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Snow White & the Huntsman (2012)

Snow White & the Huntsman is meant to be a darker, splashier, more action-packed retelling of the classic story, and when compared with the earlier 2012 Snow White venture, Mirror, Mirror, it certainly merits all those descriptions. With Twilight star Kristen Stewart at the helm, this movie seems tailored for teens looking for some girl power. I have no problem with reworking fairy tales to suit our modern-day cultural interest, but just giving a person a shield and a sword does not instantly make them a warrior. And just plopping Snow White into a medieval war does not instantly make this a movie worth watching.

The wicked Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) killed the king and installed herself on the throne. She sucks the youth directly from ingénues to keep those good Theron looks of hers. She is the fairest of them all but she is warned that one day the king’s daughter, Snow White (Stewart), will overtake her in fairness. Snow’s been living in a prison cell for about ten years since her evil step-mom took power. She escapes her imprisonment and flees to the Dark Forrest beyond the castle grounds. The Queen’s powers will not carry over into the Dark Forrest (for whatever unexplained reason), so she hires the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to retrieve Snow White. The Huntsman changes sides, allies himself with Snow, and some dwarves, and then everyone bands together to retake the kingdom under Snow’s stout leadership.

Snow White & the Huntsman falls victim to that age-old screenwriting curse of failing to show us its work. I get so sick of movies, or any narrative really, that heaps praise upon some person and then never shows us any convincing evidence. If somebody is said to be a great poet, I want to hear one of his or her great poems. If somebody is said to be a great leader, then I want to see him or her inspire. To make up for the plot shortcomings, the screenplay reminds us at every moment of downtime how special Snow White is, how glorious she is, how different she is, how she is the only one to bring down the tyrannical rule of Ravenna. At no point did I believe any of this. Just because I have characters tell me, ad naseum, that someone is special doesn’t make it so. I need to see the evidence, and from what Snow White has to show, it is not that impressive. She’s somewhat resourceful, escaping from captivity, but she’s not exactly a figure of compelling strength, magnetism, or inspiration. She gives one “rally the troops” speech that gets the townspeople all fired up to go to war; it’s no St. Crispin’s Day speech, but even if we’re grading on a curve, it’s a pretty weak motivational speech. There’s no reason these people would line up behind this displaced damsel other than the fact that the plot requires them to do so. This Snow lady has, much like the infamous Bella Swan, the personality of a dead plant, and all the proclamations to the contrary will not change that fact. Snow White is just not an interesting of compelling person, period.

There are two reasons why Stewart is completely wrong for this part. First off, when we’re objectively talking about one who is “fairest of them all,” and Charlize Theron is in your movie, you’re going to lose every time. I’m not saying Stewart is wretched looking; quite the contrary. Debut director Rupert Sanders finds ways to film her that make her look lush and vibrant. Some would argue “fairest of them all” is not in references to physical beauty, which it has always been, but to the fact that Snow’s heart is so pure and good. If that’s the case, that’s just stupid. Then why even make it Snow White if the nemesis to the evil queen is simply somebody who is morally just? You could have had a commoner play the role and that would have brought about more interesting class conflicts. Secondly, Stewart is such a modern era actress, someone who has so effectively channeled the rhythms of a blasé generation of young people, that dropping her into a medieval time period is jarring. She doesn’t fit. Everything about her aloof acting style screams modern times. Maybe that’s why her speaking is kept to a minimum. She can ride on horseback, dress in Joan of Arc armor, but she’ll never strike anyone as a fitting Epic Heroine. I feel that her acting has blended with the sullen nature of Bella Swan to the point that it’s hard to separate the two. I’m not a Stewart hater at all. I actually think she can be quite a capable actress (see: Speak, Adventureland, the upcoming adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road) when paired with the proper material. Snow White & the Huntsman is not the proper material.

Aside from casting errors, this dark fairy tale doesn’t find any time to settle down and develop anything that could approximate characterization. Case in point: all we know about Snow is that she is a princess, everyone tells us how beautiful she has always been, she runs away, and then leads a rebellion, then she become queen (don’t pester me about spoilers). What else do we know about her? She’s defined entirely by outside forces, especially the charitable words of others. Snow White is not a character but a symbol, the prophetic Chosen One. She’s really a placeholder for every lazy archetype needed for epic fantasy. Stewart cannot connect with the material, so she seems to wander around, mouth agape, almost like she’s stumbling drunk through the whole movie. It seems that Snow White & the Huntsman just provides us the familiar elements of the story (evil stepmother, huntsman, dwarves) and expects us to fill in the rest with our own wealth of knowledge over the famous fairy tale. The rote insertion of a long-lost childhood friend/eventual love interest (Sam Claffin) is made tolerable only by the fact that he does not eventually become a love interest. This Snow doesn’t need a man, and good for her.

Sanders’ background in commercials definitely shows in his superb visual palate. The man knows how to frame a beautiful shot, and the visual highpoint is Snow’s hallucinogenic shamble through the Dark Forrest. Without the narrative traction, though, the movie starts to resemble one very long, very excruciating perfume ad, particularly when Snow comes across a white horse just laying down in the surf. Some of Sanders’ “ain’t nature great” creations deeper into the forest reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, especially with the godly stag. Despite its considerable faults, Snow White & the Huntsman is a great looking movie. Sanders’ crisp visuals are further enhanced by wonderfully theatrical costumes from multiple Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood (expect another award on that mantle come 2013). Queen Ravenna has more eye-catching outfits than Cher in her heyday. They seem to be made out of interesting organic elements, like a gown accented with diminutive bird skulls. She may be a ruthless tyrant, but man does that lady know how to dress. The fashion choices became so exotic and intriguing that it provided another reason for me to hope we’d get more time with the queen. The production design by Dominic Watkins (United 93) is fittingly medieval. At least there’s always something nice to look at with this monotonous bore.

I don’t really get the geography of this kingdom. By all accounts, it looks like one poorly guarded castle, one poor mud town, and a deep expanse of forest. The fact that it’s labeled as the Dark Forrest seems shortsighted, since it takes a few hours continued walking to come across all sorts of other civilizations, including our scarred matriarchal society. And then there are dwarves too. It all feels so listless, lacking any sort of connective tissue to help round out this magical world. After a while, it just becomes an assortment of cool stuff just put into a movie because it’s cool. The fact that none of these magical creatures or assorted villagers ever pop back again, except for our coronation in the resolution, means they were meaningless to this story other than being a rest stop.

The screenplay is surprisingly rushed; rarely do we spend more than five minutes in any location. I was interested in a city of women with self-inflicted facial scars to protect themselves from Ravenna coming for them. Just as things start to get interesting, it’s like the movie gets antsy and has to keep moving, and we’re off again. It’s hard to work up any sort of emotional engagement for anyone when we just spend a few minutes with these characters. The brisk pacing also gives the impression that the characters really don’t matter in the end. If it weren’t for a scene where the Huntsman blatantly explains every feeling he has to a comatose Snow White, we’d know nothing about him. The Huntsman is grieving over the loss of his wife, and oh she just happens to have been killed by Ravenna’s creepy albino brother (Sam Spruell). The pigment-challenged dolt confesses this convenient bit of information at a strange time. Why confess to killing a man’s wife when you’re battling to the death? Confess afterwards. It’s another example of lame screenwriting and nascent characterization. Even the queen gets a bizarre throwaway bit of characterization. For whatever reason, we have a flashback to when she was a child and her mother forced her to drink the magic immortality elixir. Why did we see this? It’s too late to make her sympathetic. And yet, even this brief glimpse at Ravenna’s back-story makes her more interesting than our feckless Snow White.

The bleakly brilliant Young Adult renewed my fondness for Theron as an actress. For a while, she seems to really sink her teeth into the role, lapping up the villainy in a satisfyingly menacing manner. It’s at this lower level of burn, the quiet intensity, where Theron is most enjoyable. When the movie requires her to raise her voice is when things start to go bad. She shrieks in such a campy, over-the-top, weird overly enunciated style. Any hope of secretly enjoying this movie died with Theron’s stagy agitation. Hemsworth (The Avengers) adopts a thick Scottish brogue but does little else. At times I found that he looked remarkably like a cartoon tough guy; just something about his face lends itself to clean, burly definitions. The best actor in the movie is Bob Hoskins (Mrs. Henderson Presents) as a blind dwarf, and perhaps that sentence alone should say all that needs saying.

This film is more Lord of the Rings than fairy tale. It’s got some battles and some siege action to pacify the men folk, but this is obviously aimed at the ladies. It’s a feminist, Robin Hood-esque reworking of the Snow White tale, recasting the damsel as action heroine, and I’d have no problem with this revision if: 1) the film made her an actual character, 2) it had been played by anyone other than Kristen Stewart. It’s got all the familial elements but they have no context in this reworking; it lacks internal logic. If I did not have sufficient background knowledge about this tale, I’d be left wondering why any of this should make sense (apples are poisonous now?). At every turn, the movie has to tell us why things should matter rather than showing us. There’s no evidence onscreen why this Snow White lady deserves any fuss. Snow White & the Huntsman is a movie obsessed with appearance and precious little else. Snow White & the Huntsman is one boring, truculent, dreary chore of a movie that goes on far too long. Just because it’s darker doesn’t make it more mature or exciting. Fairest of them all, my ass.

Nate’s Grade: C

Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese tackling a children’s film feels like an odd fit for the man responsible for classic gangster epics and symphonies of violence. But if David Lynch, Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, and Danny Boyle can all make family films that don’t make your brain rot, then why not the greatest living director? Maybe notorious sadist Lars von Trier will be next. Adapted from the award-winning children’s book, Hugo is, as my pal Eric Muller put it, a family film for film historians.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy living beneath the walls of the Paris train station. He’s secretly the one responsible for winding up all the clocks and keeping time. He has to stay one step ahead of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who snatches wayward boys and sends them off to an orphanage. Hugo has been swiping clock pieces from the booth of a mysterious toy collector, George (Ben Kingsley). He needs the tiny pieces to fix a metallic man that Hugo and his late father (Jude Law) had been working on together. Hugo is convinced that if he fixes the metal man the automaton will write out one last message from his father. Hugo befriends George’s niece, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and the two of them explore the various shops and shopkeepers of the station. As they uncover more clues, the kids realize that George is actually George Méliès, the filmmaking pioneer best known for the 1902 fantasy, A Trip to the Moon (the one where the moon gets a bullet in its eye).

Scorsese’s first foray into 3D filmmaking is a rousing sensation for the eyes. The images pop without superfluous objects flying at the camera. The depth of field is nicely and creatively toyed with by Scorsese. Best of all, the 3D enhances the story rather than distracting you. Hugo is a celebration of the advances in moviemaking, and 3D is the latest advancement meant to make the theatergoing experience special. Of course the theatergoing experience has always been special, as the movie indicates. Where else but a theater can we collectively bond with a group of strangers, laughing collectively, feeling the pangs of emotion in unison? There’s a thematic rationale for Scorsese’s use of the third dimension. He masterfully fills the screen with wonderful images, like the massive inner working of clock towers. Scorsese’s signature tracking shots zoom in through the wintry 1930s Paris landscape and train station. A visual highlight is when a trunk of sketches busts open, the papers scattered all over the screen, some moving like flip books, creating the illusion of animation. I can honestly advise people to seek out a 3D showing of Hugo if given the option. For once, it’s worth the extra dough. I only anticipate making this same recommendation for the upcoming Piranha 3DD.

It’s the second half where the movie shows its true intentions, becoming a love letter to the power of cinema and the early pioneers of the art form. Scrosese has long been a historian of the movies, and Hugo is his celebration of the early cinematic dream makers, notably Méliès and his surreal theatrical landscapes. Arthur C. Clark famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s what early cinema was to a populace that had never seen the likes of moving pictures (we see an early audience fearing for their lives watching a film of a train arriving). It was like a new magic. The turn-of-the century filmmakers like Méliès were charting new terrain as visual storytellers, opening the public to new wonders of the imagination. Simple tricks of editing substitution, dissolves, and visual arrangement could help foster the ongoing illusion. It may be low-rent, like hand painting individual film frames, but it was the special effects of their day. D.W. Griffith once said of Méliès, “I owe him everything.” Scorsese is sharing his passion for the history of the movies and it’s hard not to feel the power of the movies.

But when Hugo gets swallowed whole by Scorsese’s nostalgia, the rest of the plot becomes incidental. The characters, which were not strong to begin with, are given pat resolutions that make you realize how flimsy the characterization is. The movie takes a sub-Amelie route, letting Hugo bring together disparate couples, but you don’t really know anything about these people. Emily Mortimer’s female florist has maybe two lines in the movie, so why should I root for her to get with the Station Inspector? There’s an older couple whose romance is sabotaged by an aggressive pooch. You can imagine the scintillating resolution that awaits. The film history section is honestly the best part of the movie, but it means that everything leading up to that point was just in service to prop up the academic nostalgia. It means that the characters and their mysteries were really unimportant, and they feel that way by film’s end. The movie just grinds to a halt. The mystery of the metal man is that he’s a MacGuffin, a means to discover Méliès’ past. The whole clockwork symbolism can be clumsy, instructing us time and again that people are broken and Hugo feels the need to fix things. Too bad he couldn’t fix the disjointed story.

The actors manage to make favorable impressions when they can fight free of the movie’s educational pull. Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is a strong lead actor who rises above the sniveling preface of his character. He makes you root for the kid even when we don’t really know much about him beyond his Dickensian conditions. The kid has some pretty piercing Paul Newman-esque blue eyes too. Moretz (Let Me In, Kick-Ass) is showing the poise and grace to make it long term in this business. Kinglsey (Shutter Island) is effectively curt with his poorly veiled pain and regret. Cohen (Borat) expands his dramatic range noticeably, adding touches of empathy for a character that could mostly have been arch and cartoonish. He’s still the film’s best source for comedy. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) makes a welcomed appearance as an expert on early filmmaking, Méliès especially. He serves as the mouthpiece for Scorsese’s passion.

Hugo is a family film that ultimately gets swallowed whole by the filmmakers’ passion. It makes for an entertaining and informative essay on the skill and vision of turn-of-the-century filmmakers, but if people are anticipating a fun story about a scrappy kid and his mischievous adventures, then this is not that movie. Hugo benefits from terrific visuals, strong acting, and Scorsese’s blend of whimsy and innocence without stooping to anything crass or lowbrow. Hugo aspires for the rich, romantic experience of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) but comes up short. Hugo is at turns charming and magical but as a narrative it is too often flimsy, a wispy thing meant to lead to Scorsese’s love letter. It’s a fine and fitting tribute but even the best and most powerful love letter can only go so far, never mind the hassle of special 3D glasses.

Nate’s Grade: B

Rango (2011)

It’s Chinatown remade with anthropomorphic desert creatures. It’s a Western by way of Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a loving parody of cinema’s wide canvas. It’s one of the most wild, anarchic, oddball animated films to ever be released by a major studio, and it is stupendous. Steeped in weirdness and bravado, Rango has a playful and occasionally macabre sense of humor that kept me in stitches. Director Gore Verbinski (the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks) translates his visual verve into a animated movie that dazzles the eyes with its magnificently drawn features as well as the pointed personality in every stroke. This is a movie with character, not to mention some pretty entertaining characters (including talking road kill). Johnny Depp delivers an idiosyncratic vocal performance for a household lizard that finds himself pretending to play sheriff for a town in need of a hero. When you think Rango will fade into familiar territory, or easy moral messages, the film keeps surprising, forging its own unique path. This is a lively, peculiar, and overall enchanting animated film that’s suitable for families but may well play better for adults with eccentric tastes. I’m still scratching my head, and celebrating, how something like this slipped through the system.

Nate’s Grade: A

Edge of Darkness (2010)

While I was watching Edge of Darkness, a conspiracy thriller that hearkens the return to acting for Mel Gibson, one thing kept sticking out to me, and no, it wasn?t the protracted ear-splitting “Bahstun” accents. One character makes comment about the current lowly state of affairs and says, “Everything’s illegal in Massachusetts.” That perked my ears, and then a second character says the exact same thing later in the movie, like it’s this flick’s summary, “It’s Chinatown.” What exactly does that mean specifically about Massachusetts? That the Bay State is somehow a nanny state, dictating behavior? Or is this a resigned admittance toward the futility of competing against the long arm of the law? I’ll tell you something that isn’t illegal in Massachusetts — gay marriage. They got a leg up on that one. This is the kind of internal conversation I had with myself while Gibson unraveled a fairly ho-hum conspiracy-of-the-week plot.

Detective Thomas Craven (Gibson) is a decorated Boston lawman. His grown daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), is visiting from her job when she starts throwing up blood. She needs to tell her father some important secrets about her workplace. But as the two are about to leave for the hospital, a man cries out “Craven,” and follows it with a thunderous shotgun blast. Emma gets the full force and dies in her father?s arms. The media assumes Thomas was the target and the gunman had an old score to settle. However, the more Craven investigates the more convinced he is that his daughter was the real target. He looks into Emma’s connection to some dead environmental activists caught breaking into her place of work. The head of the company (Danny Huston) has plenty of important defense contracts and suspicious behavior. As Craven tracks down the truth he is assisted by the mystifying Mr. Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a man normally hired to cover up any messy loose ends of governmental business. Jedburgh decides to work with Craven instead of against him, and the two men must fight for their lives.

The real reason to see this fairly pedestrian police thriller is because of Gibson. It’s been a long eight years since his last onscreen role, and I must say I’ve forgotten about what a great actor the man can be. When this guy gets mad, you can practically feel the intensity. Gibson is terrific at playing a man with simmering emotions that often get the better of him. The lines and wrinkles give him a new canvas to play with, letting his age help tell the story of his character. Gibson seems to have this inner insanity to him, an admirable bent of crazy manic anarchic energy (I highly suggest checking out some of the Jimmy Kimmel Show shorts he’s been apart of). It makes him hard to ignore. He peppers in what he can with his character, a long-standing member of the law thirsting for answers and vengeance. What’s enjoyable is that he doesn’t go about knocking down every door to make people pay. Craven plays each interrogation differently depending upon his prey; sometimes he uses a soft touch and sometimes he opts for the tried-and-true punch to the nose. It’s little touches like this that bring out details in the character, and Gibson knows how to exploit them for maximum drama. Does anyone play instantly bereaved better than this man? He has a real knack for nailing scenes where a character is confronted with the sudden death of a loved one. His face is full of tics, his eyes glass over, it’s like he has lost all control and given over to the amassing and conflicting emotions. This clearly isn’t one of Gibson’s best performances, but after eight yeas of absence I’m more than willing to give the man a little latitude. An angry and bereaved Gibson is a Gibson I can enjoy watching on the big screen no matter how rudimentary the caper.

Edge of Darkness belongs to Gibson, but Winstone pretty much comes out of nowhere and hijacks the movie. Every time his character leaves the scene you’re anxiously awaiting his return. He’s an intriguing character, which makes me wonder why he’s gotten such a languished subplot. He could have been better involved in the story but the script keeps him to the narrative’s edges until the climax. Though a bit hard to understand thanks to a severe case of the mumbles, Winstone is by far the most interesting character in the movie. He’s an expert on fixing problems who tires of the long hours of shadowy, dastardly work. This is surely a character worthy of his own tale, or at least equal placement in the narrative, but instead Jedburgh functions as a sly informant when he should be running the show.

The script pretty much treads water. It’s not anything that’s particularly bad, but this story is pretty much content to stick with the basics. This isn’t a dumb movie per se, thanks to screenwriters William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell (Lantana) adapting from the acclaimed BBC mini-series. Those guys know something about a crackling crime thriller, which this is not. The lizardly Huston couldn’t be any more obvious of a villain, but he’s not alone. The burly henchmen drive around in dark, tinted SUVs that seem to say that somebody got their nefarious goon driver’s license. This is the kind of movie that plays its hand early, telegraphing future revelations and double-crosses. When we’re introduced to a character right after Emma’s death, and the camera takes a deliberate amount of time hanging on that character’s pained expression, obviously we’ve been informed that this person is somehow connected. No prolonged reaction shot is ever meaningless in an action thriller. Every time Craven ties to gain information from a person of interest, they say, “I can’t talk. They’ll kill me,” and then that person is promptly killed as prophesied. You basically expect something “shocking” to happen every time a person leaves Craven’s presence (FYI: check both ways before crossing the street).

There’s a really engaging and politically active whistler blower story somewhere in here that could have used better attention. It seems the line between whistle-blower and activist is a thin one, and Craven must assemble enough evidence to make sure that his case cannot be dismissed as a kook. It’s an interesting dilemma, trying to assemble a compelling case that will hold up on objective scrutiny, that can’t be tossed out. That’s an interesting predicament considering the many eyes and ears of a large, legally autonomous corporate entity. Alas, that movie is not Edge of Darkness.

Gibson’s return to movie acting is definitely welcomed, even if it’s something as disposable as this. Edge of Darkness is a by-the-book conspiracy thriller that offers glimpses of something superior that could have been worked out. More attention could have been given to Winstone’s character. The whistleblower aspect could have been heightened and clarified. There could have been a bit more action and a little less blood. The bad guy could have been less obvious from the get-go. But in the end, there’s Gibson tapping into his mad Mel streak of appealing intensity. Not everybody can offer what Gibson does. It’s too bad then that Edge of Darkness fails to realize this virtue.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

I lived in New Haven, Connecticut for a year while my wife was earning her Master’s degree at Yale. We hated it. New Haven is a college town that doesn’t know it’s a college town, so everything closes at 10 PM, there are no student prices for anything, and the people there more or less sucked. We were happy to depart from the Nutmeg State. Then the week after we were going to leave was when Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and the production team for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were coming to town. They were going to film a motorcycle chase along Chapel Street (where I walked to work every day) and all along the Yale campus. Finally, a reason to stay in New Haven presents itself and it has to happen after we escape. It’s not often one of the most anticipated movies comes to your doorstep.

I could have been an extra in the motorcycle chase, which set in 1957, could have used a long-haired Beatnik type (played by yours truly) for an exaggerated reaction shot. I could have been sipping on an espresso and then Indiana Jones could have zoomed by on the bike snatching by hot beverage, leaving a long-haired Beatnik type (me again) to mug shamelessly for the camera. It would have worked. Alas, it was not to be, though it certainly would have made this ages-in-development sequel more enjoyable on my part.

It’s been a long time since part-time archeology professor and full-time treasure hunter Henry “Indiana” Jones (Ford) beat the Nazis. The world has gotten a lot more complicated thanks to the Cold War, the atomic bomb, and the fact that Jones is now well into his 60s. It’s been 19 years since his last adventure but the man with the bullwhip and the dusty fedora still has a knack for intrigue. Soviet KGB agents have captured Indy and his friend Mac (Ray Winstone) and taken them to the Area 51 warehouse. They’re seeking a recovered artifact of alien origins that can wield tremendous power, as they always do. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is the head KGB agent and likes to threaten her enemies with a riding crop (perhaps she earns some extra money on the side punishing bad, bad comrades). Indiana Jones manages to escape and is pursued by the Soviets and blacklisted by his government due to his perceived involvement with Russia.

Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) seeks out the help of Dr. Jones. Mutt is a greaser on a motorcycle that might be a chip off the old block. His parents are in trouble. The stepfather that raised him (John Hurt), an old archeology buddy of Indy’s, has traveled to South America and found a legendary crystal skull. The bizarre artifact would lead the way to the mythical golden city and crazy amounts of Mayan supernatural power. Unfortunately, the skull has also made him as batty as a bat and Spalko is going to kill him. Indy and Mutt fly down to South America to save the crazy old man. Oh, and Mutt’s mother is also in danger, and she would be none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who has plenty of romantic history with a certain swash-buckler afraid of snakes.

Seeing Ford back in action just feels right. His character has grown into a bit of a curmudgeon but he’s working the same territory Bruce Willis did last year in the long gestated Die Hard sequel. He’s an old man serving some justice to all these young punks that won’t get off his lawn. The film acknowledges his age and mostly uses it as a means for comedy (he cracks that a life of adventure isn’t “as easy as it used to be”). Ford looks more alert than he has in years.

Blanchett is one of our finest actresses on the planet but she has serious trouble maintaining her Ruskie accent; she alternates between Russian and British the whole movie. Her dominatrix-styled villainess is certainly interesting, and man does she have great posture, but the film doesn’t really know what to do with the Soviet bad guys. They become more or less Nazi stand-ins and seem to repeat the same ambitions that the Nazis carried out in two or the three previous films. Allen has aged magnificently and is a welcome return. She and Ford have terrific screwball comedy chemistry and pick up right where they left off in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. LaBeouf does a solid job even though he doesn’t have any meat to his character after his Marlon Brando-like introduction in leather jacket and motorcycle. Instead, Spielberg continuously winks at the audience about Mutt’s obvious familial line. It wouldn’t be a Spielberg movie without some family dynamic.

I’m pleased to reunite with Indiana Jones, I like the new characters, and I even like Mutt, but the story the characters are saddled with is lousy. This is the script that Ford, Spielberg, and co-creator/producer George Lucas all agreed upon? I’m not one of those people that have an issue with aliens being the primary movers and shakers in the plot (in informal talks with friends, many are upset that little green men are the stars). The first three Indy films dealt with a religious supernatural power and now this new installment covers a space alien supernatural power, so that doesn’t concern me. What bothered me is that Crystal Skull is a murky mash-up of [i]Temple of Doom[/i] and Stargate. Once the primary characters reach their hidden temple the movie takes a nosedive. Spielberg almost crafts an anti-intellectual message, where finding out the reality behind the magic ruins the soul. The exact story behind the Crystal Skull is frustrating in how oblique it is, and Spielberg doesn’t want to offer any clarity. I’m at a loss to explain exactly why anything happened in the concluding 20 minutes, least of all how an alien race must have a very different definition of the word “gift.”

Never before has the action in an Indiana Jones film come across as so campy. This is likely the most disappointing part of Crystal Skull: the action is too tongue-in-cheek. There were moments where I thought the film was one step away from Army of Darkness. Spielberg is enough of a brilliant tactician to know how to setup and build satisfying and stylish action, which normally involves organic complications and letting the audience fully grasp what’s happening. This means no rapid-fire edits and plenty of long, high angle shots to get the big picture. And when he’s in his groove, there are few that can top Spielberg when it comes to an action sequence. There are points in Crystal Skull where the action is rollicking and joyously packed with excitement and wonder. The opening sequence inside Area 51 starts the film off with a bang, the motorcycle chase through Yale is well choreographed, and a car chase in the jungle is fantastic in the amount of back-and-forth scuffles and emerging obstacles. It’s by far the film’s high point and then there was one point where Mutt was swinging from vine to vine like freaking Tarzan and he enlisted the help of monkeys. It took me completely out of what had been a rip-roaring action sequence. Then there’s the moment where Marion drives everyone off a cliff and onto a tree that bends to drop them safely before smacking back like a rubber band. I’m not asking for complete believability in an action caper but I’d prefer it not become an embarrassing Looney Tunes cartoon. Crystal Skull is filled with little moments that will completely yank you out of the movie.

The action sequences feel too pat for the material the film wants to cover. Even that great jungle car chase could have been boosted with some extra ingenuity. The scene opens with the Soviets driving a vehicle that is slicing the forest to splinters and clearing a path for the caravan of cars to follow. Now I know the Spielberg of 1981 would never have introduced such an interesting machine in a unique setting without using it later. The Spielberg of 2008 is different because this nifty blade mobile isn’t even seen again after its initial introduction to establish how a car chase in a jungle could be possible. The action relies too heavily on distracting CGI that takes the action sequences on annoying, over-the-top detours. Just because computers can make it happen doesn’t mean it’s always a good avenue to go down. In short, the CGI is undercooked and over used.

I also need to speak frankly about the CGI — it is terrible. However, when I watched Crystal Skull my party got a tad lost on the way to the theater so the only seats left were the third row from the screen. I spent the entire movie with my neck craned up. Perhaps if I saw the film in a position it was more intended to be seen the special effects would come across as more professionally polished, but from my neck-cramping position they looked pitifully amateurish for a major summer blockbuster with Spielberg and Lucas’s names attached. The effects work is shockingly shoddy, but the practical production design is amazing. Unfortunately, this does not balance out in the film’s favor.

I’m coming across as harsh but I only get this way when my expectations are raised because of a pattern of quality. The three prior Indiana Jones films were lively, imaginative, and deeply charming and satisfying adventures that leaned toward the exaggerated but still managed to thrill without feeling dumb. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the few perfect movies in existence, in my opinion, and set the standard for all action/adventure movies to follow. It’s unfair to expect the same sensation watching a sequel 19 years after its predecessor, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does manage to hone in on the same spirit that made the other Indy films such high-flying thrill rides. If you set your brain to a low frequency, enter the theater with lowered expectations, and already know that at one point Mutt will swing from vine to vine like freaking Tarzan, then Crystal Skull will provide the necessary popcorn entertainment you’d seek in a summer blockbuster. It is possible to think Crystal Skull ranks up with its predecessors but that requires so much contortion that I wouldn’t know how to arrive at that opinion. I suppose we should all resort to the consolation that even with E.T. taking over the plot, this thing could have been a lot worse. Just remember that if an alien offers you a “gift” to run in the other direction.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Beowulf (2007)

Taking note of director Robert Zemeckis’ new motion-captured animated version of Beowulf, I began to wonder what other classic works of literature could use a good CGI sprucing up. Dusty old tomes would have greater relevancy to the youth of today if they were coated in animation and presented in a 3-D format. Just think of the works of Jane Austin with a flying, zooming camera and the aristocratic families repeatedly jutting marriage contracts toward an audience. This might be the only way to make The Great Gatsby tolerable.

The 1000-year old story begins in the dining hall for King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins). Their loud and drunken reverie is interrupted by the monstrous creature Grendel (Crispin Glover). The creatures rips men apart, lays waste to the hall, and munches on a few heads for the long journey back to his cave. The King offers a reward for anyone who can slay the monster and bring peace to the Danish lands. Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone), a determined warrior and competitor who seeks eternal glory. He brags that he will kill their monster and then kill Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) next. However, the slinky lass offers a tempting promise that she can make Beowulf the greatest story in all the world.

This is not the same Beowulf you were forced to read in high school English. I confess never having read the 3,183-line ye olde English poem, but I don’t think it had scenes of burping, public urination, a “coming” sexual joke, and some unexpected man-on-monster action (not the kind you’d readily think). This is a bloody and often exhilarating retelling intent on jazzing up a classic work for a younger generation. The action sequences have tremendous scope and can be relentless, and when witnessed in 3-D they are even more immersive and breathtaking. Stepping aside from the thrills and chills, Beowulf also works as a cautionary tale about the dangers of lust and particularly pride. Beowulf is a boastful and arrogant fellow, enough that he chooses to fight Grendel in the buff so that it will be even more challenging and thus ego stroking (as they battle, objects conveniently obscure the audience from seeing Beowulf’s manhood). The main deviation from the poem, connecting the various characters on a much more personal level, works with he context of the story and the overarching theme about the costs of vanity.

I encourage all potential Beowulf ticket-buyers to seek out where their nearest 3-D screening resides and to plan and, if needed, carpool to that theater immediately. This thing is meant to be seen in three dimensions, and in that environment Beowulf is amazing to behold. This is my first encounter with the next generation of 3-D and it is a giant leap beyond the funny glasses with blue and red lenses. Hollywood has hopes that this technology will be the next great invention that drives people to the movies and turn it into a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in the quiet privacy of your own home. I must say I was thoroughly impressed with how immersive the process becomes. Beware, though, because of the deep focus your eyes will dart around the screen resting from object to object, marveling at the different planes of depth; you may feel some strain and a headache after awhile. Objects keep sneaking into your peripheral vision and the movie takes many opportunities to hurl things at the screen, and thus the audience, be they coins, swords, arrows, limbs, heads, pots, and blood splatters. The 3-D technology also has some bountiful benefits, like having a very buxom peasant wench scrub a table and having her womanly assets swing with her. It’s quite something in 3-D and makes me sad that Russ Meyer couldn’t live long enough for this age. The CGI animation coupled with the 3-D technology makes for a compulsively stunning first-rate spectacle.

The visual look is a great step forward from 2004’s The Polar Express, the first time Zemeckis used his newfangled motion-capture toys. I really disliked the look of Polar Express, and the kids and their dead, glassy eyes creeped me the hell out. I’m still not entirely sold on what motion-capture even brings to the world of animation; to me, it seems like animators can dictate movement just as well as copying from an actor. Where the animators do make strides is in their depictions of real people. It’s not photo-realism, in fact sometimes the characters look like plastic dolls, but you can see all the pores in the skin and follicles of hair in bristling detail. The look of the movie reminded me a lot of the video game God of War, especially when Beowulf is slicing and dicing one-eyed sea monsters. I think that’s a pretty fair assessment ultimately, that the film better resembled a slickly produced video game cut scene than reality.

In the end credits, I noticed that someone is specifically singled out and credited for the design of Grendel’s mother. I’m all for credit where it’s due, but Grendel’s mother was simply designed as Angelina Jolie with a tail coming out of her head. The character design looks remarkably like its big name actress and she struts around mostly naked, though her body drips with a melting gold finish that stops the nudity from having any real definition (it’s kind of like she’s in a melty candy shell). This may be enough for frisky moviegoers that must have missed out on the 1001 other movies Jolie bares her flesh for, or perhaps the head-tail fetish folk will finally have their day. It makes a lot of sense for Zemeckis to choose Jolie for the seductress role. It seems that mortal men just can’t help themselves around her and they end up doing the nasty, which produces little nasty creatures. If there were anyone in today’s world that could make men weak with overwhelming lust, it would be the lovely Jolie. Just ask Brad Pitt.

The character work on Grendel, however, is fascinating and startlingly grotesque. He resembles a cross between Frankenstein, Dobby the elf, and a coffee pot, all covered in rotting, patchy skin. The amount of detail is amazing and simultaneously stomach-churning. Glover offers a magnificently eccentric frame to build from. Grendel comes across less like a monster and more like a misunderstood wretch that just wants some peace and quiet by any means necessary. The screenplay gives Grendel some deeper backstory and a motivation for his murderous rampages (the poor guy is hyper sensitive to music, which blares in his head and causes agony).

Beowulf does have some slow moments and a noticeable lag in the middle before it sets up a climactic dragon battle. I was actually starting to nod off somewhere along the middle. The screenplay, adapted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, squanders a load of underwritten characters, like a queen, a young concubine, and a religious advisor that asks if they should also pray to this new Roman God, Jesus something or other. Zemeckis is too enamored with the 3-D technology at his fingertips and clutters his screen too often to play around with the depth of field. I cannot fathom how this movie would play out in a regular 2-D environment, but needless to say, I’m sure the constant barrage of things pointing at the screen would get old quick.

Beowulf is a rousing and thrilling experience when seen in its intended 3-D format, otherwise it might get a tad tiresome and the visuals would come across as less accomplished. Zemeckis is getting better acquainted with the limitless freedom his motion-capture technology afford him and his imagination, however, I mourn the loss of Zemeckis ever directing another live-action film again. He seems to be completely taken with his technology and while it will improve with age I just wish the man who gave me so many wonderful movies like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would just go back to basics.

Nate’s Grade: Movie itself: B
3-D presentation of film: A-
Average: B+

The Departed (2006)

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment,” growls Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in the opening seconds of The Departed. “I want my environment to be a product of me.” Without question, the filmmaker that has shaped the environment of movies more than any other in the last 30 years is Martin Scorsese. No one does the cops-and-robbers territory better than Scorsese, and it’s great to have him back on familiar turf. It’s not that Gangs of New York and The Aviator were lacking in directorial skill, it’s just that they felt so labored and reeking of classy awards envy. With The Departed, it all feels so artistically effortless, like Scorsese settled in a zone of brilliant filmmaking. I just hope Marty bangs out more of these excellent gangster flicks before trying again to woo Oscar. In fact, his return to his violent stomping grounds might finally be his long-overdue ticket to the winner’s circle.

The premise is appealingly simple. The Boston State Police Department is desperate to nail local crime lord Costello. They pluck a young recruit, William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has a shady family history of small-time crooks. He agrees to infiltrate Costello’s mob and report back to the Boston PD. To make is situation credible, Costigan is expelled from the force and sent to prison to earn a rep. Only two other people know Cosigan’s real identity, the police chief (Martin Sheen) and the head of undercover work (Mark Wahlberg). On the other side of the law, Costello has a mole all his own working inside the Boston State police force. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has quickly risen through the ranks and has a prime position working with the state?s FBI crack force. He’s also an acolyte of Costello’s ever since he was a young Southie kid seeing the draw of power. Now full grown, Sullivan tips Costello and tries to redirect the ongoing investigation to bring the man to justice.

The real sparks come when both moles try to discover the identity of the other, without compromising their own precarious identities.

The Departed is a bruising, bristling return to form for Martin Scorsese and his most entertaining film since his last Great Movie, 1990’s gangster-rific Goodfellas. This is a movie that crams multiple characters, storylines, and histories into one tight, focused setting, but then the flick glides smoothly on electric storytelling and intense performances. The movie’s twists and turns are, at times, of a knockout variety, and there’s a stretch of late surprises that each feels like a shot to the gut. I was possibly winded from gasping so hard. This is a film so fantastically alive with feeling and vigor that you cannot help but get ensnared. It sets up all the players and back-story before we even get the opening titles set to the blaring wails of the Dropkick Murphies. The thrills are real because we feel the danger, and the onslaught of brutal violence is another rhythmic piece in Scorsese’s masterful conduction. Adding to the feeling is the sure-handed, quick-fire editing of longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker and the ominous cinematography of Michael Ballhaus. Even though this film is based on a 2002 Hong Kong film, Scorsese has firmly made The Departed a movie all its own in spirit and personality. No one so easily brings us into the sordid lives of criminals better than this man, who, when in that creative zone of his, brings such palpable energy to his melding of image, song, and consequence, that the results are simply intoxicating. The Departed reminds you why Scorsese is still our greatest living director, no matter what Oscar thinks.

What elevates The Departed from the clutter of other macho men-with-guns crime capers is its studious attention to character. This is a film that works beyond a concept. The movie’s central moral theme is the price of identity. Frank opens the film asking what does it matter who’s holding the gun to your head, cop or crook. Costigan is tormented from wearing too many faces. He’s having trouble justifying his deeds and actions and is scared he may lose his own soul at the price of his lost identity. Sullivan, on the other hand, has gladly sold his own soul for a pittance. He’s a class conscience yuppie that craves power and will cut any throat if it gets him ahead. The movie steamrolls ahead with intrigue but it’s our connections to these characters that elevate the life-and-death stakes. You have a real emotional investment in this story, therefore when things get murky you really feel the danger. My heart was racing with excitement and dread. There may still be impressions from where I was squeezing the movie chair.

Complimenting these complex characters are brilliant performances. DiCaprio may have been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his second Scorsese collaboration, The Aviator, but he turns in his strongest work here. DiCaprio expertly bares a gnawing moral conflict with equal parts desperation and the hunger to do good. He’s trying to finally do right and step out of his family’s criminal past, and DiCaprio brings sharp intensity to this plight. You really feel every stomach churn this guy goes through to do what he does and stay alive. I knocked the boy for being too boyish a gangster in Gangs of New York, and let me say I take back my words. On the flip side, Damon utilizes his angelic, choirboy good looks and masterfully downplays his character’s pragmatic villainy. The character has to hide so much from the outside world, be it the police, his true bosses, his girlfriend, and even himself. Damon goes about his deceitful business with slickly sick ease, tapping a killer’s instinct for self-preservation. You may shudder from how methodically cold and manipulative he comes across. He’s a mesmerizing rat bastard of a human being and yet Damon presents an almost seductive portrait of evil.

Nicholson is equally good though at times can be a distraction to the storytelling. There are a handful of moments where Nicholson seems to go too far off the page, indulging his crazier tendencies. Costello is supposed to be a scary, unpredictable, potentially unhinged man, and Scorsese has plenty of moments that bring home this point. It just feels inappropriate then for Nicholson to, in a few small moments, transform into a goofy cartoon. With that said, it’s great to see Nicholson cracking some heads for Scorsese. He has devilish fun and is insanely watchable while definitely going for broke. After some nice guy roles it’s nice to have back an unrestrained Nicholson to play the film’s abyss of evil.

The collected supporting players all leave some mark. Baldwin and Wahlerg are perfectly profane hardass characters that you warm up to. Sheen, free from the Oval Office, displays nice touches of weariness and, in one moment, practically breaks my heart with his brave resignation. Breaking up this boy’s club is Vera Farmiga (Running Scared) as a somewhat contrived plot point to connect Costigan and Sullivan as the police shrink to one and the girlfriend to the other. There’s a perceived sadness to her willowy eyes and slender face that she plays to great effect. She?s a captivating new face and gives an extra ladling of emotion to the tale.

It’s been over a week since I’ve seen the movie and I still can’t get it out of my head. There are only a handful of flaws that separates The Departed from Scorsese’s rich pantheon of mythically Great Movies. This is a complex, gritty, amazing crime thriller stuffed to the gills with entertainment. Making the bloody body count resonate are the incredibly intense performances, particularly Damon and DiCaprio. This is a gripping gangster thriller pumping with the blood of a sterling character piece. The unexpected twists and turns will shake you, and the movie goes well beyond a snappy premise. The Departed is a moviegoing experience that will thrill you, stir you, sadden you, exhilarate you, and firmly plant itself in your memory banks. Welcome back Marty.

Nate’s Grade: A

Cold Mountain (2003)

Cold Mountain (2003)

Premise: At the end of the Civil War, Inman (Jude Law, scruffy) deserts the Confederate lines to journey back home to Ada (Nicole Kidman), the love of his life he’’s spent a combined 10 minutes with.

Results: Terribly uneven, Cold Mountain‘s drama is shackled by a love story that doesn’t register the faintest of heartbeats. Kidman is wildly miscast, as she was in The Human Stain, and her beauty betrays her character. She also can’’t really do a Southern accent top save her life (I’’m starting to believe the only accent she can do is faux British). Law’s ever-changing beard is even more interesting than her prissy character. Renee Zellweger, as a no-nonsense Ma Clampett get-your-hands-dirty type, is a breath of fresh air in an overly stuff film; however, her acting is quite transparent in an, “”Aw sucks, give me one ‘dem Oscars, ya’’ll” way.”

Nate’’s Grade: C

Sexy Beast (2001)

Never, under any circumstances, do you want to piss off Gandhi. Sexy Beast is a British crime story where the ferocious mad dog Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) is trying to recruit a retired hand (Ray Winstone) into one last job back in London. Winstone is enjoying the sun of California with his middle-aged ex-porn star wife who he loves dearly. But Don does not take “no” for an answer. Kingsley is the true focal point of the film and is astounding and brutally terrifying as the wound up gangster. He gives an electrifying performance that is the polar opposite of India’s non-violent leader. When Kingsley vanishes from the screen Sexy Beast suffers and becomes a variation of the old crime film, except a very short one at that being under 90 minutes of running time. Video director Jonathon Glazer has done a fine job for his debut but there isn’t much to this tale without Kingsley’s memorable efforts.

Nate’s Grade: B

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