t take full advantage of their situation. We have a constantly shifting three-dimensional maze, and nobody gets lost at all? And the heroes, after discarding the map, easily find their way to the other side? What kind of design flaw is that? Liebesman prefers a lot of handheld camerawork and low angles, which can be jarring at times. Worse, the action favors a visceral chaos rather than steady development. There are plenty of people dying, columns exploding, fireballs tossing, but little of it adds up to much. It’s all disparate shots, like every character is in a separate movie. Such a shame because the special effects are rather good. If you’re going to spend this kind of money on a Greek mythology spectacle, at least make us care beyond a “fire pretty” level of tepid enjoyment.

The movie is in some breech of false advertisement since the title clearly states a plurality of titans, but by my modest account we only really have one titan to deal with, the giant lava beast Kronos (do the smaller creatures and Cyclops count as titans? I doubt this). Now we all love how fire looks, though some love it a bit too much. And lava itself has long been a childhood adversary. Who amongst us has never pretended the floor was once lava and but a handful of couch cushions were the only stepping-stones to safety? It’s hard to get an exact feel for how massive Kronos is considering he emerges from a mountaintop and seems to extend even higher into the sky. It’s intended to be a threatening and horrifying sight, but I kept thinking of a Marine ad from the 1990s where prospective recruits displayed their mettle by combating giant lava creatures (“Marines: Keeping the U.S. safe from lava men since 1916”). Instead of being awed by Kronos, I started picking apart the logistics of being a lava man. I suppose when you’re a god, or a titan for that matter, you don’t have to really eat or drink or do the things we mortals must for sustenance. But how does a lava creature work when part of his fiery M.O. is how drippy and malleable he can become? Perseus flies into the mouth of the lava beast but why does a beast, which needs no food or drinks, even needs a mouth? It’s not like this guy is speaking beyond a ground-shaking mumble. The entire face is almost superfluous. It’s not like a lava creature has eyes or a working circulatory system. Now I could apply these same annoying ticky-tack questions to any monster or mythological creature. The reason I did this is because the monster of monsters is no more intimidating, or satisfying, as the array of giant monsters that Godzilla would fight (or for you youngins – the Power Rangers). When your ultimate bad guy, and lone titan, can just as easily be blown up in the same manner as the Death Star, then we have a problem.

There’s a certain level of entertainment watching dignified actors in something so inherently campy. Neeson (The Grey) and Fiennes (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two) are a long way from their Shindler’s List collaboration. The two men lend a level of gravitas to a movie that is leagues below their talents. Perseus proves to be such a dull demigod, that I wish the entire movie had followed the warring gods instead. That approach would have been much more interesting considering that they must confront mortality. Worthington (Avatar) still has a notable screen presence in the realm of action cinema, but his constant scowling is just getting tiresome. Hollywood, give this man something to do other than scowl and he may surprise you, like in The Debt. Pike (Doom) is unconvincing as a warrior princess, and her forced romance with Persues could not be more contrived (did somebody say, rebound?). The best actor in the movie is Bill Nighy (Underworld) who shows up as a daffy version of Hephaestus, the god of metallurgy and blacksmiths. Nighy understands how completely cheesy the whole getup really is and delivers a performance on the comic wavelength that the entire movie should have held.

While not nearly as humorless and joyless as the 2010 edition, Wrath is still a fairly block-headed romp through the noisiest parts of Greek mythology. After two movies with “titans” in the title, it’s somewhat remarkable that we only witness one single titan in the entire combined 245 minutes. It’s all CGI sound and fury with little cohesion to make anything feel important, despite huge mythological creatures demolishing cities. From an action standpoint, Wrath packs enough serviceable, escapist sights for the eyes to please diehards of Greek mythology and genre fans with low expectations. I wish there was a more compelling reason to run through all this stuff than big monsters needing to be killed; this hero’s quest needs more motivation or at least a grander sense of awe. The demise of the gods due to mankind’s mounting religious doubt seems like a juicy subject that could have opened these characters up. But then the theological discussions would get in the way of people hitting made-up CGI monsters. If you like your cheese feta, then Wrath of the Titans will provide enough wrath for your bucks, though found lacking in titans.

Nate’s Grade: C

Coriolanus (2011)

William Shakespeare’s little-known play has a surprising amount of cultural relevance: attacks on the border, suspension of civil liberties, political scheming, populist uprisings and riots, and a military elite arguing against the principles of appealing to the uneducated, mob-ruled masses. Plus Ralph Fiennes, taking on the hat of director for the first time, sets the play in modern-day. It seems like a struggle between Scotland and England, judging from the two mortal enemies, Coriolanus (Fiennes) and Tulius Aufidus (Gerard Butler). So it’s the Scotland/England struggle, termed ancient Rome, but set in what looks like the war-ravaged Balkans. Hey, at least Fiennes gets to have a nose in this film. The Shakespearean verbiage is certainly beautiful to hear, especially coming from the mouths of excellent thespians, notably Fiennes, Brian Cox, and Vanessa Redgrave. The actors achieve that synergetic level of excellence where it feels like they were always meant for the parts. Butler acquits himself well though his character sort of disappears unless needed by the plot. The elements that work best reside in Coriolanus’ refusal to play the game of political optics, neither serving a crowd of ignorant peasants he feels should remain out of the political process or the wily, double-crossing, self-serving politicians inflaming populist unrest. The movie sets itself up for some serious wrath to befall Rome, and besides the Greeks (and Koreans), nobody does revenge like this guy Shakespeare. We’re chomping at the bit for a cataclysm of death, but then the plot just sort of skips to a hasty conclusion, ditching the wrath. It makes you realize that, except for the intriguing title character, this isn’t one of the bard’s better plays. The characters are hard to empathize with, their conflicts too repetitive without deeper insight, and an ending that would be best described as a bit of a rush job. Still, even Shakespeare’s lesser work towers above most writers’ best material. Fiennes does a fine job as director, choosing lots of disorienting close-ups to communicate the rage of his character. Coriolanus is an interesting stab at something more, it’s just that sometimes it swings and misses.

Nate’s Grade: B

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (2011)

While not the best film in a series spanning ten years, part two of the final chapter of Harry Potter is a solid, satisfying close that’s fittingly grandiose but also sneakily emotional at points. The plot finally gets simplified once all those silly magic items are found, and what we have is a war at the Hogwarts School of Magic between good vs. evil. The action sequences are the best in the film’s series and some very dark events take place, including the deaths of many characters, some children, though too many critical deaths occur off camera. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) faces off against Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) for the fate of the world, and after the protracted, wearisome setup of Part One, it’s a relief to say that the final film moves like it’s on fire. There’s very little downtime and a great pull of urgency to the flick. So what if Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), Harry’s best pals since the start, are completely forgotten and useless in the movie’s final hour. The focus is all on Harry and his messianic sacrifices. Alan Rickman shines again, showing a depth of emotions not available to Snape until the character’s final revelations. In fact, there needed to be more Rickman, but I can lay this same charge with every film. I wish the resolution, spanning forward 19 years, would have slowed down a bit and accept the paternal/maternal changing-of-the-guard as the emotional payoff billions of people have been waiting for. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two is a thrilling, gratifying capper to a series that, while to me was never as magical as the Potter die-hards have claimed, was, over eight movies and almost 20 hours, an enchanting franchise that stayed consistent in quality and entertainment. Here’s to you, Potter. Now maybe I can finally stop hearing people badgering me about how the books were better.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

When author J. K. Rowling dropped off her last 700-page tome in the Harry Potter series, the world went into a state of mourning, right after ravishing every page of The Deathly Hallows. There would be no more literary adventures. You can expect that same sense of longing for the studio suits over at Warner Brothers considering the Harry Potter franchise has grossed over five billion worldwide. The bounty was about to be over, especially with one last book to adapt into an eventual overly long movie. Then the suits came across a genius strategy: split the last book into two separate movies. Filmed simultaneously over a year, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be released in two parts eight months apart. I understand that it’s hard to say goodbye to the boy wizard that charmed millions, and tow movies almost guarantee that nothing will be left out in the adaptation process. It also ensures that Warner Brothers will have two movies that make giant piles of money instead of one. Deathly Hallows: Part One plays its part setting up the finale, but judging from what we’re given, this series conclusion could have effortlessly been condensed to one overly long film instead of two.

Picking up shortly after the events of Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best pals, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are on the run. Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) is determined to be the one to slay the boy wizard. Voldermort and his influence have taken over many facets of the magic world’s infrastructure, and they are all after Harry. Harry learned that his snake-faced nemesis has broken his soul into pieces and hidden them inside magical items known as horcruxes. Unless these horucruxes are destroyed, Voldermort will never be able to truly die. Harry and company has to hunt down those accursed horcruxes while being hounded by evil forces determined to kill them all.

For a solid hour I felt like I was watching the second best Harry Potter film; Alfonso Cuaran’s Prisoner of Azkaban still stands as the artistic highpoint. Watching the characters on the run and constantly in peril spurs your protective feelings. We’ve seen them grow up, vanquish evil and hormones, and now they seem to be in serious danger and you feel real tension. I stopped to realize how much I actually cared for these characters and how concerned I was. There is a somber sense of finality, and I enjoyed characters and events colliding back together for one big finish. It truly feels like everything is coming to a titanic close, and the film manages to be the most emotionally satisfying of the series. That’s likely because it’s building off six films of character growth and goodwill. But it’s also due to the fact that Deathly Hallows spends the most time examining the characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The series has followed a very lockstep plot formula and now it’s been stripped away. The kids are removed from the school setting so we get to spend plenty of time alone with the trio. In fact, it’s a bit too much time. We spend an interminable amount of time with these kids lost in the woods, waiting for something important to happen. While we wait we have the trio address fears, anxieties, and emotional hang-ups, which turns Part One into the most insular, reflective movie in the entire series. While this makes the movie rich with feeling before we come to the finish line, it also makes the film somewhat boring because these kids aren’t that deep.

Luckily, Deathly Hallows Part One presents some of the more exciting action sequences and tense mood yet for a franchise mostly built upon investigation and Hardy Boys stuff (with extra magic!). The Harry Potter world has always been more interesting to me the darker it got, and now the series has now firmly converted to the dark side (as far as PG-13 fantasies go). The opening shows each of the three kids being left alone, including Hermione protecting her Muggle parents by wiping away their memory of their daughter. Tough stuff. Then we transition to a floating Hogwarts teacher held prisoner by Voldermort and his legion of Death Eater followers. She’s struck dead and we see a tear roll down her bloodied face right before Voldy’s pet snake eats her. Parents be warned, this is no longer kid’s stuff. Death comes to several supporting characters and there’s plenty of spooky stuff that adds up to a gloomy atmosphere. The infiltration of the Ministry of Magic is a thrilling sequence. Harry and pals disguise themselves as Ministry workers to locate a horcrux from Dolores Umbridge (I cheered at the sight of Imelda Staunton back in pink). The scene is tense and lays out the stakes and important characters to fear. It also produces some potent drama as Ron is disguised as a Ministry member whose innocent wife is being interrogated. The moment culminates in a genuinely exciting chase sequence that got me excited for what was ahead. What I failed to realize is that there was not much more ahead.

With all that extra attention spent on character, I can also say that Part One has some definite issues with its stagnating narrative. Having never read the books (get over it, Potter nation), I go in blind every time short for the mega-spoilers that I can’t help but learn thanks to all the Potter readers inhabiting my circle of friends and family. I can tell you if something doesn’t make sense because I don’t have the background knowledge of the books to fill me in. There was plenty in Deathly Hallows that made little sense. The adaptation introduces the titular deathly hallows, which ends up being another three super special magic items. There’s a nicely Gothic animated sequence to try and explain the three hallowed items, but it all adds up to a fairy tale that makes little traction. The narrative has already shaped up into a portentous scavenger hunt. Harry and friends are after the remaining horcruxes containing the soul of Mr. Snarly Face. The entire 145 minutes of Part One is spent destroying a single horcrux, leaving 3 or 4 remaining. Now they add three more magic items to find and it all compounds my feelings of fatigue. Did I mention they also have to find a magic sword? How many magical items are these kids going to be responsible to find and how many am I expected to care about?

I left the theater with many questions about what the hell the deathly hallows were, why they mattered, and all sorts of other storylines too. I could not follow all the new characters they threw so late into the game, especially some old wand maker and his connection to wand thievery. And when the hell did everyone gain the ability to teleport at will? Why don’t they teleport all the time then, especially out of danger or when they’re chased through the woods? My friend (an avid Potter reader) had to deal with a litany of stupid questions, likely treating me as a parent would a child asking about where the sun goes when it becomes night.

Also, the film is intended to be a prelude for an epic finale but it mishandles its own sense of climax at several turns. I’ll refrain from heavy spoilers, but one of the most interesting characters, played by an actor I adore, is killed off screen. Off freaking screen! Some other character comes back and says, “Oh yeah, he’s gone,” and then everyone looks glum and goes about their business. It happened so matter-of-factly and anticlimactically that I never made the connection. So later in the film when it’s confirmed that this character is in fact dead, I felt pretty thick. The last chapter of Harry Potter is destined to be a combined 5 hours, and you’re telling me they couldn’t fit in a fight scene that lets this character go out with style? I suppose somebody thought it was more dramatic to just mention a character death offhand. Following this logic, I can’t wait for the grandiose finale where Harry Potter just walks back into a room and says, “Oh, by the way, I just killed Voldermort. So who wants to get a bite to eat?” The emotional climax of the film involves the death of a supporting character I have yet to see onscreen for 8 years. How am I supposed to feel for a character that hasn’t been seen for so long? The ending is sad, sure, but it would have been more effective if: a) I knew what significance the character had in the narrative, and b) it didn’t look like Harry was clutching a rubber doll to his chest. We spend too much time with new characters that end up having minor worth or come across as one-offs. The movie would have benefited from some of the deathly exposition that clogged the first two film’s storylines. As the movie comes to a close it should be clearing things up instead of polluting the narrative with more names and faces.

Director David Yates has been captain of the Potter helm since 2007’s Order of the Phoenix, and he seems to have found a unifying visual balance for the series. The film’s tone has gotten heavier and having a singular director take the series to an end looks to be a godsend. Despite a lengthy slog in the middle, Yates keeps the pacing fairly tight and tense. The visuals and special effects are just as luminous as ever. The true treat for me is watching all these splendid British actors assembled: Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Jason Isaacs on Team Evil, and Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Rhys Ifans, Julie Waters, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon on Team Good. Then there are new additions like glass-jawed David O’Hara (Wanted) and the great Peter Mullan (Young Adam) making strong yet short appearances. I don’t really care why all these talented thespians are together but I’ll enjoy them all the same.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One is the beginning of the end, literally a prelude for the finale coming to theaters in summer 2011. The film manages to be exciting and dramatic and equally boring and confusing, especially for someone who has willfully refused to read the books. Spending more time with the teen actors has its pluses and minuses, chief minus being that while they wait for stuff to happen so do we. The manufactured end point for the movie feels far from satisfying, but the film manages to effectively whet the appetite for the follow-up. As the Harry Potter series comes to a close it’s hard not to get nostalgic and apologetic, but I resist this urge. Looking back, many of the Potter films have been fine pieces of entertainment but also too long, misshapen, and too slavish to making a book on tape. Part One of Deathly Hallows still falls victim to some of these faults, but the accumulated goodwill of the series and actors makes a 145-minute prologue easily bearable.

Nate’s Grade: B

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Rather unremarkable and rather dingy, a big-budget remake of Clash of the Titans removes all the fun from the campy 1981 original. Stop-motion is replaced with the sheen of super CGI, but the whole souped-up production feels hollow and overly serious for a movie involving fantastical creatures and Liam Neeson as Zeus. The original film was by no means a classic but it had an enjoyable retro spirit thanks to effects by Ray Harryhausen. The gods are trivialized and hardly in the movie, which is a shame. Danny Huston, as Poseidon, gets one single line in the film. Worse, Perseus (Sam Worthington) is given the motivation of revenge, instead of love, seeking to stand up to the gods who have left man to stew in despair. He blames the treacherous Hades (Ralph Fiennes) for the death of his father. And so the epic adventure is for vengeance, which gives everything a somewhat nasty pall. Who wants to watch a story about Greek mythology where the main character wants to rid the world of the gods? Why would Zeus go along with this? For a fairly straight forward plot, the movie frantically rushes from scene to scene. The action sequences are a particular letdown for director Louis Leterrier (Transporter). The CGI effects, mostly efficient, are like quick blurs and whooshes. You can?t tell what’s happening or you just don’t care. The movie has no character development and I’m not even certain I liked Perseus. Worthington?s scowling and howling is starting to get old after three high-profile action roles in an 18-month window. Would you believe that there isn’t even a titan to be clashed?

Nate’s Grade: C

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