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Welcome to Marwen (2018)

When I saw the trailer for Welcome to Marwen my first response was pained wincing. Robert Zemeckis is one of the most daring, inventive, and imaginative filmmakers working today, but this movie just looked misguided with its approach. Welcome to Marwen is so fascinating, so tonally off, that I might almost recommend people watch it.

Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a war illustrator until the day he was attacked by a gang of neo Nazis. In the ensuring months, Mark has lost portions of his memory, is unable to use his hands to illustrate any longer, and has become something of a shut-in. He has gained notoriety through his new artistic outlet. Mark has created a WWII era Belgian town called Marwen with a group of dolls fighting evil Nazis. We escape into fantasy sequences where Mark imagines himself as Cap’N Hogie and his gang of supportive ladies. Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in next door to Mark and he takes an immediate interest in her (she even appears in Marwen in doll form). Mark must grapple with his feelings and work up the courage to attend the court hearing to make sure the men who hurt him stay in prison.

I was amazed at how miscalculated Welcome to Marwen plays out. It feels like Steve Carell’s Patch Adams, a sentimental movie where every step seems strange, mistaken, maudlin, and false. Firstly, this is the second documentary that Zemeckis has taken and adapted into a live-action film, as if the man is spending the wee hours of his nights pouring over award-winning documentaries of the past and determining which he can add a little razzle dazzle to with visual whimsy. Look out The Cove because maybe an undersea realm of talking dolphins will open up that horrifying Oscar-winner to a whole new mainstream audience. I’d have less of an issue with Zemeckis remaking the documentary if it didn’t seem like his entire rationale was the fantasy interludes.

The original documentary is about one man and his unique brand of healing through art. He is becoming further whole by building an intricate world through his imagination. By visualizing the fantasy worlds, Zemeckis is turning the doll segments into literal escapism that becomes tedious, obvious, and often redundant. The doll segments are about his gang of girls supporting him, expressing his interest in his kind new neighbor, and tackling the Nazis in a safe space where he can win. Every time we cut to the doll sequences it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels with these ill advised fantasy cut scenes. It gets boring watching the doll segments without any sense of stakes. The special effects are creepy and there are aspects that amplify this, like one doll’s penchant for having her top ripped off in combat, revealing her stout, rounded chest. Keep in mind that the female dolls, with the exception of one, are all analogues for people in his life, so then Mark is consistently indulging in stripping one woman of her clothes. Even though the movie sets this character up to be a potential love interest, it’s still not a good choice. Zemeckis intends to literalize Mark’s struggles and fears so that he can triumph over them, but it feels like it’s minimizing the complexity of trauma into digestible whimsy. With every trip to Marwen, I was eager to return back to the land of human beings where they might still be over-the-top but at least I wouldn’t have to watch creepy doll CGI.

The most significant doll is the blue-haired Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who is meant to represent Mark’s suicidal impulses. He keeps her atop his wall so that she can watch over him, and in his sleep he dreams about her whispering in his ear, “Nobody will ever love you like I do. You should just end it now.” Oh man, that’s heavy, but when applied through the prism of a talking Barbie doll it loses its sense of seriousness. If you don’t lose yourself in the central conceit and take the dolls seriously, the movie will fall flat. Take for instance the cross-dressing aspect of Mark, which is what lead to his brutal beating. It’s a delicate subject and something easy to get muddled, and that’s exactly what happens in the presentation of this movie. The shoe fetish is initially portrayed as wacky and then becomes serious and then becomes like an artifact of horror. It’s another sign that the tone for this movie is mismatched. These things require a delicate touch with some ambiguity and sensitivity. Welcome to Marwen turns these into a loud, noisy cartoon that bumbles into its messages. Things that are meant to be charming or endearing or emotional can come across as goofy or campy or even uncomfortable.

I felt bad for so many of the actors. Carell (Vice) is trying to maintain his character’s sense of dignity throughout, but the story often goes into contrived contortions to force him into dramatic confrontations. It turns out the court appearance is rescheduled to be the same day of Mark’s photographic exhibit. Will he be able to triumph over these forces to stand up for himself? Carell is a capable dramatic actor but he’s struggling here to find stable footing because of the mish mashing tones. The development of Mark makes him come across as a creep in some moments, like his one-sided advances for Nicol, and a simpleton at other moments, where he might have sustained brain damage. Mann (Blockers) is sweet and gentle but strangely the movie hides her most interesting character aspects, like the prospect of a deceased child. You would think overcoming tragedy would be a tool for Nicol and Mark to bond. Merritt Wever (Godless) is another sweet and gentle woman in a world that seems overstocked with them. It feels like everyone in this small town exists just to be nice to Mark. She’s clearly romantically interested in Mark but he doesn’t care until the very end. She deserves better than being someone’s runner-up choice, especially only after he was turned down.

A movie that deals with delicate issues through fantasy escapism can work, but it requires a precise hand with tone and with its storytelling detours. Guillermo del Toro has been able to prove he can tell rich, adult stories with the assistance of whimsical, weird fantasy elements. Charlie Kaufman has been able to weird the mundane and the fantastic. It can be done and Zemeckis has done it himself before, best evidenced by the masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. However, Welcome to Marwen is a sizeable tonal misfire. The serious elements don’t blend well with the fantasy elements, and even worse, they are made less serious and approach the realm of camp. The fun, fantasy elements are given bizarre and unsettling contexts that make them creepy and inappropriate. Escaping into Mark’s imagination winds up stripping him of much of his agency, and literalizing his psychological push-and-pull feels like a misguided examination on depression. I left my theater in a daze, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The filmmakers and cast certainly mean well and want the film to be a triumph of the human spirit. I found it to be two meandering hours of watching somebody play with their disused toys.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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Allied (2016)

alliedposterForgive me the indulgence but please hear me out on this peculiar observation. In 2005, Brad Pitt stars in a movie where his onscreen wife may be a spy and he may need to kill her, and his marriage to Jennifer Aniston ended shortly thereafter. Flash forward over ten years and Pitt is starring in another movie where his onscreen wife may be a spy and he may need to kill her, and his marriage to Angelina Jolie is now coming to a reported end. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances in something so personal as relationships, but if I was Pitt’s agent, I think I might advise against all future projects that even come too close to this cursed storyline. Allied wasn’t worth it, pal.

In 1942, Max (Pitt) and Marianne (Marion Cotillard) are husband and wife and also spies for the British government. They’re enjoying life back home with their infant daughter Anna when Max gets some startling news. His superior officers are investigating whether Marianne is secretly a German spy. He is to learn for himself what is real and if she is indeed a spy Max is ordered to kill her or he himself will be executed for treason.

allied2Allied already starts dangerously when the majority of its opening act is set during WWII Casablanca, setting up an unwinnable comparison. We’re meant to watch these two secret agents go about their clandestine operation and fall in love. One of those things happens. Oh sure, for the purposes of the plot, Max and Marianne fall in love, but no member of the audience is going to believe what they see. Pitt and Cotillard have anemic chemistry together and their characters are too stilted to draw us in (rumors of an onset romance between the stars seem unfounded by the results on screen). They achieve their first act mission, get their kill, but they don’t really encounter complications. It all proceeds just a little too easily and we fail to get a sense of their capabilities as spies. They practice the cover of husband and wife but only in superficial appearances that come across more like Marianne chiding Max (“A real husband would offer his wife a cigarette first”). I recognize that these people are spies and thrown into danger but we need to invest in them as characters if the rest of the movie is supposed to matter, let alone their relationship together. There are no supporting characters of importance. Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex) pops up as Max’s lesbian sister and you’d swear she’d have some significance, but nope. When Max is investigating Marianne, it never feels like the pieces are coming together. Rather it feels like we’re just getting new pieces, some lucky and some less so. The plotting feels too disjointed and arbitrary. Screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) is one of the best working in the industry, especially when it comes to crime thrillers and naturally drawing out tension. I expected more from him with Allied, but then that will be a trend with several aspects of this mediocre movie.

Here’s the problem with this premise: it’s too limiting. Either Marianne is a spy or she isn’t, and if she isn’t that makes for boring drama. You’re stuck so more and more obstacles have to be put in place to merely delay the inevitable reveal because that’s all the movie had. A solution could have been an Act Two break that revealed Pitt’s character to be the real spy, allowing the audience to reflect back on his action with a new lens of understanding. The crux of Act Three would then be Max’s moral dilemma of whether he turns himself or whether he frames his wife and in doing so erases evidence against himself. It would be a far more challenging and ethically murky scenario than a rather rote finale where the characters follow their predestined paths. I also think summary execution of a spy is a waste considering the value of covert information or even posing as a triple agent. I think the entire story should be told from a different perspective (okay, now spoilers). Little Anna is far too young to know what happened to her mother and I imagine there will need to be a cover story even for the official cover story. My pitch would be tell this story in the mid 1960s when Anna is now in her early twenties and discovering the larger world. She starts to come across testimony or nagging pieces of evidence that contradict her father’s story of what happened to Marianne, and her death now seems very mysterious. As she uncovers the old evidence she learns that her own parents were spies, a truth that had been kept from her, and all the evidence points to dad being the killer. The Act Three confrontation between harried father and daughter would then reveal the actual truth and that Marianne took her own life out of guilt and a desire to spare her husband punishment from his remorseless superiors. The lie was meant to comfort but now it discombobulates a family and a woman’s understanding of her parents and her relationship to them (end spoilers). Doesn’t that sound like a better version of Allied, dear reader? I certainly think so.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Flight, The Walk) is such a skilled craftsmen but this movie just gets away from him. You sense his urge to insert effects sequences into what should be an ordinary period thriller, and so we get distracting sequences that either rip you from the reality of the movie or might make you titter unintentionally. Max and Marianne’s coupling scene involves having sex in the front seat of their stranded car in the middle of a sandstorm. It would have been far more effective and possibly erotic if the camera had merely stayed in that confined space and let the building passion bubble over, all while the light becomes more and more faint from the sand storm, adding all sorts of sensual lighting opportunities with obfuscation and shadows. Instead, Zemeckis has a rotating camera shot that goes on for about a minute steady without cuts and zooms in and out of the car, inside and outside the dusty sand storm. It stops any sensuality from building. Another example if that Anna is born during the Blitz, and yet again instead of being in a small space and leaving more up to the imagination, Zemeckis and his special effects team have to recreate the air assault which increases the melodrama in a bad direction. Zemeckis has never really done a straight thriller and I can feel his flagging interest as he searches for special effects sequences to hold onto as some sort of anchor. I don’t think his skillset was the right balance for this story and the execution it needed to prosper.

allied-pitt-cotillardIt really doesn’t feel like Pitt (The Big Short) wants to be in this movie at all. Rarely have I seen this lethargic a performance from usually one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood. Part of it is the withdrawn and conspicuous nature of his spy character but it’s more than that. I don’t know if he feels like he understands his character or is that committed to the script, and so it feels like he’s just coasting and waiting for the end. It reminded me of the disastrous Oscar hosting duties from a sleepy James Franco and an overcompensating Anne Hathaway. Cotilard’s character is the gregarious and charming one, and so it feels like she has to do all the heavy lifting to compensate for the dearth of Pitt’s performance. Cotillard can be a brilliant actress with powerful instincts down to her very marrow, as last evidenced in 2014’s devastating and humane drama of personal desperation and dignity, Two Days, One Night. She has to play the more active role, first as the charmer and then as the mystery. She works much better as the charmer. I don’t think either actor knew fully who their characters were and stumbled forward.

Allied is a strange movie where the director, the star, and the screenwriter each didn’t seem to know what movie they wanted to make. Each major participant, short of a game Cotillard, doesn’t even seem like they want to be here, as if this was a school assignment that they’re doing the minimal amount of work to fulfill a requirement. Allied just feels like one of those big studio misfires where nobody was on the same page. The story lacks characters to connect with and complications that feel connected to them and their circumstances. The plot follows the path of least resistance and arrives at its predetermined destination right on time, to the monotony of its audience. Pitt’s somnambulist acting makes the movie and his lead character harder to enjoy. There’s a definite lack of intrigue with this premise and its ultimate execution. I expect better from Zemeckis, Pitt, and Knight, and I’m sure they’ll deliver with their next projects. In the meantime, skip Allied since it certainly feels like the cast and crew weren’t in alliance.

Nate’s Grade: C

Flight (2012)

The advertising for Flight has highlighted the sexier elements, the star wattage of Denzel Washington and director Robert Zemeckis, and the thrills of the air disaster. What you get is a different matter. The first thirty minutes prepares you for one movie, and then Flight takes off in a different direction, a path that fails to capitalize on the potential of the subject matter.

Whip Whitaker (Washington) is one hell of a pilot. He miraculously lands a downed airplane, limiting the loss of life to six. He is also a hell of a drunk. Whip also happened to be drunk and high on cocaine at the time of the crash. As the airline investigation searches for the causes that lead to the crash, Whip and his team, longtime friend and union ally (Bruce Greenwood) and high-priced ethically sketchy defense lawyer (Don Cheadle) try and protect their own. The media is agog in hero worship with Whip, but they don’t know about what awaits in his blood test drawn at the scene of the crash. As Whip prepares for possible criminal charges, he meets a recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and the two form a connection. He hides out at his father’s old estate, invites her along, and they struggle to stay clean and fly right. But temptation is too powerful a beast for Whip, and he will continue to make poor decisions.

It’s really a modern-age version of The Lost Weekend or The Days of Wine and Roses. It is an alcoholism story. We’re all familiar with them at this point in the movies. A part of me thinks addiction stories are some of the easiest ones to write; you take a flawed character, introduce the addiction, have them determined to get sober, and then provide temptation after temptation. And that’s kind of what Flight feels like. The compelling elements of the movie, notably the legal ramifications of the crash and the political maneuvering, get too often sidelined by a repetitious mélange of Whip getting drunk or thinking about getting drunk or trying not to get drunk. There are many ups and downs, but the cycle of addiction and abuse starts to grow weary, especially when the movie offers more interesting and unique story avenues worth exploring. The airplane sequence is a taut, horrifying, intense sequence. The legal wrangling resulting from it seems like the stuff of good drama. The airline is trying to limit its monetary damage, the lawyers are trying to cover for their clients including having the dead crew stripped from the fatality numbers, and all the while the investigation is getting closer to uncovering Whip’s secret. That’s the movie I wanted to see with Flight. The majority of what I got was a by-the-books addiction parable with some good actors. The movie seems to be going in too many different directions.

Zemeckis’ return to live-action is welcomed and long overdue, and it’s great seeing him direct real people in real environments again, even if the finished film is flawed. His interests seem more with the special effects-laden crash, a harrowing sequence for the ages. When it gets to the addict stuff, it seems like Zemeckis goes on autopilot himself, bowing to the strength of his charismatic star sucking everything into his orbit. The movie becomes an acting showcase for Washington’s abilities at the expense of a completely coherent plot or tone. At times the film seems cavalierly comic, particularly with John Goodman’s character that gets treated like an endearing figure. He’s Whip’s chief source of drugs and his chief enabler and his casual nature with hardcore drugs, and the film’s noncommittal stance, gives the movie a strange, unsettling quality. Then there’s the religious aspect that feels like it flew in from a whole other screenplay (I can’t tell whether the film is dismissive of religion or just flippant). Plus Zemeckis just can’t help himself when it comes to on-the-nose literal music selections (after Whip gets high due to his compatriots, the elevator plays the Muzak version of the Beatles’ “Some Help from My Friends.”). It’s at this point I’m so happy for Zemeckis to be back making live-action movies, I’m probably giving Flight an even bigger pass than it may deserve.

I’m not sure the Nicole character provides anything substantial to this movie, let alone the movie treating her as a co-lead for the first thirty minutes. In between our moments of watching Whip on the plane, we have scenes of Nicole going about her sad day. I’m wondering how in the world these storylines are going to connect and why we have to leave the drama of the plane for the mundane life of an addict eeking out a desperate life. These should not be parallel storylines; the audience interest is not divided here. Nobody is complaining about spending too much time with Whip and the plane crash. No one is saying, “I wish I could see that woman’s sad life some more.” Why did we even need to see Nicole before she meets Whip in the hospital? Were all of those early scenes just too essential to lose in a movie over two hours? Thematically, I can understand that Nicole presents a romantic possibility but also a reward for Whip if he stays clean and sober. Seeing him screw up this pseudo-relationship is another example to convey the self-destructive nature of Whip. I get that. But if this woman were really integral to the plot, she wouldn’t vanish for the entire final act.

It’s easy to see why actors are always attracted to addict roles. They’re usually showy parts that allow for many opportunities to bottom out. Rest assured, Washington (Safe House) is uniformly excellent, portraying a deeply flawed individual prone to grandiose self-delusion and justification for his behavior. We’re so used to seeing Washington play the calm, cool, collected men of dignity, men who seem preternaturally gifted at leading others. With Flight, he becomes far more vulnerable, a self-destructive character that pushes others away and betrays the trust and faith of others. He’s not fighting some larger external force; he’s battling his internal demons that continually lead him astray. He can be petty, mean, weak, delusional, and downright unlikable at turns. It’s a strong performance that anchors the film. The other actors all provide admirable backup duties, from Cheadle to Greenwood to a brief appearance from Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as an airline investigator. I want to single out James Badge Dale (HBO’s The Pacific) for the impression he makes with a part that amounts to one single scene in the movie. He plays a gaunt cancer patient sneaking away for a stairwell smoke (“Wouldn’t want to give my cancer cancer”), joined by Whip and Nicole. He’s so good with the gallows humor and surprisingly poignancy that I wanted the camera to just start following him.

I want to point out one quirk during my movie going experience with Flight. I was easily the youngest person in my theater by 20 years minimum. I don’t enjoy seeing movies with a predominantly elderly crowd because they do not follow the agreed-upon rules of movie decorum. They often engage in conversations or provide a running commentary. A man two rows behind me had his watch beep for a solid minute to inform him, and the theater, it was now seven o’clock. Either he didn’t hear it beeping (which defeats the purpose) or couldn’t figure out this new-fangled 1980s watch technology to turn it off (which also defeats the purpose). Anyway, what I really enjoyed then was the audible reactions when Flight’s beginning, its very opening images, was a pair of naked breasts. The first scene features Whip and flight attendant Katerina (My Name is Earl’s Nadine Velaquez) getting dressed after a wild night of booze, cocaine, and sex. Whip talks to his ex-wife on the phone, and in one ongoing camera shot, we watch Velaquez walk around completely naked. Then she leaves off screen… and comes back still completely naked. Now I mention this not to reconfirm my red-blooded heterosexuality but because it delighted me to no end to listen to the grumbling of the older audience members. And yeah, the nudity is fairly gratuitous but I’m happy Zemeckis was able to rankle my elder audience before the second second of film.

Flight is also unique in the sense that it may be the only film I know of to posit that drugs and alcohol could save lives. Will is drunk and high while flying, but he saves the day because of his impairment. Ordinarily in the event of a crash or a dive he would revert to his training; every pilot in a flight simulator recreating the events crashed and killed all passengers. Instead, Will goes by instinct, thinking outside the box, and saving the day. And what enables him to do this? Booze, sweet life-saving booze! He’s so calm and relaxed in the moment that he’s able to think straight and discover unorthodox solutions in limited time. Flight never makes this fact explicit but I think it would have made a more interesting film if this debate had been given more airtime. Yeah Whip was drunk, but not every drunk is impaired the same. I’m not excusing driving while intoxicated, but the movie presents a strange situation, fictional yes, where drugs and alcohol saved lives. Then in the end, and our lead is in trouble, what does it look like will save the day? Cocaine! Seriously, the white knight in the final act is the white powder.

I think audience might be in for a rude awakening while they sit through Flight, advertised as an airline thriller. It’s still a competent, occasionally compelling movie with strong acting from Washington and others, but are audiences really interested in another alcoholism drama even if it has Big Stars? The most frustrating part of Flight is that it has so much potential, so many intriguing storylines or angles to choose from, and it settles on the most mainstream one, the familiar arc of an alcoholic coming to terms with their addiction. How is that more dramatic than an airline crash or the later investigation and legal witch-hunt to find a culprit to blame? The movie prefers to focus on the minor rather than the major, following the familiar formula to the very end when our lead has to make a grave moral decision. It’s a character study but the character and his path are the familiar. All the stuff that makes Flight different (the airline disaster, the investigation, the politics of blame) is the stuff that gets relegated so we can watch Whip screw up time and again. There’s an interesting study on hero worship buried somewhere in all this. I enjoyed Flight more in the moment but it has been crumbling under further reflection and analysis. I’m dearly glad Zemeckis has stepped back to the land of the living but Flight has too much baggage to go anywhere new and exciting.

Nate’s Grade: B-

A Christmas Carol (2009)

I still am at a loss over the appeal of the motion-capture system that director Robert Zemeckis fancies as of late. The creative mind that gave us classics Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? has embraced a technology that straddles the middle between live-action and outright animation. Motion-capture attaches electronic nodes to actors and digitizes their movements and facial features to later be conceptualized by computer wizards. And to this I say… so what? It seems like a whole slew of unnecessary work that adds little else than a vague starting point. Why not let the animators start from scratch? Why hamstrung creative professionals because Cary Elwes was feeling like making a certain gesture as “Portly Gentlemen #1?” I just don’t get it. To me, the motion-capture system is stranded in some artistic netherworld where it isn’t live-action and it isn’t animation. Zemeckis has cranked out his third mo-cap baby this decade, a retelling of Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas Carol. Why Zemeckis thought an old holiday chestnut would work best in this format, I’ll never know.

Cold-hearted Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is set to be visited by three spirits on a very magical Christmas Eve. The old man goes through Christmas past, present, and future to reevaluate his life and the true meaning of “peace on earth and good will toward men.” You know the drill, folks.

I like A Christmas Carol. I do. So do plenty of nice people. There’s a reason this oft-told tale still manages to resonate with generation after generation and that?s because it’s a good story. Of course it’s also an extremely familiar story to just about anyone outside of a womb at the moment. I expected Zemeckis and his crew to use their technology to jazz up the old story and give it a fresh new life on the big screen. Despite a handful of excursions flying through ye olde London, the extra slathering of special effects doesn’t enliven this holiday tale. I remember having great fun with Zemeckis’ previous motion-capture movie, 2007’s Beowulf (which does not play nearly as well in 2-D). That movie played around with the 3-D environment to great effect and made you feel apart of the experience. In contrast, A Christmas Carol does shockingly little with its depth of field, rarely placing distance between the foreground and the background. It’s a fairly lackluster 3-D experience. Maybe I wasn’t relaxing my eyes the right way, though I did notice how conscious I was of trying to elevate the 3-D experience myself. My disappointment is magnified by the fact that Zemeckis has been a pioneer for the 3-D playbook that Hollywood has now dubbed as the savior of the theater going experience.

I wonder if Disney execs imposed limitations on the use of the 3-D immersion, not wanting to scare children by making them feel like they’re in the middle of a ghost story (there are some spooky moments already). The whole draw of motion-capture, and animation, is to transport an audience untethered by the limits of traditional practical filmmaking. This newest incarnation of A Christmas Carol fails to justify its existence. Why should I pay to see the most familiar story of modern day if there isn’t any new offering? At least The Muppet Christmas Carol gave me something different. And it had Muppets.

When I was younger in the mid 90s I was a huge fan of Carrey’s rubber-faced antics. I quoted Ace Ventura verbatim with my fellow seventh graders in 1995. So I understand the attraction of having him play multiple parts, but why exactly in a Dickens story? It’s not a comedy unless it’s adapted into one, and Zemeckis hews very close to Dickens and mostly recites the tale word-for-word. Scrooge isn’t funny, the ghosts aren’t funny, so why hire a renowned comedian to portray them all? This is a straight-laced adaptation and as such not the best use for Carrey’s talents. Is the move any better because Carey played all three ghosts? Is the movie any better because Gary Oldman gets to play Bob Cratchett and voice Tiny Tim? Is the movie any better because Elwes is credited for five inconsequential roles? Celebrity vocal casting is rarely effective in animation and so it seems the same in motion-capture.

The technology has improved from the dead-eyed zombie children days of Polar Express, but it still seems like little more than less refined animation to my eyes. The movements are more fluid but the color palate is subdued into amber hues and candlelit locales. It doesn’t exactly use all the technological tools in the toolbox. It’s like a five-star chef toasting a Pop Tart: a waste of potential. I didn’t care for the skewed proportions on people either. Scrooge has a wiry frame with long spidery limbs and a triangular torso, and his character design kept reminding me of Jack Skellington. It’s too otherworldly considering nobody else comes across as a garish caricature in design form. The character designs for the three spirits are also fairly underwhelming. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a wispy flame. The Ghost of Christmas Future is nothing but a shadow. Is there a connection here? Otherwise, a shadow is pretty lame for the one ghost that can get really inventive and scary. Really, a shadow? I can do that myself without the aid of computers. And was it Carrey’s shadow to make it officially motion-capture? Because God forbid no other shadow could do or give the same performance of being draped over shapes.

I actually had to vehemently fight the urge to nap during A Christmas Carol. Maybe it was my poor sleep from the night before, maybe it was the fact that the 3-D glasses make everything darker (they still manage to hurt my eyes after prolonged use), but it was likely due to the fact that Zemeckis added a coat of polish to a holiday classic but declined to find purpose for doing so. Does this story get better with zooms through London, or Scrooge being shrunk and chased by demonic horses? It all seems like folly to me, like somebody’s idea to goose literary classics. Can you imagine Jane Eyre being shrunk and climbing through the walls of her Victorian era home? It all seems like an annoying distraction. Zemeckis? A Christmas Carol is exactly what you’d expect, which means you’d be just as well to flip through the TV channels and find any number of Christmas Carol versions. The Muppet Christmas Carol might even be on. Give that one a try instead. It even has some nice songs. And it’s got Muppets.

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+

Cast Away (2000)

Strand Tom Hanks on a desert island for years? Sounds too good to be true to many a disgruntled movie goer. Such is the state in Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis’ existential meditation on man, nature, FedEx and their product placement checks, and of course… volleyballs.

Hanks is yet another everyman, except he’s a real stickler for time and order as a FedEx supervisor. His girlfriend (Helen Hunt) is pushing for marriage but hey – they’ve got all the time in the world, right? So Tom boards a FedEx flight headed for the Southern Pacific that hits a nasty collision with a powerful storm. The plane goes down abruptly in what is likely the most terrifying plane crash ever performed on film. Hanks washes ashore onto a mysterious deserted island after drifting alone in the vast ocean. Without civilization and without human contact he must start all over just to survive the day. So becomes the Odyssey of Island Tom.

Cast Away hits one out of the park with its near dialogue free middle act with Tom’s first days upon his new island home. Hanks struggles to do everyday things from finding food to creating a makeshift shelter. As Hanks goes through these daily troubles the audience is with him every moment and learns as he does. Cast Away‘s middle is fascinating to watch. After a few days some packages from the crash wash ashore including a volleyball that Tom turns into his best friend. “Wilson” is Hanks’ companion and is totally understandable how one would branch out for contact under the circumstances. Plus, Wilson’s a dynamite celebrity of his own right now.

Hanks’ acting is his usually above average output, but his whole role seems more like a showcase for his method acting than the acting itself. The first half of Cast Away was shot then they took a year off so Hanks could become scruffy, thin Caveman/Unibomber Hanks. The transition is fun to watch and remarkable for an actor to devote themself completely to their role. But the part itself, and Hanks’ show, seem more spectacle than substance. Helen Hunt pops up in the beginning and end proving that she can somehow manage to be in every film in December. Pretty much the next actor in the film would be… well, a volleyball. Cast Away is basically a one-man show.

Despite a wonderful middle ‘Cast Away’ is suffering from the opposite syndrome of Saving Private Ryan: strong middle, weaker beginning and end sandwiching it. Our opening plays like an extended commercial for FedEx, complete with the dazzling FedEx package POV cam (coming soon!). The end plays like a thank you card to FedEx. The ending also suffers from extreme let-down from multiple climaxes that don’t end the film but just give way to another climax. By the time the movie does end you’re exhausted.

Zemeckis lends a skilled hand toward the direction, the script plays to the strengths of the tale good enough, and Cast Away has its moments but becomes too heavy-handed at certain periods. Still, the volleyball is good. Go for the volleyball.

Nate’s Grade: B

(For fun, count the amount of times FedEx is mentioned or seen in the film. Hell, do it with this review too. I’ll even help you out – FedEx, FedEX, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx. Oh fun.)

What Lies Beneath (2000)

I cannot write any review of What Lies Beneath without it also turning into an essay on old people. And so fellow reader I give you… “Nate’s Essay on the Movie Watching Habits of the Elderly or: What Lies Beneath the Review.” [Editor’s note: his review was written originally by a testy and somewhat snide 18-year-old me, so please excuse the ageism attack on elderly movie habits, not that there isn’t still truth to this.]

The tale is one of a happily married couple who are just going through the empty-nest syndrome when their only daughter leaves home for college. Michelle Pfeiffer is a strung out house wife trying to fill up her days and enjoy time with her Harrison Ford-like husband. But all is not well in the house. Michelle starts experiencing visions of ghosts in bath water (bathtubs play a huge role in this flick, bigger than red in Sixth Sense likely) as well as coincidental things that you know aren’t at all coincidental. How many times does the door have to open for you by itself before you put two and two together? Anyway Michelle comes undone and tries telling her husband of her spirit stalkings but he believes she’s crazy. In the end we all know it’s the dead spirit of Ford’s mistress mainly because of the trailer and commercials giving us every twist a la Double Jeopardy. I will say this, the last twenty minutes are ludicrous and laughably bad.

Beneath could be argued as an homage to Hitchcock, but that would be slandering Hitchcock. Hitch could hold an audience, show them new things, and play a crowd like a piano. All What Lies Beneath did was put me to sleep.

What Lies Beneath is supposed to be an “adult” scary picture but does no more but define its intentions with the overused but reliable and disappointing jump scare. A jump scare never truly scares but only startles – usually brought on by a loud BANG! in the orchestral score. But no one admires jump scares. No child grows up wishing he can make the ultimate jump scare movie because it’s basically a cheap reaction or reflex. Build an entire concept of “scariness” on this principle and it’s even cheaper. Old people fall for every one of them too and then sit back loudly talking to their friends about how they were had.

Old people are far more talkative through movies then children, teenagers, and people who frequent seizures combined! This isn’t one single occurrence as well, the same thing happened when I saw The Patriot and subsequently Space Cowboys. Old people talk constantly throughout a movie carrying on conversations loudly as if they weren’t watching a film but rather a child playing in the distance. It’s even more difficult to pay attention to a dull film when you keep hearing everyone’s stories around you, though one man’s story of holiday cooking had me at “hello.”

In short stay away from What Lies Beneath or any movie that skews to a demographic that watches reruns of Murder She Wrote. Old people may enjoy their movies… just don’t see any with them if you have the choice.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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