Actress Rebecca Hall’s debut as a screenwriter and a director was snatched up by Netflix and now poised as an Oscar contender. It’s set in the 1920s and follows two women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga). Both women come from the same neighborhood but have lived different though fruitful lives, though Clare’s fortunes hinge on a secret she hides even from her rich husband. She’s a light-skinned Black woman but she has been posing as being white, and she’s reaped the rewards. As the two former friends reconnect, Clare visits the clubs and parties of Harlem as if a tourist, and she seems to have charmed Irene’s husband to spark unrest in her home. The movie is very tasteful and stately, filmed in black and white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, communicating the boxes these women felt trapped in by society’s racial aptitudes. The problem is that Passing has so much explosive drama at its core but it’s too demure to a fault, which leads to a lot of wheel spinning and pensive glances. The movie almost follows the “uninvited guest” plot device, where Clare makes herself more at home in Irene’s world to her chagrin. There’s a general danger of whether Clare’s secret will come out, especially since her husband is overtly racist, but she seems so blase about her situation. The movie seems to feel like it’s lacking a potent sense of dread for these women, leaving it more implied than felt. It’s a character study but the primary characters seem more like archetypes, symbols intended for a larger social debate after the film’s conclusion. Both actresses are terrific, however, and would be worthy nominees for awards. Negga (Loving) has the more locked-in performance as the woman living her facade, only offering glimpses of what the real Clare thinks about herself. Thompson (Dear White People) is the one trying to hold it all together while she tries to assess whether her former friend has figured out a social cheat code, is deluding herself, or is herself a corrupting influence. The ending is so abrupt that I had to rewind to better understand what had happened. It’s left for interpretation about culpability and intent, but it’s further confirmation that the characters are meant as symbols more than people, and their fates feel a little too tailored for study. Passing is a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but one that left me checking the time a little too often to see how slowly it was passing.
Nate’s Grade: B
Godzilla vs. Kong is the kind of movie where you need to question what your qualifications would be for its true entertainment value. Four films into the fledgling MonsterVerse, we’ve set up its Batman vs. Superman, its Infinity War, its climax, the biggest names on the biggest stage to settle the score once and for all. With indie director Adam Wingard at the helm, best known for peculiarly violent genre-defying movies like You’re Next and The Guest, the results with G vs. K (I’m not writing the full name every time) strictly fall into the realm of dumb fun. It’s up to you which of those categorical designations will reign supreme, the dumb or the fun.
The gigantic 100-foot tall ape Kong is being kept in a caged atrium by the Monarch organization. Godzilla is running amuck and attacking a shady company that may have a shady conspiracy afoot. Kong and Godzilla are two alpha predators, the last known titans, and it’s believed that Godzilla is seeking out Kong to put him down for good. The government is trying to protect its great ape, figure out why the big lizard is acting up, and maybe explore this kooky Hollow Earth theory. There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned any human character names because, once again, they don’t really matter.
This movie is going to entirely depend on how much your love of monster brawls can, essentially, push aside crazy, incoherent plotting and meaningless human characters. If you’re the kind of fan going to G vs. K and expecting nothing else than bruising knockdown fights that decimate the landscape and ensure untold death, no matter how many times we’re told the entire city of Hong Kong has miraculously evacuated in minutes, then the movie delivers. There are three big brawls and each one of them is satisfying and has a weighty quality to them; they really do feel like heavyweight title fights, with each side giving it their all and then some. It’s an epic showdown and we demand the best from this clash of the titans, and Wingard comes alive during these sequences, finding stylish ways to demonstrate and develop the carnage so that the brawls feel unique rather than stale. Each of the three major battles takes place in a different location and uses that environment to its advantage when developing its action particulars. The first bout is at sea and Kong is chained to the galley of a warship, so Godzilla capsizes the ship, attempting to drown Kong. The water is also a far more friendly place for Godzilla, with Kong forced to jump from ship to ship like platforms in an old school video game. The rematch takes place in downtown Hong Kong and offers the traditional metropolitan cataclysm we’ve come to expect from disaster escapades (again, with vague reminders that somehow all these buildings are empty). Godzilla’s fire breath becomes a laser field that Kong must avoid with drastic escapes. Wingard’s camera finds fun ways to communicate the back and forth, at one point seemingly attached to the monsters as they pummel and move, like an arty Darren Aronofsky film. He finds ways to make two age-old creatures fighting still appear visually fresh and exciting. When the creatures are slugging it out, G vs. K is at its best as big-budget popcorn escapism.
I also must applaud that filmmakers that, four movies in, we finally have monster fights where the audience can see what is happening. 2014’s Godzilla reboot kept teasing the big lizard and giving glimpses, a foot there, a closing door here, that built anticipation but also tried audience patience. My biggest complaint was I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie, and 2019’s King of the Monsters answered this complaint, providing four different monsters to duke it out for monster supremacy. However, the supernatural slug-fests were undercut by sequences that were hard to see. Whether it was in the rain, at night, in a blizzard, in the fog or smoke, it was hard to tell what was happening because of all the annoying visual obfuscation. We had more monster fights, yes, but they weren’t that much easier to see than in 2014. Thankfully, this movie seems like a direct response to that chief criticism. The big fights take place entirely during the day, and not only that, it’s clear and even sunny, making sure we can soak up every loving CGI detail of these two giant pretend creatures having their big pretend rumble. It may sound like I shouldn’t be too congratulatory for a franchise that dares to allow its paying customers to actually see the spectacle that they paid to see, but after several other films of mitigating results, I’m happy we at least can enjoy the big brawls after so much build-up and delayed gratification.
But if you expect more from a versus film other than predicated pugilism from your preferred participants, then G vs. K is going to disappoint. It is a vast understatement to say that this movie is extremely loony. It is so goofy that you will either shrug and go with the silly twists and turns, or you’ll be like several of my friends, and my girlfriend, who just stared stupefied and shook their heads, muttering how much more crazy-pants bananas things could possibly get.
For a franchise that started fairly grounded in 2014 from a science standpoint, and whose sequels have more or less hewn to that tonal vision, G vs. K says, “Hey, what if we…,” and injects whatever it deems might be insane and awesome, like an improv game that never meets resistance. Whatever you may be prepared for, this movie goes deeper and crazier. It literally goes to the center of the Earth and back. If I were to describe the parameters of the final fight, it would sound like I was drunk or needing of mental check-ups from concerned loved ones. It feels like the Asylum version of what a Godzilla and Kong match-up would be, and by that I refer to the low-budget studio known for its schlocky knockoffs and crazy all-you-can-eat buffet-style sci-fi plotting. There’s one solution that literally involves dumping alcohol onto a computer. Again, maybe your exact sensibilities will be a match for this wilder, sillier tonal wavelength; maybe you felt the earlier MonsterVerse entries took themselves too seriously. I’ll readily admit that they devoted far too much time to human drama I felt was, no pun intended, irritatingly small-scale. 2017’s Kong: Skull Island is the high watermark for this monster cinematic universe, and definitely better than you remember, and it didn’t take itself too seriously but found an agreeable baseline that allowed the film to have its spectacle while holding the human drama to be meaningful and entertaining itself. The movie was stylish, fun, and your brain didn’t melt when the big creatures were off-screen for long duration.
With G vs. K, any sense of established connectivity with the other movies is thrown out the window. Sure, there are faces that reappear (hey, Millie Bobby Brown), but they might as well be new characters. Even more than that, the tone of the movie is shifted so forcefully into self-parody, cheesy ludicrousness, including a spaceship serving as a moving defibrillator and psychic skulls, that it’s hard to take anything remotely seriously. I can already hear some detractors saying why should a movie about a giant ape fighting a giant lizard ever be taken seriously, and maybe you’re right you detractor you, but every movie needs an established baseline to provide a foundation of what is real, what is meaningful, and what is exceptional. If everything is crazy, it makes the monster action seem more mundane, and if anything can happen at any moment, it makes the plotting less important of careful setups and development, and satisfaction will be capped.
If you’re just looking for a movie about a giant ape punching a giant lizard with top-notch special effects, well Godzilla vs. Kong has that aplenty, and if that’s enough for you, then enjoy. It’s far more of a Kong sequel with the occasional special appearance from Godzilla, so if you’re more a fan of the big lizard you may be a little miffed at the big guy being a second banana. The action is fun and splashy, and I wish I watched this titanic title match on the big screen where it belongs, and I’ll admit that likely has dulled some of my experience. The sharp tonal shift for the MonsterVerse, and the escalating silliness that climaxes into insanity is either going to be selling point or a breaking point for every viewer. You’ll either rock with glee and happy that this franchise has finally evolved into the schlocky spectacle you’ve been dying for, or you’ll be trying to hang on to the silly, over-the-top plotting to orient your staggered senses. Godzilla vs. Kong is everything the title suggests and little else, and for many that will be enough. For me, I think it kind of lost me somewhere between here and Albuquerque.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Roald Dahl is the kind of highly imaginative, inventive, and subversive children’s author that makes one wonder why more of his books don’t end up as movies. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the best known, and there’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and the rather spooky for kids 90s film, The Witches (it at least spooked me as a kid). For such a prolific author, it’s a little curious he has so few film credits. Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful directors of the modern era, so if anyone could wrangle Dahl’s wondrous worlds onto the big screen, he should. The BFG should be a transporting experience brought to vivid life with cutting-edge technology. All the special effects in the world, however, can’t solve a raft of nagging script problems that manage to take the fantastic and make it boring and predictable.
In 1980s London, little orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) is abducted one night when she spots a giant blowing a mysterious trumpet into the windows of sleeping children. Fortunately for Sophie her captor is the BFG (Mark Rylance), which stands for Big Friendly giant, and he’s a vegetarian, having sworn off the bone-eating habits of his nastier giant peers. In Giant Country, the BFG collects and cultivates dream particles, concocting special mixtures that he then shares with sleeping children. The other giants bully and snidely dismiss the puny BFG. Sophie and the kindly BFG must work together to stop the larger giants from going back to London and dining on innocent children.
The BFG has some pretty big friendly problems when it comes to its misshapen plot structure and its alarming lack of urgency or escalation. We’re all familiar, consciously or unconsciously, to the three-act story structure at this point, which is the principle formula for screenwriting. The BFG gets started pretty quickly, abducting Sophie and taking her to the land of giants by around the 15-minute mark, and from there the movie seems to take a leisurely stroll. I can’t really tell you where the act breaks are because the movie just sort of luxuriates in the meandering interaction between the BFG and his human pupil. There’s the initial threat that the other cannibalistic giants will discover her and this threat pops up in a handful of set pieces where Sophie has to constantly find new hiding places. Unfortunately, this threat never really magnifies or changes. She might get caught, and then she doesn’t. She might get caught, and then she doesn’t. There’s a repetition to this threat with our antagonists at no point getting more threatening. This is and a lack of a narrative motor make the movie feel rudderless, plodding from one moment to the next without a larger sense of direction. And then the third act comes (spoilers), presumably, when Sophie and the BFG travel back to London to try and recruit the Queen of England’s (Penelope Wilton) help. This sequence includes an extended breakfast that it punctuated by the memorable climax of watching the Queen fart and her little corgies fly around the room powered by their flatulence. It has to be the climax because what follows certainly doesn’t follow. Within five minutes, the BFG leads the Brits back to the land of giants and they restrain and airlift all the other giants in shockingly easy fashion. It’s a victory that feels relatively hollow because of its ease. These giants were never much of a threat to begin with, which is why we spent more time deliberating over dream ingredients than a retreat from man-eating colossuses.
Another aspect of Dahl’s novel that falls flat on screen is his verbal gymnastics and witticisms. It just doesn’t work with actors repeating the words without the text in front of your eyes. Listening to the BFG talk for any extended period of time is like being stuck with a crazy person muttering to him or herself. I would estimate that at least 60% of the BFG’s dialogue is folksy malapropisms. It’s not endearing and grows rather tiresome, especially with the unshakable stagnation of the movie’s plot. And so we get scene after scene of a big CGI creature talking verbal nonsense. Are children going to be entertained by any of this? Are they going to be engaged with the giant’s gibberish or will they find it one more impenetrable aspect of a movie and a story that seems to keep the audience at length? I couldn’t engage with the movie because it never gave me a chance to invest in what was happening. The BFG is a gentle soul and shouldn’t be bullied by his giant brethren, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically love him. I didn’t.
For a Spielberg movie this feels oddly absent his more charming and whimsical touches. There are scant moments where it feels like Spielberg is playing to his abilities in this fantasy motion capture world, like exploring the underwater land where the BFG gathers his dream ingredients, and in the narrow and messy escapes Sophie has not to be caught. It’s a shame that the creative highs of Spielberg in full imagination mode are too often absent the rest of the movie. He too feels like he’s coasting, allowing the technology and the fantasy setting to do the heavy lifting. The land of the giants is a bit too underwhelming as far as fantasy worlds go. It’s simply too recognizable except for slight peculiarities, like “snozcumbers.” It’s not an enchanting location and we’re not given enchanting characters, and with the little narrative momentum or escalating stakes. I experienced a lot more fun and whimsy from Spielberg’s other major mo-cap movie, the nearly forgotten 2011 Adventures of Tintin. The action sequences especially had such a lively sense of comic brio and imagination that was pure Spielberg. I get no such feeling from The BFG. If you told me that Robert Zemeckis had made this movie I wouldn’t have blinked. I don’t know if Spielberg was hoping to recapture that E.T. magic with screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who passed away in 2015) but this isn’t close.
I will credit the special effects department for the amount of work put into Rylance’s BFG visage, which looks eerily like the Oscar-winning actor. The range of the facial expressions is another sign that mo-cap performances are just as legitimate as live action flesh-and-blood performances. I can admire the technical feats of the character while not exactly feeling that much enjoyment from that character. The interaction between the computer elements and the real-life elements could be better, most bothersome with little Sophie interacting with the giant’s giant personal things.
I was left wondering whom The BFG is supposed to appeal to. I think kids and adults will be bored by its slow pace and stagnant, minimal stakes, weird and unengaging characters and their annoyingly impenetrable speech habits, and the overall lack of charm and wonder. It’s saying something significant when the most mesmerizing part of a fantasy movie is watching the Queen of England, her dogs, and a room full of her royal servants violently fart green clouds of noxious gas. That was the one moment in my screening where the kids in the room seemed to be awake. Otherwise the BFG character must have calmly put them to sleep with his prattling gibberish. It’s not an insufferable movie and there are fleeting moments of entertainment, but they drift away like a memory of a dream. There just isn’t enough going on in this movie to justify its near two-hour running time. Not enough conflict, not enough world exploration, not enough character bonding, not enough whimsy, and not enough entertainment. It feels too lightweight to matter and too dull to enchant. The BFG could have used more farts. That would be a sign of life.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Reminiscent of adult thrillers that dominated the 1990s, Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is a slick and fiendishly enjoyable movie that unravels methodically and is comfortable dealing with moral ambiguity. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are transitioning to a new city and a new job when they meet an old high school acquaintance, Gordon (Edgerton). It seems at first like “Gordo” is going to be a scary stalker with boundary issues, but Edgerton, who also wrote and directed, keeps pushing his familiar narrative further, adding different shades to the trio of characters and allowing them to be flawed humans revealing their secrets. It’s a movie that’s not afraid to go dark and dwell in the unknown, especially with a note-perfect morally murky ending that leaves the viewer in the same wonderfully cruel sense of uncertainty and gnawing curiosity. Bateman pays against type as a rather strident character who definitely has issues with sticking to the full truth. Hall is more than a damsel in distress. She’s overcoming serious problems that she may or may not bear some culpability for, which makes her performance that much more interesting. Edgerton doesn’t overplay any off-kilter tics; his Gordo is a bit off, and always comes across like he’s holding back saying more, but his impression is a lot more wounded animal than psychopath. The screenplay is a model of efficiency and the secrets and reveals are evenly doled out. The Gift is an entertaining thriller with dark turns, deliberate pacing and structure, morally grey characters, comfort in ambiguity, and a healthy respect for its mature audience.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Third movies in superhero franchises always seem to be a precarious proposition; X-Men 3, Spider-Man 3, Superman 3, all graveyards of rushed productions, artistic compromises, and general complacency. Usually the third movie is when the hero has what he or she (but mostly he) has built up stripped down. It’s the same case with Iron Man 3, which short of a noisy finale has a surprisingly small amount of actual Iron Man, much like the scant amount of Batman in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises. That’s fine with me because the appeal of this franchise has been Tony Stark the character, not the mechanical heroics. Iron Man 3 is co-written and directed by super Hollywood scribe Shane Black, the man who gave us Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the 2005 gem that resuscitated Robert Downey Jr.’s career, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was this fact alone, especially after how disappointing Iron Man 2 was, that got me jazzed about a third outing. Black’s characteristic sense of humor, genre blending, and mass appeal thrills helps to make Iron Man 3 an enjoyable if flawed movie-going experience and a suitable kickoff to the summer movie season.
Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is having trouble sleeping, haunted by the near world-ending events in New York City from his time with the Avengers. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), head of Stark Industries and Tony’s main squeeze, wants her man to take a mental health break. He’s spending as much time as possible in his lab, concocting a whole army of different Iron Man suits. His latest invention allows him to control a suit prototype with his body, compelling pieces of his amour to his person with a wave of his arms. He’ll need the help because the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fearful terrorist leader, is staging a series of bombings around the United States, leaving behind videos taunting his foes. After an attack that hits close to home, Stark challenges the Mandarin and the bad guy brings the fight to the man of iron, decimating his home and forcing Stark to flee. In Tennessee, Stark unravels the mystery behind the Mandarin, which involves a brilliant scientist (Rebecca Hall), a nefarious biotechnology businessman (Guy Pearce), and even the president of the United States himself.
The best part of the first film was watching a brilliant guy become Iron Man; sure the superhero stuff was fun but it wasn’t what made the movie special. Downey Jr. as a charismatic, egotistical, self-involved but ultimately redeemable middle-aged playboy is what made the movie special. With Iron Man 3, he has to rely on his wits for large portions, which are still considerable. It’s a clever way to make a billionaire playboy with out-of-this-world technology empathetic. He’s never going to be an everyman but that doesn’t mean we can’t empathize. With that said, I still find his whole PTSD ordeal after events from The Avengers to be shaky. He’s already had near death experiences before so unless we get a bigger explanation (proof of alien existence and superiority? Knowing a return is inevitable?) I find it hard to fathom that a guy as outwardly unflappable as Tony Stark would be hobbled by his super team-up activities. Also, now that we exist in a post-Avengers universe, wouldn’t the ongoing attacks by the Mandarin warrant some sort of S.H.I.E.L.D. response or monitoring?
Likewise, I really appreciated how Black developed his action sequences, routinely giving Stark limitations. The concept of a suit that can assemble by itself and fly hundreds of miles is silly, sure, but it also opens up fun possibilities and questions of identity. At one point, Stark has one arm and one leg of his suit, allowing him to fight back but having to get creative with his moves. A fight while he’s handcuffed also provides enjoyable thrills. During the home attack, Stark’s suit is a prototype and will not allow him to fly, so he has to get inventive, literally shooting a grand piano at a helicopter. The best action scene is when Iron Man has to save a dozen people from plummeting to their deaths after being sucked out of Air Force One in midair. I wish the solution hadn’t been so quick but it’s a thrilling sequence with terrific aerial photography.
Until the finale, which is all-robot action, you could accuse the film of being too shrift in its action sequences, rarely lasting longer than a few brief minutes. They’re still quite entertaining, and well directed, with Black nicely drawing out organic complications and making good use of geography. We know that Black can write a glorious action sequence, but unless you were one of the lucky souls who saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s a surprise that the man can direct one so well. There’s a nice sense of style on display but it never becomes overpowering, and thankfully it’s presented in a manner that you can, shocker, tell what is happening onscreen. Black definitely has a good eye for visuals and scene compositions but he also knows how to deliver great crowd-pleasing moments that we want in our summer movies. The climax is pretty busy with lots of keen Iron Man suits that you just know are there to be purchasable toys first and foremost. The sustained action is pretty involving, and Black is an expert at establishing mini-goals and developing naturally. Even as it starts to devolve into a hectic video game-like frenzy, there are enough changing goals and reversals to keep you satisfied for the long haul.
The movie’s villains are somewhat nebulous and employ an Evil Plot that is too convoluted by half. The Mandarin is an intriguing figure but undergoes some changes that will surely leave fans of the comic steaming mad. I accept that movies are an adaptation from the source material, and have no real personal affinity for Iron Man or his rogues’ gallery, so I wasn’t bothered by the notable change. It fits the tone of the movie as well as becomes another plot point in a convoluted Evil Plot. I will agree with detractors on this point: after the invasion in The Avengers, alien technology, the source of the Mandarin’s powers in the comic, is credible. I don’t really understand the political commentary at play with the Mandarin either. More so, and I’m trying to be delicate with spoilers, Iron Man 3 is really a movie about Tony Stark versus… lava people. Sure they have superhuman brains that provide regeneration and superior human ability. It just seems that all these super humans decide to do is… heat things up. They glow red, melt through walls, and are essentially lava creatures. Apparently Tony Stark needs to take some cues from that old U.S. Marines ad where the guy fights a giant lava monster (“Have you been attacked by a lava monster recently? No? You’re welcome – signed, the Marines”). The villains, while weak, are still probably the best in the series. It’s been a fairly weak franchise for antagonists.
Coming from Black, you’d expect an increase in the implementation of comedy, though Iron Man 3 probably walks just up to the line. It almost gets too jokey but pulls back enough. Adam Pally’s (TV’s criminally underseen Happy Endings) small bit as an obsessed fan of Stark is probably the testing point. Tony Stark has issues sure, especially if Disney will ever let the movies explore his history with alcoholism, but the man is never going to challenge Bruce Wayne for the brooding loner throne. Stark is a quipper, a loudmouth who uses humor as a weapon and a shield, and brought to vivid life by Downey Jr., the man will always be a comedian. That’s not to say that the drama lacks proper seriousness. However, Black pushes a lot more comedy into the film than we’ve seen in the earlier installments. Most of it is welcome and even when the movie goes into mass appeal mode, especially in Act Two when a plucky kid aids Stark, Black covers the familiar without losing his edge. You’ll likely recognize the buddy cop patter from Black’s other movies but it still works. There are several setups that look like we’re getting Big Hero Moments, and then Black decides to undercut them for a good laugh. Iron Man 3’s consistent sense of humor makes the movie feel even faster paced.
Downey Jr. (The Avengers) is still the MVP of the modern Marvel-verse in my eyes, and even two years removed from 50, he’s still got enough energy to power a small army. He’s still pulling the same schtick so to speak, which may wear thin for others after four starring appearances as Tony Stark, but I still find him naturally appealing. Paltrow (Contagion) gets a chance to do more than the standard damsel in distress that the women function in these movies. I regret that after being given a tantalizing new direction the movie reverts her back to standard damsel sidekick so speedily. Ho hum. Kingsley (Hugo) just seemed wrong for the part from the start, never mind the nebulous ethnicity issues. His vocal fluctuations and strange emphasis proved too distracting for me. However, he proves to be a better match after the Mandarin’s twist. Pearce (Lawless) is a pretty solid, smarmy bad guy and man has he got an impressive physique going on. It’s just nice to see great character actors from Hall (The Town) to Miguel Ferrer (Traffic) to Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone) in a high-profile mega blockbuster. Even little Ty Simpkins (Insidious) is pretty good as the kid who helps out Stark. My tolerance for child acting has gone downhill as I have gotten older, but the kid is genuinely good without falling into the common trappings of being cloying or overly precocious.
Iron Man 3 is a definite improvement over the overstuffed, undernourished 2010 sequel. It ends on a moment that feels like something close to closure, but you know, as the credits helpfully indicate, that Tony Stark will appear again, at least in 2015’s Avengers 2. The bigger question is can this franchise exist without the participation of Downey Jr.? I’m sure we’ll all find out eventually considering the character is too profitable to simply retire once Downey Jr. decides he’s had enough. We’ve had five Batmans after all, not counting Adam West. However, never has a character seemed so intrinsically linked with an actor before. Downey Jr. just is Tony Stark, and while some capable young male lead out there in Hollywood will put up a valiant effort, it will never be the same. Iron Man 3 is further proof that the appeal of the franchise is not the explosions and action set pieces, which it does a fine job with; it’s the man inside the suit and the formidable actor that gives this franchise its juice. Spending more time with Stark is a bonus, and Black’s zippy sense of comedy and acute knowledge of the architecture of popcorn thrills allows the movie to fly by with ease. While the first film reigns supreme, Iron Man 3 is a fitting and pleasurable enough blockbuster that reminds you why we still love this guy.
Nate’s Grade: B
There are many people who think they can direct. It just looks easy to people. You get to tell everybody what to do all day. Who wouldn’t want that, right? And actors always think they know everything already, so there’s a litany of actors who feel like they can make the jump from in front of the camera to behind it with ease. Not everybody is going to be a Clint Eastwood, or a Robert Redford, or even the best of the current crop, a George Clooney. Every now and then you’ll find a true surprise, like Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) or Sarah Polley (Away From Her), but most actor/director projects come across like indulgent one-time pet projects (see: Drew Barrymore’s Whip It). Ben Affleck has easily endured his slings and arrows as an actor, though I’ve always found the man to be likeable, charming, and intelligent. Even so, nobody can excuse Gigli. When Affleck tried on the director hat for 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, it was easy to be skeptical. But then critics and audiences saw the film, which Affleck also co-wrote, and realized that this guy might have some serious chops after all. The Town, Affleck’s second directorial effort, proves that Affleck has found his rightful place in movies.
Doug (Ben Affleck) is a lifelong criminal living in the working class Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. We learn that this one-square mile produces more bank robbers than anywhere else in the world. It is a neighborhood seeped in the lifestyle of crime, the silent omissions of sin. Doug and his crew’s latest heist went according to plan except for one detail. Jem (Jeremy Renner), fresh from doing a nine-year prison stint, has taken the bank manager hostage in a moment of panic. The men blindfold Claire (Rebecca Hall) and deposit her along the Boston shoreline. Doug and his guys then become alarmed when they spot Claire in their neighborhood. She lives in Charlestown. Will she recognize them? FBI Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) check up on her and requests interviews. Is it only a matter of time before she discovers the truth? Jem wants to handle it quick and dirty, but Doug insists that he take the lead. He watches her from afar and can’t help but feel sorry for the trauma he has caused her. He asks her out for a drink after meeting her and Doug can’t stop himself from falling for her. Jem is incensed and convinced she’ll give them all away. Doug must reconcile his life?s choices and Claire now gives him a reason to finally walk away from the only life he’s known.
It didn’t take long for me to know I was in for something good. The pre-title opening sequence sets the tone and informs you that Affleck will be firmly settled in the director’s chair for some time. The opening bank heist crashes your attention. It’s filmed in quick cuts, swift camera movements, mimicking the ambush of the criminals as they throw people to the ground, upturn desks, and smash general office supplies. Then the scene cuts to a security camera footage of the same scene, and it’s static, and eerily silent and the contrast is fantastic. Then we smash right back into the fray and the chaos. Affleck refrains from the film turning into senseless genre junk. The violence in this film hurts. You feel its impact and wince at its approach, and you already get this sense before the credits even show up. Affleck wants his visceral violence to mean something, and these men of violence become more intimidating. Then there’s a scene about an hour in that had me gnawing my hand in anxiety. It all revolved around the possible reveal of an identifiable neck tattoo, where the only character who knows all the particulars of danger is Doug. He’s trying to nervously watch the eye line of the conversation, and I was physically trying to instruct the characters onscreen. The fact that I could get so caught up in a sequence of stellar tension that doesn’t involve cars, guns, or even overt threats of violence is a testament to the abilities of Affleck the director.
Doug’s crew is not a fly-by-night operation. They are honed professionals, knowing the timing codes for bank locks, how to dismantle security camera systems, and splash bottles of bleach all over the premises to eliminate usable fingerprints. And yet, when is enough enough? It feels like only days before Jem is pushing everybody for another job. They’ve barely had time to launder the money through drugs and gambling, given a cut to the local crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite), and they?re anxious for another score. Doesn’t anybody want to lie low for a while before the heat dissipates? Either this is just a conceit of only being able to work in a two-hour narrative or indicative or what a consistently dangerous life these men lead. These men know exactly where they?re headed; in fact, they seem resigned to their fate. Perhaps the expedited schedule is just another form of self-destruction or an impatient death wish, or perhaps it’s just an inflated sense of invincibility by guys who are good at what they do.
The area where The Town could have been better is with its higher ambitions. The Town dutifully delivers the goods when it comes to a crime picture. The three holdups are all satisfying, taut, well paced, and the action is choreographed in a manner that’s easy to comprehend. The middle holdup creates some dynamic images as the men speed through Boston dressed in plastic nun masks and armed with machine guns. There are several standout moments and images that prove Affleck knows how to frame an exciting action thriller. The climax is great, though the denouement leaves something to be desired. You pretty much anticipate what beats the movie has to hit as a genre piece. These brothers in arms will likely follow the path of doomed protagonists. But Affleck clearly wanted his second feature to be more than a slick genre flick. He had his sights set on examining systemic and cyclical nature of crime and abandonment. The opening informs us that bank robbing is a trade passed down in Charleston from fathers to sons. Doug’s crew are all second-generation criminals, their long absent fathers serving sentences in federal prisons. Affleck wants to explore the nature of what separates good people who make bad decisions, digging into the limited lifestyles afforded to these blue-collar lugs who have lived in brutality. The Town doesn’t quite succeed in this regard. The somewhat saggy middle touches upon these ideas but fails to spend enough time for anything substantial to stick. Gone Baby Gone was a better study of class and moral ambiguity. With The Town, you readily identify who the good bad guys are and who the bad bad guys are.
Just like Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s second feature excels with a glorified group of actors all given room to find their characters and show off their skills. Each actor kind of gets their own space to work and they all, from top to bottom, give stirring performances. The standouts among the cast include Renner and Lively, both barely recognizable in their parts. Renner (The Hurt Locker) is channeling James Cagney from his 1930s gangster pictures. Renner is a live-wire and creates bundles of nervous tension whenever he enters a scene. He doesn’t even have to say a word. His intensity radiates and keeps all the other actors on their toes, rightfully wary of the short-fused Jem. He’s magnetic, steals the film, and even gets a slightly touching sendoff that has managed to stay with me. Lively, best known as the fabulous face of the fabulous high-end TV show Gossip Girl, is going to open plenty of eyes about her potential. She plays Krista, Jem’s sister and damaged love interest to Doug before Claire comes onto the scene. Lively has levels of makeup and hard living coating her magazine-friendly good looks. Lively just doesn’t rely on makeup tricks to stand in the way for her character. She feels like the most tragic soul in the film. She has a kid, likely destined to be removed from her at some point, she operates as a drug mule, and she’s hitched her wagon to Doug as the man that will save her. When that comes apart, Lively herself disintegrates as well, but it’s never in a showy style. She barely conceals the pain consuming her very being. Her eyes are dead of life. Plus, her accent is spot-on.
The other performers give strong work just at a level slightly below Renner and Lively. Directing himself, Affleck gives a fine if overly whispery lead performance. Hall (Frost/Nixon, The Prestige) is effectively broken as she works through the post-traumatic stress and uncertainty her character suffers from. She’s highly empathetic, though you’re left wondering what she sees in Doug. Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) is so damn handsome but I wish he had more to do than running around and barking orders. His character always seems to be a mouth for exposition and chews over his righteous indignation. Chris Cooper (Breach) has one total scene in this movie as Doug’s imprisoned father but he nails it. His antipathy for his son and his late mother spills over but the moment never screams what can be expressed with subtlety. To Affleck notable credit, nobody in a movie about cops and robbers gives a performance that could be labeled as over-the-top or campy. These are genre roles but they are treated like real, muscular characters.
The Town cements Affleck’s status as a director. This is a more accessible, streamlined yet sturdy genre picture that has real reverence for working class Boston neighborhoods. I love the faces Affleck peoples his films with, real people. It’s small touches that add to the authenticity and visceral nature of the movie, touches that help make The Town more than just another run-of-the-mill crime movie. While there may not be anything groundbreaking on display (though I think Renner may get remembered when it comes time for awards season), Affleck’s directing credentials are only strengthened. This isn’t as good a movie as Gone Baby Gone, but what this film showcases is Affleck’s ongoing journey as a director, the shaping of his Michael Mann-esque style, and his intent to marry great drama with great characters played by great actors. I can genuinely say that I look forward to whatever Affleck picks to be his next feature. He?s here to stay, baby.
Nate’s Grade: B
The adaptation of the hit stage play, with its original leads, is an intellectually stimulating experience and a fluid adaptation from stage to screen, thanks to director Ron Howard. The acting is top-notch; Frank Langella may not readily resemble President Richard Nixon but he inhabits the man completely. In a surprising twist, Frost/Nixon is not a heavy-handed story that merely beats up on an antagonist that can no longer defend himself. Nixon’s faults are not excused but the man is presented in a deeply humanistic portrayal. This isn’t a mustache-twirling rogue but a man who came from abject poverty, who rose above his critics who dismissed his humble beginnings, and who has regret and shame for what transpired while he was in office. And he’s funny. Nixon is a funny man. Characters are not just political punching bags here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, based upon his stage play, brings tremendous excitement to the art of debate, framing it like a boxing match. The sparring side notes present some of the more fascinating details between the series of four interviews between Nixon and British personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). But here’s the thing. Frost/Nixon is an entertaining movie but once it’s over it completely vanishes from your brain. It leaves little impact. The movie tries to make Frost’s coup a bigger deal than it was. The film is constantly trying to convince you of its importance. It’s a swell time for two hours but after that, what? Obviously the grilling of the president for getting away with crimes in office is supposed to be a statement on the outgoing President Bush, but what? Should we hope that an unassuming figure much like Frost will be able to get Bush to open up his soul? Get Regis Philbin on the phone.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Christopher Nolan can do no wrong in my book. The director of Memento, Insomnia, and Batman Begins has bewitched me with his clever non-linear storylines and artistic vision. The Prestige is 2006’s second period set magician movie, and in my opinion it’s the better of the two. Nolan’s film lacks the magic of The Illusionist, instead focusing more on the bitter realities of obsession, self-destruction, and the lengths that men will travel for vengeance. The script centers on a pair of dueling magicians (Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman) that are each trying to discover the other’s trick and top them. The storyline is as twisty as a pretzel and told in Nolan’s familiar non-linear fashion, building to a very dark reveal. Whereas The Illusionist sweeps viewers up with the wonder of magic, The Prestige is all about how tricks are orchestrated both on and offstage. The results are a tad cold; you don’t really feel for either magician. The movie is itself a trick but one grandly told with excellent slight of hand. The final act takes a step outside of the film’s tone but it works for me, and it’s been weeks since I last saw the haunting final images and I still cannot get them out of my mind. The Prestige is another notch on my Nolan love meter.
Nate’s Grade: A