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Snowden (2016)

originalThere’s quite a difference when director Oliver Stone actually gives a damn with a movie, and you can tell with Snowden that he is passionate about making a compelling and accessible movie for American audiences to understand why they should be angry. He wants to lead the righteous civil liberties mob against the right perpetrators while providing an appreciative moral context to the actions of Edward Snowden, America’s most famous fugitive. That sense of purpose and drive animates Stone in a way that his recent films have not, and even though it’s far less gonzo and experimental as Stone’s quintessential catalogue, the storytelling skill is still consistently engaging and the resulting 134 minutes inform as well as entertain.

Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanted to serve his country and his expertise in computers landed him in various jobs working for U.S. agencies. He discovered the abuse of surveillance over everyday citizens rubber-stamped by a FISA court meant to provide oversight. Callous private contractors would surf through thousands of collected data points, and if pressed, could justify through terrorism connections, as it seems anyone in the world is perhaps three connections away from a person of interest (consider is the really unfortunate version of the Kevin Bacon game). Snowden risks everything to reach out to a team of journalists (Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson) to tell his story and make sure the larger public will know these abuses of power.

maxresdefaultThe best compliment I can give Stone as a screenwriter and director of Snowden is that he took a thoroughly challenging scenario with few cut-and-dry answers and made an accessible movie experience that effectively conveys moral outrage and dismay. It feels like Stone the educator is leading you by the hand, taking time out to explain some of the more delicate intricacies of the murky stuff that goes on behind closed doors. I won’t exactly declare it to be an intelligent examination on the moral implications of the material, but it’s certainly a movie that lands its goal of clarity. It produces a sense of clarity for the subject and a sense of clarity for why Snowden made the decisions he did. Gordon-Levitt delivers a steadily engrossing performance, even if it takes several minutes to adjust to his distracting speaking voice. Maybe my ears are just broken but it doesn’t sound like Snowden. Fortunately, my ears did adjust accordingly. Gordon-Levitt and Stone effectively kept my attention throughout the film. I was surprised how much I found myself enjoying long stretches of this movie, even if my own stance on Snowden is less clearly defined. He talks a good talk but the reality is messy.

Given Stone’s conspiratorial history, the plot definitely comes with a distinctive point of view over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. I don’t think inherent bias in a movie or the angle taken in storytelling is inherently misguided and that all stories should be as objective as possible. Sometimes the circumstances don’t permit objectivity. Stone’s film is clearly biased but it doesn’t fall into a hagiographical hero worship of its titular figure. This is a complicated subject and deserves a proper analysis to place the real-life people in the meaningful morally ambiguous context. Snowden ultimately makes the decision to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower for what he felt were systematic abuses of government surveillance, but before that climactic decision he comes across less than a spotless martyr. His character arc is a fairly recognizable awakening of alarm and horror at the great abuses of power in the name of security. He does start off as a lifelong Republican with family members who have served in the military and different governmental bodies. He’s devastated to be medically discharged from the Army and hungry to serve his country. He’s a patriot who becomes disillusioned with the system, but he’s also rather self-involved and excuses ego with civic duty. I didn’t know how gifted Snowden was in his field, and the movie has some amusement with the wunderkind training sequences where Snowden delivers shock and awe to his stunned superiors. However, the second act becomes more than a bit protracted because Snowden keeps quitting but eventually going back to government surveillance, whether CIA or private subcontracting. This is because of the pay, sure, but it’s mainly because nobody can do what he can do. He feels important. He feels needed. He convinces himself he’s making a difference in the War on Terror, but eventually the reality of the widening peripheral of the war zone is too much to ignore for him.

This is further epitomized through the romantic subplot with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a liberal firebrand, photographer, and exotic exercise instructor. Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) does her best infusing a warm personality into what is too often the underappreciated yet overly agreeable girlfriend role. It’s a storyline meant to further humanize Snowden as well as personalize the encroaching invasions of privacy and subsequent paranoia. After he discovers that the government can activate laptops and watch oblivious citizens through webcams, Snowden can’t help but stare down his open laptop during an almost laughably forced sex scene. My reaction as Lindsay climbed aboard Snowden was exactly this: “Oh, I guess this is happening now.” She would have a greater impact if the movie did more with her character, as she is the long-suffering girlfriend who keeps accommodating his life choices. They move three times across the country for his jobs and Snowden is always unable to fully explain why he feels the pull to these tech occupations, which further frustrates a woman who just wants trust and stability. There is one interesting conversation that Lindsay offers, typifying the blasé response to spying with a “well I have nothing to hide, so who cares” rationale. Snowden is quick to admonish this line of thinking, an opinion that many still share. The other regrettable reality is that the romance is inevitably going to be the least interesting facet of this story. By going behind the curtain of American secret surveillance, we’re indulging in our collective curiosity at how exactly all these moving parts operate. To then go home and watch a couple squabble is a consistent letdown of drama.

snowden-movie-joseph-gordon-levitt-shailene-woodleyThere are a few other artistic miscues that weigh down Snowden, mostly Stone’s penchant for heavy-handed symbolism. The same instincts that allow Stone to carefully thread a knotty story are the same impulses that tell him that subtlety is for cowards. There doesn’t need to be a frame story here. I understand that select media outlets trying to break this story naturally allows for a question-and-answer framing system of flashbacks. However, very little is added besides a skeletal structure. The media members act as reactionary acolytes. It was all captured much more credibly in the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour. There’s no earthly reason for Nicolas Cage to be in this movie except for drawing financing. He plays an old CIA code-breaker and admirer of outdated technology, but really he’s there to serve as an institutional nod to Snowden. At the conclusion, when Snowden’s identity and message becomes public, there’s a scene where Cage’s character literally toasts his pupil’s actions. I would say it’s a bit much but the character is a bit much for an actor that hasn’t generally been known for restraint. When Snowden is leaving the CIA offices in Hawaii for the last time, he steps out into the light (get it? get it?) and the scene is practically rendered in slow motion as the enveloping white light fills the screen and bathes Snowden (get it? get it?). He smiles bigger than we’ve ever seen. Lastly, Stone can’t just help himself during the very end and has Gordon-Levitt replaced with the actual Edward Snowden to deliver the closure of an interview. I don’t think we needed a reminder that Snowden is an actual living person.

Snowden the man, and Snowden the movie, wanted to shake up an ignorant and apathetic American public about the dangers of unchecked power in a surveillance state, but was the mission a qualified success? Years later and Snowden living in exile in Russia, the charitable answer would be inconclusive, though the pessimist in goes further. It very well seems that the majority of the American public simply doesn’t care (out of sight out of mind). The trial over whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor seems a little moot perhaps when the larger public shrugs at the revelations of security overreach. Does a movie about a Great Man have as much resonant cultural cache if that defining act of greatness produces a shrug? I’m by no means saying we should apply a polling system to accurately measure a person’s value and accomplishments to the larger cultural and political landscape. Snowden wanted to wake the public up but we hit the snooze button. In the meantime, the movie about his exploits is fairly entertaining, so at least he has that.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

It’s only been a mere ten years since Marvel’s signature web-shooting, wall-crawling super hero leaped onto the big screen and smashed box-office records, and yet he’s already getting the reboot treatment. Usually we reserve reboots for movie franchises that ended in colossal artistic failure. I don’t know anyone that will ardently defend director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, but I know of no one that puts its in the same vicinity as the atrocious, franchise-slaying Batman and Robin. Spider-Man 3 suffered in comparison to its predecessors, which formed the gold standard of super hero films (even in my review I called out for some new blood if this was any indication what we had left to expect). But then in 2010, Sony decided that it would rather start all over with its billion-dollar franchise, so Raimi was out, so too were stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, and 500 Days of Summer director Marc Webb was tapped to direct. The (rebooted) Amazing Spider-Man swings into theaters with a serious case of déjà vu attached. Are we far enough out to forget about Raimi’s accomplishments? My spider sense is telling me we’ve been here before and better.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a geeky high school student living with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) ever since his parents had to vanish mysteriously one night. Peter is picked on at school and crushes on cutie-pie Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) but all that changes when he’s bitten by a genetically engineered spider. He gains super spider-like abilities including improved dexterity and the ability to stick onto surfaces. He designs his own webbing devices that allow him to shoot long tendrils of super-strong spider webbing he can swing around with. Peter is trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to his parents and he seeks out Doctor Connors (Rhys Ifans), a notable genetics scientist who worked with Peter’s long lost dad. Peter supplies his father’s secret math formula and gives Connors the breakthrough he was hoping for in genetic replication. When injected with a serum, creature should be able to regrow lost appendages. Connors turns himself into a human guinea pig because he’s desperate to grow back his amputated right arm. But the serum causes Connors to transform into a hideous lizard creature for periods of night and only Spider-Man can stop him.

Simply put, I liked Spider-Man when it was made the first time and called Spider-Man. I understand the desire to reboot after the disappointing mess that was 2007’s Spider-Man 3, but did we need to start completely from scratch? Could we not have just eased into a Spider-Man 4 and replaced the original actors? Though I personally had no problem with Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy (yum). I don’t need to see another version of the Spider-Man origin tale because it was already covered just ten years ago. The worldwide public is familiar enough with Spidey’s back-story that I don’t understand why we couldn’t just start with our hero already doing his business. I don’t need another hour of setup for the guy to become Spider-Man. This “sameness” seems to sap much of the energy out of Amazing Spider-Man, a competent and occasionally thrilling superhero flick. It does plenty of things well enough but you just can’t shake the feeling that the movie, at its core, is unnecessary or at least tripping over redundancy. Do we really need to see Peter Parker discover his powers again? I understand that we want to experience part of his joy at discovering his fantastic new abilities, but it just feels like all too familiar. I don’t think we would have missed anything by simply condensing all the back-story and doling it out as a series of concise flashbacks.

Despite some serious déjà vu, The Amazing Spider-Man has some other serious issues. Firstly, the tone just seems like a bad fit. This is a much darker, somber, and angsty tone for a character that was never intended to be as brooding as, say, Batman. Just because the dark tone worked for Christopher Nolan’s Batman films doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for every comic character. I’m not saying that Peter Parker doesn’t have his issues and plenty of guilt to struggle with (more on that in a moment), but this movie feels like the fun has been squeezed out. It’s a kid who was abounded by his parents, bullied at school, and he teems with repressed frustration. Peter Parker is not meant to be a brooding antihero. He’s supposed to be the high-flying jokester. Regardless, you can interpret the character however you’d like, I just don’t think this darker, gloomier incarnation works despite the best efforts from Garfield. The spirit of the movie feels like it’s being suffocated at times. Raimi’s films had their dramatic material but they never lost a sense of fun. It’s hard to tell if anyone is enjoying himself or herself for much of Amazing Spider-Man.

Now let’s talk about one of those areas of Parker’s guilt, namely his guilt over the murder of dearly beloved Uncle Ben. Peter chooses not to get involved and from that action Ben is murdered by the same criminal Peter could have thwarted earlier. In Amazing Spider-Man, it’s transformed into an inane example of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Ben just so happens to run into the same guy and he stupidly wrestles for the man’s gun. It’s hard to make any real connection for Peter to blame himself. Spider-Man 3 did something similar by rewriting the back-story so that the Sandman was responsible for Uncle Ben’s death. I wrote: “By introducing a new killer it means that Peter has no responsibility for his uncle’s death. This completely strips away the character’s guilt and rationale for what compels him to swing from building to building to fight crime.” Now, this new Spider-Man, since he’s so edgy and dark, is only hunting for bad guys who bear a likeness to the robber who killed Uncle Ben. Yes, Peter Parker has become a vigilante defined by his all-consuming sense of vengeance. And guess what? He never finds the guy. Get used to all sorts of storylines being dropped or forgotten throughout the film (I guess we’ll have to wait for future films to explain what happened to his parents).

While I think a darker interpretation of Spider-Man is mislead, I wish the movie would see it through rather than keep having moments to break the reality of this more grounded approach. I’ll buy that Dr. Connors turns into a giant lizard creature from the magic DNA serum whatever. I’ll even buy that he goes mad with power because of it. However, what I won’t buy is that this guy, all of a sudden, decides to relocate his lab into the sewers. What? The guy has everything he needs in a giant scientific tower, and he says he “gave the staff the week off.” Well then do your crazy mad scientist science stuff in your lab. Why the sewers? Do you know how many trips this guy would have to make to haul all that equipment down into the sewers, and remember he’s only got one friggin’ arm! The entire character of the Lizard feels so poorly developed and adds no greater thematic message to the movie. And then there’s the case of Peter Parker being a world-class dweeb mocked in high school. As presented, he’s a pretty hunky, smart, athletic kid who has fabulous hair. It makes no sense that he has absolutely zero friends and that there wouldn’t be girls crawling all over this guy. Are there no alternative-style girls in this school besides the one girl with glasses we keep cutting back to for reaction shots? And how many times is Aunt May going to watch her nephew come home at odd hours and covered in bruises before she says anything?

Then there’s just the forehead-smacking number of coincidences in the movie. With most movies you accept that the characters exist in a small universe where they will regularly continue to run into one another, but in Amazing Spider-Man it’s absurd. As my pal Mike Galusick noted, you have Peter who just happens to have the last steps needed in a formula who just happens to go to Oscorp and poses as another student with shocking ease who just happens to wander off a tour and much up with lab stuff because security cameras do not exist in this universe and who just happens to meet the same scientist who is responsible for his parents missing and the guy also happens to have a head intern who just happens to be Peter’s crush and she just happens to be the daughter of the police captain (Denis Leary) trying to hunt down Spider-Man. Phew. I haven’t even mentioned the construction worker dad (C. Thomas Howell, for real) whose kid was saved by Spider-Man so he makes sure to rally all his fellow construction workers to synchronize their beams for Spidey. It is moments like this that undermine the filmmakers’ grounded approach.

It sounds like I really disliked this film, and I didn’t. Amazing Spider-Man is a completely serviceable superhero tale and the cast does a great job of covering up for many of the narrative shortcomings. The action, what there is, seems a little too rushed and missing that spark that Raimi had in abundance. There is one nifty sequence that Webb deserves credit for: in the foreground a librarian listens to classical music, which drowns out the background action as the Lizard and Spider-Man smash through shelf after shelf of books. This was the only moment in the movie where it felt fresh and exciting and I wanted to see where it would go. It’s just that the movie cannot capitalize on its potential. Take for instance a late incident where the Lizard unleashes his mutant gas and transforms a cadre of police officers into giant lizard creatures. You’d naturally expect that if you were introducing a lizard army that we’re upping the stakes and that the movie would do something with this new team of antagonists. Wrong. No ramifications. Webb’s film does benefit from advances in computer wizardry as the CGI is far more advanced and Spider-Man doesn’t resemble the cartoon character he often did in Raimi’s trilogy. The brief moments swinging through the city, feeling the rush of exhilaration with the character, are the movie’s visual highpoint. I found the Lizard’s face eerily similar to the goombahs in the reviled Super Mario Brothers movie.

Garfield (The Social Network) and Stone (The Help) certainly feel like a step up from before. Even though Garfield seems a bit old for high school, he does a more than credible job of being a super smart kid who slowly grows in confidence and demeanor. He can do it all, handle the comedy, the emotional angst, the formation of courage. Garfield is a great addition and he gets along wonderfully with Stone; the actors have great chemistry, which may explain why they started dating after the production ended. Stone brings a comedic zeal to the part and seems far more approachable and les standoffish than Dunst’s Mary Jane ever did. While the movie seems to indicate a fully formed romance for its stars, what we see on the screen plays out more like a nervous flirtation. The actors are cute when they seem to be stammering in awkwardness and mutual attraction. I wish the movie gave us more development rather than skipping ahead, but hey, these kids are great together.

The Amazing Spider-Man, when you get down to it, is less than amazing. It’s a capable super hero movie with some fancy effects and stunt work, but the mounting plot holes, incongruities, tonal conflicts, and overwhelming sense of sameness prove to be a foe even Spider-Man cannot topple. This aims to be a leaner, more emotionally engaging, realistically grounded Spider-Man, but it just can’t pull it off. Garfield and Stone are great but it’s impossible to erase Raimi’s original trilogy from your memory. His films weren’t perfect, though Spider-Man 2 came closest, but they were loving odes to the character and knew how best to link action with character for maximum impact. I can’t think of any real memorable moments in this movie, which is troublesome given its hefty budget and its hefty mission of supplanting the Raimi films. I didn’t have a bad time while watching The Amazing Spider-Man but my involvement and enjoyment was very limited. Even with a glossy reboot, I guess The Amazing Spider-Man is proof enough that sometimes it’s better to go forward rather than reliving the past.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Hannibal Rising (2007)

People love a good villain, and is there any greater villain in modern movies than Hannibal Lector? The flesh-eating, etiquette-minded fiend was most memorably portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. Even though he was only in the film for a whopping 16 minutes (the shortest screen time ever for a Best Actor), Hopkins stole every second. The character has resurfaced in additional movies like 2001’s Hannibal and 2002’s Red Dragon.

The history behind Hannibal Rising is that long-time film producer Dino Di Laurentiis owns the rights to the Hannibal character and essentially told author Thomas Harris, the man behind every Hannibal book, that he was making another movie starring America’s favorite cannibal, and it was going to be a prequel set amidst his boyhood days, and he was going to do it with or without Harris. With a proverbial gun pointed at his head, Harris decided if anyone is going to ruin his character it might as well be himself. He simultaneously wrote a new Hannibal book and a screenplay for it, both tied to be released within a few short months of each other. The results are about what you would expect for an artistic venture born from people wanting more money.

Hannibal Lector is a young kid living in Latvia. His family even has an ancestral castle but this doesn’t matter because it’s 1944 and the Germans and Russians are going at it. His father and mother are mowed down by gunfire as his family flees to a cottage in the woods for protection. Sadly, this will not be the worst thing that happens to Hannibal. A group of deserted soldiers, led by Grutas (Rhys Ifans), finds the cottage and takes refuge in it, hiding from their superiors, the ongoing battles, and the viciously cold winter. Long story short: there’s nothing to eat and the soldiers kill and eat Hannibal’s sister to survive. Flash forward to 1956, and Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is a rebellious Stalinist youth. He escapes his boarding school and heads out to France to find his aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). She teaches him about the ways of the samurai and sharpens his fighting skills, because that’s what Asian people do in Hollywood movies. Hannibal is haunted by nightmares of his sister’s murder and his inability to protect her. He vows to find the current whereabouts of the men who took her from him and exact bloody revenge.

I guess when you get down to it I never needed to know the back-story to Hannibal Lector. He was such a dominating, frightening, and fascinating presence in Silence of the Lambs, someone who could worm his way inside your head and download everything he needed to know to exploit you. And yet, the man still adhered to his own set of standards, as Clarice remarked that he only ate the “rude.” He’s like a kinky literary professor. In 2005, Hannibal Lector was declared by the American Film Institute as the greatest film villain . . . ever. What I’m trying to get at is that no explanation for what made Hannibal into the demented figure he is would ever be satisfying. I don’t need to know why Hannibal is how he is, just as I didn’t need to know why Willy Wonka is; they just are. There’s also a logistical quirk: because we know this is a prequel, it means Hannibal Lector is never in any danger. He has to survive to populate more books and movies. Hannibal Rising was doomed to fail the second anxious studio execs got dollar signs in their eyes.

The film really drops the ball by turning the most unique villain in modern literature into a mere creepy kid out for vengeance. Hannibal Rising is a gloomy revenge flick dressed up to feel more astute and highbrow, but it’s nothing but a run at Charles Bronson Death Wish territory. Hannibal tracks down his sister’s killers one by one and plots his bloody revenge, and with each death the film seems to deflate. The character is given a stable of psychological devices you’d find in trashy serial killer page-turners. The fact that he remains moderately sympathetic is a testament our warm feelings for a guy that eats people. Hannibal Rising also ducks risky territory by making the marked men bastards even 10-something years later. They’re either corrupt authority figures or petty criminals; Grutas even runs a houseboat that he cycles sex slaves in and out of. Splendid. Now, it would be truly daring if the film had the courage to show these men as people trying to do right in the world, continually haunted by the choices they made to survive. That would call into question the nature of violence and forgiveness. The film even hints that Hannibal might have unknowingly eaten his sister as well. The psychological ramifications of that could be really interesting. But no, that’s too much, so what we get are a bunch of sneering stock baddies for Hannibal to systematically pick off.

Hannibal Rising shows its agenda with one very telling scene. When young Hannibal is living with his aunt he scours through her collection of samurai art. Then one mask catches his attention and he places it against his face, and wouldn’t you know it, the mask looks very similar to the one he will eventually wear like 40 years later. Why even include this scene? In 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal wore this famous mask for all of one scene. The filmmakers are tipping their hat at what we know with Hannibal; the film is more concerned with reminding us about our memories of a character off screen than the one that’s in the story.

Despite all these failings, Hannibal Rising still manages to be passably entertaining. I credit director Peter Webber (Girl with Pearl Earring) and actor Gaspard Ulliel. Webber keeps the pacing light for a two-hour movie and adds a fine Gothic feel with a crisp, autumn look. He tries hard to bring some art to an overly glorified revenge flick. Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) is something of a minor revelation. He digs deep into his character and finds a perverse pleasure in his portrayal of the cinema icon. He’s scary and weird but manages to still be grossly entertaining even when he’s doing gross things. It’s the sheer power of his performance that makes the film worth watching. I didn’t see this coming from the cute, boyish lovesick kid from Engagement, but Ulliel creates a clockwork-like performance of sinister eeriness. When he glares, his eyes burning with sharp intensity, he has this little dimple on one side of his face, like a permanent mark from evil grinning. He has a terrific look to him and I’d dare say there would be plenty of surprised moviegoers that find themselves thinking Hannibal Lector is a tad sexy. Hopefully Ulliel is destined for better things after mastering English so well, something his Engagement co-star seems to still be struggling with in American movies.

There really is no reason for this movie to exist. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just entirely unnecessary. It’s passably entertaining and has some grisly gore to it but much of it is pure genre. I’m more interested with the older, wiser Hannibal than this young pup. In the pursuit of the almighty dollar, Hannibal Rising sure wants to be a tasty dish. The problem is that this dish has already gone cold.

Nate’s Grade: C

Human Nature (2002)

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman jumped on to Hollywood’s A-list when his feature debut Being John Malkovich was unleashed in 1999. Malkovich was a brilliant original satire on identity, be it celebrity or sexual, and was filled with riotous humor but also blended beautifully with a rich story that bordered on genius that longer it went. Now Kaufman tries his hand expounding at the meaning of civilization versus animal instinct in Human Nature. As one character tells another, “Just remember, don’t do whatever your body is telling you to do and you’ll be fine.”

Lila (Patricia Arquette) is a woman burdened with excessive body hair ever since she was old enough for a training bra (with the younger version played by Disney’s Lizzie McGuire). Lila feels ashamed by her body and morbidly humiliated. She runs away to the forest to enjoy a life free from the critical eyes of other men. Here she can commune with nature and feel that she belongs.

Nathan (Tim Robbins) is an anal retentive scientist obsessed with etiquette. As a young boy Nathan was sent to his room for picking the wrong fork to eat his meal with. He is now trying his best to teach mice table manners so he can prove that if etiquette can be taught to animals it can be ingrained toward humanity.Lila and Nathan become lovers when she ventures back into the city, eliminating her body hair for now, because of something infinitely in human nature – hormones. The two of them find a form of content, as neither had known the intimate touch of another human being.“Puff” (Rhys Ifans) is a grown man living his life in the woods convinced by his father that he is an ape. One day while walking through the woods Nathan and Lila discover the ape-man and have differing opinions on what should be done with him. Nathan is convinced that he should be brought into civilization and be taught the rules, etiquette and things that make us “human.” It would also be his greatest experiment. Lila feels that he should maintain his freedom and live as he does in nature, how he feels he should.

What follows is a bizarre love triangle over the reeducation of “Puff,” as Nathan’s slinky French assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) names him. Lila is torn over the treatment of Puff and also her own society induced shame of her abundant amount of body hair. Nathan feels like he is saving Puff from his wayward primal urges, as he himself becomes a victim of them when he starts having an affair with Gabrielle. Puff, as he tells a congressional committee, was playing their game so he could find some action and “get a piece of that.”

Kaufman has written a movie in the same vein as Being John Malkovich but missing the pathos and sadly, the humor. ‘Human Nature’ tries too hard to be funny and isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. Many quirky elements are thrown out but don’t have the same sticking power as Kaufman’s previous film. It’s a fine line between being quirky just for quirky’s sake (like the atrocious Gummo) and turning quirky into something fantastic (like Rushmore or Raising Arizona). Human Nature is too quirky for its own good without having the balance of substance to enhance the weirdness further. There are many interesting parts to this story but as a whole they don’t ever seriously gel.

Debut director Michel Gondry cut his teeth in the realm of MTV making surreal videos for Bjork and others (including the Lego animated one for The White Stripes). He also has done numerous commercials, most infamously the creepy-as-all-hell singing navels Levi ad. Gondry does have a vision, and that vision is “Copy What Spike Jonze Did As Best as Possible.” Gondry’s direction never really registers, except for some attractive time shifts, but feels more like a rehash of Jonze’s work on; yep you guessed it, Being John Malkovich.

Arquette and Robbins do fine jobs in their roles with Arquette given a bit more, dare I say it more, humanity. Her Lila is trapped between knowing what is true to herself and fitting in to a society that tells her that it’s unhealthy and wrong. Ifans has fun with his character and lets it show. The acting in Human Nature is never really the problem.

While Human Nature is certainly an interesting film (hey it has Arquette singing a song in the buff and Rosie Perez as an electrologist) but the sum of its whole is lacking. It’s unfair to keep comparing it to the earlier Malkovich but the film is trying too hard to emulate what made that movie so successful. Human Nature just doesn’t have the gravity that could turn a quirky film into a brilliant one.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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