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1917 (2019)

We all know what the immediate appeal for 1917 is and that is its bravura gimmick of making the entire two hours appear as if it is one long, unbroken film take. Long tracking shots have famously been used in films before, like Goodfellas and Atonement, and entire movies have been filmed through the illusion of a single take, from Hitchcock’s Rope to Russian Ark to Best Picture-winner Birdman. The difference between those one-take movies and 1917 is that none of them were a war movie that takes place primarily outdoors in very real elements. The sheer technical audacity of the feat demands that it be see on the big screen when able. It’s like a cinematic magic trick, allowing you to sit in awe at the sheer ambition and technical wizardry of the filmmakers and continue muttering, “How did they do that?” When done right, it can reawaken that magical feel of watching something impressively new, but is there any more than a gimmick?

It’s 1917 and two ordinary British soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, a.k.a. “Tommen” from Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay), are tasked with a life-saving mission. A military unit is walking into a trap, and if they do not deliver this dire message in mere hours, hundreds of men will die, including Blake’s older brother. They have only hours before the fateful attack is launched and must traverse into enemy territory that may not be as deserted as they have been lead to believe.

Whatever else you think about 1917, it is worth watching simply to witness the awe-inspiring technical vision from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty). The sheer scope of this movie is overwhelming when it comes to the logistics of being able to keep the camera roaming, which will go from handheld to crane to swooping lines above. It feels alive with that vitality of theater, knowing that if something were to go wrong that everyone would just adjust and move onward. When you see someone tip-toeing along the edge of a bridge, that’s them doing so. When you watch someone diving for cover, it’s really happening, and Mendes wants you to know. It brings an interesting verité feel to something that must have been planned within an inch of its existence. But was it? Did the actors meet the exact same blocking marks every take? Were the clouds aligned just so each time? I’m willing to credit legendary cinematographer Roger Deakens (Blade Runner 2047) with extra plaudits not just for arranging all the logistics of the busy camerawork but for finding pleasing visual compositions on the spot, using what was available. He deserves all the awards because this movie is nothing but brilliant photography and production design. A segment where we run through the ruins of a French village at night, with German flares providing momentary bursts of visible light above, is astounding. I think about the meticulous precision of the camerawork, the timing of the lighting cues, the practice of the actors and story decision to run in darkness and hide for cover in light, the pursuers giving chase, and it just makes my head hurt from all the daunting coordination. It might be dismissively viewed as a WWII video game and the characters as the avatars we urge onward, and I don’t disagree. I found the entire enterprise to be deeply immersive, visceral, and thrilling in its stunning sense of verisimilitude.

However, I’ll admit, dear reader, that I was growing bored by the first ten minutes or so, and I even admit that this was in some part by design. Given its proximity to being in real time (the trek we are told should take 6 hours) it means early on there is a lot of walking. Before we venture out into No Man’s Land, it feels like we’re just watching people walk and walk and walk through the lengthy English trenches. It can become a bit repetitive and your mind may wander, but there is a rationale for this from Mendes and company. It communicates what the geography of battle and day-to-day life was like for the soldiers, to go from one supposedly safe section, snaking round and round to the front lines, noting the distance but also, in practical terms, how close life and death were from one another. It’s also a recognition of the reality of trench warfare and you can stop and think, “Wow, the production actually built this entire miles-long trench,” but then you can just as easily transition to, “Wow, people really dug in and built these structures back in 1912.” The long walk serves as the confirmation not just of a top-notch film production but also of the hardened reality of a soldier bogged down in a trench for months. The First Act is essentially them walking to the front line, crossing over into No Man’s Land, and approaching the German trench on the other side. On paper, that doesn’t sound like too much in the way of story events, but it’s our introduction as an audience into the life that these soldiers experienced. Each crater, each corpse strewn on the battlefield, it helps paint a larger picture of the unseen stories leading to this moment. It’s a very real equivalent of “show, don’t tell” storytelling, and the long walk better cements in our minds just how daunting this trial will be, especially since every step after the trench is fraught with danger.

I figured that 1917 was going to be more about its gimmick and that the characters would suffer under the weight of this setup, and it’s true that they could be sharper, but 1917 succeeds in ways that I found Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk lacking. By focusing primarily on two characters and hinging success or failure on them alone, the film does a better job of providing me a personal entry point into the larger conflict. I have someone I can follow from the start, and that’s not just because the camera is confined to their immediate orbit. About halfway through, the movie makes a turn that really ups the stakes as well as my emotional involvement in a way that I never felt during 2017’s Dunkirk, which felt too removed with its interchangeable, faceless characters. With Dunkirk, it was a race against time but this was muddled by its non-linear, time-hopping structure. It’s a race against time but you were given three different sets of time that would crash into one another. It was too clever to feel the urgency. With 1917, it’s streamlined to the essential (get to point A before X time) and the urgency is alive in every moment. Not only do our characters not know what they’ll discover past the German lines, if they deviate too long, they may well arrive too late to stop a doomed attack. I assumed our characters would persevere, but as the film carried on, and the setbacks mounted, I began to doubt. Would this be another Gallipoli scenario of pointless death at the behest of arrogance, stubbornness, and bad information? By the end I didn’t know and that gnawing uncertainty provided a tremendous spark of tension.

It can be episodic, it can feel more like a gimmick than a movie, but 1917 is a prime example of why we go to the movies. We go to be dazzled and transported through the magic and marvels of expert craftsmen and to throw ourselves into the complicated, messy, intriguing world of strangers that we get to cheer for, laugh with, and possibly cry over. The technical accomplishments will be heralded for years and studied long after. It’s a technical feat but, thankfully, the movie is more than merely its magic act. The human drama becomes personalized, universal, and engaging. There are several moments meant to breathe, including one gorgeous moment in hiding with a Frenchwoman and a baby that is beautiful in its cross-language connection on a human level. The suspense can be overwhelming and I was rocking back and forth whether or not characters would be caught, seen, or make it out alive, always remembering the stakes of failure. Watching 1917 is like holding your breath for two hours and then exhaling at long last upon the end credits. I feel that there are enough resonating elements that provide substance for the movie to stand on its own merits but it will forever be known for its long, coordinated feature-length tracking shot. Even if that is its lasting legacy, 1917 is still a thrilling and immersive achievement in filmmaking ambition.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Spectre (2015)

MV5BMjM2Nzg4MzkwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA0OTE3NjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_It’s hard to keep a franchise that can almost count its decades on one whole hand fresh and relevant, but Daniel Craig’s time as 007 has done just that. Starting with 2006’s magnificent Casino Royale, we got a grittier Bond, a man with a bruised psychology that was interested in more than just how many bad guys he could callously kill and sexy ladies he could securely seduce. It was a franchise that modeled itself more after the Jason Bourne films, and it worked tremendously, giving the 40-year-old franchise new relevancy for modern audiences that have grown up on the Bond canon. 2012’s Skyfall was the biggest bond hit of all time, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. It was going to be a hard act to follow. Spectre, for all intents and purposes Craig’s franchise farewell, is a lousy swan song. It’s the weakest of the Daniel Craig Bond era but that claim would require me to rewatch 2008’s Quantum of Solace; however, just from memory, Solace had more engaging moments, stunts, and even a better theme song, so I’ll stick with my proclamation: Spectre is the most mediocre Craig Bond.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is hunting the organization responsible for the deaths of those closest to him, namely Vesper (Eva Green) and the prior M (Judi Dench). His path has lead to the nefarious SPECTRE terrorist organization and its mysterious and feared leader (Christoph Waltz), who has his own personal reasons for causing Bond misery.

maxresdefaultThe movie’s biggest mistake was its insistence that the audience will want to know how all the events tie together as a whole. Due to this position, it makes Spectre the awkward retcon exercise it is, trying to provide winks and nods to past Craig Bond outings while saying, “Oh yeah, all that evil stuff, well this guy is The Guy behind it all.” Adding an extra layer of a criminal conspiracy doesn’t somehow make those events more interesting or provide the need for conclusion; it piggybacks off the earlier movies and pretends it has shown its own work. Spectre thinks the accumulated plot events and deaths of three movies is the same as properly setting up a story and its villains, and that’s just not the case. The other problem with trying to connect the dots to three previous movies is that Spectre has even fewer chances to stand on its own merits, which are admittedly fewer. Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) is a bland addition as a Bond Girl, and oh does she pale in comparison to the capable and indispensable Rebecca Ferguson in the latest Mission: Impossible sequel. Their relationship is never as interesting or as properly developed as the film thinks. The stakes of the movie (surveillance abuse) feel too abstract and low-key, or at least poorly articulated, to feel important. If you’re going to turn the focus of the narrative on offering an apparent climax for multiple movies, it better deliver and feel like it was worth the effort, and Spectre just does not feel like that.

The other thing hat just doesn’t work is the bad guy, which is puzzling because Waltz was born to play a James Bond villain. The Craig Bonds have followed the more stripped down route even in their villains, once the parlance of the most colorful megalomaniacs that action cinema had to offer (and there’s also the eccentric henchmen). There’s a delayed buildup to revealing Waltz (Django Unchained) where other characters will talk in hushed whispers about just how dangerous and powerful the man in charge of Spectre is. A nagging problem is that we’re too often told these things without being shown them. A similar problem affected Skyfall where we spent half the film being told how dangerous and skillful its villain was, but at least Silva (Javier Bardem) lived up to the hype when he arrived, at least for a little while before degenerating into your standard psychopath. Waltz has exactly two sequences before the final showdown. That’s it, and for one of them he’s almost entirely in shadow at the end of a large table of shadowy figures. He’s not given a strong angle to play with his villain (spoilers) and his ultimate personal connection to our 007 agent feels far too forced and slight. Just like the rest of its hasty retconing, Waltz’s connection is meant to feel significant but its not dealt in any way like it should be significant. It’s almost a casual toss-off. It’s even worse when Waltz calls Bond his “cuckoo,” meant to be dark but is just really silly. Waltz is completely wasted in what is little more than a perturbed middle manager role. His climactic showdown with Bond feels impractical even for Bond movies. His downfall is even worse and made me laugh out loud how easily it all comes crashing down. If the emphasis of your movie is how the Big Bad is responsible for all the previous misfortune, then you better make sure the character was worth the wait.

spectre-daniel-craig-monica-bellucciSam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) returned to the director’s chair and stages some nicely photographed sequences, but with the exception of a stirring opening sequence, the action of Spectre is quite tame and forgettable. The opening in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations has an interesting atmosphere and an ongoing tracking shot to pull us in from the start. From there, Bond has to take out a high-profile Spectre baddie and their struggle eventually carries over into a helicopter, both men punching wildly and trying to hold on for dear life as the copter whizzes upside down repeatedly. It’s a good set piece with some fun and unique aspects, like Bond escaping the crumbling wall of a building, but it’s the sheer thrill of watching the battle inside the helicopter that makes this opener a doozey. After that, I was sad to discover that nothing could measure up. Skyfall also peaked with its opening action caper but it still held my interest as it barreled toward its conclusion. I was resisting the urge to go to sleep with Spectre. An air chase over the trails of a mountain is interesting but doesn’t evolve, which is something vital to all exciting action sequences. If the action is static, it’s most often not going to be good after the initial rush wears off. There’s a decent car chase late at night in Rome but I got to think why Bond would be fleeing just one henchman even if that paid muscle were played by physical brute David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy). The film’s budget was reportedly $245 million and I just do not know where that money went.

The Craig era will be known for revitalizing the franchise, saving it from its self-parody excesses that were swallowing the series alive. We were watching Craig’s version of 007 become the hardened, quip-heavy, flippant killing machine and womanizer, except that he doesn’t feel like that character by the end of Spectre. If the course of four films was to bring the Bond we know into fruition, then it didn’t quite work, and that personally thrills me. Craig’s character is far more interesting, haunted by the people he couldn’t save, than the action hero Bond staple. However, while Craig’s character maintained a trajectory that staid true to its aim of bringing more depth to its central hero, the series was starting to hew closer to the classic Bond mode of empty bombast, and Spectre is the final proof of this. It’s getting closer to the crazy villains and spy hijinks of old territory. It’s a story that wants climax and resolution but cannot supply it without relying heavily upon the three previous movies to supply the weight this one lacks. It’s a rather lackluster farewell for Craig, an actor who deserved better. Judging by his interviews, I think he’s just happy to be out. He’ll be missed. Spectre will not. Now bring on Idris Elba please!

Nate’s Grade: C+

Skyfall (2012)

The James Bond franchise, one of the most enduring of all time, has been open to criticism since it came back in a big way with 2006’s Casino Royale. Fans have started to whine that the Bond movies are no longer the Bond they remember, and they’re probably right. In 2006, the producers decided to go back, reboot the series, and introduce a more grounded Bond, a man with more demons than quips. This backlash to a successful reboot seems so funny to me, especially considering the dubious nature of these older Bond movies. Can we all just take a moment and objectively admit that half of the Bond movies are absolutely awful? Skyfall is the third in the new Daniel Craig Bond era, and it’s received universally ecstatic reviews. It’s a fine work, surprising and satisfying in equal measure, but it’s no Casino Royale for me, but what can be?

James Bond (Craig) is recovering from a serious injury after a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), accidentally shoots Agent 007. In her defense, he was atop a speeding train battling a baddie and her boss, M (Judi Dench), ordered her to fire. In the weeks that follow, Bond is struggling to adapt. He’s lost a step physically and now has to deal with his own doubts. Naturally, this isn’t the most opportune time for crises of faith. MI6 is under attack by one of their own, a former agent turned powerful techno-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem). The man has a serious grudge against M and is exposing MI6 undercover agents to punish her. After an attack at MI6 HQ, the agency is left scrambling and sends Bond out to nab Silva, even if Bond isn’t physically ready to return to field duty. Silva is determined to kill M and destroy the agency that left him for dead.

While Skyfall is indeed a good Bond movie and worlds better than 2008’s Quantum of Solace, it still cannot meet the rapturous applause it’s receiving among critical circles. It starts off strong with a nifty action sequence in Istanbul (the go-to action setting for 2012). Bond is chasing a bad guy, and we go from foot chase to car chase to rumbling on top of a speeding train. And there are natural complications that take advantage of geography! When Bond hops on the train, he climbs into a construction crane to fight back, smashing open the back of the train car. It’s a terrific opener that gets things starts briskly, and the sexual chemistry between Craig and Harris (28 Days Later) is palpable. Then the movie pretty much deflates in the second half. There’s a build-up to the villain and his master plot, but once that plot is revealed the film can’t live up to the hype. There are enough plot elements that feel important but eventually get discarded. Here’s a minor example: Bond is given a handgun programmed to his palm print, so it will only fire with Bond wielding it. It’s the only gadget in the movie, so you’d expect it to be utilized in a significant way. One nameless thug uses it then gets eaten by a Komodo dragon. That is it. Seems like an awful waste of funds for it to be thrown away so casually.

The last act has a protracted finale in Scotland, exploring Bond’s ancestral home and his tragic backstory. I’d like to think the insights we’re offered are important but I don’t believe they are. Bond was an orphan (the best recruits, says M) and Albert Finney (Big Fish) was his quasi-father figure/caretaker. It’s not enough to compensate for the slack pacing and encroaching boredom present. The good guys are holed up in an estate, waiting. And that’s what you want in a Bond movie, let alone any action film, for the heroes to sit and wait. An action movie should be building to a climax of intensity, thematically as well as plot-wise. Skyfall is that rare Bond film that flirts with coming undone; each passing action sequence seems less interesting than the one before.

With Mendes directing and Roger Deakens, the greatest working cinematographer, at his disposal, this has to be the best looking Bond movie. The shot compositions are often stunning, making fine use of the visual space and the balance of light and shadow. There are even some shots that might remind you of Mendes previous films like American Beauty or Road to Perdition. Added with some above average action, it makes the thrills an even better sight. There was a fight sequence in a Chinese high-rise almost completely in unbroken silhouette, with the neon tentacles of advertisements dancing in the background. It’s a wonderful image. Even when the movie was losing me at points, I could at least admire the visuals. I was worried that Mendes would not have a deft feel for action. After all, another indie director mostly known for dramatic work, Marc Foster, helmed Solace. That selection did not work out so well, though the script was notably weak. Mendes, on the other hand, can stage some pretty exciting action sequences with judicious editing, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. He’s not exactly a knockout when it comes to constructing action sequences, but the results are more than adequate for a guy whose last two movies were Away We Go and Revolutionary Road.

For the previous Craig entries, it feels like the movies have borrowed more from Jason Bourne than Bond. They’ve gone for a grittier, darker, more realistic portrayal. Skyfall takes a very interesting angle with the character, showing a Bond coming to terms with his physical limitations. It’s a Bond that has to confront his most nefarious foe: aging. Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells the agent that the whole spy business is “a young man’s game.” In the old days, you needed men with lairs in volcanoes and giant doomsday lasers. Now you can send the world into irreversible chaos with a laptop. Skyfall is at its most engaging when it confronts the old world of spies and the scary new world of technology. Can the Queen and MI6 compete or will they be left behind? Bond and his organization must confront their limitations and mortality, and this added dimension of vulnerability makes the series far more emotionally resonant.

Here’s my main problem with the villain: it’s a bait and switch affair that leads to unfulfilled potential. Silva has been spoken of with such awe, a man who could bring governments to their knees with the click of a button. He’s made out to be this dangerous cyber-terrorist genius. So what happens for the second half of the movie? He chases people around and shoots guns. It’s like Skyfall completely forgets what made their villain special. Bardem gives a flamboyant performance with an extra dash of actorly nuttiness, but it’s nowhere near the memorable menace of 2007’s No Country for Old Men. That’s an unfair comparison, I know, but where the movie really starts losing it is when Silva loses it. He becomes just another garden variety psychopath, though one with a creepy oedipal complex. Psychopaths do not work in the James Bond universe. Agent 007 needs a foil that is smart, not crazy and a mad genius rather than mad. I recognize that Silva’s psychological shambles is meant to be a sign of the potential fate of all agents, let alone agents that are given up by M. That doesn’t mean you abandon all the traits that make the villain who he is. The problem with Silva, despite a rather jarring monologue about the effects of surviving a cyanide capsule, peaks with his first appearance. He has a grand entrance and places Bond in a very precarious position, forcing him to confront his physical failures. That’s the villain I want to see. And the awkward handsiness of Silva will also lead many to question whether he’s gay, which wouldn’t matter if the movie wasn’t so clunky.

It also feels like Skyfall may be the conclusion to this incarnation of Bond. I know Craig has been signed for two more films, and that’s great news as he’s fully made the character his own at this point, but the movie seems to setup the Bond we’re better acquainted with. We started from scratch with Casino Royale and now the familiar world, with the reemergence of familiar characters, is coming into focus. The scenes with the new Q (Ben Wishaw), a gangly whiz kid, are enjoyable and they contribute thematically to the old vs. new/age vs. youth conflict at heart. This feels like a transition film, meant to pass from the bruising realism into the polished pyrotechnics of the franchise’s past. There’s a reason the famous gun barrel shot happens to conclude the movie, because by the end of those 142 minutes, it now feels like the formation of James Bond has completed. There are also plenty of in-jokes and references for Bond aficionados to lap up. Even the (lackluster) title song by Adele is in the vein of the old Shirley Bassey numbers.

While not living up to the exultant hype machine, Skyfall is certainly a good Bond movie, though not nearly good enough to be in the conversation of the best. The action starts strong but is prone to diminishing returns especially as the movie transforms into a more ordinary action thriller. The most memorable sequence is in the opening, which isn’t a very good sign for the rest of the movie. It’s still a suitable action movie, and one that pays closer attention at character for a character that’s lived for 50 years in various film incarnations, but just because it pays more attention to character doesn’t mean it does it well. Perhaps I’ve just become spoiled after the artistic and commercial heights of Casino Royale. This is still an entertaining movie that often looks great and has some great actors doing suitable work. We’re still far and away from the loonier Pierce Brosnan episodes, so there is that. I imagine audiences will be more favorable than I am and make Skyfall the most successful James Bond film in history. That’s fine because it feels like, with everything established, that we’re about to hit a new and exciting phase with Craig’s version of the character, and that will leave me shaken and stirred.

Nate’s Grade: B

Away We Go (2009)

Away We Go sort of came and went in the blink of an eye over the summer. Some critics dinged the indie production as being insufferable, hipster, smug, and unlikable. I agree that the plaintive guitar-strumming score grates, and the costumes have that trying-hard-not-to-be-hip coolness, which can be insufferable, but Away We Go is more than just faulty hipster packaging. There is a moving and entertaining drama inside here. The problem is, you have to sift through some of the junk to reach it.

Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in their early thirties and about to have a baby. They aren’t exactly hipsters but they have been living a somewhat fringe existence; Verona even points out that they have a cardboard window. Their existence has been mostly ramshackle and now its about to change forever. Burt and Verona decide to journey across the country and reunite with family and old friends. They’re studying widely different family units across the country to discover not just what kind of parents they will be but what kind of family they will be.

Just by the fact that nobody dies at the end, this is a big departure for director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road). This low-key road trip comedy is quite different from the meticulous prestige pictures associated with the Mendes name. Away We Go is a scruffy, small, and disarming little picture that wants to say something. I was taken aback at how affecting I found moments of Away We Go, though it is only moments. Burt and Verona are not exactly the best equipped to start a family right now, which makes them anxious and nervous, and anxious about not being more nervous. They haven’t exactly matured much since graduated college years ago. But amidst their search for the definition of a “working family” they must accept the uncertainty of life. Burt and Verona have a comfortable interaction, from his upbeat sarcasm to her grounded realism. There’s a great running gag where Burt tries to raise the baby’s heart rate, so his goofy bouts of fake agitation will be immediately followed by a stethoscope and an adorable grin of satisfaction. They are a compatible couple and it is refreshing to see a movie couple that compliments each other in personality. They actually love each other, are good for one another, and are not beset with contrived conflicts. In fact, the movie ends up pretty much exactly where it began, only with a smattering more of wisdom. The lesson learned in Away We Go is that it doesn’t matter what the bumps in life may be, it’s all about who you have as your co-pilot.

Screenwriters and married partners, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, mix in small moments of weight and an overall tone of genial sweetness. The drama and the comedy are given equal share of the script, though the elements don?t mix that often. The funniest moment, by far, is when a little boy tells his mother exactly what he knows about babies (I won’t spoil the guffaw-inducing surprise). There are some quiet yet weighty moments of human observation here. There was a tender exchange between Verona and her sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) that had me on the verge of tears. The sisters reminisce about their parents, long dead, and then Grace says that having this baby keeps their parents alive; the sisters can see parts of their mother in the baby’s face. Verona is giving back life to her dearly departed mother and keeping her parents’ legacy ongoing. This lovely thought struck me with such sudden force that I felt overcome with emotion. It could be dismissed as a common sense fact of genetic proliferation, but I had never thought of the birth of a child as a means of keeping the past alive and honored. To me, this is a simple yet wonderful and powerful statement. Another great moment is when Burt and Verona make lifelong promises to each other on a trampoline. Verona doesn’t want to marry, so the scene is the equivalent of the two lovebirds exchanging vows. It’s heartfelt and sincere and well within the bounds of the characters.

What?s frustrating to me is that the movie?s poignancy is undercut by its excisions with grotesque cartoon versions of bad parents. Burt and Verona visit different imperfect family units, but it isn’t until the end of the movie where we see anything resembling a semi-authentic brood. Alison Janney plays an obnoxiously loud parent who berates her children for laughs and accepts the brokenness of children; to her, she can’t fight against genetics and thus gives up parenting. On the flip side, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a narcissistic earth mother who still nurses her children and condemns the very idea of strollers (“I love my babies. Why would I want to push them away?”). In each case, the depicted family is a caricature and readily ridiculed for some easy and snide laughs. Even Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara) are figures set to be mocked for their self-absorbed bourgeois values. In some ways, Away We Go started to remind me of that awful movie North, where a young Elijah Wood travels the globe in search of new parents. At each stop, Wood encounters broad caricatures of different family units. In Away We Go, half of the movie is spent palling around with repulsive idiots who overstay their welcome fast. What’s even more frustrating is that the script becomes locked into a pattern, meaning that we spend the same amount of time (10-15 minutes) with each family. This is not helpful when Burt and Verona finally reach the relatable families, in Montreal and Miami, then the movie shortchanges the palpable drama. In Miami, Burt’s brother has had his wife run out on her family, abandoning their daughter. We’ve finally reached interesting and complex character, each with an aching sadness just below the surface about the hardships of parenthood, and the movie has to keep on moving because we spent too much time with the crazies for easy laughs. You’re supposed to spend more time with the good stuff, not the bad.

The noisy, exaggerated supporting characters are balanced by the believably baffled Krasinki (TV’s The Office) and Rudolph (Idiocracy). He’s effortlessly charming and Rudolph plays her character with subdued texture, uneasily taking everything in for due consideration. Both actors are likable and we grow in empathy with them as they go from stop to stop. The couple is so charismatic that it makes the drama-free reality of functionality forgivable. The rest of the cast play their parts to the hilt, but special consideration should go out to Melanie Lynskey (The Informant!, Heavenly Creatures) who plays the mother of a large adopted clan of kids in Montreal. Her problem is that she cannot conceive and she’s endured five horrible miscarriages. Her slow and melancholy dance around a stripper’s pole is heartbreaking, and that?s something I thought I would never write in my life.

Despite some missteps, Away We Go is a sweet and affectionate little movie that fights against being overly twee and precious. It’s definitely not sentimental but at the same time it rejects cynicism and detached irony, embodied by the compatibility of a couple that truly love each other. At the same time, the movie can be annoying with its loud side characters that act as distractions. The best moments in Away We Go are the small ones centered on Burt and Verona. It’s those handful of small moments that pierce your heart. It’s strange but after writing this review, I realize that I like the good moments even more and the bad moments even less. It’s like Away We Go has become more entrenched in my mind. This is a sometimes promising, sometimes frustrating, drama that knows enough about life to not settle for easy answers. If only it didn’t settle for easy jokes with stupid characters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Reservation Road (2008)

This movie beguiles me. I watched it over a month ago and I am still turning it over in my brain, and not just for the fact that I get it confused with the similar sounding yet also disappointing Reservation Road. It’s another movie that presents the suburbs as a prison of bourgeoisie social moirés about how men and women are expected to live to be happy. The movie looks magnificent thanks to skilled cinematography by Roger Deakens, even if it falls back on redundant visual metaphors (look, the windows are shaped like prison bars!). The acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the unhappily 1950s married couple Frank and April Wheeler, is mostly impressive. Michael Shannon deservedly was nominated for an Oscar as an unhinged realtor’s son who cuts through all the troublesome and fake niceties. It is a terrific performance and jolts the movie with much-needed energy, somewhat like Renee Zellweger’s role in Cold Mountain. I think that’s where my biggest area of concern is: the movie is just kind of placidly dull. Watching people be miserable for most of a two-hour running time isn’t a deal-breaker, but the movie needs to have some life to it. Revolutionary Road feels just as morose and restrained as its assortment of doomed married couples eeking out an existence. Perhaps that is an achievement to be heralded for director Sam Mendes. Then again, perhaps it just means I felt purposely remote and directionless and just waited for the movie to expire.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Jarhead (2005)

The controversy surrounding Jarhead, a hotly anticipated movie dealing with the 1991 Gulf War, seems rather misplaced. Some argued it would be anti-American, anti-war, anti-Marines, and on the other side of the coin, some even argued that it would be pro-war and pro-aggression. Now the movie seems to be taking flak for not being too political. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) is interested in crafting a movie about the soldiers, a true first-person war. I was actually very pleased, and somewhat relieved, that Jarhead didn’t try to bend over backwards and make any forced parallels to our current Gulf War conundrum. When you’re arguing about whether a movie leans right or left then perhaps the movie stands tall on its own, and Jarhead stands very tall indeed.

Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a “jarhead” the nickname for Marines because of what their heads resemble after their sheering, but it’s also indicative of a vessel, ready to be filled with knowledge. Swofford says he entered the corps because he “got lost on the way to college.” He’s humiliated, beaten, and looking for a way out when Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) offers (more like orders him) to try out for the elite position of Marine snipers. It’s during this new training regiment that Swofford becomes “hooked” on being all he can be. He’s partnered with his barrack buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who serves as Swofford’s moral anchor. The boys get their hopes up when they catch the news that Iraq has invaded Kuwait. They’re shipped out to the action and are finally going to get a taste of combat … or so they think. They spend months in the Saudi desert amongst 114 degree heat and interminable boredom. They drink water, they play football in their gas suits for the cameras, they goof off, but mostly they wait. And wait. And wait. When the war does finally come into being, any action is short-lived: “Four days, four hours, one minute. That was my war.” Swofford, Troy, and his fellow Marines are aching for some kind of combat, any kind of violence that they’re physically and mentally breaking down in the monotony.

Even the safety nets in previous war films, like the chickadee at home waiting for you, are ripped away in Jarhead. Usually the life at home is a source of release for movie soldiers, but in Jarhead it’s just one more source of mounting anxiety. The men have a Wall of Shame with pictures of ex-wives and girlfriends who have left them or cheated on them.

The acting on display is tremendous. Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tomorrow[) gives a sensational performance that should turn him into a bona fide, A-list leading man. All at once he can display fraternal bravado, closeted fear, confusion, and dulled horror. His show stopping moment is when he’s amidst a mental breakdown and turns a rifle on a comrade and then on himself, pleading that a shot be taken. The scene is a powder keg of intensity and Gyllenhaal is utterly captivating, startling, and horrifying with every teeth-grinding second. What?’ even better is that his performance doesn’t stop when the camera isn’t centered on his beautiful baby-eyes. He draws stronger performances out of those around him, and he does it quietly with confidence. He masks his fear and does so in fascinating, layered ways. Performances like this are what Oscars are for. And for any Jake fans out there, yes he does show a good bit of flesh in the film.

Foxx (Ray) breathes fiery life into what otherwise could have been a stock character, the tough love drill sergeant. He’s given much more screen time than I had ever thought and makes the most of it. Sarsgaard (Garden State) is a steely, dependable shoulder of support in the film, and his own big breakdown scene is amazing to witness. He?s so close to a kill but is overruled by the military brass, and Sarsgaard just lets everything go. It’s incredible. Chris Cooper (Adaptation) and even Dennis Haysbert, 24‘s president Palmer himself, have brief but very memorable small turns.

The cinematography by Roger Deakins (replacing Mendes previous Oscar-winning collaborator, the late great Conrad Hall) is gorgeous and uses light and shadow in remarkable ways to convey the turmoil of the soldiers and the other-worldliness of the desert. There are scenes amongst the lit oil fields that look like some alien world. It’s a perfect visual representation of how alone these men are and how ill-equipped they are for that scenario. The camerawork beautifully echoes the emptiness of their surroundings. Jarhead should easily score a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Deakins (House of Sand and Fog).

Jarhead is really an analysis of the psychology of what it takes to go to war. There is a transformation process, where young boys get stripped down and turned into killing machines. Jarhead poses a central question: what happens when you create the ultimate killing machine and give it nothing to do? Essentially, these men are breaking down in the tedium and many will be broken for the rest of their lives. A very poignant scene comes late in the film during their triumphant bus ride home. A Vietnam vet hops on to cheer his fellow Marines and in his hazy jingoism, you see how haunted and broken this man is from his own war experiences decades past. The future is staring them right in the face. Swofford opens and closes the film with narration explaining that once a man holds a rifle in combat, no matter what else he does in his life his hands will feel that rifle. These are men trained for war and adjusting to everyday life where the only war resides inside. Jarhead is a monstrously powerful study on the lasting effects of turning young men into monsters of combat.

Jarhead‘s inherently anticlimactic nature works against it, which will cause some level of disconnect with an audience. This is a very loosely structured flick about delayed gratification with no payoff. That’s not exactly a recipe for success. Jarhead is essentially the Waiting for Godot of war movies. The film is about monotony, about inaction, and the movie achieves a surprising yet palpable tension simply from drawing the viewer along for so far. In lesser hands a movie about boredom would still be boring, but Mendes brings an unprecedented art to it. Mendes has a confidant vision and the technical skill to bring out the drama of boredom. Jarhead has a deadpan sense of humor and some very sobering moments, like when Swofford comes across the remains of a traffic jam caught in napalm. These killing machines are getting rusty and will come back home without ever getting to pull a trigger, and what does that do to a man? These are important questions and Mendes is interested in answering them at a pace that still serves his characters. I love that Mendes has directed three films that are wildly different from one another. In my view, this guy is three-for-three.

Jarhead is no Full Metal Jacket and yet Mendes gives passing nods to Vietnam and how our culture has shaped its history. The Marines watch Apocalypse Now and cheer as helicopters mow down villages set to a thundering soundtrack by Wagner. They’ve completely missed the point of one of the most anti-war films ever, transforming it into a bloodlust ritual. When Mendes reaches the desert then Jarhead becomes a war movie unlike any other. It’s a war movie without a war, sort of. All wee see are the results, both external and internal.

In a way, Jarhead is all about transformations and transitions, one of which is the Gulf War itself. This was arguably the first made-for-TV war and viewers were amazed at the green-tinted images of explosions and military might. War had been brought into the video game age where what once took months on the ground could be accomplished by pushing a button. Jarhead shows you the side of the Desert Shield/Storm that never made it to the cameras. The movie also presents some of the more obscured details of the war, like the care for and disposal of human waste from outhouses. That stuff never made CNN. Jarhead shows, very quietly and somberly, that sometimes the soldiers who return home have still been left behind.

Jarhead is an intense, sobering, evocative, and deeply contemplative film about the psychology of turning young men into killers and then leaving them with nothing to do. The inherent anticlimactic nature will likely push some audiences away while others will simply find it tedious. Mendes’ direction is strong and confidant and able to squeeze drama and tension from inaction, crafting an existential war movie that feels relevant and profound. Gyllenhaal is amazing and utterly captivating; you can’t take your eyes off him and, for many out there, a certain strategically located Santa hat. This movie isn’t anti-America, anti-troops, or even anti-war for that matter. Jarhead tells us that all wars are different and all wars are the same. We know war is hell, but for some, the absence of war is an even greater hell.

Nate’s Grade: B+

American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty balances between dark comedy and moving drama not only well but tremendously on target. It’s a slice of life showing the dark side of a faceless and cold suburban life. The deterioration of a family and the escape of one man as he realizes the trivial nature of the things that get in the way of seizing life. American Beauty is not a rose for everyone but it’s one standing out from the pack screaming to be picked.

Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, the husband and father of our story’s family. Life has been sucked dry from his system and he’s lost interest in everything he holds around him.

Annette Benning plays Carolyn Burnham, mother and wife. She breaths the mantra, “To be successful one must present an image of success at all times.” like she was beating a Bible until it bled. She’s a woman whom image is everything, and looking good is all that matters. She has become so detached from her family and life that she has actually lost her humanity in the hunt for success while waving her cheerful smile as a mask that eludes to the superficial inside. Carolyn is a woman who refuses to let herself fail or have weakness, and those around her to make her seem weak.

Thora Birch, of Alaska and Now and Then fame, is the estranged daughter to Spacey and Bening. She feels alienated from her parents, and despises them from easily seeing through each. Thora discovers new ways to feel contempt for her parents with each day. She is a repressed child who is looking for an outlet of understanding and help. Enter pot dealing creepy new neighbor Wes Bentley. He sees true beauty where no one could, and is the escape and shoulder that young Thora has needed all her life from her monstrously neglectful parents. Wes videotapes everything in an effort to keep the memories of beauty alive to venture back and relive the moments. He shares his prized image with Thora one day, that of a plastic bag inflating and deflating with the autumn breeze as it swirls around almost balletic dancing. The image is mesmerizingly hypnotic and you understand that Wes is a character who looks beneath the surface and most likely the most noble in the entire movie.

Mena Suvari switches from sweet choirgirl from American Pie to ditzy teen vamp. She is a person who feels such insecurity for herself that the only happiness she can arrive is from being wanted by other people. She must have acceptance in some form or another, and “ordinary” to her is a worse word than “ugly.” She acts like a teen nympho but in the end reveals that she is really an innocent young girl desperately wanting to be liked and wanted.

There are other characters that round out the cast; a brief appearance with Scott Bakula who makes a quantum leap into a gay neighbor, Allison Janney as the mother to Wes and the silent hollow image of a wife she has become to socially hide her husband’s secret, Chris Cooper again as an abusive father who’s maliciously homophobic but hiding a devastating secret deep within, even Peter Gallagher with the biggest eyebrows you’ve ever seen as a suave real estate mogul that knows how to cater to Carolyn’s thematic problems.

The basis of the story hinges on Lester’s reawakening. He is a man going through the motions of life like a walking dead man. A man who tells people that even he wouldn’t remember himself. Lester is an unhappy cog until viewing his daughter’s friend Angela (Suvari) at a high school basketball game. At first glimpse she becomes the intense object of his desire and obsession, and his focus on life centers around this young gal. But with that moment Lester’s life is broken, and his eyes are opened for the first time in a very long time. He sees the trite redundancy with the day-to-day grind of ordinary suburbanite life. Lester breaks free and does what he wishes, he is a free man. Free of his job, his nagging ice queen of a wife, free of all worries and fears.

As far as Oscar races go, all others don’t even bother filling out an application for an invitation – Spacey has Best Actor locked. He might as well start clearing a space on his shelf next to the one he got for The Usual Suspects. Spacey is so wonderfully wry and self degrading that he transforms into an actually likeable almost laid back hero for the audience. They know his tragic fate and feel good when he gets the most he can with each day, and not letting himself be pushed around anymore. Benning is also delightful and wickedly hilarious in her materially overzealous soccer mom. Birch is excellent showing the pains of alienation and showing that despite what her character thinks she is really the last person on earth who needs a boob job. Director Sam Mendes’ first feature after touring the theater circuit shows his devotion to characters and actors with subdued symbolism layered between every frame of film. I say Oscars should go all around and this movie deserves a good swapping of gold statuettes.

I could go on talking about the depth and characters for hours but I’ll just stop here and say that you won’t see a more engaging, compelling, and brutally honest and sadly funny film in the entire year of 1999. One of the best films not only of this year but of the entire decade.

Nate’s Grade: A

This movie also revisited and analyzed in the article, “1999: The Greatest Year in Film? A Review Re-View.”

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