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Marriage Story (2019)

Noah Baumbach is a writer and director most known for acerbic dramas with a very dark, pessimistic viewpoint. That changed somewhat once he began a filmmaking partnership with actress Greta Gerwig that began with 2013’s Frances Ha. Gerwig has since gone on to become an accomplished filmmaker in her own right with 2017’s Lady Bird, which earned her Oscar nominations for writing and directing. The partnership seemed to bring out a softer side for Baumbach and they became a romantic couple who had a child earlier in 2019. Hell, Gerwig and Baumbach are even circling writing a Barbie movie together. This is a changed filmmaker and he brings that changed perspective to Marriage Story. It’s very different from Baumbach’s other movie about divorce, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. I found that movie difficult, detached, and hard to emotionally engage with. Marriage Story, on the other hand, is a deeply felt, deeply observed, and deeply moving film experience that counts as one of the finest films of 2019.

Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are heading for divorce. He’s a successful theater director. She was a successful movie actress who relocated to New York City and has gotten an offer to shoot a pilot in L.A. Both say they want what’s best for their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) but this will be tested as Charlie and Nicole push one another for what they feel is their best version of their family.

The observational detail in Marriage Story is awe inspiring. I was floored by how involved I got and how quickly, and that’s because Baumbach has achieved what few filmmakers are able to, namely present a world of startling authenticity. There is a richness in the details, small and large, that makes the entire story feel like you’ve captured real life and thrown it onscreen. I wouldn’t pry but Baumbach himself went through divorce around the time he was writing this, and I have to think some of those feelings and details seeped into this screenplay. Baumbach’s direction favors clarity and giving his actors wide berths to unleash meaty monologues or dynamic dialogue exchanges. The writing is sensational and every character is given a point of view that feels well realized. Even the combative lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta) have perspectives you can see why they’re fighting for what they believe is right. But it’s watching Charlie and Nicole together that brings the most excitement. Watching the both of them onscreen allows for so much study of the little histories behind their words, their gestures, their impulses, and they feel like a great mystery to unpack. It feels like a real relationship you’ve been dropped into and left to pick up the histories and contradictions and all the rest that make people who they are.

It’s very easy and understandable for divorce dramas to essentially pick sides, to present a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist, like 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s easier for an audience to have a clear side to root for and a clear villain to root against, someone who they can see is more responsible for this breakdown of the family unit or for the infliction of emotional pain. What Baumbach does is something rare and exceedingly compassionate; he makes us like these two people as a couple in the opening ten minutes so that we can see how they could have shared a loving relationship for so long. The opening is mirrored voice over where each spouse narrates what they love or admire about the other person, and by doing this it’s like we too get to see these people in this adoring light. It’s like a ten-minute love letter and then it gets ripped away. However, by starting with this foundation, Baumbach has invested the audience immediately. We care about both of these people because we’ve seen them at their best, and now as things get more acrimonious and harder, it hurts us too because of that emotional investment. Marriage Story does not adopt a side or ask its audience to choose. It presents both parties as essentially good people but with their flaws and combustibility that point to them being likely better apart. That doesn’t mean they don’t still care for one another or have essential elements of friendship. A simple shoelace tying at the very end of the movie nearly had me in tears because of its everyday act of kindness. These are complex human beings with needs, desires, egos, pressure points, and we watch both of them struggle through a stressful process where they’re trying to do right but that definition keeps morphing with every next step. If there are villains, it’s the lawyers, but even they are given degrees of explanation and perspectives to explain why they fight as hard as they do.

I have read several reviews that disagree with my “no sides” assessment, citing how the movie presents more of Charlie’s perspective during Act Two, and this is true. The extra time onscreen, however, doesn’t erase his faults as a husband. The transition to this handover is Nicole unburdening herself to her lawyer (Dern) in a gorgeous seven-minute monologue. It’s a thrilling moment for Johansson as the character begins guarded and afraid of saying anything too harsh, and then as she starts talking it’s like you watch layer after layer get pulled free, allowing this woman to open up about her untended wants and desires and to legitimately be heard in perhaps the first time in a decade, and it’s so powerful and sympathetic and natural. To then think that Baumbach intends to portray this same woman as a villain seems like a misreading. The second act does involve Charlie being more reactive to the new obstacles of divorce, like being forced to hire a lawyer to officially respond, to start a residence in L.A., and to eventually be observed by an evaluator of the court. He holds to the belief that he and Nicole don’t need the acrimony, don’t need the pain, and that they can be adults when it comes to deciding their end. Whether this is naivety will depend on your own worldview, but holding to this belief gets Charlie playing catch-up a lot and having to roll with changes for fear of being seen as an uncooperative parent, like when Nicole’s friends don’t want to go trick-or-treating with Charlie present so he’s forced into a second later more pathetic outing. We do get to see Charlie beset with challenges but that doesn’t erase Nicole’s challenges too.

For a movie as deeply human as this one, it’s also disarming just how funny it can be. The humor is never cheap or distracting but just another element that makes Marriage Story so adept. While the movie has its lows, it can also find delicate and absurd humor in the moment, reminding the audience that life isn’t always doom and gloom even when things are going poorly. The sequence where Nicole and her sister (Merritt Weaver, wonderful) are bickering over the exact steps to legally serve Charlie divorce papers reminded me of a screwball comedy, how the nerves and fumbles of the characters were elevating the experience into touching the absurd. Nicole’s entire family is a great comedic array of characters including her mother (Julie Hagerty) who says she has her own personal relationship with her daughter’s ex-husband that she wishes to maintain. They even have pet names for one another (this brought back memories for me as I’ve had mothers of ex-girlfriends still want to talk with me weeks after their daughter dumped me). The legal asides are also filled with absurdist moments of comedy about double-speak and the arcane or idiosyncratic rules of divorce and representation in the courts. The sequence of Charlie being watched by the deadpanned court evaluator (Martha Kelley, TV’s Baskets) is a terrific example of cringe comedy. He’s trying to impress her but she’s generally unflappable, to hilarious degree, and it only leads to more miscues that Charlie tries to ignore or downplay to win her favor.

Make no mistake, Marriage Story is also one of the hardest hitting dramas of the year. Because we like both participants, because there is something at stake, watching them tear each other apart is a painful and revelatory experience. There is one gigantic confrontation that, like Nicole’s first confession, begins small and cordial and builds and builds in intensity, to the point where walls are punched, threats are unleashed, and both parties end in tears. It’s a thrilling sequence that feels akin to watching the defusing of a bomb ready to explode. Baumbach never feels the need to artificially inflate his drama, so we stick with that observational and compassionate ethos that has guided the entire film, even during the ugly moments. These are two people with pain and frustrations who both feel they have been wronged and are in the right. They’re both entitled to their pain, they’re both at fault for letting things get to this precipice, and they can both acknowledge that as well. Because even at their worst, Nicole and Charlie are still portrayed as human beings and human beings worthy of our empathy. They aren’t heroes or villains, they’re simply real people trying to navigate a hard time with conflicting feelings and needs.

The acting is outstanding. Driver (BlackkKlansman) is sensational and goes through an emotional wringer to portray Charlie, trying to stay above it all for so long and losing parts of himself along the way. His outbursts are raw and cut right through, but it’s also his smaller moments of ignorance, dismissiveness, or tenderness that linger, providing a fuller picture of who Charlie is, why one could fall in love with him and why one could fall out of love. I fully expect Driver to be the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar. He even gets to sing a Sondheim tune and uses it as a reflection point. A late moment, when he’s reading a particular letter, drew tears and got me choked up. He’s always been such a visceral actor, a man with a magnetic charisma and animalistic sense of energy that draws your attention. He’s finally found a role that showcases how brilliant an actor Driver can be. This is also easily the best work of Johansson’s (Avengers: Endgame) career. Let there be no doubt – this woman can be a tremendous actress with the right material. She’s struggling with her sense of identity, being tied to Charlie for so long, and “wanting my own Earth” for so long that the dissolution process is both tumultuous but also exciting for what it promises. Nicole can take those chances, her Hollywood viability still alive, and strike out doing the things she’s wanted to do, like direct. Her character has felt like a supportive prisoner for so long and now she gets to make a jailbreak. Johansson is an equal partner onscreen to Driver, trading the tenderness and hostility moment-for-moment.

This is Noah Baumbach’s finest film to date, and I adored Frances Ha. I was expecting a degree of bitterness from the normally prickly filmmaker, and that’s to be had considering the subject matter of divorce. What I wasn’t expecting was the depth of feeling and compassion that flows from this movie’s very steady beating heart. It feels real and honest in a way that a movie simply about the horrors of divorce and breakups and custody battles could not. Baumbach’s characters aren’t just meant to suffer and inflict pain, they’re meant to come through the other side with something still intact. I’d argue that Marriage Story, even with its suffering, is ultimately a hopeful movie. It shows how two people can navigate the pain they’ve caused one another and still find an understanding on the other side. Driver and Johansson are fantastic and deliver two of the finest acting performances of this year. Baumbach’s incredible level of detail makes the movie feel instantly authentic, lived-in, and resonant. I was hooked early, pulling for both characters, and spellbound by the complexity and development. There isn’t a false note in the entire two-plus hours onscreen. It feels like you’re watching real people. Marriage Story is a wonderful movie and I hope people won’t be scared off by its subject matter. It’s funny, empathetic, and resoundingly humane, gifting audiences with a rich portrait. It should be arriving to Netflix streaming by December 6, so fire up your queue and have the tissues at the ready.

Nate’s Grade: A

Suddenly (2013)

154354-suddenly-0-230-0-341-cropI can genuinely say that director Uwe Boll pleasantly surprised me with the last film I watched that had his imprint, Attack on Wall Street. It almost worked. It felt like Boll had maybe gotten over the hump of mediocrity, and sub-sub-mediocrity, that has become synonymous with his career writing and directing movies. Then one day, Suddenly suddenly popped up on Netflix, available for consumption, and 90 very tepid minutes later, my renewed hopes for a turnaround had been dashed and trashed once more.

The President of the United States of America is stopping by the sleepy mountain town of Suddenly. The secret service is canvassing the neighborhood to secure locations. Officer Todd Shaw (Ray Liotta) is working off another bender and may just get suspended. Ellen (Erin Karpluk) and her teenage son Pidge (Cole Corker) are living up on the mountain with a great view of the town. Agents Baron (Dominic Purcell), Conklin (Michael Pare), and Wheeler (Tyron Leitso, though he’s referred to as “Agent Young” several times) come knocking on her door to inspect. Except they aren’t real secret service agents. They’re posing to coordinate an assassination on the president, a hit ordered by the “Committee” that they work for. The assassins in suits lock Ellen, her son, and her elderly father (Don MacKay) in the basement, and wait for the president to arrive. There’s just the problem of keeping their cover and making sure Todd doesn’t intervene. Oh, and the town has a shop that advertises “fetish” in its name. So there’s that.

y1PJvKnGiven the assassination premise, Suddenly is shocking in just how overwhelmingly boring it is. There’s a noticeable lack of urgency in just about every scene despite the stakes of men with guns threatening people’s lives. A solid majority of the movie is an almost comically low-key hostage situation where we watch Ellen’s family bumble around the basement as captives and try to outsmart the relatively dimwitted assassins. It’s nothing quite along the lines of, say, Home Alone, but it feels comically off in tone, aided by an inappropriate musical score. These people don’t ever feel scared or panicked, and their conversations show it. The stupid grandfather character in this feels like he was plucked from a different, more broadly comical movie. Oh look, he’s fussing about with things; oh look, now he’s going to tell one of his old stories. In the context of a hostage thriller, it doesn’t work. Grandpa half-heartedly relates a tale about being snowed in with grandma where, surprise, they got out (the man is standing there after all). “See, it all works out in the end,” he reasons with no convincing evidence. And then (spoilers) he dies in the most idiotic way possible. During a light scuffle, he gets shoved and falls over. “He has a heart condition,” Ellen screams, informing us for the first time of this malady. I’m thinking he’s faking, so as to strike when the attacker draws near. Nope, he just lies there and dies in the most pathetic way possible, as if the plot had just decided it didn’t need him after all. One of the armed men actually tries to revive him, how nice.

Suddenly literally takes its sweet time getting to that presidential moment, saving that for the last few minutes of the film. Almost all of Raul Inglis’ (The Killing Machine) screenplay revolves around one scenario: will the bad guys’ cover be blown as different people keep finding their way back to Ellen’s secluded home. Oh no, the deputy will spoil things! Oh wait, he’s easily fooled. Well thank goodness that problem was solved in a not interesting manner. This takes up an hour of the movie, and it’s rather repetitious without any escalation. The entire setup feels like a series of lame stalling techniques to save the good stuff for the very end, rather than dealing with reversals and rising action. Then there’s the nature of the ending, which is so abrupt and without a single trace of resolution. As soon as that shot’s fired, the film ends a minute later. We learn via the news that the gunman shot himself… in the chest? At a distance? None of this holds together and the ending does not justify the time it took, and wasted, to get to that point.

There is exactly one point where this movie flashes the kind of quality story it could have been and it happens 70 minutes into the picture. Baron miraculously deduces how Ellen’s husband was killed: friendly fire, and Todd was the culprit. It was naturally an accident, one that haunted Todd deeply, but he returned home and everyone started throwing around the word “hero.” So he kept the truth to himself. Now, right there is an interesting premise that could produce a flurry of intriguing and complicated drama. Todd would live his day feeling like a fraud but also not wanting to disappoint his loved ones, the people he cares about, and so hiding the truth could be a justifiable evil, or could it? This little reveal of character backstory is only intended to explain Todd’s penchant for drinking, and the movie just skirts along a few minutes later, already over this revelation. Suddenly should have dropped all of the cheesy and half-baked thriller aspects and gone in this other direction.

VRc1dr7The villains in this movie lack conviction and competency. First of all, they just leave Ellen and her son and father unattended in the basement rather than tying them up. Then there’s just their general unconvincing nature when speaking with locals. They pose as secret service agents but there are actual secret service agents still in their midst. These turncoats are plotting to murder the president because the “Committee” they work for has demanded such. This phantom “Committee” is only known through one agent, Baron, and each man is selected for duty. They have a cause, though none of them can articulate exactly what that would be. At one point Conklin insists not killing the hostages because it would be bad PR and dissuade the public to the merits of their unexplained cause. Are these guys thick enough to think that killing the United States president will win over the public, just as long as they have good reasons for killing the president? It seemed obvious that Baron was going to be the lone person of this “Committee,” and yet the film doesn’t even tie up this loose end. We never know whether Baron was making it all up or whether there is a clandestine organization that has its sights set on the president.

Boll’s diffident direction mirrors the lack of enthusiasm throughout the production. This just doesn’t come across as a story that separates itself from your bargain basement, straight-to-DVD action flick. In fact there isn’t any action in the movie short of a few tidy scenes. And as far as thrills and suspense, they’re undercut at just about every turn, thanks to the lack of urgency and the comical misuses of Ellen and her family. At no point will you be watching Suddenly and get the sensation that anybody really cared about making this movie as best it could be. Usually Boll’s movies feel pasted together and derivative of other, better movies and visual influences; this movie is too dull to even be derivative. The movie even has the temerity to reuse that trite cliché, having the villain remark, “Under other circumstances you and I could have been friends.” The dumb villains, the dumb characters, the lackluster pacing and suspense, the lack of resolution, it all contributes to making what is easily the most boring movie in Boll’s filmography.

Usually these kinds of thrillers are churned out into the straight-to-DVD market, a glut of recycled plots and tortured/reluctant action heroes. There’s a formula that works and there’s been a proven audience that enjoys something cheesy, thoughtless, and familiar. And that’s what puzzles me even more about Suddenly because every somnambulist second of the film leaves you with the stark impression that nobody cared. The tale of a hostage thriller mixed with a presidential assassination, with some war drama thrown in, could work as far as the genre goes. All you need is a solid premise and some gung-ho execution, which explains why we had two DieHard-in-a-White-House films last year. Suddenly is nothing special, which we all suspected from the particulars involved, but it’s not even worthwhile or workable genre pap, which is even more insulting. From the wacky grandfather to the idiot villains who blindly trust their leader to the abrupt ending, or how about the fact that a kid is named Pidge, this is just one bad movie.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

MV5BMjc1OTEwNjU4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzUzNDIwOQ@@._V1_SX214_Ambitious filmmaking is welcome, but usually ambition leads somewhere, which is the main problem with co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s unwieldy 140-minute multi-generational crime drama, The Place Beyond the Pines. First we watch Luke (Ryan Gosling) as a traveling motorcyclist enter a life of crime to support his infant son. Next the focus shifts to Avery (Bradley Cooper) as a cop with a conscience running into corruption on the force. Last, we jump ahead into the future and watch the dramatic irony unfold as the children of Avery and Luke interact, waiting for them to learn their paternal connection. I believe Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and his team was attempting to tell a meditative, searching drama about children paying for the sins of their fathers, the lingering fallout of bad decisions and moral compromises. Except that’s not this film. By the end of the movie, while some secrets have been laid bare, there really aren’t any significant consequences. The film does an excellent job of maintaining a sense of dread, but it doesn’t come to anything larger or thought provoking. The entire structure of this film is geared toward a tragic accumulation, but it just doesn’t materialize. That’s a shame because it’s got great acting through and through, though I have grown weary of Gosling’s taciturn antihero routine that seems like a rut now. Avery’s portion of the plot was the most interesting and anxiety-inducing, but I found the movie interesting at every turn. The characters are given pockets of nuance and ambiguity as they traverse similar paths of desperation and conciliation. The Place Beyond the Pines is a perfectly good movie, albeit disjointed, that cannot amount to the larger thematic impact it yearns for.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Killing Them Softly (2012)

1894A funny thing happened while watching Killing Them Softly, the latest film from writer/director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). After an hour, I noticed a couple people stand up and leave, never to return. Then another and another like permission had been communally brokered. I counted ten walkouts at my showing, which was more than I had at Cloud Atlas, a film that I can at least understand the possible exodus. But this? It also got a rare F grade from CinemaScore, joining the ranks of The Devil Inside, Wolf Creek, and The Box. Before you put that much stock in what is essentially a movie going exit poll, Alex Cross was given an A grade from audiences. But why all the venomous hate? I can only theorize that the mainstream audience feels it was sold a bill of goods, a crime thriller with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The audience did not want to go on the lengthy talky detours. They wanted people to get dead. Whatever the reason, Killing Them Softly has killed its audience, who choose not to go softly in their disapproval.

Set amidst the economic meltdown of 2008, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Frankie (Ben Mendelsohn) are two lowlife thugs hired to rob a mob-affiliated card game. The trick is that local gangster Markie (Ray Liotta) had previously paid a group of guys to rob his own card game, fleecing his own customers. In his drunken revelry, Markie admitted as such to his pals. Now the situation is ripe for exploitation. Because any future robberies will have their suspicions pinned firmly on Markie, whether he had anything to do with them or not. As a result, no one is gambling, the public has lost confidence in the markets, and the mob needs to get things back to business. Jackie (Brad Pitt) is called in to make that happen. He’s a professional killer, who prefers to kill at a distance, without all those messy emotions. He has to trace the culprits responsible and give them the reckoning they have coming.

93862_galFrom a plot standpoint, Killing Them Softly is pretty thin. It’s just about the ramifications of two nitwits robbing a card game. This lack of narrative depth will rankle most filmgoers, but I didn’t mind it so much because Dominik uses the crime thriller veneer to examine the sheer ugliness of a criminal lifestyle. This is a pretty character-driven crime flick, and it has to be when there’s a malnourished plot. It takes some lengthy sidesteps, notably with James Gandolfini’s (Zero Dark Thirty) character, Mickey. He’s supposed to be a professional, but the man is a complete wreck. He’s belligerent to those in service positions (waiters, prostitutes), chronically drunk, and weirdly empathetic for his struggling wife, yet seemingly powerless to change his life’s downward slide into self-medicated self-destruction. Mickey is the ghost of Christmas Future, the vision of what this lifestyle does to people who make a living out of it, who actually live into their retirement age. The two young crooks, Frankie and Russell, are idiots yes, but even when they have money their lives are so empty. Russell is so disgusting, sweating profusely, that you can practically taste his stank. Frankie is a little more cognizant of the danger he’s in, and yet the moron doesn’t leave town after his big score. I’d think that’s the first thing you do when you rip off the mob. The day-to-day anxiety of a life of crime is just not worth the effort. You constantly have to look over your shoulder, a life dominated in paranoia, where every stranger or furtive glance could have sinister meaning. Even when you make money, you’re theoretically taking money away from someone else’s profit, and these are the kind of people that don’t take kindly to friendly competition. This is no enviable, glamorous life.

I think Killing Me Softly would be a better, easily more satisfying movie had it eschewed the attempts at extra weight and commentary. It’s no surprise that the scenes that follow a more traditional crime thriller route are the best. There’s palpable tension when Frankie and Russell are in over their heads. The conflict is prevalent and the suspense is nicely stretched out, notably during the card game robbery. Being neophytes, you don’t know what they’re liable to do but you can bet it won’t be smart. This is when the movie is most alive, most engaging, and most entertaining. When it plays it straight, and explores the sliding power plays at stake in a world of cash and guns, it can be a nasty but taut little movie. I’m just sorry that Dominik took a functional crime thriller and gave it an extra sheen of Important Things to Say (”America’s not a country. It’s a business.”). The political parallels never feel more than tacked on attempts to grope for deeper meaning. Oh I get it, I understand the comparison of mob enforcers and corrupt Wall Street execs, hoodlums and crooks in different casual wear, but that doesn’t mean the parallel is that meaningful. It’s on-the-nose and a bit in your face (really, people are watching C-SPAN in dive bars?).

93859_galGiven Domink’s last film, I expected there to be some visual flourishes, though I’m unsure of whether they added much to the proceedings. Dominik sure can make violence entrancing, setting a slow motion slaying in the rain with stirring beauty to ironic Motown music. But he can also make the violence feel brutal, like a beat down on Markie that uses choice sound effects and editing to make you feel the punches. Even the opening seconds feel like an artistic assault to the senses, the loud static of noise interrupted by bursts of Obama’s sound bytes. The extreme camera angles, the visual felicities, the ironic music selections, they all seem to underscore the movie’s subtext-as-text approach.

Pitt (Moneyball) doesn’t come into the movie for the first thirty minutes. You’re welcome to see him, especially since he has such a coolly threatening demeanor, but also because here’s a character that will mix things up. I found myself rooting for the guy, partially because he was an accomplished professional but also because I wanted there to be consequences for idiots doing dumb to powerful enemies. I enjoyed the slow-burn intensity of Pitt when he was turning the screws on the screw-up. Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods) is also enjoyable as a mob shill left to communicate the wishes of his higher-ups. McNairy (Argo) gives a performance that screams desperation, as he realizes the depth of trouble he finds himself into. And even Liotta (Charlie St. Cloud) does a fine job as a lout who misjudges the friends he keeps, discovering the costs of bragging.

In many ways, I feel like Killing Them Softly is akin to last year’s Drive, a more meditative crime thriller with bursts of gruesome yet beatific violence. Likewise, many filmgoers will be sore thinking they were catching straight crime thrillers and been given arty genre ruminations instead. And like my ambivalent feelings toward Drive, I can’t work up that much enthusiasm for Killing Them Softly either. It’s certainly got more ambition than most crime flicks but I’d rather it concentrate on telling a more engaging story. Dominik’s film is a bit too indulgent for its own good, given to visual flourishes and a narrative routinely sidetracked. And yet, I found it fairly interesting at just about every turn, well-acted, and intensely suspenseful and effective at different points. But it doesn’t add up to enough to recommend. The political allegory probably rubbed the walkouts the wrong way as well. The political allegory is too obvious, too pat with its “they’re all crooks” broadside. I wish the movie had abandoned the squalid, nihilistic art house ambitions and just kept things straight. When it has less on its mind, it works best. But for many, Killing Them Softly will be too tedious to see to the bloody end.

Nate’s Grade: B-

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2008)

I have no idea how it happened but someone gave infamously reviled director Uwe Boll a bunch of money to adapt a fantasy video game called Dungeon Siege into a star-laden movie. In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale seemed to be Boll’s stab at achieving mainstream credibility. He assembled his best cast yet with plenty of recognizable stars. At one point, I remember reading that Boll wanted to divide this film into two, Kill Bill-style, or release a 180-minute version. Until this movie, no Boll film had ever gone over barely an hour and a half. After seeing a slimmed down version that runs a little over two hours, I honestly have no idea what more Boll could have. In the Name of the King struggles to fill two hours worth with crap.

In a far off land, there lives a farmer named, coincidentally enough, Farmer (Jason Statham). His world is turned upside down when his family is killed by a band of creatures known as the Krug. He and his friend (Ron Perlman) must track down Farmer’s captured wife (Claire Forlani) and inflict some peasant vengeance of their own.

Evil wizard Gallian (Ray Liotta) was the cause of the attack. He has built up a whole army of Krug to challenge the King (Burt Reynolds) for the throne. Gallian also has two unwitting allies. The King’s nephew, the Duke (Matthew Lilard), wants to rule and is willing to plot with the evil wizard to achieve this goal. Muriella (Leelee Sobieski) is secretly sleeping with Gallian; he says he is teaching her how to use her blooming magical powers (remove your mind from the gutter) but he is really stealing her powers.

Farmer reluctantly becomes a leader to protect the kingdom. Gallian is stupefied that this simple farmer is somehow beyond the control of his magic. That’s because Farmer should probably change his name to Prince because he is the long-lost son of the King and some stable girl. Merick (John Rhys-Davies) serves as the King’s most trusted advisor but he is also the father of Muriella. He scolds her for being so foolish and being used by Gallian. She suits up like Joan of Arc and wants to fight, but her father won’t allow it.

Eventually this all leads to a large-scale battle between the forces of good and evil where Gallian uses his magic powers to create a cyclone of books to stop Farmer. There you have it.

If I were Peter Jackson, I might consider a copyright infringement suit, because In the Name of the King is a sloppy Lord of the Rings rip-off through and through. The long-lost heir to the throne must accept his magisterial destiny … just like in Lord of the Rings. There is a 10-minute fight sequence that happens in a swath of woods … just like in Fellowship of the Ring. The villain relies on an army of stupid supernatural hordes … just like Lord of the Rings. There is a wizard on wizard duel … just like Lord of the Rings. A noble woman wishes to fight but he father does not approve, so she sneaks off in armor and does fight … just like in Return of the King. There is a shadowy “other” world that goes beyond our dimension … just like in Lord of the Rings. The eventual trek of our heroes leads to a volcano, but not just that, it’s also the villain’s lair … just like in Lord of the Rings. Bastian (William Sanderson, in his sixth Boll movie) serves no purpose other than to resemble Legolas. John Rhys-Davies you should know better; you freaking starred IN the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

So what does a $60 million budget get Boll? Lots and lots of crane shots. Boll relies on extended aerial photography and zooming, CGI landscapes that serve to remind you how much better Lord of the Rings was and that Vancouver is no New Zealand. There are some segments that lack a firm geographic bearing because Boll wants to jump from expansive crane shot to expansive crane shot. I get that he wants to showcase the depth of the battles, which do feature a fair amount of background action, but the repetition of any camera technique will always grow old if it doesn’t feel congruent to the onscreen drama. I’m happy that Boll wants to open up the scope, but when he relies on a multitude of high-angle crane shots in motion the effect becomes wearisome. The audience can never settle into the action because Boll is too forceful with wanting to demonstrate what he bought with his budget. The cinematography is a notable step up for Boll and longtime director of photography Mathias Neumann. Then again, if I had a $60 million budget I’m sure my movie would look good too, or at least better.

In the Name of the King
is the biggest budget Boll has ever had, but it seems like proper costumes must have still been out of his price range. The marauding horde of Orcs, oh I’m sorry, the Krug look like cheesy low-rent Power Rangers villains in goofy rubber outfits. The camera never lets you get a good glimpse of these creatures because even Boll knows how crummy they look. You get another idea of how bad the creatures look when Farmer utilizes the familiar dress-in-other-guy’s-uniform-to-pretend-to-blend-in ploy that was perfected by the aging action stars of the 1980s. So Farmer knocks out a Krug creature, throws on its spongy armor, and is able to walk around the Krug camp.

The special effects also seem to run the gamut. The green screen work is painfully ineffective and very transparent, like when Farmer is swinging down a rope across a gorge. When Boll tries to show large fields of soldiers it also exposes how fake the CGI work looks. The many battalions of soldiers look like a dated computer video game. The special effects for Alone in the Dark were better and that film had, reportedly, half the budget of this movie. Realizing all this, it’s no wonder that Boll tries to use as many real sets as he can.

The musical score by Jessica de Rooij (Bloodrayne II: Deliverance) and Henning Lohner (Bloodrayne) may well be the worst musical score to ever exist in the history of mankind. It feels like your ears are being raped. There’s a tonal quality akin to being submerged underwater, and this atrocious music keeps popping up all the time and swelling over the onscreen dialogue. It’s only going to get worse as de Rooij is slotted to score all of Boll’s upcoming films from here on out. She’s assimilated into the Boll fraternity.

And yet despite all of this, In the Name of the King is high-class camp. Boll achieves a workable level of derisive enjoyment that manages to keep the movie entertaining even while its spins into stupidity. The fight scenes are actually decent and Boll manages to compose a few shots here and there that look quite good, like when the camera scans over a field of dead bodies. During the action centerpiece, the 10-minute battle in the woods between man and Krug, Boll’s camera manages to frame some solid, if unspectacular, action with some good angles. It’s also cut to be mostly coherent. The fight choreography is credited to Siu-tung Ching who also did the choreography for Hero and House of the Flying Daggers. He must have procrastinated until the night before his choreography was due. It will pass but there’s little creativity there; however, Boll must have been flabbergasted. I think the true test for derisive viewer enjoyment will be when the ninjas come out of nowhere at the King’s disposal. All of a sudden in the middle of a medieval style fantasy fight there are flipping black-clad ninjas. I loved it for its sheer anachronistic absurdity. To me, it felt like Boll was trying to cram in everything that he thought was theoretically cool into one massive fight sequence. He just didn’t have the money to also include pirates and robots and hobos and vampires and bears and Batman.

Fantasy is just not Boll’s preferred territory and it mostly shows. He really wants to make his own entry in the style of Lord of the Rings, but you can tell his mind is elsewhere. The plot is a mess but that isn’t indicative of Boll’s lack of interest with the film, it’s just indicative of a typical Boll movie. In the Name of the King feels like Boll is following a checklist of what is expected in a modern fantasy epic, except that Boll cannot provide the epic part. Here’s my proof: the vine-swinging tree nymphs led by Elora (Kristanna Loken). If Boll was really invested in this movie he would have paid more attention to these alluring and cinematic vixens. These anti-war ladies have sworn off men (take that for what you will) and live their lives like Cirque du Soliel jungle performers. This stuff is right up Boll’s exploitation rich alley, and yet he and the film treat these women of the woods like afterthoughts. They show up and save the day when the film requires an inexplicable savior, but why doesn’t a movie about fantasies deal more extensively with figures that could very well work as male fantasy? These forest females claim to hate men and yet they still dress semi-provocatively in leather tunics that enhance their womanly assets. That seems odd. I don’t know how helpful tree-dwelling women would be in a fight either unless it was fought in a well-forested area. Boll not capitalizing on these women warriors proves to me that his heart isn’t in this movie.

Screenwriter Doug Taylor was clearly cobbling a story together by his fading memory of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and yet this being a Boll movie, there are still plenty of head-scratching decisions that defy logic even for a would-be fantasy film. For instance, why does Farmer fight with a boomerang? How effective can a weapon be when it gets thrown and then needs to be picked up? The boomerangs that I know can hit people, sure, but usually hitting someone stops its path of movement. Then again, these could be magic boomerangs. How did Gallian raise such a massive monster army to rival that of the King’s without anyone noticing? I’m sure the excuse for that is also magic-related. The Duke takes out two legions of soldiers for his own purposes, and when one man asks where the commanding officers are the Duke, in front of everyone, stabs him. It seems like a lousy way to lead but I’m sure Joseph Stalin would approve. A telekinetic sword fight sounds cool on paper until you realize it is just actors standing passively while CGI swords clang around them. During the climactic battle it’s dark and raining (hey, like in Lord of the Rings) for the King’s army vs. the Krug, but then as Farmer and Elora race to the Volcano Lair it is light out. How many time zones does this kingdom have? Also during this climactic battle, the King’s army has the high ground thanks to a hill and the Krug race up the raised land. The archers atop the hill fire their flaming arrows at an angle pointing up, which would sail over the heads of all their targets. I suppose the King’s archery education program has been suffering some severe budget cutbacks.

The dialogue is pretty corny amidst all the sword-and-sorcery antics and induces its fair share of giggles. When Muriella asks Gallian if he always appears out of nowhere he responds, “No. I appear suddenly. Out of somewhere.” Thanks for clearing that semantic argument up. He also has a very icky conversation with his bedfellow Muriella dripping with double entendres: “I knew you would come,” “I told you I would,” “I felt it before you came,” “You told me I could come and go as I please.” I think my favorite moment is when the King is on his deathbed and addressing Farmer. He advises the man of agricultural means to try using seaweed to enrich his soil. “How do you know this?” asks Farmer. “Because I am king,” he replies.

The actors all feel like they are in separate movies on a collision course with one another. Boll has never had a firm command with actors. The big name actors feel their way around a scene with little guidance from Boll, which means they routinely experiment and play their roles like they were an exercise instead of a final performance. A fine example is a single line spoken at a family table; it’s just perfectly off enough to prick your ears to Boll’s tone-deaf direction. I think Boll either doesn’t care that much about performances or is easily cowed into submission by actors. Staham is recycling his glaring machismo that he’s turned into an action movie franchise, but he seems to me like a modern-day Steven Segal who dispatches foes in a monotone whisper. Luckily for Boll, Statham is adept at picking up fight choreography and so the movie benefits by watching the actor clearly in the middle of the fracas performing his own sword fights.

Most of the actors also seem to be falling back on past performances as inspiration for what to do under Boll’s laissez faire direction. Perlman plays his standard gruff tough with a deadpan delivery. Sobieski hasn’t acted in a movie for some time. She comes across as her usual inexpressively empty self, which is her thing, along with being a physical clone of Helen Hunt. Loken shows she can swing from a vine but not master a vague British accent. Forlani gets to cower and weep, though in my estimation she is a much more attractive woman in her 30s than she was as a 20-something ingénue. Smile lines have really sexed her up. Burt Reynolds is playing Burt Reynolds, and Rhys-Davies falls back on his trademark gravitas. Only Lillard seems to find enjoyment out of Boll’s vacuum of direction. His accent mirrors his wildly over the top style of acting that sometimes feels like a fish flopping around for air. His physical mannerisms are uncontrolled and he sneers through much of his lines, but I’ll give it to Lilard, he is much more fun to watch than any of the other slumming stars.

Special attention must be made to Liotta, who is on a different plane of terrible. It’s bad enough that he’s chewing the scenery in his typical manic, bug-eyed crazy yell-speak he refers to as acting, but the movie has to open on the discomfiting image of Liotta trying to suck Leelee Sobieski’s face inside out via kissing. Liotta’s character Gallian feels and looks out of place; he resembles a skuzzy Las Vegas magician with a pompadour and a long leather jacket and a button-down shirt. Where did this man come from? His performance is astonishing in how deeply the awful goes, and when he tells Farmer’s wife, “I feel him inside you,” try your best not to shudder.

After seeing eight of his films and writing 17,000 words on the man (including 2,700 for this review), I feel like I have a special connection to Uwe Boll. I just don’t sense that Boll’s heart was truly in this venture. In the Name of the King seems to be the last time I think we’ll see Boll flirt with mainstream Hollywood genre filmmaking. I think his time luring known actors has come to a merciful end. His next slew of films seem destined to all direct-to-DVD and feature no name casts that are mostly the same actors he has worked with before. In the Name of the King will stand as a ridiculous Lord of the Rings rip-off that has some workable action alongside its many laughably awful moments. It’s a lousy fantasy movie with too many extraneous characters and too familiar a plot outline. Even for a $60 million film, Boll finds new ways to prove that no matter what sized budget the man has he will always try to grasp something beyond his reach.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Smokin’ Aces (2007)

Writer/director Joe Carnahan (Narc) wants to impress an audience so bad with his muscular and macho gangster flick, but his Smokin’ Aces is vapid, nihilistic, and opines not to simply be a Tarantino rip-off, but a rip-off of a Tarantino rip-off. The premise seems ripe enough as we follow a rogue’s gallery of hitmen and killers trying to be the first to knock off a mob snitch/Vegas magician (Jeremy Piven) for a million dollar bounty. The colorful characters are introduced and some are quickly and unexpectedly taken out, but Carnahan never fully knows what to do with his bushel of baddies after he establishes their character quirks. The killers don’t really interact that much with one another and some of them hardly have any screen time at all; perhaps less would have been more in this jumbled stew. Carnahan throws out a few nifty visual tricks but it’s all superfluous and empty. Smokin’ Aces moves quickly, doesn’t make much sense in the beginning and end, and little to any of the characters have satisfying conclusions. So much of the writing feels like lame macho posturing without anything new or interesting to add to an overstuffed shoot-em-up. There are cops, robbers, plenty of gunfire, lesbians, and all sorts of convoluted twists, but it never holds together. Carnahan throws a lot of different elements together but they never extend beyond the elemental stage, so every storyline and character feels like an introduction that?s never capped off. The man has no idea what to do with what he’s started, and a karate kid on Ritalin is all the proof I need. Guy Ritchie did this territory far better service with the marvelously entertaining 2001 film Snatch. Rent that instead and save yourself the headache.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Narc (2002)

Stop me if you’’ve heard this before. A hard-nosed and diligent cop (Jason Patrick) gets taken off the force after in accident while serving in the field. The bureau brings him back in the help of solving a case collecting cobwebs, the death of an officer undercover. This cop gets teamed up with a hothead (Ray Liotta) who doesn’’t “play by all the rules” who becomes increasingly more suspicious that said hothead breaks more rules than enforces. Oh, and diligent cop’s neglected wife and child incessantly worry over his well being as he becomes consumed by the work. What’s that, you want me to stop? Well okay then.

So what do we get with ‘Narc’? Well, Ray Liotta yells. A lot. He’’ll huff and puff until smoke blows out his ears and veins jump from his neck. Liotta eats scenery uncontrollably like Marlon Brando left alone at the Cheesecake Factory.

Narc’ attempts to tell a gritty police drama in the same manner of ‘The French Connection’ but, instead, turns into every other “gritty” cop movie. The twists (I use this word lightly because every turn is easily telegraphed) do nothing to liven up this rote rogue copper flick. Let’’s face it, every cop drama is plot driven, even the classics like ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘The French Connection’. So if you don’’t have a good story then there’s no gas in this car. And ‘Narc’ barely runs on fumes.

Writer/director Joe Carnahan tries to play window dressing with some superfluous camera tricks in an attempt to jazz up the proceedings. The opening handheld chase scene could give the makers of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ motion sickness. The editing can at times simulate an annoying fly buzzing around your ear. The result of these tricks is like covering a turd with chocolate and selling it to the masses.

Narc’ won’’t quicken any pulses or knock any socks out of their vicinity. So what will you get? Well Ray Liotta yelling at you, which, surprisingly, could lead to audience narc-olepsy. Even that horrible pun is better than watching the film. I think that says it all.

Nate’s Grade: C

Blow (2001)

The tale of Blow follows a kid named George Jung (Johnny Depp) as he travels to the sunshiny coasts of California. Here he finds everyone with a David Cassidy haircut and an insatiable appetite for pot. He strikes a small scale dealing business with some help from a flamboyant hair dresser (Paul Rubens) and rocket in riches. They eventually discover the powers of cocaine, a.k.a. blow to the uninitiated, and set it loose upon 1970s America. Jung becomes the top trafficker of cocaine and practically single-handily leads to its explosion. And of course, these good times can’t last as Jung’s life falls apart as the 80s go.

Blow is too stylistically similar to earlier 70s epics of violence and music like Boogie Nights and Goodfellas. The same moves and looks are evident, even the same overall tone, but it is missing all of the feel. Blow moves along and feels like something is missing as it continues to ape the flavor of those earlier excellent films. There’s a distinct feeling while viewing that you aren’t viewing something complete. The sense of loss permeates the screen with Blow.

Depp uses a subtle acting approach making Jung one real mellow dude man. One can never feel a connection for any of the characters because the plot is not interested in the characters and only a masochistic orchestra of bad events that happens to Depp. You feel unattached to the characters as a whole, but you do manage to feel a level of sympathy for Jung. His mother is a card to watch, and it seems history repeats itself when it comes to family squabbles.

Penelope Cruz plays one spoiled hell-cat of a drug lord’s girl, who later becomes Depp’s wife. Cruz’s character is possibly the most horrible love interest I have ever seen on film. She shrieks about money and wealth, acts apathetic to their innocent daughter, and single-handily gets Depp busted a few times without guilt. Upon deeper reflection she seems (if she happened not to actually exist, which she does) like a cheap foil to make the audience sympathy sway dramatically to our “tryin’ to do good” flawed hero in Jung. It almost seems insulting.

Ray Liotta (who was IN Goodfellas by the way) gets the pleasure of aging through the years with makeup, which basically consists of slapping gray and more skin to his neck. It’s rather humorous that Liotta is playing Depp’s father in the flick when in reality they are roughly the same age. Though I guess it’s better for Liotta to age after seeing Depp’s character age drastically and gain twenty pounds all in his neck. Older Depp looks like a zombie Ludwig von Beethoven.

Blow is written and directed by Ted Demme and is based on the memoirs of Jung while in prison. It is fairly entertaining in its own right but you can’t help but feel you’ve seen it all before and better. Still, with this lackluster year as it is Blow is a decent pic to sit down and chew through a box of overpriced popcorn. Any movie with Franka Potente (my titular hero in Run Lola Run) and Paul Ruebens is worth the price of admission.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Hannibal (2001)

Trying to sequelize Silence of the Lambs is surely harder than trying to sequelize The Blair Witch Project. The novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris I don’t think will be confused as a necessary burst of creative ambition, and more of a chance to cash in on the love of Hannibal Lector. Though I’ve not read a line from the book from what I’m told the movie is faithful until the much hated ending. Starting a film off a so-so book isn’t a good way to begin, especially when you lose four of the components that made it shine Oscar gold.

The element that Silence of the Lambs carried with it was stealthily gripping psychological horror. It hung with you in every closed breath you would take, surrounding you and blanketing your mind. I mean, there aren’t many serial killer movies about transsexuals that win a slew of Oscars. Lambs excelled at psychological horror, but with Hannibal the horror turns into a slasher film more or less. What Lambs held back and left us terrified Hannibal joyfully bathes in excess and gore.

Julianne Moore, a competent actress, takes over from the ditching Jodie Foster to fill the shoes of FBI agent Clarice Starling. Throughout the picture you know she’s trying her damndest to get that Foster backwoods drawl she used on the original down. The problem for poor Moore though is that her character spends half of the film in the FBI basement being oogled by higher-up Ray Liotta. She doesn’t even meet Hannibal Lector until 3/4 through. Then again, the title of the film isn’t Starling.

Anthony Hopkins returns back to the devil in the flesh and seems to have a grand old time de-boweling everyone. Lector worked in Lambs because he was caged up, like a wild animal not meant for four glass walls, and you never knew what would happen. He’d get in your head and he would know what to do with your grey matter – not that he doesn’t have a culinary degree in that department in this film. Lector on the loose is no better than a man with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, though he has a better knowledge of Dante and Florentine romantic literature. Lector worked bottled up, staring at you with dead unblinking calm. He doesn’t work saying goofy “goody-goody” lines and popping out of the shadows.

Since the director, screenwriter, and female lead didn’t show up for the Lambs rehash, it feels a tad chilled with Ridley Scott’s fluid and smooth direction. The cinematography is lush and very warm.

Gary Oldman steals the show as the horribly disfigured former client of Lector’s seeking out revenge. His make-up is utterly magnificent and the best part of the film, he is made to look like a human peeled grape. Oldman instills a Texan drawl into the character yet making him the Meryl Streep of villainy.

Hannibal is no where near the landmark in excellence that Silence of the Lambs was but it’s not too bad. It might even be good if it wasn’t the sequel to a great film. As it is, it stands as it stands.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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