If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark, and if you’re not a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark. It’s a prequel set in the early 1970s, decades before an adult Tony Soprano was ruling his turf in New Jersey and going to therapy to deal with his rising panic attacks. The Sopranos was an era-defining, ground-breaking show for HBO and creator David Chase would captivate and infuriate audiences in equal measure, mixing shocking violence, twisted comedy, strange side steps, pessimistic psychoanalysis, and stubborn subversive storytelling to its very end with a polarizing finale that still elicits debate to this day (count me in the Tony-is-dead camp). It would be too much to expect a return to that world to pack in all the entertainment and enrichment of a peak TV series, but I was at least hoping that Chase’s return to his mobster magnum opus would present an engaging story that would add further insight or intrigue into the series and its characters. After two hours, I’m left shrugging like Silvio Dante and about as clueless as Paulie Walnuts.
As personal background, I watched all seven seasons of The Sopranos and eagerly anticipated its finale in 2007. I was one of those people that even questioned whether my cable had somehow gone out as the series suddenly shifted to a black screen without further warning. I enjoyed the show though I haven’t watched it since it originally concluded over ten years ago. It would be a worthy series to re-watch in our binge era, but I think I would keep my initial interpretation of the show and its self-loathing patriarch, Tony. I think over the course of 8 years Chase intended to demystify the perverse allure of organized crime and the glamor of Hollywood myth-making. I think he subversively took a familiar setup, a family man trying to fight for respect from his family and his Family, and knew many people would find themselves rooting for Tony Soprano and his underdog status and his potential redemption through therapy and self-analysis. Except, Chase’s point, is that these bad men are not complicated, they’re not geniuses, and they’re not capable of real empathy. Tony’s near-death experience and inevitable return to his old ways was proof of that. Chase created a vehicle where people sided with the anti-hero lead and he systematically provided more and more evidence that this man was cruel, impulsive, selfish, and incapable of redemption, and every episode, especially in that final season, pushed the viewer to ask, “How much longer can you look the other way? How many more excuses can you give?” It was Chase taking the appeal of mob movies and anti-heroes and testing viewer loyalty, making people question the appeal of these kinds of stories about these kinds of men. That’s my reading.
As a prequel, The Many Saints of Newark might appeal to the most diehard fans of The Sopranos who just want to have two hours more in this world, seeing these characters again one more time. Perhaps fans will thrill to see James Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, play teenage Tony Soprano. Perhaps they’ll thrill to see Tony’s mother at a younger age but recognize some of her self-pitying and antagonistic quirks that would define her as an elderly woman. Perhaps they’ll thrill to watch Christopher Moltisanti’s father, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), as Tony’s uncle, the man he said from the series who was so influential to him. In essence, this story, written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, is about how Tony got to be on his doomed path of crime. The fact that Tony is merely a supporting character in this tale is not a grievous structural fault. However, the fact that Dickie is such an uninteresting lead character in such an uninteresting and glum story is a significant fault.
The Sopranos was dark and frustrating too, though your emotional investment was grander, but it was rarely boring. The majority of my time with Newark was spent stooped and patiently waiting for something meaningful to happen. There were bloody murders and gunfights and love affairs, but I kept waiting for it to seem like it mattered to the overall bigger picture. Very little in this movie ever felt important, because the movie doesn’t invest in its own characters and its own story on their own terms, it merely coasts off the attached appeal of the TV show it’s meant to link up to and coasts off the good will of its audience. If you removed the names of the characters, thus denying its creative inheritance, then I doubt even the most ardent fans of mob movies would find that much to appreciate here. If this wasn’t a Sopranos movie, it wouldn’t have gotten this platform and attention, and that seems less a reason to run with an underdeveloped story with a dull protagonist stumbling through mundane mob cliches.
If Dickie is meant to be so influential, I don’t understand the appeal. I guess he’s slightly more emotionally stable than Tony’s father, played by Jon Bernthal, but that’s not saying much. Dickie violently confronts his father, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), over his abuse of his young new bride from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), to defend her. That’s good? But when Dickie takes up an affair with the same woman, his stepmom, he proves just as depressingly violent. That’s bad. The problem is that Dickie is not a complex character to hang a movie upon. I thought there was going to be a slow temptation to begin an affair with his new stepmom, but that happens far too early, which places her as simply the “goomah” on the side he retreats to for sexual gratification and empty promises of building a life. She goes right from being a potentially interesting character, a woman with agency and danger, to another mob movie cliché, the arm candy waiting on her bad man to patronize her. Dickie says that his wife has had trouble conceiving, so I thought maybe this new stepmom would be revealed to be Christopher’s actual birth mother. That’s why she was here in this story. Nope, yet again this possibility is dismissed early. The Many Saints of Newark frustratingly takes every tedious story detour it can when presented.
The movie is set primarily in the late 60s and early 70s in Newark, barely tackling the riots of 1967 to use them as a cover for a storytelling choice for Dickie. The entire subplot featuring the struggles of the African American community feel tacked on to this movie, as if Chase is responding to criticisms that his series wasn’t diverse enough. The rise of Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) as a gangster is given such little significance. He begins as an employee of Dickie’s and then becomes a rival, but this complicated relationship isn’t played like it’s complicated. Every time Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) appeared I kept hoping that finally the movie was going to give him something to dig into, to really explore this perspective in a meaningful way. The rivalry between Harold and Dickie doesn’t even feel significant because both of these men are criminally underwritten. The Newark riots are played so incidentally and without consequence. Why begin to explore racial unrest and police brutality if you’re just going to ignore it after twenty minutes of movie?
As a movie, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. As a Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. I had some mild amusement and intrigue with moments like Corey Stoll going full force in his impression of a young Uncle Junior, with Vera Farmiga chewing the scenery as Tony’s mother, and the impeccable resemblance of Gandolfini to his late father. I enjoyed the weirdness of Liotta playing twin brothers. I enjoyed the period appropriate production values and music choices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to a vital experience that lends better understanding and insight into the Sopranos universe. Again, some fans may just be happy enough to exist in this universe for two more hours, to soak up even the most superfluous of details (I know I would be for my TV show favorites). That’s fine, but for me, what’s on screen barely resembles the daring and complex characterization of the series. Maybe a movie was always set up to fall short but this one falls short even as a mediocre mob movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
A star-studded collaboration between director Steven Soderbergh (Logan Lucky) and screenwriter Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted Face the Music), No Sudden Move is a class in how to effectively use tension and confusion to a movie’s benefit. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro play a pair of low-level criminals struggling to make ends meet. They accept a quick job “babysitting” a family while the husband (David Harbour) retrieves a very valuable document that certain higher-ups are after. Very early on, you feel like something is wrong and something will quickly go wrong, and this feeling persists throughout the film’s two hours. Our two protagonists sense they’re being set up, take action, and from there the movie becomes them trying to cash out with this valuable document while constantly looking over their shoulders. There are many different parties that are willing to do whatever it takes to obtain this document. In all honesty, the screenplay by Solomon is a little too over-plotted. There are several betrayals and schemers and acrimonious relationships built upon past betrayals and mistakes that it can all be a little hard to follow at times. The dread I felt was palpable. You don’t expect these guys to get away with this, not against the forces they’re going against, and so it becomes a nerve-wracking game of assessing every moment and whether this is when disaster will strike. Soderbergh’s dashes of style don’t always jibe with the 1954 Detroit setting, like his penchant for fish-eyed lenses communicating the distortion of this murky world of shadow brokers. It feels like Soderbergh has to resort to some new gimmick to get himself excited about movie projects (at least is wasn’t filmed on an iPhone). The acting is strong throughout, though Cheadle can be hard to hear at times from his guttural, frog-in-throat speaking voice. The movie kept me guessing, with some surprise cameos, and it left me dreading what would happen next. A modest success for glamorous discomfort.
Nate’s Grade: B
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 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 ogled 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 nowhere 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-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Serial killer culture dominated the 1990s and oddly enough it’s only gotten more highbrow since. Oh, that’s not to say that you won’t have any shortage of hacky, exploitative movies featuring elaborate murderers with gimmicky calling cards (The Hangman, a killer who literally stages his crime scenes like an ongoing game of hangman). However, the dark obsession with dangerous men (it’s almost always men) has given life to thousands of prestige cable documentaries, true-crime books, and high-profile podcasts like Serial and My Favorite Murder. We still very much have an unchecked fascination for these real and fictitious serial killers and what that may say about our society. In 1992, a serial killer thriller swept the Oscars, one of only three movies to win Best Picture, Actress, Actor, Director, and Screenplay (the others: It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and American Beauty came close if it hadn’t been for Hilary Swank). That’s how good The Silence of the Lambs was as a movie to overcome the genre biases of older Academy membership (it also helped that there were other genre biases at play for the other Best Picture nominees like Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, and JFK). It was special.
All of this is to say that Silence of the Lambs was a near impossible project to follow, and author Thomas Harris proved it with the middling-yet-best-selling sequel novel in 1999. It was obvious that it would be adapted into a major feature film, but the only returning Oscar winner from that first foray was Anthony Hopkins, which is kind of important considering his character is the title. The sequel was directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), adapted by none other than screenwriting titans David Mamet (The Untouchables) and Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List), and the movie made over $350 million worldwide at the box-office. By all accounts, it was a hit, but was it any good, or was it simply coasting from the acclaim and good will of its predecessor and the A-list cast and crew?
The first thing that becomes immediately apparent while watching Hannibal is that this is not Silence of the Lambs and not in a sense of its accomplishments but more in its chosen ambitions. This is not a psychological thriller in the slightest. It’s a boogeyman monster movie. Nobody here is given to intense introspection about man’s inhumanity to man and other such Topics of Grand Weight. Scott’s sequel is more a Gothic B-movie content to spill stomachs rather than quicken pulses. The opening botched FBI raid is chaotic, action-packed, and the flimsy excuse for why Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore taking over for Jodie Foster) is shelved for most of the movie. It feels like the filmmakers know they need to delay the reunion of our favorite cannibal therapist and FBI agent as long as possible, so the 130-minute film feels like a protracted setup to tease how far audience anticipation can possibly be sustained.
In the meantime, the plot alternates between Dr. Hannibal Lector living it up in Florence, Italy and Starling slumming it in the FBI basement. Slowly, oh so slowly, she picks up the pieces to track Lector’s whereabouts, but until then we indulge a lot of narrative bloat. Do we need to follow an Italian inspector who suspects “Dr. Fell” is not who he says he is and then enact plans to prove his identity and eventually cash in? This man is literally on screen longer than Clarice Starling. We’re introduced to a rich villain, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), but he’s more plot device than character, an all-expenses bank account to track and apprehend Lector for his bloody violence. I wish there was more to Oldman’s character given the actor and the impressive practical make-up application. He’s a symbol of rot, of vengeance, of obsession. Likewise, Ray Liotta’s lecherous FBI superior to Starling is less a character and more a plot device. He’s the stand-in for the harassment and dismissal Starling receives from her male colleagues, but a little of him goes a long way. His scenes where every other word is some creepy come-on, some sexual entreaty, or some off-color joke (he refers to Lector in homophobic slurs) are excessive. He’s an awful person but every line doesn’t have to be eye-rolling in how obviously terrible he can be. Spending extended time with all of these supporting characters is just a reminder that the movie is looking for excuses to keep its chief participants as far away for as long as possible. It’s frustrating.
The depiction of Hannibal Lector in Silence versus Hannibal is also quite noticeably different. Like most things in this sequel, the character is baser, key characteristics heightened and broadened, and bordering on farce. He’s less a scary intellectual opponent and master manipulator and more a well-read serial killer on vacation. He is profoundly less interesting in Hannibal. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a pleasure to be had watching Hopkins slice and dice his way through Italy and elude capture. Hopkins seems to relish the amplification of the campy and grand Guignol tone of the sequel. He looks to be having a blast as an unleashed beast. His performance is fun but teeters over into self-parody at times. Hearing the erudite man spout ironic catchphrases meant for incongruous comedy de-fangs some of his mystique and intensity.
And yet there are things I still starkly remember even twenty years later. Hannibal is no Oscar-winning thriller operating at an ascendant technical level with engrossing multi-dimensional characters. It’s a boogeyman movie with a scary old man. The ambitions are just lower, but that doesn’t mean that Hannibal is subpar by those lowered goals. It’s still entertaining even when it’s getting silly or overly long. Scott’s visual presentation keeps things engaging and the lovely Italian art and locales are a definite benefit to establishing the gory, Gothic atmosphere. The makeup is outstanding and, as I said back in 2001, Verger resembles a human peeled grape. Feeding a man to wild boars is also quite memorable. The conclusion still has its squirm-worthy high-point with serving Liotta’s fresh brains to himself. It’s a gory comeuppance that feels fitting. In the original book, apparently Starling then bares her breast to Lector, and he goes down on one knee, and they run off together as fugitive lovers. Needless to say, this ending was met with controversy. The film smartly nixes this, especially since I never for one second felt a romantic coupling between these two embittered characters. The movie doesn’t kill the allure of the Hannibal character but it also positions him on the same level as Michael Myers instead of, say, John Doe (Seven). It’s like a Halloween mask version of a real serial killer, dulled and magnified in some ways, but still leaving a fair impression of its source.
The Hannibal Lector incarnation had two more big screen ventures, the 2002 prequel Red Dragon and 2007’s even-further prequel, Hannibal Rising. Neither was terrific, neither was awful, though the answers that Rising offered as to what made Lector the man he is would inevitably prove disappointing (hello, childhood trauma). Arguably the best incarnation of the character, more so than Hopkins or Brian Cox (Succession) as the first big-screen Lector in 1986’s Manhunter, was from NBC’s television series from 2013-2015. Developed by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, American Gods), and starring Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Doctor Strange) as America’s favorite high-class cannibal, the series found a way to make a weekly crime procedural operatic and hypnotic and disgustingly beautiful. It’s like the artistic sensibilities from Silence and Hannibal were perfectly blended into a strange lovechild that deserved an even longer time to shine. Recently, just the week of this writing, CBS has begun a 2021 Clarice Starling TV series, though because of rights issues they cannot even reference Hannibal Lector. They have the rights to the senator and her daughter who was kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, as if those characters were what the fanbase was really clamoring for more time with. It looks like any other grisly CBS crime procedural just with a different name. I fully expect it to be canceled after one season.
Looking back at my review from 2001, I found myself nodding in agreement with my younger self from the past. I try not to read my earlier reviews before re-watching the films in question and perhaps might surprise myself by coming up with the same critiques independently. I also quite enjoy this line: “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.” I would even keep my grade the same. Twenty years later, the Hannibal Lector character still captures our intrigue and fascination even if he’s deposited in a lesser escapade not fully worth his full abilities.
Re-View Grade: B-
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
I 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.
Given 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.
The 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 Die–Hard-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
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-
A 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.
From 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?).
Given 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-
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 her 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.
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 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. 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. 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 2,600 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+
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+
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 cops neglected wife and child incessantly worry over his well being as he becomes consumed by the work. Whats 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 theres 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