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Bullet Train (2022)/ The Princess (2022)

Bullet Train and The Princess are two recent releases that could serve as a double feature for all they have in common. Both movies prioritize fun above all else, both of them feature stylized violence and bloodshed, both of them have a perverse sense of humor, and both of them feature young actress Joey King (The Kissing Booth, Wish Upon), coincidentally playing the listed roles of Prince and The Princess. What more do you need for this combo? If you are a fan of Bullet Train, you’ll likely be a fan of The Princess, and vice versa, because both of them are exactly as advertised. They’re wild, whimsically violent, but succeed with nimble action construction, bizarre and engaging characters, and high energy that sparks fun escapist entertainment.
Bullet Train is set almost entirely on a speeding bullet train in Tokyo, and we follow a group of hired killers, mercenaries, and generally nasty people all sharing one very fast locomotive. “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt) is a reformed hitman who only takes snatch-and-grab gigs as he’s trying to better himself with therapy and meditation. He’s meant to grab a briefcase of money and get off the train. Naturally, things don’t go as smoothly as planned. Onboard the train are “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Hill) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have the briefcase in their possession along with the prodigal son (Logan Lerman) of a scary Yakuza boss known as “The White Death.” Also on board is Kimura (Andrew Koji) seeking to find the person responsible for pushing his child off a rooftop, Prince (Joey King) using her diminutive stature to trick unsuspecting men, the Wolf (Bad Bunny) seeking out the person responsible for the death of his bride, and several other masked killers looking to up the ante. Characters will clash, many will die, and “The White Death” will be appeased by the end, coming to collect a blood debt from all.

Bullet Train was, blissfully, everything I was needing it to be. It’s a universe familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino and especially Guy Ritchie, with colorful and threatening characters with large personalities and quirks colliding in unexpected and violent ways. I’ve seen so many Tarantino knock-offs, and Tarantino knock-off knock-offs, so I appreciate when someone is able to understand what it takes to succeed on this unique playing field. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street: 1978) knows how to sharpen the kind of off-the-cuff banter that makes these movies excel, with space given for the characters to make a sizable impression. There needs to be time to get to know them, their quirks and faults, and then send them all running at one another at cross-purposes, interacting in fun ways that lend to one character screwing something up for another. There’s about a dozen characters dropped upon us, and just about everyone gets a flashback or introduction set piece, sometimes more, sometimes extensions of previous flashbacks, sometimes extensions from alternate perspectives. Part of the fun is just seeing how the different characters relate to one another, so there is a period of time where the mask has to eventually drop, and the reveal needs to be worthwhile. It’s a lot, and Bullet Train gleefully trades in excess upon excess all in the name of chasing after a good time, and if you connect on its zany and breezy wavelength of reckless violence and dark humor, then you shall be happy for the ride.
The movie is constantly reshuffling and transforming, allowing it to hyperextend into whatever shape it necessitates before contorting back to its next phase. This malleability makes the movie far more responsive, sometimes overlapping, and it provides an extra level of energy. It’s reminiscent of Snatch, my favorite of the Ricthie cockney crime capers, where the story zigged and zagged through linear time, providing answers to different stacked questions. I won’t say the characters are as distinct as Snatch, but Olkewicz takes his time to introduce each with relish. Pitt may be the marketable star of the movie, at least as far as advertising is concerned, but it’s really much more of an ensemble, and one anchored by Lemon and Tangerine. Their droll, snappy banter really cements their long-term relationship almost like a screwball romance. They end up becoming, strangely, the heart of the movie, if one were to suggest a movie with an entire wedding party vomiting their guts to death had a beating heart. Their exact connection and genuine affection for one another, even when they’re driving one another mad, is one of the film’s many surprises as it zooms ahead. There are fun cameos, and some unexpected abrupt deaths, but Bullet Train works because of the entertainment of the kooky killer characters. I enjoyed that one character’s obsession, namely likening people to Thomas the Tank Engine avatars, has a personal connection but actually leads to some ironic turns. Not every set-up has the best payoff (Chekov’s toilet snake comes to shockingly little) or resolution (why wasn’t the snooping conductor thrown back in or given a revelation?) but with so many characters criss-crossing, so many goofy asides and cul-de-sacs, and so much bloody mayhem, there’s a steady stream of fun, satisfying payoffs and retribution until the mid-credits sequence.

To me, the water bottle symbolizes Bullet Train at its best and worst. After two hours of multiple characters and their out-of-order flashbacks shuffling for dominance, we get an inanimate object with its own flashback. It’s a goofy and superfluous addition, as the water bottle has served as a plot device but has served its ultimate plot purpose already, so seeing its entire history offers no new information that the audience didn’t already have. However, what it does is show the movie from the perspective of this bottle, and many sequences are reframed from the bottle’s rigid point of view. It made me think about how after they got their shot setups, someone on staff would then call out, “Okay, we need the water bottle POV shot now,” and they would film that. I appreciate the effort for something this fleeting and silly. They didn’t need to put in this flashback or this level of attention to an object that ultimately just gets thrown at a guy’s head. However, it’s the misdirect, the ridiculous inclusion on top of the others, and the ramping of energy that made me smile, even as little else came out of it. I appreciated the showmanship. For me, this is emblematic of the movie as a whole, an overload of style and energy just for the fleeting hell of it.
Under the direction of David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2), the action is as fun and energetic as the colorful characters. Leitch has become one of the best modern directors of action movies. The hand-to-hand combat is refreshing and makes use of close quarter combat demands. I enjoyed that the two participants in a fight are trying to sneak in quick moves without getting caught by an older lady who demands quiet in the quiet train car. I enjoyed the zany flashback where Tangerine and Lemon recount to the camera and dispute the number of men killed on a previous job. With a character cursed with bad luck, it provides opportunities to have fun with accidents and bad timing, which Leitch works into different action set-ups and setbacks. Even when the movie literally goes off the rails and becomes a big cartoon, Leitch finds ways to marry the big tone in such a manner that the ridiculous doesn’t prove off-putting. When characters are swinging samurai swords in slow-mo, while a Japanese version of “Holding Out For a Hero” is pumping on the soundtrack, I just sat back and soaked up the deliciously disposable fun times.

The plot of The Princess is as straightforward as Bullet Train is knotty. The Princess (Joey King) of a fantasy kingdom is chained at the very top of a castle tower. Her captor, Julius (Dominic Cooper), has imprisoned her family and plans to wed the princess and become king. The princess, however, has other plans. Thanks to her martial arts and weapon training, she breaks free and becomes a one-woman wrecking crew as she descends the tower floors to freedom.
I was genuinely surprised at how well developed and exciting the action sequences were. The Princess shares more in common with The Raid than anything by the Grimms. The script by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton follows the model of a video game; every new floor is a literal new level with a new boss or new objective to be achieved to advance to the next level. The simplicity of the premise is refreshing, and the movie doesn’t waste any time ramping things up. Blood is shed within the first few minutes and it doesn’t let up. What I really appreciated was how well constructed each new action set piece was. There’s variety and specification that challenges our heroine, who is powerful but still not all-powerful and bereft of vulnerability. Each new encounter forces our protagonist to think through a different application of skills. There’s a situation that involves overpowering a larger and stronger man, a situation trying to wound a fully armored man, a situation battling two men, then even more, a situation with men charging into the battle and having to escape to a safer environment, a situation where she has to swing along the outside of the castle to enter a different room, a situation involving stealth, and many others, but each requires something different and thus each proves to flesh out our main character and her capabilities and problem-solving acumen. It’s always a pleasure to watch smart people overcome challenges in fun and smart ways, and The Princess has this formula down. I was worried the movie might get repetitive with its video game level design, but each new challenge is an opportunity to dazzle and enlighten us about our John Wick-esque fighter.

That’s probably the best comparison, the John Wick franchise, because it’s a series of movies that is defined by the thrills of its fight choreography and action set pieces. That’s it. The world has some interesting flourishes but the draw is the fight scenes and the pleasure of watching professionals operating at such a high level and with demonstrations that allow us to better immerse and appreciate the artistry of the fighting. And it’s good here. The impressive choreography has a really nice A-to-B propulsion, with each move connecting to the next to tell its own story of countermoves and adjustment. I really appreciated how the specific geography of each location is incorporated into the action, whether that be as a hindrance or an assistance to the fighting. It makes the sequences more meaningful and better developed. It’s also a movie that understands that if you give your villains specialized weapons, they better use them in fun or nasty ways. If all you’re looking for is imaginative, bloody, and brutal fighting, The Princess delivers it all. Credit also to King for throwing herself completely into the role. She effortlessly executes complicated fight moves and swordplay during long takes. You can tell she’s having a blast being a badass. Think of The Princess like a feminist version of The Raid or an upside-down version of Dredd (“Instead of fighting up, this character fights her way… down.”).

The Princess could have made more social statements but its very conceit is a feminist reworking of outdated fantasy tropes, so I don’t mind that it’s a streamlined action movie with a blunt yet obvious point. The familiar story tells us that these damsels in distress are the maidens in need of rescuing (“Sorry, our princess is in another castle” and the like), so just having the princess be her own champion is a simple yet satisfying subversion. This is an action movie and less one on politics; however, it’s a movie that cannot help from being political because it’s upsetting the expected social norms, that women are docile and weaker and at the whims of men. The Princess isn’t breaking new ground here. There have been plenty of movies that re-contextualized the feminine roles of old legends and folk tales and made them more capable and strong and fierce. That doesn’t mean there’s any less enjoyment watching our princess take down one leering man after another. It’s the appeal of the underdog who makes men pay dearly for underestimating her. These repeated interactions and bloody comeuppance speak about as well as necessary for this kind of movie. I doubt things would have radically improved if one of the characters broke into a treatise on the misapplication of gender roles. It’s a woman beating the stuffing out of creepy and lascivious misogynists. For this movie, that’s more than enough to keep me watching.

Where The Princess starts to lose itself is once it shifts into its final act and abandons its formula. I can understand wanting to shake things up so the viewer doesn’t get lulled into complacency, but because the sequences were, beforehand, varied, my interest was not lagging. During this final stretch, the titular princess leads a squad to take down the baddies, and the movie becomes any other number of similar fantasy action movies. The enjoyable fight choreography is still present, but it feels like a rush to clear everything in comparison to the methodical floor-by-floor clearing from before. I wish the filmmakers had merely held steady with their plot rather than throwing things out and relying upon a grand team-up revolutionary raid. There’s also a sudden shift that throws out the rationale for keeping the princess alive. The bad guy just shrugs and says, “Forget it, I’ll find a replacement,” and it feels too arbitrary of an escalation. If he could do this, why was he so insistent for the first hour that she not be killed? It’s not a bad ending or one that ruins the movie but it’s definitely a downshift from the action excitement highs from before.

The Princess and Bullet Train are both frantic, over-the-top, cartoonishly violent, while still understanding how to effectively sell their escapist mayhem. We need to be dazzled by the action sequences and have them be meaningful (check), we need weird and interesting characters that we want to root for or watch bumble onscreen (check), we need payoffs that feel rewarding (check), we need an onslaught of style and attitude (check), and we need, above all else, fun and surprises (check). Neither of these movies is going to qualify as one of the best movies of the year. That’s just not the kind of experience either is shooting for. However, they may be some of the best fun you have with movies for 2022, and in a world in short order of fun, that’s plenty.

Nate’s Grade’s:

Bullet Train: B

The Princess: B

The Lost City (2022)

It’s a new spin on Romancing the Stone and as long as the leads are charming and the movie is fun, I have no problem with rehashing this formula. The Lost City mostly succeeds thanks to the winning chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. She plays a self-loathing romance author and he’s her hunky and clueless cover model, and they both get into a treasure-hunting escapade and chased by scary men with guns thanks to a crazed rich kid (Daniel Radcliffe) looking for a titular lost city of yore to bolster his own rep. The movie stays on a consistently light wavelength even when death and sudden violence occurs. That jokey mentality assures the audience that the movie will not take things too seriously, and that relaxed-yet-antic attitude translates into fairly amusing banter with our leads. The movie does a good job of spacing out its comic set pieces and keeping things moving for its short 90 minutes. Not everything works as well as the leads though. Some storylines feel underplayed or forgotten until called upon for moments that don’t feel earned. Radcliffe feels wasted as a petulant baddie without any fun or memorable angle. One of the best aspects is what happens to the movie’s surprise cameo (spoiled via the movie’s own trailer) but the ending resolution of this feels entirely pointless and undercuts its nerve. It’s a movie that delivers exactly the kind of experience it advertises, and it’s nice to still be able to see a comedy in theaters lifted by the appeal of two stars having a ball together. The Lost City is a formula rom-com with enough good-natured screwball comedy and enjoyable zaniness to coasts on charm and star power.

Nate’s Grade: B

Ocean’s Eight (2018)

The Ocean’s movies, with the exception of the too-cool-for-school 12, have glided by on their charm, style, and a knack for having fun with cool characters and satisfying twists and turns. After 2007’s rebounding Ocean’s 13, it looked like the franchise was going back to dormancy, and then writer/director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) resuscitated it with an all-female team, following the exploits of recently paroled Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock). Like her (recently deceased?!) older brother, Debbie has a big score in mind, the New York Met Gala, but more specifically a $150 million diamond necklace to be worn by self-involved acting starlet, Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Debbie gathers a team of specialists and, with the help of he best friend Lou (Cate Blanchett), the assembled eight schemes to get rich off the neck of Ms. Kluger. Like its predecessors, this movie glides on by thanks to fun characters to root for and a fun heist that packs enough setups, payoffs, and reversals. The heist formula demands a protracted setup but this gives way to a bevy of payoffs, when done correctly, and even more payoffs when complications must be dealt with in a rapid time. Each of the ladies get a significant part of the heist, though not all of them have the same level of memorable involvement in the movie itself. Ocean’s Eight is a slick crime fantasy given a feminine twist, dipping into gaga fashions, killer jewelry, and celebrity worship. Bullock is a strong lead but it’s Blanchett that won my heart, so confidant in her wardrobe of striking men’s wear. Hathaway is a cut-up as a flaky actress needing constant validation. Part of the allure of the movie, and the heist itself, are the high-end clothes and accessories. Its prime escapism for the target audience to “ooo” and “ahhh,” as my theater did.  Ross follows the house style of Steven Soderbergh closely with lots of tracking shots, zooms, and a consistent sense of movement. The pacing is swift and thankfully there’s a significant resolution after the heist that still finds time for even more payoffs. It’s not quite on par with the original, but I’d declare Ocean’s Eight the best of the sequels. It’s fizzy fun, but what happens if there are three more of them?

Nate’s Grade: B

Gravity (2013)

gravity-posterDirector Alfonso Cuaron spent over four and a half years developing his latest film, Gravity. The tale of two stranded astronauts had to invent technology to fully realize Cuaron’s zero gravity vision, carefully programming precise camera movements into a room full of LED flat screens to orient the harnessed actors and light them properly. It could have gone stupendously wrong in so many ways. Instead it’s the biggest leap forward in movie technology since 2009’s Avatar and surely one of the best science fiction films since 2006’s Children of Men, Cuaron’s last movie. It is a thrilling, awe-inspiring, astonishing, illuminating, and altogether brilliant film. Films like Gravity are the reason we go to the movies.

High above planet Earth, astronauts Mike Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are repairing the Hubble telescope when a field of satellite debris crashes into their shuttle. Both of the astronauts are adrift in space and have to maneuver to the safety of a space station. The debris storm circling the Earth is gathering size and force, and these two are running out of oxygen and safe places to hide.

gravity-comic-con-2013Gravity is one of those movies that you feel like ordinary English adjectives do it a disservice. I can refer to it and visually resplendent, awe-inspiring, and borderline transcendent, but my words will ultimately prove fruitless, because the experience of Gravity is beyond description. This is the reason we go to the movies, to be amazed, to feel something new, and Cuaron has taken the next great leap forward in technical moviemaking while also retaining the artistic soul of an engaging thriller. You could simply view Gravity as a visual feast and be content, or you could view it as a harrowing survival thriller and be content, or you could view it as Cuaron’s spiritual exploration on the perseverance of life against all odds (more on this later). Any way you shake it, it’s hard to come away from Gravity being disappointed, though I know with every lofty word of praise I inject that the bar is set even higher in audience expectations.

From a visual standpoint, Cuaron has crafted a truly immersive film going experience that puts you in the center of the action. The signature long takes amaze just as much as the visuals, both of which give you the sensation of what it’s like to be in space, weightless, free-floating, and oh so vulnerable at a moment’s notice. It’s been almost 45 years since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 showed the visual poetry of zero-gravity acrobatics, and the sheer visual still has plenty of potency left. But coupled with Cuaron’s blinkless long takes, the illusion is rarely broken, especially in the first twenty minutes, which establishes the stakes and the reality of survival in space. Ignoring all aspects of the plot and acting, you could sit through the entirety of Gravity and find it a sumptuous, invigorating experience purely from the cutting edge special effects. There is a real sense of majesty to the views from space, overlooking our blue orb, the vastness of it all. It would be overwhelmingly beautiful if it weren’t also simultaneously terrifying. Space, much like nature itself, has an indifferent cruelty to it, and Cuaron does an exceptional job of presenting both the grandeur and the inherent dangers of space.

My nerves were racked throughout those tense 90 minutes of intense orbital activity. As a thriller, Gravity is a very well constructed setup with pristine execution. Each problem is dealt with in the immediacy, the unique particular of space allowing us a new perspective on the survival/disaster thriller model. First she has to stop floating. Then she has to get more oxygen. Then she has to get to a more safe location. Then she has to get back home. It may sound like not enough little plot pit stops but each one is pivotal and a remote respite from jeopardy. The wholeness of space is so complete that it feels like the odds are forever stacked against Stone. I was breathless through many of the suspense sequences, nervously tapping my feet, urging the onscreen characters onward. Cuaron and his son, co-writer Jonas, make it clear early the steps of her journey, and each feel like a natural result of the dire changing circumstances. The accumulative debris is given a 90-minute countdown for return, so we’re always wary that Stone will be caught back in the orbiting mass of projectiles. The sense of peril is kept on high and doesn’t relent, leaving you feeling like every nerve is spent by the conclusion. It’s a top-notch thriller that doesn’t involve the use of a single gun or car chase.

gravity-sandra-bullock-700x370If there is one complaint, I suppose it could be over the somewhat thin back-story and characterization of Stone. I don’t know what a medical officer is exactly doing in space fixing the Hubble telescope but oh well. Cuaron keeps the audience firmly stuck in Stone’s predicament; we do not cut away to any flashbacks of life on Earth, and so it makes fleshing out a central character notable difficult. People don’t usually open up into revealing monologues while they’re trying to fight for immediate survival. She’s got the standard tragic back-story, losing a daughter, but for me this was enough to work with. I don’t necessarily need Stone to be a thriving, complex, emotionally nuanced character because my empathy was already there as soon as the peril began. I wanted her to survive because she was a person; I didn’t have to relate to her on a deeper fundamental level to root for her survival. There are some nice late scenes where Stone reflects on the existential crisis, on knowing her imminent death, on the fog she’s been trapped within since her daughter’s accidental death. Bullock (The Heat), in her best performance to date, is able to pull you in. If faced with your imminent end, how would you attempt to make peace of things, let alone stranded away from all human contact? It’s a strong awards-caliber performance and while her character isn’t given much development, she still has an arc, and I think there’s a greater thematic link with her crossing.

I’m no fan of Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, To the Wonder) but I understand people’s assertion that the man is a film theologian, making the theater a borderline religious experience for his faithful fans. In my eyes, Gravity has an unmistakable spiritual subtext that it can be viewed in different directions. Firstly, it’s hard not to feel an overpowering sense of awe when taking in the sheer magnitude and beauty of the incalculable universe. But then there’s Cuaron’s opening text that prefaces how outrageously impossible life in space is, contemplating all the harsh realities. And yet, here we are. Whether you chalk that up to something religious like God or just the fortune of the cosmos, it’s still a remarkable journey. The evolution of Stone is also reminiscent of that of life on Earth. When she finds refuge in the space station, she removes her suit, curling up in a fetal ball, while the camera centers her and she slowly rotates. The womb imagery is obvious but still effective. There’s also a third act assist that seems like direct divine intervention by most accounts. Then, spoilers, as she lands on a hospitable planet, she emerges from the sea, triumphant, taking her first steps onto land. Triumphant against all odds, against the cruel vacuum of space, life proves to be the winner. Again, whether you ascribe this to a creator God or a wonder of lucky evolutionary forces, it’s hard to escape Cuaron’s spiritual subtext tugging away at you, making the personal survival of Stone a greater analogue for the genesis of mankind and the emergence of humanity.

This is one of the few films I would recommend seeing in 3D. Cuaron has spent four and a half years translating his vision to the big screen and you’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t see Gravity on the biggest screen possible. It is a film experience to be savored that will not measure up when you are forced to watch such outsized splendor on your puny home TV. This is an expertly made thriller, a visually transcendent, cutting-edge trip to space, and a revitalizing time at the movies. It’s as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. It’s bursting with stimulation for the senses as well as a reawakened sense of spirituality, of something greater to be thankful for. I am in awe of Curaron as a filmmaker and I am in awe of his finished product. It was worth the wait. Now I hope I never have to wait another seven long years again before I see the words “directed by Alfonso Cuaron” again.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Heat (2013)

the-heat-poster2Essentially a buddy cop movie with the typically macho roles swapped out to women, The Heat is an intermittently enjoyable action comedy thanks to the chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. The joke ratio of hits to misses has a lot of whiffs but I laughed solidly every ten minutes or so, some of the comedic set pieces were well developed, and McCarthy’s strong ability to improv saved many flailing scenes. I enjoyed that these two women were seen as professionals and didn’t need to be bogged down with the kind of plot elements you’d find in your standard Katherine Heigl vehicle. There isn’t a romantic interest nor a love story; in fact, various guys come up to McCarthy throughout asking why she hadn’t called them back after a one-night stand. It’s a little thing but it establishes that a woman like McCarthy’s can have a fruitful love life and have it be no big deal. The overall plot about a dangerous drug baron with a mole inside the government is given more complexity than necessary, and I’m not sure the action bits feel well integrated into the movie as a whole. Part of this may just be because director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) seems much more interested in grounded, human comedy, but I think it’s mostly because we’d rather be spending more time with our leads arguing. Bullock and McCarthy are an engaging team, their comedic styles nicely ping-ponging off one another, and there are enough ribald gags to justify watching it. The Heat isn’t revolutionary by any sort but maybe, in the end, that’s the point. Also it’s got Dan Bakkeddahl (TV’s Veep) as an albino DEA agent. So there’s that too.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Blind Side (2009)

Based on a true story, The Blind Side tells the true-ish story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) who was a lost, homeless black youth in Tennessee. He was adopted s a teenager by the Tuohy clan, a rich White family led by no-nonsense matriarch Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock). Her husband (Tim McGraw) is a restaurant franchise owner, so they don’t have to worry about money or food budgets for Michael’s large appetite. The gentle giant is grateful but wary. He’s admitted into a private school because of his football potential, but at first they envision the hulking teenager on defense. Leigh Anne is the one who sees his protective instincts and assists in the switch to offensive tackle, whose job is to protect the quarterback’s blind side. With Leigh Anne’s steady influence and a stable home environment, Michael begins to feel like he has a loving family. Eventually Michael Oher becomes an All-American player in college and was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

The Blind Side might just sneak up and, forgive me, blindside you. Well, that?s not accurate, because this movie will not sneak up on anyone. There is not a single moment of surprise to be had. Michael Oher is portrayed as a gentle giant who is very tight-lipped. Much of his performance is in body movement and those dark, sad eyes of his, which means that the audience has to intuit a lot from the character. That might be why the most affecting moments come from Oher’s stunned, grateful reactions. It’s hard not to be affected by such an outpouring of earnestness. Stay during the end credits, watching the photos of the real family at the 2009 NFL Draft and try not to feel a smidge of their happiness.

Bullock seems like a natural fit for this character and this material, and she does give the Southern spitfire life. She’s the heart of the movie and pretty much the driving force for the film, so it helps that Bullock taps her natural charms to make the character feel less like a cartoon and more like some approximation of a person. She’s formidable and brassy and pretty much gets her way on everything. The movie has the faulty belief that Leigh Anne saying anything folksy is funny, which is not the case. However, Bullock makes the character likeable and embraceable, and plus, she doesn’t fall down once. It must be a first for a Sandra Bullock movie.

Every scene is played into a moment of uplift and eventual triumph, which can be tiring but also has a respectable batting average for success. Structurally, the movie doesn’t have any overarching sense of conflict, which seems bizarre given the circumstances of an insanely wealthy white family adopting a troubled black youth in Tennessee. You might think Michael would take some adjusting, or that the students of privilege might not fully accept someone so different, or that the Tuohy children might need more convincing to suddenly add a new member. There are a few raised eyebrows and some slight hesitation, but the characters just barrel forward like what they are doing is common. The family is just resoundingly good-hearted and full of such moral clarity, though the husband seems to be content to be a powerless pawn to his vociferous wife. There is no real internal conflict within this family despite the burdens they tackle, and even worse the movie doesn’t really show any change occurring. At a lunch with her rich girlfriends, Leigh Anne remarks that Michael is changing her life. How? She seems like the same kindly woman from the beginning. Instead, the movie is packed with tiny little conflicts that get easily resolved and then move along. Will Michael feel at home? He does. Will he get his grades up? He does. Will he figure out the game of football? He does. Will he play well in a game? He does. Will he graduate? He does. Will he get a scholarship? He does. Will he reject the lifestyle of crime? He does.

Big Mike is sidelined in his own story by the firecracker of a character that is Leigh Anne. The saintly Tuohy family is yet another example of Hollywood feeling the need to tell a compelling African-American story framed as the story of helpful, White characters. Why can’t he film’s emphasis be on Michael instead of Leigh Anne, especially since she remains the same good Christian woman from the start? It’s probably because Oher, as portrayed on film, doesn’t have much of a personality. He’s a nice if soft-spoken kid but he mostly just shuffles his feet. Off the football field, he is written merely to take up space. He serves as the ongoing results to Leigh Anne?s teaching experiments.

If you peel away the movie’s sentiment, it does have some niggling, potentially troubling aspects to the story. It sings the praises of insanely rich Southern Christians and makes us say, “How nice and rich of them.” Leigh Anne is the kind of woman with enough mettle to venture into the ghetto and even stand up to taunting gang members. She even threatens to shoot one of them. Every one of these “ghetto” sequences feels transparently written by somebody whose only understanding of an urban environment is from movies and TV. I wasn’t expecting The Blind Side to be as accurate as The Wire, nor would I normally care about the inaccuracy, but when it’s in the service of comparison (the comfy world of rich White people vs. the hopeless existence of poor blacks) the portrayal becomes ham-handed and morally questionable. Just to rub it in how good Michael’s got it, the movie resorts to ending with a montage of newspaper reports detailing gang slayings in Oher’s old neighborhood, highlighting every character we saw onscreen. The movie says they had no choice to end up as criminals because they could not escape the nightmares of the ghetto. If only those unfortunate black youths could have found rich families to adopt them.

Perhaps the funniest moment for me, as an ardent college football fan (go Bucks!), was a montage of South Eastern Conference coaches trying to recruit Oher in 2005. He’s visited by the head coaches for South Carolina (since retired), Tennessee (since fired), Auburn (since fired), Arkansas (since fired, now coach of Ole Miss), Louisiana State (left for NFL, now coach of Alabama), Auburn (since fired), and Ole Miss (since fired). The turnaround in just a four-year period is astounding for a major college conference. The coaches look like they’re having fun in the movie, probably because they get to pretend to be coaches again.

The Blind Side is a straight-down-the-middle genre picture that plays every expected note, it?s manipulative and formulaic for a sports drama, but I’d be lying if it didn’t get to me from time to time. If you go into The Blind Side under the right frame of mind, which means essentially ignoring the flagrant manipulations, then this movie will work on its sentimental sports genre sensibilities.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Proposal (2009)

Romantic comedies can be elevated by the chemistry and comic abilities of their leads. I think the most painful modern pairing was Maid in Manhattan, which featured polar opposites Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes (could you find a more unlikely couple outside of Harold and Maude?). With The Proposal, Sandra Bullock takes a break from her usual pratfalls and finds a worthy sparring partner in the charming, self-effacing Ryan Reynolds. Bullock is a mean book editor who must get married ASAP or be deported back to Canada, and Reynolds plays her beleaguered assistant and surprise sham fiancé. The two actors have a terrific rapport and generous give-and-take, propping the other to higher achievement; they feed off each other. Their spirited, snappy, collaborative, and most significant, fun relationship is what won me over. Otherwise, The Proposal would likely have succumbed to its wealth of genre clichés, like kooky relatives (an irascible Betty White), contrived conflicts (see: premise), last-minute misunderstandings, and the collapsed window of time. These people go from hating each other to loving each other over the course of one weekend in Alaska. Yet through it all, Reynolds and Bullock kept me smiling and alert, saving me from cuteness overdoses. Hopefully Bullock and studio execs will learn from this that bickering couples work best when the actors can play nice together.

Nate’s Grade: B

Premonition (2007)

Linda (Sandra Bullock) is having a unique martial crisis. Her husband Jim (Julian McMahon) has died in a horrific car accident and she must now raise their two daughters by her lonesome. Or so she thinks, because she wakes up the next night and Jim is alive and well and enjoying a hot cup of java. Linda is perplexed and finds herself living the days of this week out of sequence. One day Jim is alive and the next day he isn’t. She plots to use her knowledge to save her husband if it’s even possible to defy fate.

Premonition is in hopeless want to be a modern-day version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five with the added sprinkle of a Lifetime movie. Linda is, like in Vonnegut’s classic sci-fi novel, unstuck in her time, however, the time has been pared down significantly to a mere week. Thankfully the movie has enough sense not to implicitly try to make sense of why this is happening to her, though she does visit a priest who has conveniently studied this sort of crazy thing (short answer: God is testing your faith). The problem with limiting the timeline to just seven days is that when Linda makes her quantum leaps the audience is left scrambling to figure out when she is. This works in placing the audience alongside Linda in confusion, but it gives no sense of overview or clarity and the events aren’t significant enough to warrant being memorable enough to connect cause and effect. The narrative structure is purposely jumbled but it’s also missing suspense if we never know what’s going on. Hey, I’m not even asking for much either, just some titles indicating the days would be helpful.

The people that populate this film behave in completely contrite ways because the half-baked story demands it of them. When Linda finds her daughter’s face covered in scratches for the first time, she asks what happened to her. Instead of actually answering, the child remains silent because apparently that would spoil the dramatic surprise of her running into a glass door. Wow, that was worth it, and it must have been something so traumatic that neither of Linda’s daughters could casually mention it. A child would not behave this way. The only way this would make sense is if the contriteness got kicked up a notch and the little girl got a sliding door-bound case of laryngitis. Like romantic comedies, Premonition is a movie that needs to survive due to no one ever having a rationale conversation explaining all that they know to dispel misconceptions. This whole dumb sliding door incident is made even worse when Linda’s mother wants to have the children removed from their mother’s custody because of those scratches. Huh? Would she not know too that it was an accident? And just one more reason to hate this plot point: when Linda tells her daughters that their daddy is dead the little girl does not have scratches, however, in the timeline, she ran into the door the day before. The day after the death, and two days after she broke the door, the glass is replaced because I suppose that took priority over mourning. The discontinuity is terrible.

Also, when Linda gets the tiniest whiff that her (sometimes dearly departed) husband was even contemplating infidelity, she performs a full 180 on the spot and coldly considers letting him die as punishment. The speed of her abrupt about-face is a cheap roadblock to squeeze more tension out of this dumb story. I won’t even mention how lazy it is to have a priest who’s an expert on “unstuck time” living nearby.

The plot may be maddening, but I think Premonition was meant to be a comedy because it’s not an effective thriller. The movie’s feeble attempts at attaching scares to its central puzzle are astounding bad. This is the type of film that not only thinks a dead crow is spooky but that the mystery of what happened to the dead crow is integral to audience satisfaction. It’s hard to believe that Premonition preoccupies so much time with the mini timeline of one dead bird. There are cheap jump scares in abundance but no lasting tension of sense of unease because the filmmakers have left the audience in the dark. There is one horrendous moment where the funeral pallbearers drop the casket and Jim’s head snaps and rolls out. You know they’re not getting any repeat business.

Premonition has an ending that just lays there in utter defiance of taste, causing the audience to upturn their nose in disbelief as if they had just discovered someone defecating in a store aisle. The ending is terrible and grasps for some kind of deeper Twilight Zone level of irony, but instead what comes across is a clumsy, irritating, and plain idiotic excuse at futility. It really calls into question whether or not the movie had any point. Premonition was beyond redemption but its stinker of an ending and Linda’s voice over summation will cause you to roll your eyes at incredible speeds.

Bullock is in new territory with Premonition, though she dabbled with time travel in last year’s The Lake House. She’s in way over her head and cannot effectively convey any of Linda’s increasingly ragged emotions. I laughed out loud several times as Bullock tried to express her growing apprehension, and her take on the line, “Because we’re running out of time,” had me in stitches. Her performance isn’t particularly embarrassing but more of an exasperating reaction to all the mess surrounding her. Bullock may want to stick to her romantic comedy wheelhouse.

Personally, if I was unstuck through time and needed some help figuring out important events, I would leave a lot of Post-It notes for myself filling me in on what I know. That would make sense; this movie doesn’t in any capacity. Bullock, writer Bill Kelly, and director Mennan Yapo need to wake up the day before they ever started to make Premonition and then they can spare us all. Then again, I suppose we can only fight fate one sliding door at a time.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Lake House (2006)

The first time I saw the trailer for The Lake House, a time-travel romance that reunites the stars of Speed, I said to myself at its conclusions, “If this lake house drops below 55 miles per hour…” I know, I’m a comedic genius, that much is obvious but what I was really reminded of was a 2002 film called Happy Accidents, a delightful gem of a movie with a similar time-travel romance. In that film you felt like anything could happen with its intricate plotting and off kilter, potentially seriously disturbed characters. Now it seems like Hollywood’s on board. The Lake House is based on an Asian film I’ve never heard of (though, in all honesty, I’ve never heard of 99.99% of them; sorry Asian cinema). This new East-West The Lake House doesn’t come across as that romantic but it’s hard to deny its points of interest.

Kate (Sandra Bullock) has taken a new job in Chicago and is moving out of a giant glass house on stilts that overlooks a lake. She leaves a note for the new resident, Alex (Keanu Reeves), an architect that struggles to fulfill his talent and his father’s (Christopher Plummer) legacy. Alex is confused; to his recollection, no one has lived in this house for years. Kate writes back and slips her notes into the nearby nostalgic mail box. But there’s something magical with this mail box. Kate is living in the year 2006 and Alex is living in the year 2004. Neither understands how it’s possible they’re even communicating by transporting letters through the mailbox. What’s even worse is that they’re falling in love with each other through their correspondence. Talk about your long-distance relationships.

To go along with this kind of movie you really need to take it at face value. Once you start that slippery slope of questioning paradoxes of time travel or the narrative plot holes, you’ll be left in the cold for the remainder of the film. Yes, there are all sorts of logic paradoxes to clog the brain with, like the fact that every time Alex does something thoughtful, like plant a tree by Kate’s building, she won’t notice because she’s never had memories of anything being different. The characters themselves just shrug at the movie’s concept and accept this bizarre predicament. No explanation is given for this short circuit in the time space continuum, and frankly, no explanation is needed. The Lake House is not emphasizing the “why” but more the “what now?”

The Lake House is still a Hollywood romance in most senses. There’s little doubt that a happy ending is just around the corner, but at least the wrinkles and the road map to that point are not altogether predictable. The typical big moments are foreseeable, including that ever popular 11th hour misunderstanding, but The Lake House manages to tickle with surprise in the details of its journey. You don’t so much pull for the leads to get together but just see them tackle this mighty daunting obstacle before them.

The biggest flaw of The Lake House is that you never really believe these sad pretty people are falling in love. There is something indelibly romantic about falling in love with someone just from their words, constructing a potential soul mate with the few puzzle pieces given to you through long correspondence. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in those many pieces of parchment that Alex and Kate pass along that pinpoints why either pen pal would fall for the other. Both seem to have spotty luck with the opposite sex or are at least seeking more from a mate. But if The Lake House is any indication, these people have been chiefly seeking celibacy and verbosity in a mate. They talk about their lives, they talk about their pasts (in Kate’s case is a bit more extended), but it’s not too long before they start swooning and clutching those letters ever so tightly. The audience is left to fathom what invisible combination must have been unlocked that these sad pretty people have fallen for each other. While a lack of sustainable, let alone believable, romance in a romantic drama might be disastrous, at least The Lake House has a conceit strong enough to engage the brain even if it fails to engage the heart.

The time jumps manage to keep the audience on its toes, plus there’s some fun in witnessing Alex and Kate try to locate each other and become bewildered. Director Alejandro Agresti (Valentin) and playwright David Auburn (Proof) play around with different techniques like split-screens and dissolves to present their lovers together. The conversational back-and-forth voice over does present problems; how exactly can they interrupt each other? The Lake House leans a little too hard on faith that we want to see these people end up together. Problem is that Kate and Alex are essentially void of depth; two characters defined more by the clunky subplots around them than their own personalities. Bullock and Reeves don’t help matters much, each perpetuating a vacant pretty android quality, like they’re waiting for a button to be pushed to explain human emotion.

I don’t know about you but if I was writing to someone in the past I’d use my knowledge and tell them to play certain lottery numbers or sports bets (“The Red Sox win what?”). Maybe it’s simply unromantic to start the basis of a relationship on gambling earnings. Then again, maybe it’s just unromantic to start a relationship with Keanu Reeves anyhow.

The Lake House is an old fashioned Hollywood romance but with some intriguing wrinkles and a playful structure. There’s a degree of predictability, the high-wattage stars fail to generate even low-wattage heat, but with the time-slip premise the film cannot be judge as familiar. The unusual situation and obstacles presented are more interesting than the main characters. Their love feels artificial and neither Kate nor Alex is rather deep, involving, or particularly smart (e-mail anyone?). Despite the limited help by the leads, The Lake House is a pleasant, different, if not terribly romantic Hollywood drama. For Hollywood, sometimes “pleasant and different” is enough for an enjoyable evening with the stars and someone special by your side. For everyone else, rent Happy Accidents.

Nate’s Grade: B

Crash (2005)

A searing look at race relations and a powerful human drama at that. This flick has some of the sharpest memories I’ve had from any movie all year, particularly the relationship between a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena) and his daughter and a special invisible cloak. Their first scene, where he talks her out of hiding under her bed, is one of the most beautifully written short scenes I have ever witnessed. A late scene involving the two of them knocked the wind out of me completely and is the most vivid moviegoing moment of all 2005 for me. Every character has at least one great moment, though time is not spaced equally amongst this large ensemble. Crash has the intriguing practice of introducing near every character spouting some kind of racist diatribe, and then the movie spend the rest of its running time opening you up to these characters and getting to like them. Writer/director Paul Haggis has such a natural ear for terse, realistic dialogue that can really define characters with such brevity. A fine movie, despite the overarching coincidences.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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