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A Monster Calls (2016)

amc_onesheetA young mother (Felicity Jones) is dying from a terminal illness. Her son Conor (Lewis MacDougall) escapes into the world of his art and imagination to cope. This includes envisioning a giant living tree voiced by Liam Neeson who visits Conor to tell him three stories, and in the end he demands one from Conor. It’s a Hollywood cancer weepie with stylistic fantasy elements, kind of a Lifetime TV approach to Pan’s Labyrinth, and I must say I was rather unmoved through every drop of treacle. Part of my problem was that Conor has this larger-than-life fantasy creature… who only tells him stories, which lead to extended animated sequences that are beautifully rendered in watercolor paints. What’s the point of having a giant monster if all it does is tell you stories? He might as well be anything and any size then. The plot also follows a very familiar path as Conor must confront his grief and anger as his mother, one of those regular movie characters who become heavenly and wise when stricken with cancer, declines in health. I felt removed too often and kept at the fringes. Rarely did I care about these characters and that’s because the movie didn’t give me a reason to. Yes she’s dying, and yes he’s sad and troubled, but so what? A Monster Calls needed to lay more foundation with these characters who come across very thin. The ultimate purpose of the monster is a rather pat revelation and the emotional climax felt undeserving of all the swelling strings on the musical score. There just isn’t anything in A Monster Calls that separates it from a pack of maudlin imitators. The actors all do pleasant work but they aren’t given more than the barest characters to work with, which forces an audience to feel things simply by grief association. Coming from director J.A. Bayona, a visonary who startled and amazed with The Orphanage and The Impossible, I’m even more confused and let down that a man this talented would choose this. Also, at no point does a CGI tree monster Liam Neeson utilize any specific plant-based set of skills.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

MV5BMjI3MDY0NjkxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTM3NTA0MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_Director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) is back to work some of his Gladiator magic on another sword-and-sandals epic, the classic story of Moses, this time played by an ever-bedraggled and bearded Christian Bale. It’s been a banner year for Christianity at the movies, though most of those films have been uninspiring save for Darren Arofonsoky’s radical and ambitious Noah. That movie did not go over well with many conservative ticket-buyers. That’s the danger of adapting the biblical epics; pleasing the core audience means not straying too far from the accepted renditions of the oft-told tales, no matter if those popular renditions are themselves inerrant. Exodus: Gods and Kings is an underwhelming translation that slogs through the miraculous. It’s empty CGI wonder in place of authentic storytelling and emotional resonance.

Christian Bale Exodus Gods and KingsExodus: Gods and Kings is a big-budget biblical epic that is startling in what it lacks, namely any amount of surprise or character development. The Moses story is oft told so I’m glad that Scott’s film skips ahead to when he’s already an adult. No basket in the reeds necessary. The brotherly conflict has little impact because, besides Moses, no other character is even given proper attention. Ramses (Joel Edgerton) is pretty much a thoughtless killer from the start, someone who ignores his advisers when it comes to political unrest and just slaughters his own starving people. He is by no means a dynamic villain in any shape, which is disappointing because the role has such dramatic potential. The 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt did a better job exploring the relationship between Moses and Ramses, the pharaoh. In fact, that movie did just about everything better, and it had some pretty songs too. Stuck with a one-note villain, Exodus tries to round out Moses by making him a figure of doubt, providing an arc where he finds his voice when he finds his faith in Judaism. The film even sets it up so Moses has to go on his quest so he can just return home to his family. It’s a pretty strict hero’s journey storyline. Bale is plenty good. His character just isn’t that interesting nor is anyone else. Being stuck with this crew for 150 minutes can get to be rather tedious. That’s because the real emphasis has been put on the special effects and digital landscapes. The action is acceptable but little sticks in your memory. I’m starting to become numb to CGI spectacle. I’m starting to think back to the epics from the 1950s and 60s, when there was no such thing as computer effects. Every person assembled for those epic shots of huddled masses was a real human being, and that’s becoming more impressive with each and every CGI spectacle with copy-and-paste digital figurines.

Given the predictable nature of the plot, you try and find little moments or directions that stand out, something, anything to mark this newest Moses story as different from the numerous retellings of cinema’s past. Beyond the modern-day special effects and the strength of Scott as a visual artist, here is a short list of what you have to look forward to with Exodus: Gods and Kings.

1) An attempt to ground a biblical epic with realism. If conservative audiences were upset with Aronofsky’s portrayal of the Almighty in Noah, just wait till they see what Exodus does. It’s not that God has been removed from the tale, it’s just that God has been mitigated in a way as to provide a rational throughline to follow the supernatural events of the ten plagues and so on. There’s even the possibility that Moses is just seeing things in his head. Two different characters advise Moses that being hit on the head could be the real source for his visions of God. Joshua (Aaron Paul) spies on Moses at several points arguing with God but sees no one else. The plagues are presented in a cause and effect series of misfortunes, with the Nile being turned red due to a surge of crocodiles munching on all the fish. The polluted water then causes the frogs to leave en mass, which then causes them to die and bring about waves of flies, which bring disease to sicken the livestock as well as boils for the Egyptians. Some thought went into this, however, it’s all inconsequential with the Angel of Death killing the first-born sons. There’s no real skeptical or scientific method to explain away this one, as the biblical story relates, and so the grounded approach seems misplaced. It takes away the miraculous from the miracles. And yet, even the parting of the Red Sea is given this same approach, with it resembling low tides brought about by perhaps a meteor strike. The fantastical nature of the Moses story feels handicapped by going a more realistic route. This is not the biblical epic for realism.

exodus-gods-and-kings-62) God is literally represented as a petulant child. When God does make Himself present for Moses, it’s in the form of a young child who is often mocking his servant. This is an angry often-bloodthirsty God who doesn’t appreciate being challenged. He complains how long Moses is taking with his war of attrition, and Moses says right back, “Impatient? You waited 400 years with ‘your people’ in slavery.” A fair complaint, and one that God does not answer.

3) Bad overall casting. Whitewashing isn’t exactly a new trend in Hollywood. It’s not like Charlton Heston looked particularly Middle Eastern. However, it’s rather distracting to watch a movie starring Egyptians and Middle Eastern Jews portrayed by a Welshman, an Australian, John Turturro, Sigoruney Weaver and Aaron Paul. I am a fan of each of these actors but they are just wrong for these parts. There are very little people of any color in the film despite the fact of its geographic location. Moses marries Zipporah, who several biblical scholars believe to be Ethiopian, which seems like a natural opportunity for some much-needed diversity in the cast. Just because you give Paul a bushy beard does not mean he suddenly resembles a Middle Eastern Jew. Same thing with adding eyeliner and bronzer to Edgerton. Then there’s the bizarre appearance of Scottish actor Ewen Bremner (The Rundown) as an adviser for the king. Taken as a whole, the whitewashing is a nagging distraction from a supposedly more grounded approach. To be fair, having relatively unknown (as far as the public is concerned) actors of appropriate ethnic background speaking in subtitled Hebrew and Egyptian sounds like a hard sell for a studio footing a $140 million dollar bill.

4) Lots of dead horses. This is not a friendly movie for our equine friends.

5) Moses sex. Well, sort of, because showing a husband and wife being physically intimate will still offend some of the more conservative ticket-buyers. So after Moses goes through his somewhat romantic question and answer ritual with his wife, the camera pans away from the disrobing couple and fades out. Classy. Now on to more CGI spectacle and carnage thank you very much.

I admire Noah more and more and think he successfully found a way to make a biblical epic accessible, challenging, and complex morally and psychologically without sparing the dark details. In essence he found a way to make a popular story new and interesting again. Scott’s Exodus just leaves me shrugging my shoulders. It’s by no means an appalling film. Beyond the big-budget modern-day spectacle, there isn’t enough going on in this movie to even justify all the expenses. The characters are too sketchy and given little to do, especially Ramses who pretty much just sneers and barks for 90 minutes. The costumes are fancy, the production design is lush, and all the technical elements are impeccable. It just falls woefully short on what should make you care. It feels like a product more than a film and a resonating story, and as such it’s delivered just in time for the Christmas shopping season for the masses. The film takes too long to get started and too long to conclude. It has some moments in the middle, especially when Moses is plotting his political insurrection, but as a whole Exodus is disappointingly lackluster. It ends up becoming empty and noisy CGI spectacle, with lots of yelling to compensate. It’s hard to find inspiration from the film when you’re checking your watch.

Nate’s Grade: C

Rampart (2012)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A corrupt L.A. cop (Woody Harrelson) makes bad choices, alienated and frightens his family, and looks to be on the way out as a career of taking the law into his own hands is at long last catching up with him. Yeah, you probably stopped me after the third word in that sentence. This dour character-study showcases Harrelson nicely as a cocksure cop who’s so self-destructive and paranoid that he pushes everyone away. Co-written and directed by Oren Moverman, who made the terrific and searing drama The Messenger, this movie just about turns into high-gloss navel-gazing. The plot is quite loose and there’s very little traction. We get to see scene after scene of Harrelson behaving badly or violent, but what does it all add up to? We already know he’s a bad cop tortured by his own sins and the demands of the job. In a way, there’s an intriguing connection between law enforcement and soldiers who are often called to bear incredible burdens and just deal with it, forgotten by a public complacent with being safe. But really this movie is just one long trip with an angry man who keeps everyone, including the audience, pushed away. He’s complex but I can’t say we ever got to know him better. The film is well acted with plenty of recognizable stars, but why should I care? The central message about the prevailing influence of corruption is a bit heavy-handed as well; at one point Harreslon’s wife says, “You made us dirty.” Rampart is a disappointing venture for Moverman despite Harrelson’s best efforts. In the end, when you’re stuck with a dirty cop he better be worth the time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Cedar Rapids (2011)

When people think about the temptations and sundry thrills of the Big City, most people are probably thinking of a sin-stained location like Las Vegas. Most people would not confuse Vegas with Cedar Rapids, and yet the Iowa city of note is the setting for a sweet and sometimes dirty, but still sweet, comedy of big-city adventures. To a guy from a town without a stoplight, Cedar Rapids is like New York City. It all depends on your perspective.

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is an insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin. The town is small but the little insurance agency that could has won the coveted Two Diamond Award four years running at the annual insurance convention held in Cedar Rapids. Tim’s life is in a holding pattern. He wants to do big things but can’t find the oomph to get there. He’s involved in a romantic tryst with his (one-time) seventh grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver). Tim’s chance to make a name for himself comes when he’s selected to represent his company at the annual convention. He has to impress the right people to take home another Two Diamond Award. Never having been on a plane before, he leaves small-town Brown Valley for big-city Cedar Rapids. At the convention site, Tim rooms with Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the more unsophisticated Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). The group meets up with Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), and together they work on helping Tim loosen up. Over the course of the weekend, bonds will be made, principles will be tested, and tom foolery of the first order will be had.

The premise is rather simple, small-town guy heads to the big city (well, bigger) and the culture shock that waits. But the film never looks down on Tim Lippe. While there is plenty of humor drawn from his naiveté, the movie doesn’t condescend or play up the small-town folks as rubes and squares. It’s funny to see Tim’s mild-mannered explosions of anger, mostly of the “horse pucky” variety of vulgarities, but the movie doesn’t say that the big-city folk are better than Tim. On the contrary, Tim is a principled and devoted insurance salesman, courteous to a fault. He could have stepped out of a Frank Capra movie from a bygone era (Mr. Lippe Goes to Town). Tim is sheltered, which provides some amusing fish out of water comedy, like when he initially is on alert because his roommate is African-American, a rarity in Brown Valley despite whatever the name may imply to some. Tim is a man out of time, but that can be small-town life in general. The Midwestern satire reminds me of the gentle yet knowing nudge of King of the Hill. Phil Johnston’s script sets up Tim’s dilemma as a crisis of conscience, the compromises we make in morality. Tim’s trip to the “big city” is the push the guy needs to get his life out of stasis. There’s something deeply satisfying in watching a character you care about triumph in the end, even if that triumph is a small victory befitting a small-town guy with a big heart.

The real fun of the movie, however, is watching the effect the group has not just on Tim but on each other. They teach Tim to cut loose and live a little, but this is still Cedar Rapids, so cutting loose goes as far as nighttime pool escapades and drunken sex. His flirtatious fling with Joan brings the guy out of his shell, and the two of them are genuinely cute together without going overboard. It’s a reserved romance that feels true to the nature of both of the characters. Dean is the loudmouth knucklehead notorious for his oafish shenanigans, but once he feels accepted he goes to war for his friends. He’s a buffoon but not stupid. And then Ronald, though less developed than the other three, provides a nice foil as a straight-laced businessman who keeps it together impressively. Together it’s a team of likeable characters that have grown closer together over the course of that weekend in Cedar Rapids, and you’ll feel the same. You feel like they’ve formed a family around the earnestness of Tim.

Helms (The Hangover) is a suitable candidate for a nice, regular, Midwestern guy. Helms has honed his awkward comedy chops after several seasons on TV’s The Office, and here he sticks to what he knows. Tim Lippe is another in a line of embryonic men. Helms settles into his usual nervous tics that fans will be familiar with. His sunny naiveté wins over the audience and provides for several laughs in contrast with the jaded “big city” folk. Reilly (Step Brothers) can overdo his character’s intentional obnoxiousness. He’s chartered a successful second career as a winsome nitwit, so like Helms, Reilly relies on notes gleaned from past performances. Whitlock Jr. is mostly straight man to the others. His comedic highpoint is an impromptu impersonation of a character from The Wire to get the group out of a dangerous jam (Whitlock Jr. himself played a state senator on The Wire). Other than that, he’s more contrast than character. Heche (TV’s Hung) is a real surprise. She underplays her character, tantalizing us with tidbits that leave us wanting more, much like Tim. The way she plays Joan, you feel the connection.

With all that said, Cedar Rapids still has its share of flaws. The naïve comedy can go so far before you start to question Tim’s senses, like his casual mistaking of a prostitute (Alia Shawkat, Whip It) for a fellow attendant. His relationship with his former seventh grade teacher is intentionally awkward, but the whole plotline presents an unseemly overtone that doesn’t fit. She’s made to be rather motherly, even when she’s rolling her eyes at her bedmate’s pie-eyed declarations of being “pre-engaged.” I think the motherly aspect makes the whole Oedipal mess even worse (Weaver just seems bored). Late into Act Three Tim goes on a drug-fueled bender that feels out of place for his character who, when first asked for a drink, requested a beer of the root kind. The character of Dean is given too many moments to just wander around and spout crude one-liners. It sometimes feels like the movie is resting while it lets Dean do his thing, and a little of this guy can go a long way.

The plot is relatively predictable and the ending is pretty pat. It works, but the actors and the characters were capable of more. The relationship between Tim and Joan also leaves something to be desired. There’s a great assembly of recognizable guests (Stephen Root, Thomas Lennon, Rob Corddry, Mike Birbiglia) that stop by but add little. Again, the potential for more feels missed. With a solid 80% of the movie taking place in a hotel, you can also start to feel a little cabin fever. And not that it matter much, but I’m disappointed that film with “Cedar Rapids” in its name was filmed in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Iowa did away with its in-state film tax credit).

The appeal of Cedar Rapids, the film, is much like the appeal of its central figure, Tim Lippe. It’s an unassuming, earnest charm, enjoying the company of likeable characters who we want to see succeed. I just wish the predictable plot had done more or trusted the actors’ capabilities. The core characters feel mostly authentic and easily recognizable, which makes the familiar, if at times bland, plot fairly forgivable. Helms and company are an easygoing bunch and you’ll be happy to tag along on their unspectacular hijinks in the “big city.” Cedar Rapids is the kind of low-key, charming little movies that often gets overlooked. It’s worth viewing for the pleasurable camaraderie of the core cast. Cedar Rapids, much like the city that bears its name, is worth a visit but does not require more commitment than that.

Nate’s Grade: B

Paul (2011)

This sci-fi comedy by the guys behind Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, though absent director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim came a callin’), is an irreverently fun flick that lovingly sends up just about everyone in its sights. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play a pair of British sci-fi geeks road tripping through the American southwest when they come across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien on the run. Together they outrun various pursuers, from government agents to angry rednecks, and Paul transforms into a delightful road comedy with the different characters ping-ponging back and forth, narrowly missing but still in the hunt. It’s a cheeky even rollicking action comedy in the vein of a Midnight Run, though with way more stoner jokes. The plot nicely weaves these various elements and characters together, creating a satisfying escalation in suspense and comedy. The characters are pretty familiar and some of the gags are below the caliber of talent onscreen (really, more “people think we’re gay” jokes?), but the final product is unabashedly fun and it’s easy to feel Pegg and Frost’s enthusiasm. Paul is a light-hearted, funny, even tender sci-fi comedy that borrows from better movies but still manages to charm.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Avatar (2009)

Avatar cannot possibly meet expectations. Can it? The long-in-development pet project of director James Cameron has been dubbed as nothing short of a tectonic shift in moviemaking; it will “change movies forever.” Cameron had the idea for the movie 15 years ago but held on, waiting for the technology to catch up. After you’ve directed Titanic, the highest grossing movie in history, I suppose you have the luxury of waiting. The budget has been rumored to be wildly anywhere from $250 million to $500 million. Avatar was always planned as a 3-D experience and nothing short of the savior of modern movie and the theatrical experience. It would make going to the movies an event once again, something that could not be duplicated at home on puny TV screens. Given the reams of hype and anticipation, Avatar couldn’t possibly succeed, could it?

In the year 2154, mankind has posted a colonial base on the distant moon of Pandora. The planet orbits a gas giant and the atmosphere is deadly to humans after a few minutes exposure. The planet is inhabited by all walks of deadly, incredibly large life, including the indigenous Na’vi tribes, skinny, nine-feet tall blue aliens. The Na’vi also have connective tissues coming from their ponytails that allow them to connect with all nature by “jacking in,” so to speak. They are a relatively peaceful clan that makes sure to respectfully use every part of the space buffalo. It just so happens that they are also sitting on top of a huge enrichment of the mineral Unobtanium, which sells for a crapload of money back on Earth. A corporate exec (Giovani Ribisi) has hired a private army of mercenaries to forcefully move the natives. In the meantime, they are trying to reach a diplomatic solution. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is the head of the Avatar program, where they biologically grow Na?vi bodies with some human DNA mixed in. People can then link their brains to the giant Na?vi bodies and walk and talk among the natives.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-Marine who is living the rest of his life in a wheelchair. His twin brother was apart of the Avatar program but was murdered, and he?s signed on to take his brother’s place (the avatars, naturally, are hugely expensive). Jake will plug into his avatar body and be able to feel like he can walk again. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, superb) likes the idea of having a former Marine on the inside. He makes a deal with Sully: provide useful Intel on the Na’vi, and he’ll get his “real” legs back. Jake and his fellow avatars ingratiate themselves with the Na’vi, and Jake is taught the ways of the tribe by Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). Their teacher-student relationship transforms into a love affair, and Jake begins having second thoughts about his mission.

To the heart of the matter, the special effects are transcendent. This is one of those pinnacle moments in the advancement of special effects technology. Avatar is now the new standard. The environments are so incredibly realistic that if I were told that Cameron and his crew filmed on location in some South American jungle, I would believe it without a moment’s hesitation. But everything in this movie was filmed on a giant sound stage. The visual detail is lushly intricate and altogether astounding. The planet of Pandora feels like a living, breathing world, with a complex environmental system. Every blades of grass, every speck of dust, every living creature feels real. Cameron and his technical team have crafted an intensely immersive, photo-realistic alien world. The level of depth is unparalleled. I found myself trying to soak up the artistry in every shot, admiring a tree canopy four dimensions back. The planet has an extensive night period, which has allowed the planet to evolve with an emphasis on bio-luminescence. Everything from moss that glows from being stepped on, to dragonflies that look like spinning flames, to glow-in-the-dark freckles on the Na’vi allows the movie, and Pandora, to feel like it has a rich evolutionary history. The ecosystem makes sense given the particulars of this world. Cameron isn’t just giving an extra leg or another eye to make the wildlife alien. The special effects are so good that you can easily take them for granted, like Jake’s atrophied legs. Those were special effects as well and yet they looked so real that I never stopped to consider them.

The Na’vi don’t necessarily have the same level of photo realism, however, this is by far the greatest motion capture accomplishment of all time. The creatures don?t appear rubbery or waxy, and there is honest to God life in those eyes, the same life that is absent in Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture movies. The CGI characters have believable facial expressions, capturing subtle movements and realistically capturing emotion. I’m still not a fan of motion capture, but at least Cameron makes effective use of the technique by recording actors movements and mannerisms and transforming them into nine-foot tall blue cat people. That seems like a better use of the technology than having Tom Hanks play a mystical hobo.

The 3-D is impressive as well but not the “game-changer” it was heralded to be. This is because Cameron doesn’t want to distract the audience and make them conscious of the 3-D gimmicks. There aren’t any moments where someone just hurls something at the screen randomly. There aren’t any clumsy swordsmen jutting forward. Because the 3-D glasses naturally dim the screen and make things darker, Cameron has smartly compensated by cranking up the natural light and vivid colors on screen. Nothing ever comes across as murky or hard to distinguish. Cameron has designed a 3-D environment that spaces out the different elements of the foreground and the background. There will be floating bits like ash or water that will seem right in front of your face. Short of that, you may find yourself forgetting about the 3-D because it’s not always utilized for a 160-minute action movie. It’s more just pushing the visual planes back with your depth of field. After all the praise about Avatar being the triumphant 3-D experience, I’m surprised that the best 3-D I’ve ever seen is still Zemeckis’ Beowulf. At least you still have that laurel, Zemeckis. For now.

From a narrative standpoint, Avatar has a lot of borrowed elements. It follows the exact same plot paces as Dances with Wolves. In fact, this story is exactly Dances with Wolves in space. Like Kevin Costner’s film, we follow an injured military man find acceptance and community with a native (Pandorian?) population. He falls in love, changes his world perspective, and realizes that these dignified people of the land deserve more than to be pushed aside for the greed of the Encroaching White Man. So he bands together and leads the natives against the superior military power of the White Man (It’s also the same plot formula for 2003’s The Last Samurai too). There?s even a young native that distrusts our hero at the start but eventually comes to call him “brother.” Add a few touches from Ferngully and The Matrix and there you have it. It’s the modern tale of colonialism where we, the people in power, are the enemy, though the villains of Avatar are corporations and private military contractors. That might not sit well with certain parts of the country; the same people that blithely think America can do no wrong simply because of its name. Cameron’s politics are pretty easy to identify on screen, and it’s probably too easy to dismiss the flick as “tree-hugging” eco-worshipping prattle. However, this is the same man that wrote and directed True Lies, which is nothing but the cool allure of the military industrial complex AND the villains were Arab terrorists.

Now, the characters aren’t too deep and the love story between Jake and his blue lady seems to be missing a couple reels worth of romantic development, but the movie follows its familiar beats with ease and the last act is terrific. It’s once again one of those all-out endings that gives way to a relentless series of explosions, but Cameron brings together all the creatures and characters he has established prior, which makes for a hugely satisfying and kick-ass payoff. Cameron is one of the greatest masters when it comes to constructing an invigorating action sequence, and he pulls out some great ones in Avatar. Geography is so key to staging a compelling action sequence, utilizing the particulars of the location and having an audience familiarized with the location. By he end, Cameron has fleshed out his world so well that we recall specific locations and remember their strategic value. The assault between the giant mechanical robot suits and the noble natives is great, with different points of action on the ground and in the air. Some have complained that the action sequences of Avatar are like a video game cut scene, and so what? My one complaint about the action is that we lose perspective by being with the Na’vi for so long. The audience becomes accustomed to seeing the world from the Na’vi proportional perspective, forgetting that these creatures are nine feet tall and even they look tiny on their flying dragon creature things, so how big must those things be?

The movie is not without some level of flaws, primarily in the storytelling department. The first 90 minutes of the movie feels really solid but then the next hour kind of simplifies everything in a rush to the climactic booms. The human villains become dastardly, the Na’vi become extra noble, and the romance with Jake and his blue lady gets consummated in a sequence begging for biological questioning (Do they “jack in” to each other? Is this somehow considered bestiality?). Jake could have benefited with some more back-story as well. The earnest “I see you” Na’vi greeting can get silly after a while. The whole avatar aspect doesn’t feel fully committed and could use more explanation. The Ribisi character is a shallow glimmer of the corporate weasel that Paul Reiser played so perfectly in Aliens. Cameron never says why the Unobtanium element is so valuable in the movie; apparently, Earth is out of energy resources. There are elements that border on the ridiculous, like the giant mech robot suit having a giant Bowie knife. The end leaves the distinct impression that the defeated human beings will just come back with bigger hardware and stronger nukes. If this Unobtanium element is so valuable to the energy resources of Earth, I doubt that one butt whipping is going to stop the exploitation of Na’vi resources. The sappy end credit love song by James Horner and Leona Lewis also might elicit more than a few guffaws.

The only real groundbreaking part of Avatar is the visuals but a familiar story doesn’t stop Cameron’s technical achievement. The plot is entirely predictable, and wholly borrowed, with a crazy different environment and a fresh coat of CGI. But can a highly derivative story kill a project built upon visual wonders? Not for me. Star Wars itself was derivative of many other stories, from samurai tales like Akira Kirosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, to Westerns like The Searchers, and war movies like The Guns of Navarone and The Dam Busters. Has that hindered the lasting impact of George Lucas’s quintessential space opera? I’d doubt you?d find too many folk with nagging complaints about Star Wars being too derivative. That’s because the characters were interesting and we cared about them, the story was satisfying, and the visual techniques pushed the medium forward. I could repeat that exact same sentence, word-for-word, about Avatar. It might not change movies forever as we know it, but Avatar is a singular artistic achievement that demands to be seen at least a few times, if, for nothing else, to stare at lifelike trees some more.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Baby Mama (2008)

2008 is becoming a year dominated by Tina Fey. She won three Emmys for her Best Comedy TV series 30 Rock, including writing and acting, and her dead-on portrayal of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has branded the public perception of this political figure. Baby Mama is a mildly entertaining comedy that works because of the finely honed chemistry between Fey and her former Saturday Night Live co-star, Amy Poehler. The movie is at its best when these two women can play off one another. The banter isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but provokes plenty of smiles and chuckles. The movie goes in an unforeseen direction in the third act that attempts to raise the stakes through drama, but it feels like a disappointing direction for what is essentially a female buddy comedy. The jokes flow at a steady pace and the movie has a great supporting cast of big names that know how to leave their mark, like Steve Martin as a daffy New Age CEO and Sigourney Weaver as a amazingly fertile boss.

Nate’s Grade: B

WALL-E (2008)

At this point, is there anything Pixar can’t do? They’ve explored the secret life of toys, what’s under the sea, the pains of rearing a family of super heroes, and of course a rat that dreams of becoming a chef. Seriously, anyone that can make that last one not only work but one of the most sparkling, imaginative, enchanting, and poignant films of the year deserves every accolade in the book. Pixar’s newest film, WALL-E, is certainly its most ambitious and potentially its most rewarding yet.

The year is 2700 and the planet Earth has long been left behind by mankind. Humans have exhausted their resources and left behind a planet that looks like one never-ending landfill. Skyscrapers are being built out of garbage cubes. The Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class (WALL-E) robots have been left to toil away and clean up mankind’s mess. There is but one WALL-E robot left and it leads a solitary life of routine. It gets up, it compacts trash into cubes, and it assembles those cubes into eventual giant structures. Then one day a probe lands called EVE. This floating capsule-like robot is easily frustrated and quick on the trigger and WALL-E falls completely in love with his unexpected new companion. The two become close and then EVE is taken away unexpectedly. WALL-E hitches a ride on the ship that collects his beloved and journeys through space to save her.

I was having reservations citing certain words of praise but this film deserves every ounce of praise; WALL-E is a masterpiece. This is a beautiful story told in a beautiful way in a beautiful looking movie. I imagine kids will be tickled by the funny robots but I really believe that this film will play much better for adults, and when was the last time a mainstream, American family film did that? Most “family” films are an excuse to do something lowbrow and cynical to make a quick buck, like the atrociously cringe-worthy trailer I saw for Beverly Hills Chihuahua (seriously, a civilization of singing/rapping Taco Bell dogs?). Pixar, and God bless them, are proving with each new release that family films need not be brain-killing hours. That reliable Pixar quality touch is never more present than with WALL-E. If you told me that a film that takes place on a trash-filled Earth, with minimal dialogue, and a romance between two robots would be the most thrilling, moving, and wonderful film of 2008, I would have scoffed.

Writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) relies on a universal visual storytelling language to tell the bulk of his tale. WALL-E plays like a gloriously enjoyable silent movie where body language and physicality advance the storyline and provide surprising depth; ignoring brief TV clips of Fred Willard and Hello Dolly, the movie doesn’t have actual dialogue until the 45-minute mark. And it is fantastic. The character of WALL-E is immediately empathetic and the audience will see slivers of themselves inside this independent robot that finds another reason for being. It’s a simple love story told in simple strokes, but it just so happens that Stanton has provided great emotional heft to those strokes. The film has such a huge and vibrant heart. More is said in indecipherable robot bleeps than in much of the tripe Hollywood calls dialogue. Watching WALL-E court EVE, a bit unsuccessfully at first, begins as cute, moves into being adorable, and ends up being greatly touching and flirting with the profound. How many other movies, let alone romances, end with the long-desired climax of two characters merely holding hands? This movie is a delight from beginning to end and a classic example of the power of expert storytelling.

When the film transitions into space is when the potent environmental message, and subversive satire, emerge. Beforehand we have witnessed the awe-inspiring landscape of Earth littered with garbage and empty shopping centers. Humans left the Earth to wait for the robots to do all the work and make the planet hospitable for life once again. For the last 700 years humans have been living in a heavy-duty luxury spaceship. Humans have grown to be fat, lazy, and completely self-involved; people only communicate with others through video screens, even when the other person is inches away. The movie also manages to satirize consumer culture, and in the future one corporate behemoth essentially dictates life’s choices; I found it highly amusing that the former president of the future (a live-action Willard) is also the CEO of the super corporate conglomerate. Business and government have merged completely. The social commentary isn’t as merciless as Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, nor is the environmental message subtle in the slightest, but the satire is sharp enough and blunt that some viewers might be offended, and I think that is genius.

Being a Pixar film, naturally WALL-E is resplendent to look at. The animation is superb and the imagination on display seems limitless. This is one of those films I’m certain I could watch again and again and find something new every time. I don’t really need to say much more about the visuals because they are breathtaking to behold (Roger Deakins, by the far the greatest living cinematographer, was even consulted to help with the look of the film. How awesome is that?).

And yet even though WALL-E is primarily a love story the film also manages to be greatly exciting and equally funny. Stanton’s screenplay nimbly assembles characters and reintroduces them at key points to push his story onward. I loved that WALL-E is introduced to all sorts of unique robots on the mankind’s space ship and that he even stumbles into, more or less, a group of malfunctioning robots that come to his aid (think the Island of Misfit toys). Stanton manages to reconnect his storytelling threads so that every moment in this movie matters. The last third of the film is a back and forth cat-and-mouse struggle that manages to pump up suspense in smart ways. Stanton lays out his scenario for action and then builds organic complications. I am deeply satisfied when a filmmaker has a firm command of action that they can setup a situation, establish the rules, and then naturally construct obstacles and surprises that feel natural and germane to the story. Pixar has always been able to craft exciting action scenes that felt fully realized and WALL-E is no different.

If there is but one minor quibble I have with this near-perfect film, it is the missed opportunity to explore the mortality of robots. While WALL-E is going through his day-to-day duties he passes by older versions of other WALL-E models. The movie could have pushed just a little harder with the concept that this tiny robot is going to live to collect trash and then die like all the rest, becoming another piece of forgotten garbage. I think if Stanton had only explored this idea a little more it would have made his robo-love story even richer considering that both robots are going against their programming because they have found something that completely changed their world — love. The idea of mortality was explored to excellent effect in 1999’s Toy Story 2, so perhaps the Pixar folk didn’t want to fall into a philosophical repeat.

WALL-E is a wonderful love story, a heartfelt and immensely charming character piece, and a thrilling sci-fi tale that soars to broad heights of imagination. It’s timeless while still being rather timely thanks to its environmental message. Moments after the movie was over I wanted to see it again. I think I’ll feel the same way after the second viewing and the third. This is a phenomenal movie that will stand the test of time as one of the greats.

Nate’s Grade: A

Vantage Point (2008)

Vantage Point presents a terrorist strike and a presidential assassination from six different perspectives (though the advertising credits 8 perspectives). The Rashoman-style idea presents enough intrigue to sustain viewer involvement, but then it seems like the movie gets tired of its own gimmick, throws its hands in the air after the fifth trip down memory lane, and says, “Ah, forget this. Here’s what really happened,” and spells it out. The perspectives are too short and there are frankly too many; the idea is good but the execution is flawed. I think having possibly three perspectives play out for around 40 minutes each would have beefed up the plot and allowed for more intriguing criss-crossing. Not all of the perspectives are equally compelling (Forest Whitaker as a tourist with a camera seems like a lame way to bridge plot points) but they do link together and each submits a bevy of new questions and surprises. The swift, 90-minute running time means there’s precious little screen time to be doled out to the many characters, so don’t get used to seeing most after their main appearance. Vantage Point careens toward a finish that ties everything and every perspective together with a fairly nifty car chase. The movie could use some extra time spent on the flaccid characters (I’m at a total loss as for the motivation of several of them), and the film strains credibility, and yet it works as a passable thriller with enough of an edge to pass the time agreeably.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Village (2004)

When saying director names you can play a fun little game of word association. Someone says, ““George Lucas,”” and things like big-budget effects, empty storytelling, and wooden dialogue come to mind. Someone says, ““David Lynch,”” and weird, abstract, therapy sessions dance in your head. The behemoth of word association is M. Night Shyamalan. He burst onto the scene with 1999’’s blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, a crafty, moody, intelligent thriller with a knock-out final twist. Now, though, it seems more and more evident that while The Sixth Sense was the making of M. Night Shyamalan, it also appears to be his undoing. His follow-up films, Unbreakable and Signs, have suffered by comparison, but what seems to be hampering Shyamalan’’s growth as a writer is the tightening noose of audience expectation that he kowtows to.

With this in mind, we have Shyamalan’s newest cinematic offering, The Village. Set in 1897, we follow the simple, agrarian lives of the people that inhabit a small secluded hamlet. The town is isolated because of a surrounding dense forest. Mythical creatures referred to as “Those We Don’t Speak Of” populate the woods. An uneasy truce has been agreed upon between the creatures and the villagers, as long as neither camp ventures over into the other’s territory. When someone does enter the woods, foreboding signs arise. Animals are found skinned, red marks are found on doors, and people worry that the truce may be over. Within this setting, we follow the ordinary lives of the townsfolk. Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the daughter of the town’s self-appointed mayor (William Hurt), and doesn’t let a little thing like being blind get in the way of her happiness. She is smitten with Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), a soft-spoken loner. Noah (Adrien Brody), a mentally challenged man, also has feelings for Ivy, which cause greater conflict.

Arguably, the best thing about The Village is the discovery of Howard. She proves herself to be an acting revelation that will have future success long after The Village is forgotten. Her winsome presence, wide radiant smile, and uncanny ability to quickly emote endear the character of Ivy to the audience. She is the only one onscreen with genuine personality and charisma, and when she’s flirting and being cute about it you cannot help but fall in love with her. And when she is being torn up inside, the audience feels the same emotional turmoil. I am convinced that this is more so from Howard’’s acting than from the writing of Shyamalan. She reminds me of a young Cate Blanchett, both in features and talent.

It seems to me that Shyamalan’’s directing is getting better with every movie while his writing is getting proportionately worse. He has a masterful sense of pacing and mood, creating long takes that give the viewer a sense of unease. The first arrival of the creatures is an expertly handled scene that delivers plenty of suspense, and a slow-motion capper, with music swelling, that caused me to pump my fist. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is beautifully elegant. Even the violin-heavy score by James Newton Howard is a great asset to the film’’s disposition.

So where does the film go wrong and the entertainment get sucked out?

What kills The Village is its incongruous ending. Beforehand, Shyamalan has built a somewhat unsettling tale, but when he finally lays out all his cards, the whole is most certainly not more than the sum of its parts. In fact, the ending is so illogical and stupid, and raises infinitely more questions than feeble answers, that it undermines the rest of the film. Unlike The Sixth Sense, the twist of The Village does not get better with increased thought.

Shyamalan’’s sense of timing with his story revelations is maddening. He drops one twist with 30 minutes left in the film, but what’s even more frustrating is he situates a character into supposed danger that the audience knows doesn’t exist anymore with this new knowledge. The audience has already been told the truth, and it deflates nearly all the tension. It’s as if Shyamalan reveals a twist and then tells the audience to immediately forget about it. Only the naïve will fall for it.

Shyamalan also exhibits a problem fully rendering his characters. They are so understated that they don’t ever really jump from the screen. The dialogue is very stilted and flat, as Shyamalan tries to stubbornly fit his message to ye olde English vernacular (which brings about a whole other question when the film’’s final shoe is dropped). Shyamalan also seems to strand his characters into soap opera-ish subplots involving forbidden or unrequited love. For a good hour or so, minus one sequence, The Village is really a Jane Austin story with the occasional monster.

The rest of the villagers don’’t come away looking as good as Howard. Phoenix’’s taciturn delivery seems to suit the brooding Lucius, but at other times he can give the impression of dead space. Hurt is a sturdy actor but can’t find a good balance between his solemn village leader and caring if sneaky father. Sigourney Weaver just seems adrift like she’s looking for butter to churn. Brody is given the worst to work with. His mentally-challenged character is a terrible one-note plot device. He seems to inexplicably become clever when it’s needed.

The Village is a vast disappointment when the weight of the talent involved is accounted for. Shyamalan crafts an interesting premise, a portent sense of dread, and about two thirds of a decent-to-good movie, but as Brian Cox said in Adaptation, “”The last act makes the film. Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. You can have flaws and problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”” It’’s not that the final twists and revelations are bad; it’s that they paint everything that came before them in a worse light. An audience going into The Village wanting to be scared will likely not be pleased, and only Shyamalan’s core followers will walk away fully appreciating the movie. In the end, it may take a village to get Shyamalan to break his writing rut.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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