I attempted to read Frank Herbert’s novel Dune when I was in the seventh grade. I had begun to read more fantasy literature and was looking at older, heralded novels. I can still recall my frustration of reading those first five pages and having to repeatedly flip back and forth to a twenty-five-page glossary of terms so that I could even start to comprehend what was happening on the page. After those five excruciating pages, I gave up. Maybe I was too rash, and maybe my older present self would be more accommodating to the struggle, or maybe it just wasn’t worth the effort. I never watched the 1984 David Lynch adaptation that was met with great derision from critics and fans alike, although it does have its vocal defenders (Hindsight alert: Lynch turned down directing Return of the Jedi to helm Dune). So when acclaimed filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) became attached to direct a big-budget, large-scale adaptation of Herbert’s novel, I was finally interested for the first time in my life. It was originally slated to be released in 2020, and after the studio planned to release Dune onto its HBO Max streaming service, Villeneuve and the production company negotiated to make sure a theatrical release would still be an important part of the plan. Alas, I watched the 2021 Dune at home, and I found myself enjoying the experience and development of the world building. However, it’s unlikely to watch this version of Dune and feel like you got a full movie for your money.
In the distant future, like 10,000 A.D., mankind has colonized worlds and the most important planet of them all is Arrakis. It’s a desert world inhabited by poor natives, Freeman, who live a moisture-preserving life mining the natural “spice,” a special substance that makes space travel capable as well as prolonging human life. The top family houses are vying for dominance and House Atreides has been assigned by the unseen Emperor to rule over Arrakis and bring it and its spice production back in line. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) sees great opportunity but also great danger. The other houses will scheme to engineer the failure and desolation of House Atreides, especially House Harkonnen, led by the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), who is like a mixture between Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now and Marlon Brando from The Island of Doctor Moreau (plus with levitation powers?). Paul Atriedes (Timothee Chalamet) is his family’s heir and much is expected of him, especially from his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who believes he may be long-prophesied messiah. On Arrakis, Paul and his father must tackle this very delicate new mission while keeping the many adversaries at bay.
As anticipated, Dune is yet another visually stunning and gorgeously immersive visual experience from one of the greatest visual filmmakers working today. If you can watch the movie on a big screen, or at least a bigger screen, then you owe it to yourself to do so. The sweeping vistas and startling science fiction imagery have so much power and grandeur to them. If Lynch’s movie inspired a generation of devotees and impressionable children, I imagine that this superior modern version will do likewise. The production design and costumes are terrific and perfectly in keeping with the larger scope of the expansive visuals. You really feel the size of this world and its imposing weight. Villeneuve has such a natural keen eye for pleasing visual compositions, but he also has the patience many famous big screen stylists lack. He allows the moments to linger and to let scenes breathe in a way that feels more transporting and immersive. If you were simply looking for a visually resplendent movie-going experience, then Dune is the ticket. The sound design is also very smartly aligned and makes use of unconventional and alien sounds to make the movie feel even more like its own thing. When Dune came out in 1965, this was before much of the modern building blocks of our sci-fi pop-culture, so in a way while Dune was the influence it feels partially like an odd after-effect rather than a predecessor. The same thing happened with 2012’s John Carter, based upon a novel a hundred years old that influenced many sci-fi adventure serials and now seems derivative even though it came before the many imitations. I was happy with the first 90 minutes of Dune and felt like the slow pace of the first hour, and its heft of needed but spaced-out exposition, was paying off with a thrilling assault. The concept of the protective shields is a smart way to communicate the casualties of battle, where “kill shots” are illuminated in red, informing the audience of a mortal wound. It makes for an easy to read visual to keep up with the development of battle and stay in a safer PG-13 realm. The whole rescue sequence on the mining station is thrilling at every step.
The cast is another major credit to the success of Dune. Chalament (Little Women) has a soulful yearning to him, to learn, to be his own man, to prove his father wrong and then prove worthy of his father’s faith. Surprisingly, the next biggest role isn’t Zendaya (Malcolm and Marie), the woman that Paul dreams about (prophetically?); it’s Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep) as Paul’s mother. She’s a woman with deep secrets belonging to a powerful religious sect that might be the real power behind the throne. Lady Jessica is more Paul’s mentor than any man. She teaches him to hone and focus his mind, to use the “Voice” to impart his will, and to prepare for the hardships to come. With every new exposition dump, and she has many, we learn about her growing concern for the fate of her son and her possible culpability for that fate. There’s a genuine warmth between them that serves as the film’s emotional core. I enjoyed watching Jason Momoa (Aquaman) and Dave Bautista (Army of the Dead) as opposite ends of Super Good Fighter Guy, though Momoa looked unsettling without a beard. Needless to say, the 2021 movie is far more diverse than the 1984 movie. It makes space feel more lived in when it’s reflective of a diversity of people that we already have at this point in our history.
And then, after the hallway mark, Dune became a protracted sequence of chases and then I started to worry that things were just going to end in an unsatisfying manner, relegating the 150 minutes as setup for the as-yet-unplanned sequel, and that’s exactly what happened. My mood began to deflate somewhat during the last hour of Dune. I was still interested and the visuals were still mighty captivating, but the events had the unmistakable feeling of being stretched out to meet a frustrating stopping point, a pause that didn’t produce a satisfying endpoint. I just kept thinking, “Oh, they’re not going to resolve this,” and, “Oh, Zendaya is barely going to be in this movie,” and the movie proved my predictions correct. It’s hard to judge the movie as its own entity since it’s so dependent on a Part Two that has yet to be greenlighted (though its strong opening box-office returns are hopeful). This is an expensive movie, possibly pushing $200 million, so it’s quite a gamble to declare you would only be adapting roughly half of the story. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel, a movie I loved, had a budget of $150 million and a worldwide gross that didn’t make the producers comfortable going forward with a Blade Runner 2050. To be fair, that was an original story, a sequel, and rather well contained. Still, it’s an expensive sci-fi movie that has as much in common with dry art house fare as it does blockbuster adventures, like Villeneuve’s Dune. The promise of a second movie is not secured. If Dune doesn’t do well enough, we’ll forever be left with a movie that feels designed to only be a teaser. It reminds me of the hubris of 2007’s The Golden Compass where the filmmakers had a whole 20-minute finale that they carved out with the intention of having it be the opening for the assumed sequel (welp). Even when designing a multi-movie arc, it’s necessary to plan each entry so that it can exist as its own beginning-middle-end and with a suitable intermediary climax. The Lord of the Rings movies each had their own climax, each moving the larger picture forward, and each had storylines and subplots that came to a head by film’s conclusion. Dune doesn’t. There are more dead characters by the end and certain characters are displaced, but it feels less like the end of the big-budget Dune movie and more like the conclusion of episode two of the Dune mini-series.
My resonance with the source material is minimal, but the world of Dune feels stuffed with stuff and not as deep in the realm of commentary. Fans of the book series will likely thrill at the level of minutia the 2021 movie luxuriates in, allowing fans to lap up the lore. For those of us uninitiated into the fandom, it feels like there could be more going on behind the scenes. The book was released in 1965 and has clear parallels to Middle East occupations and quagmires, a subject even more relevant in the first quarter of this new century. There’s the occupying force coming in to manage the supposedly primitive natives on a desert planet, replacing the last occupier who made bold promises that were unable to be met by the reality on the ground. The parallels of colonialism are there and obvious, but that’s because everything in Dune seems obvious to me. The bad guys are corpse-white and dressed in all black. They look like the alien zombies from 1998’s Dark City (itself referencing the silent sci-fi classic, Metropolis). The leader of House Harkonnen is this noxious man who bathes in black goo and sucks the life force from others. I don’t need my sci-fi to be ambiguous about its heroes and villains. We clearly recognize the bad guys because they’re grotesque. However, the lessons learned by the heroes seem a bit stilted. Its attacks on capitalism are a little more nuanced but not much. The planet of Arrakis could produce water but that’s not in the interest of the power brokers of the galaxy. They need the spice for the economy and thus keep the exploitative status quo. The parallels are there but there’s not much more to be had other than direct summations. The movie has more to say with religion and messiah figures but at this point we’re grading on a curve, and the more complex commentary attached to messiah figures seems reserved for a Part Two.
Another aspect I want to highlight that seems trivial but no less intriguing to me is how Herbert chooses his character names. We’re eight thousand years into the future, spanning multiple planets with names like Arrakis and Giedi Prime and Salusa Secondus, and then we have such anodyne twentieth-century names like… Paul and Jessica? It’s funny to me that Herbert goes to the trouble of coming up with so much jargon and terminology and alien-sounding names and then he says, “Hey, this guy’s name is… Duncan Idaho,” like he’s a supporting character in Point Break. I realize this is a very dubious criticism, and there are other character names to conflict with this assertion, but it made me laugh at the different levels of effort Herbert put into his world-building and universe than selecting character names for that same far away land.
After watching the new Dune, I went and watched the 1984 David Lynch version for the first time and was, quite simply, dumbfounded. I’ll credit Lynch for many of the weird choices in style and how it never stoops to even be accessible for a mass audience, despite having characters explicitly narrate their schemes and motivations out in the open (by scene one, the power play that took up 90 minutes of Dune 2021 is awkwardly explained in full). By the end of Lynch’s movie, it is an incomprehensible campy mess. I only have more appreciation for the 2021 Dune after watching the goofy (those eyebrows!) 1980s version that Lynch has disowned entirely, although that stirring guitar riff from the score still rocks thirty years later. The new Dune is only intended as Part One as its presumptive title promises, and because of this key artistic decision, there’s a feeling of padding and wear by the end. I found myself reflecting back on the first 90 minutes more fondly. It’s not that the last hour is absent great moments or audacious style, but it’s hard to fully judge this Dune when its last line is its own conditioning of expectations: “This is only the beginning.” The 2021 Dune is a visually remarkable movie experience with fantastic artists executing at some of the highest points of their talent. I’m eager to see if a Part Two can provide the satisfaction lacking in this beginning half. It’s a hell of a start but it feels too incomplete and in need of an ending.
Nate’s Grade: B
Lars von Trier’s latest shaky video opus is likely the most unique movie going experience you’ll have all year. Dancer in the Dark is a clever, heartfelt, and achingly beautiful tale of sorrow and redemption. Dancer stars Iceland’s version of Madonna in the elfin Bjork. She plays Selma, quite possibly the nicest but also most stubborn person in the world. She’s an immigrant in 1960s America working long and odd hours to ensure that she can raise enough money for her son. You see Selma is slowly going blind but continuing to work so she can make sure her son will not have to suffer the same inherited illness. So she works late on heavy industrial machinery causing accidents as her condition worsens all to stop her son’s genetic curse she will give to him. Selma’s escape has always been musicals. In life she hears music in unusual places and visualizes life stopping to burst out into a vibrant fully choreographed musical number. Selma’s life continues to degenerate along with her vision as events pile on worse and worse until they all come crashing together.
Dancer in the Dark is no picnic in the park. The movie is haunting but incredibly depressing. Lars von Trier’s previous film (Breaking the Waves) was another wrenching drama with good people going through rough times with no fraction of light at any end of a tunnel. His jerky handheld video work is back capturing the life of Selma and seemingly framing it in a more realistic sense. The video images are edited to look like a documentary and the whole feel is one of raw power. You aren’t merely watching a film, it’s like you are in it witnessing the actions from the sidelines. The escapist musical numbers are shot in glorious still film to contrast the drab realism of video. The colors are bright, the faces are happy, and the cinematography is a wonder to envision.
Bjork soars and delivers what should be an Oscar-caliber performance. I never knew the queen of alt-rock had such emotive powers. Selma’s innocence is keenly expressed in Bjork and her glassy eyes. Her love for her son is no more evident then all the suffering and tragedy she goes through. All of the suffering and tragedy could be avoided – except her son would not be helped.
The ensemble around Bjork work fantastic magic as well. Peter Stormare is a sad figure trying to just get a glimpse of Selma’s attention. David Morse is a down-and-out policeman who is Selma’s landlord and in need of some cash. He’s afraid to tell his bourgeois wife they’ve run empty with money. Catherine Deneuve turns in the brightest supporting performance as Selma’s co-worker and friend Kathy. She’s torn between trying to stop Selma from continuing on her acts that could cause her harm and helping her along her determination. A great scene as example of her care for Selma is when the two of them are in a theater watching an old Hollywood musical. At this point Selma is completely blind and can’t see what’s going on, so Kathy takes Selma’s palm and dances her fingers in correlation with the actions on screen to Selma’s delight. A simple scene yet so elegant and beautiful.
Dancer in the Dark is a wonderful piece of original film making that gives us the escape of hope and the crush of despair. Selma’s love of musicals and their role in life is perfect symbolism for discussion. Dancer will leave you with a distinct feeling by the end credits. Whether it’s sorrow or bewilderment Dancer in the Dark is a film not to miss.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I knew going back to my first Lars von Trier film was not going to be a pleasant experience, and oh what an understatement that turned out to be. von Trier has compared himself to a Nazi, his intense methods have driven his actors to the brink, including Dancer in the Dark’s Bjork who swore off the entire profession of acting after her experiences working with him. I am not surprised by this response because his movies have famously followed a formula of a woman being tortured by men, by society, by forces outsider her control, and then she suffers for two hours and dies, a victim of the cruelty of the universe. Repeat. It’s a formula that I’ve since grown weary of and after 2018’s The House That Jack Built I contemplated not watching another von Trier movie again. He just can’t help himself and his nihilistic, heavy-handed impulses handicap his genuine artistic abilities and the merits of his storytelling. Back in 2000, it all felt relatively new. von Trier was the biggest name of the Dogme 95 movement, a Danish collective of filmmakers who swore to adhere to digital video and other aesthetic rules to better replicate reality as it was, ripping away the glossy artifice of Hollywood fantasy. von Trier was subversive, provocative, and exciting, and since then I’ve broken free from the von Trier spell. I was questioning whether I would share Requiem for a Dream or Dancer in the Dark with my girlfriend, who had seen neither, and in hindsight I’m glad I picked Requiem instead (think about that, yikes).
Dancer in the Dark is a powerful experience and one that is unfortunately smothered by von Trier’s heavy hand. It’s easy to root for Selma (Bjork), a Czech transplant in small-town 1960s America (the movie was filmed in Sweden because von Trier is afraid to fly). She already has so much going against her: 1) she’s a woman, 2) she’s an immigrant, 3) she’s poor, 4) she’s suffering from a degenerative disease that will rob her of her sight. Even worse, her son will suffer the same fate unless Selma raises enough money for an operation. She takes on extra work at her factory, even if she’s not exactly qualified, and she’s a hopeful yet stubborn woman who says what she means, earning friends who will champion her. She’s also a lover of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, as they presented an escape to her as a little girl growing up in poverty. America was the land of opportunity, where everyone dances all the time, sings their hearts out, and gets the girl or the guy by the conclusion of the finale. That dichotomy, between reality and fantasy, and all the cultural and psychological commentary within, is the strongest aspect of the film and a peak of ambition that von Trier never really got close to again with his later punishing dramaturgy. The first musical number doesn’t come until 45 minutes into the movie, and by that time we have had our heroine, her plight, and the first markers of a looming tragedy efficiently established.
Jeff (Peter Stormare), a lovesick co-worker who shows up every day to maybe drive Selma home, cannot understand musicals, saying people just burst out into song and how unrealistic this is, and Selma agrees, but for her it’s wonderful. She hears music in the world around her and it gives her life, especially as her vision deteriorates. As injustice after injustice falls upon her, Selma uses extravagant musicals as an escape, where everyone is a friend waiting to jump into the number and work together. A common refrain she sings is “there’s always someone to catch me,” referencing the choreography of musicals where the dancers frolic together but it’s also her request to the universe for a little help, for someone to catch her when she stumbles and provide that level support a woman of her means and background lacked in this landscape. The musical numbers staged by von Trier have a chaotic energy to them, assembled from dozens and dozens of sporadically placed cameras. They feel like a burst of imagination while keeping an improvisational feel; less drilled than managed. The first musical number “Cvalda” is a delirious daydream where Selma imagines the various sounds of the work machines creating a percussive symphony and she’s a Mary Poppins conductor. After Bill (David Morse) dies, she retreats to “Scatterheart” to make sense of her actions, with her son telling her she only did what she had to do and Bill rising from the dead to beg her forgiveness. When she’s in solitary confinement and can’t hear any sound, Selma goes into despair. She shouts the lyrics to selections from The Sound of Music to bring music back into her isolated world. Even on her march to execution, Selma copes by turning the “107 Steps” to the noose into a song. Her last words are her singing her final goodbyes to her off-screen son, so until the end musicals were how this woman chose to compensate for the rotten luck of her life. And oh boy was it ever rotten.
There’s one scene in the second half begging for symbolic unpacking where Selma is in the middle of her trial and the prosecution calls a famous Czech film actor and dancer to the stage. It’s none other than Oscar-winning theater legend Joel Grey (Cabaret) and his character doesn’t know who Selma is, even though she told the court she had been sending money to him (she listed her son’s account for his operation under a pseudonym to not risk it being derailed). This famous actor starred in movies in her native Czechoslovakia and crossed over to American cinema. He was an idol for young Selma and another figure to encapsulate the promise of America. Then as he’s testifying on the stand is when Selma drifts back into another rendition of “In the Musicals” and Grey joins her in tapping, and he confesses, “I didn’t mind it at all / That you were having a ball / at my musicals / And I was always there to catch you.” He understands and empathizes. This scene alone is just packed with so many layers of metaphor and projection and symbolic subtext and commentary and you could probably write an entire Master’s thesis on its myriad meanings. At its best, that’s Dancer in the Dark, when von Trier is using the language of musicals to subvert their form, to lay commentary on the un-reality is a rejection of the cruelty of real life, of finding order in disorder, finding community amid a nest of selfish vipers competing for dominance. It’s when von Trier uses our understanding of musicals to really make us think about the associations and contradictions that makes this movie a stirring and sometimes sensational experience.
Alas, the artistry is seriously wounded by von Trier’s heavy-handed approach to all drama. This has become even more pronounced after where von Trier has obliterated the entire world (2011’s Melancholia) and ruined a four-hour movie with a last-second dumb joke of an ending (2014’s two-part Nymphomaniac). Subtlety is not one of the tools von Trier prefers to dabble with. It’s a shame because he’s a natural storyteller when it comes to establishing vulnerable characters in fraught scenarios and slowly raising the temperature, organically transforming allies into enemies and friends into abusers. This is done very well in 2004’s Dogville as well, a movie I would argue both plays into and succeeds his tortured-woman formula of drama and political allegory. I would say Dogville is his second-best film precisely because I was expecting another unrelentingly unjust ending for another anguished woman. However, where a lighter touch could accomplish his points, von Trier instead brings out a bazooka. Selma’s deadly encounter with Bill happens at the halfway point in the film. From there there’s still another 65 minutes of her suffering to drag out to preposterous proportions. We go through the trial, her cross-examination, her willfully keeping secrets that will only make her look guilty to maintain a promise to a dead man, and then there’s her visitations in jail, her appeal, her rejection of her appeal because the costs will empty the fund’s for her son’s operation, the realization of her impending execution, the march to the execution, her being bound to a board because she cannot stand straight because she’s so scared, her rejection of the hood, her last song while she waits for the governor’s call, and then her abrupt death. There were several points where I was just pleading, “Enough already,” because it was so thoroughly exhausting.
Selma is served to be a martyr of an unjust system that looked suspiciously on immigrants, and Selma elects to accept her fate because anything less would endanger losing what she has set up for her son’s well-being. This woman takes all this punishment and that’s the story, America. That’s the story of America, America. That’s what von Trier is getting at, but the 140-minute movie is so overdone and so drawn out to obsess over the wrongs inflicted on this poor woman that it unintentionally blunts the message. The second half becomes a passion play where we watch our poor Selma elect to accept tragedy and self-sacrifice and endure all the injustices. It’s harrowing and upsetting but would still be so if we didn’t spend half of the movie dwelling on a litany of examples of her fated misery. I’m sure others will argue the crushing nature of the injustice is meant to convey for the viewer the feeling of aggravation and outrage. I would agree that outrage is sought, but when von Trier doesn’t let up, it tilts into overwrought self-parody.
Dancer in the Dark resonates as strongly as it does because Bjork gives every ounce of herself in this performance. She was originally just going to write songs but von Trier chased her for a year to convince her to also star as the lead. There are moments of awkwardness where it feels like maybe she’s confused in the scene with what her lines are supposed to be, but then her lack of polish is revealed for its true strength. It’s a deeply, deeply felt performance, stunning in how raw and empathetic she gets, subsuming herself into the character and her tribulations. You don’t see the craft so much here as you do sheer, undiluted passion and ferocious naturalism. She doesn’t hold anything back and gives the best performance in any von Trier movie. In my mind, she had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar that year but this was not the case; she was only nominated for Best Original Song (“I’ve Seen It All”) where she wore her famous swan dress that became a go-to punchline. She was, and continues to be, an eclectic artist and a really weird person, but man could she be a tremendous actress given the right circumstances. It’s a shame that von Trier’s sadistic directing style lead her to quit the entire profession.
Looking back on my original review, I remember seeing Dancer in the Dark with my freshman pal Kat Lewis, who was just the biggest Bjork fan you could find in all of Ohio in 2000. We were both floored by the movie, and Bjork, and cited it as uniformly brilliant. With twenty years of distance, I can say some of the ironic commentary of undercutting musical escapism feels too easy now, seeking credit for daring to ask, “Hey, what if musicals weren’t so happy, huh?” It’s still a worthwhile subversion to explore but simply presenting it as a subversion isn’t enough for a satisfying thematic focus. It’s funny that the moments that stood out to me as an 18-year-old, like Catherine Deneuve dancing her fingers on Selma’s palm to communicate the onscreen dance routine she can no longer see, are the same ones that stood out to me as a 38-year-old. Good writing will still make itself known and felt. There’s plenty to admire and, paradoxically, enjoy about such a depressing movie, but von Trier’s inability to self-edit and hold back his condemnation of humanity is what truly oppresses his movie.
Re-View Grade: B
The Avengers wasn’t just a blockbuster it was a mega-blockbuster and rewrote the Hollywood playbook in the summer of 2012. It wasn’t just about powerful franchises anymore. Now it was about franchises that would link into a super franchise. Sony got anxious to expand their Spider-Man universe in a similar fashion as Marvel had done in buildup to The Avengers. After one poor movie, that plan was scuttled and now Spider-Man is being rebooted for the second time in five years, this time with active help from Marvel itself (look for Spidey to appear in Captain America 3). Writer/director Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was the mastermind behind the jaunty smash-em-up fun of The Avengers and was quickly signed on for a sequel after the billion-dollar mark was crossed. With great success comes great risk of upsetting that continued success. It feels like Whedon’s hands were tied to the greater forces at work. As a result, I shouldn’t be surprised but I’m still disappointed with how muddled and overstuffed as Age of Ultron comes across.
The Avengers are cleaning up the last remnants of HYDRA, taking them to a castle in a fictional Eastern European country. The HYDRA doctor has been genetically experimenting on volunteers, birthing Wanda “Scarlet Witch” (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She can tap into people’s minds and he can run super fast. They’ve got a grudge against the Avengers, particularly industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark takes a piece of alien technology and plugs it into his home system to build a super fleet of automated robots to patrol the world. In no time, the A.I. has taken form in the shape of an insane robot named Ultron (James Spader) whose mission is to save the planet by eliminating mankind. He builds an army of robotic soldiers with the assistance of the Maximoff twins. Tony, along with Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), must stop Ultron while not destroying much of the world themselves with their collateral damage.
Eleven movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a movie of the size of an Avengers sequel cannot simply be a movie. It’s too important to the overall vision of the MCU, and so it has to set up and establish other characters, franchises, and the many monetary tributaries that keep the world of superheroes going. It’s already got a slew of superheroes and it adds even more new faces into the mix (I guess we needed an Avengers B-Team). The development of Ultron is also far too rushed; it’s literally minutes from being plugged in that he’s already settled into kill-all-Avengers mode. The movie barely has any time to even contemplate the perils of artificial intelligence before Ultron is already proving their fears correct. While Ultron is a fun villain (more on that later) his plan feels quite haphazard. His biggest strategic advantage is his duplication, the fact that he can exist without a physical body and can inhabit many bodies at once. Except for a hasty escape via the Internet and a climax stuffed with CGI robot mayhem, this advantage isn’t really explored. Why does a self-replicating creature beyond the bounds of physicality need or even desire a physical body? If you’re made from a nigh indestructible metal and can control numerous beings at once with a hive-mind intelligence link, why would you want to be turned into flesh thanks to what amounts to a 3D printer? The introduction of The Vision (Paul Bettany, this time in the flesh) is quite muddled and confusing. The incorporation of the Maximoff twins is awkward and they feel more like accessories than needed additions. This Quicksilver doesn’t come anywhere close to the memorable prankish Quicksilver from Days of Future Past. The pacing of the film is so ramped that it feels like the movie is falling over itself to get to the next large-scale action set piece. At 140 minutes, they could have removed one or two action pieces and devoted more time to streamlining and cleaning up the narrative.
And the action sequences start off with a bang but they invariably fizzle out. The opening sequence begins with a Birdman-styled tracking shot to connect all our fighters, and it’s a fun way to kick things off while visually tying together the team. The Hulk vs. Iron Man brawl is fun for a while, partly because it harkens back to the pleasures of the first film, namely watching our heroes battle each other as much as the villains. After a while, the CGI onslaught becomes overwhelming and just dulls the senses. You’re watching CGI smash into other CGI and then keep smashing, with little variation. The disappointment with the action is that it too often feels weightless and hollow. It has glimmers of fun but it can’t hold onto these glimmers because the action doesn’t change. It gets bigger and more chaotic, yes, but it doesn’t develop with organic complications and real attention to setting. These big battles could happen anywhere because they almost all descend into simply fighting amidst rubble. Even Iron Man 3 found ways to spice up its action set pieces through complications, limitations, and clear differentiation. Perhaps this is a larger outcry of fatigue with the overall state of CGI overkill in effects-driven films. The concluding fight versus Ultron and his many copies just feels like the same scene on repeat but in slightly different locations. Whedon has shown an affinity to coordinate exciting and satisfying action sequences, but you just feel like the pressure and demands get the better of him.
However, every moment with Ultron onscreen is a highpoint because of the malicious cattiness of Spader (TV’s The Blacklist). He’s a perfect fit for a character who is at turns childish and petty, bonkers, and condescending. In some ways he’s like a giant robotic teenager who thinks he’s just above the rest of these so-called adults. It’s such an enjoyable villain, an area of real need in most MCU films (Loki can’t be everywhere for every movie), that I wanted more and more of him. My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey describes Ultron as the villainous alternative Tony Stark, and Whedon does a fine job of laying out the parallels, especially with regards to ego. It’s a weird reunion for the stars of 1987’s Less Than Zero.
The most boring characters, i.e. the humans, are the ones that get the biggest expansion for character development, with mixed results. Let’s face it, Hawkeye is never going to be anyone’s favorite Avenger. I think even he acknowledges this in a moment that almost breaks down the fourth wall (“None of this makes sense. I’m fighting with a bow and arrow.”). Hawkeye’s personal life is given a spotlight and it sets up an obvious worry that he’s going to bite it by film’s end. If there was an expendable member of this team, it would have to be Hawkeye. The added attention and personal attachments seem like a dead giveaway that he’s going to be dead. I don’t think I was any more invested in his character knowing about his hidden life outside the Avengers, but I certainly played a game of, “Is this gonna be it?” as the film continued. Black Widow started as an interesting character, a spy trying to make amends for her bloody past, or the “red in [her] ledger,” as they referred in the previous film. Her budding romance with Banner makes some sense but it still feels like the character is being forced into Romantic mode not because of her character but mostly because she has a vagina. Any romance with a guy who turns green and monstrous seems like it might be best as unrequited. She’s also defined by a past trauma that, while upsetting and cruel, is also a bit too tied into her identity as Woman/Mother. It’s an unfortunate positioning for what is an inherently interesting character (the slut shaming of the character in promotional interviews by certain Avengers cast members is also highly unfortunate). Can’t we get a Black Widow movie yet, Marvel?
An aspect of Age of Ultron I did enjoy was how conscious the heroes are about mitigating collateral damage and especially human casualties. At every turn, the Avengers are thinking about saving those caught in the cross-hairs first. They go out of their way to save those left behind. I think, and I’m not alone in this conclusion, that Whedon is directly responding to the disaster porn that was Zack Snyder’s miserly Man of Steel. The latest Superman movie bothered me with how callous it was with human life, treating devastating city-wide 9/11-style destruction as mere entertainment. As Superman and Zod were colliding through every damn building in Metropolis, you knew thousands if not millions of unseen people were perishing in this rather pointless melee. Whedon’s band of heroes places a priority on human life regardless of region.
It would be disingenuous of me to say Age of Ultron is not entertaining. Whedon is still a terrific storyteller and that still shines through the troubled areas and spotty plotting. The action makes good use of the various heroes and their abilities, providing fun combos like Cap hurling his super shield so Thor can redirect it further with his hammer. The use of humor was one of the bigger enjoyments of the first Avengers, and while it’s still abundant and enjoyable here as well I’d say it’s overdone. When every character is cracking quips every fourth line of dialogue, it pulls you out of the movie and the stakes feel lesser. The running joke where the Avengers make fun of Captain America for his prudish sensibilities on profanity is a joke that works at first but then loses all sense of fun as it’s pounded into the ground on repetition. The larger set pieces each have their moments to delight, especially the opening and the Hulk vs. Iron Man battle. Age of Ultron isn’t a bad movie and it has some truly great moments and great character moments and payoffs, but it’s only moments. The plot meant to connect the dots is too labored with the burden of setting up several Marvel franchises. In the MCU pecking order, I’d place Age of Ultron right around Iron Man 2 quality (another movie compromised by the extra burden of setting up other movies, namely The Avengers).
It’s sure to set box-office records and I imagine fans of the original will happily lap up another super team-up, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is something of a disappointment for me. The more I think about it the fun parts become a little duller and I find more areas of criticism. It’s just not as fun a movie experience, and that’s due to the rushed and muddled story and too many characters. After the critical and commercial success of the first film, I doubt that Whedon could have produced a film that would live up to the sky-high expectations, but that doesn’t excuse the finished product. It feels like Whedon had to struggle to pull this one off, especially with the added demands, and I can’t blame him for wanting a break from the MCU. The Russo brothers who so dazzled audiences with their direction of Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be stepping in to direct the next Avengers sequel(s). I hope they’re up to the task because the burden of carrying a billion-dollar franchise with its tendrils connected to other franchises appears to have been overwhelming for one of the greatest storytellers of a generation. Enjoy Age of Ultron but be wary of what the future holds for the larger MCU.
Nate’s Grade: B-
When Danish film director Lars von Trier said he wanted his next movie to be “porn” he wasn’t kidding. The controversial filmmaker wanted to explore the world of a woman addicted to sex, following her history of varied experiences over the course of two movies/volumes. Actors lined up for the notoriously demanding filmmaker. During the sex scenes, computer effects magic married the actors’ faces and upper bodies with the lower parts of porn stars. Upper half, Charlotte Gainsbourg, lower half, some pornographic double, all spliced together into one onscreen human being. Think about that little special effects ground-breaker, putting Hollywood faces into hardcore sex scenes. Knowing von Trier’s pessimistic tendencies, and his penchant for heaping abuse upon his female leads to the point of uncomfortable exploitation, you may rightly cringe about the prospect of a von Trier “erotic” movie. That’s the funny thing about Nymphomaniac; it’s all about sex, sometimes graphically so, but it’s never erotic. It’s an intriguing, sometimes maddening look at human sexuality and our inhibitions and frailties, until a horrible ending spoils it. In the end, von Trier just couldn’t help himself.
The story boils down to this: Joe (Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as the younger version) is found beaten and unconscious in an alley. The kindly, monk-like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, brings her back to his home, and tends to her wounds. Joe says she brought all of her pain upon herself. Seligman finds this hard to believe. She uncorks a lengthy series of tales about her sexual awakening and desires.
In many ways, Lars von Trier is the best and worst candidate to present a four-hour opus on the life and times of an avowed nymphomaniac. The man approaches the idea of sex addiction in practically the most clinical way possible while still being cinematic. You can practically envision Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier, countering Joe’s sense of shame with a broader, scientific perspective. Really, this is the tale of a woman spilling her guts about all her dirty little secrets and a man nodding along, asking questions, and dismissing her self-loathing with his reason and empathy. It’s sort of like being inside a therapist’s office. I can’t say whether or not I find all the analogous asides to be interesting or simply insufferable pretension. While Joe is detailing her behavior, Seligman will stop her and provide further context, often bringing in such subjects as fly fishing, the mating habits of fish, the Fibonacci sequence, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical music. It’s almost absurd how encouraging Seligman is, dismissing every action of Joe’s sordid past through an example. After a while, it almost becomes a humorous game all its own, as we know Seligman will use every story as a stepping off point to some weird outside connection. Every item in Seligman’s bare bedroom inspires a story from Joe, which leads to a suspicion that she is something of a salacious Keyser Soze, piecing together her story on the spot; some of the coincidences with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) seems just a bit too much. Seligman’s enlightened and intellectual asides force the audience to consider deeper meaning with Joe’s actions. Is she irredeemable, does she have control over what she’s doing, is she doing anything even bad? Over the four hours of psychological examination, the doctor is out. Nymphomaniac, especially in Volume Two, is the best film yet on sex addiction. It doesn’t demonize the behavior, it doesn’t treat it as sensationalistic, and it doesn’t overtly judge its lead characters and the choices they make, nor does it spare them the devastating consequences.
The graphic nature of the film is getting all the headlines but Nymphomaniac treats its heroine as an addict trying to get a hold of herself. We begin with young Joe innocently discovering her sexuality, especially discovering the pull she can have over an almost endless parade of weak-willed men who will follow her every whim. If that was the only plot, then there would be little separating von Trier’s film from any late-night cable erotic series (“Oh, let me tell you the time I met this man and we did this…” –Repeat). Over the two movies, we get a stronger sense of how utterly trapped she is by her urges, by her addiction. When she’s dealing with the undignified death of her father, Joe finds whatever solace she can with a willing bedmate. She places herself in precarious situations chasing after that orgiastic high, which disappears at the conclusion of Volume One. The cliffhanger separating the two volumes is that Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure, which is rather problematic for a nymphomaniac. And so in Volume Two, Joe desperately searches for a means to get her groove back, at one point abandoning her own child so that she can pursue her kink. Joe goes to counseling, joins a sex addict group (she bristles at the term and prefers “nymphomaniac”), and tries to detox, at one point removing everything vaguely sexual from her apartment, including anything knob-shaped.
The film is structured as a series of vignettes and anecdotes, broken up with von Trier’s tried-and-true onscreen chapter system. As expected for a film based around anecdotes, some stories are more interesting or revealing or simply entertaining than others. The stories are a little more whimsical in Volume One but by the time we get to Volume Two, they become more punishing and sad. It’s one thing to bet your promiscuous gal pal who will have sex with the most people on one train ride home, or on a prank to stick a restaurants dining utensil up your vagina, but it’s another when an adult woman, night after night, leaves her toddler at home so she MAY have the opportunity to have her behind whipped. The young Joe stories are easier to shake off as youthful experimentation and thrill seeking, which Seligman rationalizes as well. However, they set up just exactly the path that the adult Joe was destined for. The tales in Volume Two have to ratchet up the stakes, given Joe’s absent mojo, so what was once titillating can become downright disturbing. von Trier’s four hours offer plenty of feel-bad feel-good opportunities along the human sexuality sphere. Adult Joe thinks introducing a language barrier could be enticing, so she asks an African immigrant if he’ll have sex with her. He agrees, but brings his brother along. The two men bicker in a different language, while Joe sits there, head slumped against her hand, comically waiting for these two naked men, their penises wagging in the foreground of the camera, to get to business. It’s quite a funny and ludicrous turn of events.
One story in Volume One stands out for its raw emotional power. Joe has a whole schedule of lovers visiting her door. Well one such older man wanted to have Joe all to himself but her price was high: he had to leave his wife, “Mrs. H.” Surprise, he does, and Joe is already uncertain if this new arrangement is what she wanted; her offer was better in the theoretical sense that he would never cross that line. Well the misses (played with chomping disgust by Uma Thurman) comes for a visit and she brings her kids along. She wants her children to see what their daddy traded them away for. At first, the wife acts civil with some stinging passive-aggression, but the uncomfortable incident is dragged out, and the emotions reach a fever pitch, with crying all around. It’s so uncomfortable, so potent, and so memorable, forcing Joe, and the audience, to think of the ripples of consequences from simple sexual dalliances. While Joe is having her fun, unbeknownst to her, there are far-ranging consequences that she, and by extension the audience, choose to ignore because all those pesky details would get in the way of our fun.
The most troublesome storyline is also one of the longest, with Joe having her backside swatted by a no-nonsense sadist played by Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge). This guy insists there will be no penetration and his rules are to be followed strictly. It starts out intriguing to get a sense of who this guy is and what his practices will be. Joe has to sit with other women between the hours of 2-4 AM, and maybe she’ll get picked. Night after night, she goes through this setup, so desperate to feel the spark of desire again. This situation feels like it goes on forever. There is no easy climax. Rather it sets up the darker turn for Joe’s character, as she gives up being a mother and a wife. To make ends meet she becomes a debt collector, using her knowledge of men, particularly heir weaknesses, to coax them back into paying. There’s one disarming moment when she takes great pity on a pedophile that will surprise you, and it’s the only incident that causes Seligman to disapprove. Her boss (Willem Dafoe) advises her to think of an eventual replacement she can groom, and his method is singling out a young girl with no support, becoming her world, and slowly manipulating her to do your every wish. In a von Trier film, that is what a retirement 401k package looks like. This whole storyline, including her young mark (Mia Goth) romantically falling for her would-be maternal figure, just feels misplaced, like von Trier doesn’t know how to bring his four-hour opus to a close.
That’s because he doesn’t! This paragraph is going to delve into the conclusion of Nymphomaniac, so be warned that there will be major spoilers being discussed. If you wish to remain pure, skip to the next paragraph. During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. And there’s truth to what he says, namely that the world judges Joe far more harshly for her actions because she happens to be a woman committing them. If a man was performing the same stunts, or left his family, he would not be seen as damningly. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.
It’s a shame because Gainsbourg gives a terrific performance as the older Joe. The actress is no stranger to von Trier and his sadomasochist ways, having also starred in Antichrist and Melancholia. You get a sense of her character’s desperation, the thrills of her youth now gone. She’s also grappling with her own fallibility, the anger that comes from that, her antipathy with others, and the regrets and jealousy that penetrate her hard exterior (no pun intended). She’s trying to act above society, an operator who plays by a different set of rules, but it’s fascinating when the emotions reveal themselves from the sensations. And Gainsbourg puts all of herself into this role, submitting to her character’s many mental and physical tortures. Even if she has a body double pasted in, it’s still representational of her and Joe. Gainsbourg manages to draw us in, not wanting our sympathy but eventually earning it. Martin, as young Joe, gets just as much screen time as Gainsbourg, but there’s a vacancy there to her acting, a certain passivity that makes young Joe feel more like a spectator than a participant in her life. Skarsgard (Thor: the Dark World) is an appealing foil for Joe, almost comical in how accepting he is and how excited he can get with his digressive connections. The only other actor of note in the large ensemble is LaBeouf (Transformers) who affects a strange accent but sticks with it. We’ll see if his self-imposed exile from Hollywood and acting sticks as well.
I’ve spent this entire review talking about everything else rather than detailing the nature of the graphic sex, the point that earned Nymphomaniac much of its curiosity with the general public. That’s because the explicit nature of the sex is inconsequential. I understand that that may sound odd for a movie literally called Nymphomaniac, but that’s because von Trier’s movie is less interested in the salacious and tawdry acts and more about deconstructing a life lived and the increasingly fraught rationale for her choices. Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, the graphic sex is the headliner, and it is occasionally graphic and unsimulated, with more than a few vaginal close-ups. The sex is incidental, a symptom of the human condition, and von Trier’s less-than-sensational look at such a sensational topic grounds the movie intellectually. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is posing questions, pushing his audience to question our own views on sexuality and concepts of normalcy and what is and isn’t in good taste. We’re prurient creatures lapping up all the dirty details and copious amounts of nudity, but the introspection is what sticks, and it’s an incisive character study that opens up in many beguiling, illuminating, and surprisingly relatable ways…. Until the end. There’s no way to account for Nymphomaniac and just forget the ending. Four hours and for what? I cannot fathom what von Trier was going for rather than a return to his M.O. of humanity resorting to casual cruelty. If you can bear it, Nymphomaniac is a fitfully entertaining film, provocative to the end, and then it all slips away thanks to cinema’s worst practical joker.
Volume 1: B-
Volume 2: C+
The Ending: F
Nate’s Grade Overall: B
Loosely based off the Norse mythology, Marvel’s hammer-wielding hero isn’t exactly the easiest character to relate to even as a superhero. Thor is a god after all. Not to be outdone, the man is also royalty, next in line to be king, so he’s in a special class of privilege. And yet 2011’s Thor was a pleasant surprise, a superhero movie that didn’t take itself too seriously, had modest aims, and embraced its sci-fi fantasy mélange. It was a movie where the sillier it got the better it worked. Now Thor: The Dark World, a.k.a. Thor 2, is ready to dominate the fall box-office and prove that Joe and Jane Popcorn can cheer for a pagan god.
Following the events of The Avengers, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is taken back to his home world of Asgard and put in prison. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is trying to get back to Earth to reunite with his love, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor is being groomed for the throne of Asgard by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile, the nine worlds are nearing a convergence and dimensional gateways are opening, including one that infects Jane with an ancient biological weapon, the aether. The aether was used as a weapon by the dark elves, a race of creatures that was long ago defeated but its general, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), has been dormant and in hiding. Alterted, he assembles his surviving army to attack Asgard, kidnap Jane Foster, retrieve the aether, and destroy all life in the universe.
Thor is still a second tier character when it comes to Marvel superheroes (the guy just isn’t that interesting) but his franchise has, in only two starring films, become the most interesting. The scope of the Thor movies seems infinite. Whereas the other Marvel heroes are Earthbound and straightforward, Thor transports an audience to all sorts of alien worlds/cultures/conflicts, all of which open up more tantalizing storytelling avenues. Nothing seems out of place in a setting such as this, and so the surprises are more satisfying. I thought the best parts of 2011’s Thor were the Asgard moments, less the strained fish-out-of-water comedy of Thor assimilating on Earth. Thankfully, almost all of Thor 2 takes place off Earth save for a rousing, creative, inter-dimensional hopscotch of a climax. The realm of Asgard is given suitable scope thanks to the screenwriters and first-time feature film director Alan Taylor, who worked in TV for years. Taylor’s notable work on HBO’s Game of Thrones is probably what got him this gig, and his vision with fantasy is given significant breadth here. The Thor universe is an interesting mix of fantasy and sci-fi, reminiscent of Star Wars, and Taylor provides the necessary sweeping visuals, exciting action, and glorious shirtless close-ups we come to expect from our fantasy vistas. I was consistently impressed with Taylor’s command of visuals and shot selection, particularly how the man was able to juggle the various tones and needs of the script while still keeping an exposition-heavy film fun and light.
With rainbow bridges, dark elves, and enchanted hammers, thank goodness that Thor 2 keeps a steady and welcome sense of humor, never getting too serious even with the end of existence on the line. This jovial tone is refreshing when properly executed and contributes to the overall fun of the picture. We’ve had such sturm und drang when it comes to our superhero movies, particularly last summer’s Man of Steel misfire. I appreciate a dark and gloomy superhero tale like Nolan’s Batman films, or a satirical swipe like the original Kick-Ass, but we need stories that fit with their tone. When it comes to Thor, he’s still saving the world, rescuing his damsel, but the attitude, while on its face regal and serious, is anything but. The Thor movies accept the absurdities of its setting and just shrugs, plowing along. And now with Jane on Asgard, the fish-out-of-water comedy gets a different perspective. She gets to meet Thor’s parents (awkward) and an Asgardian who has a thing for the hunky Norseman (double awkward… I’ll stop the 90s catch phrases now). Thor 2 also gives Jane Foster much more to do, placing her front and center as a person integral to the stability of the universe. During the snazzy climax, she gets to run around and contribute in a meaningful manner. The there’s the plucky Kat Dennings (TV’s 2 Broke Girls) who gets to rattle off one-liners like a pro, many of them grounding the elevated levels of silliness. Much of the humor comes from the cocksure characters and their quips, particularly Loki.
And that’s as good as any place to interject my notion that Thor isn’t truly the main character in this film, despite what the title preceding the colon may lead you to believe. That honor goes to Loki, the greatest villain in any modern Marvel movie by far. He’s got the clearest arc in the movie, going through arguably the most personal pain, coming to a crossroads, and his conclusion certainly sets up sizable ramifications down the road for the presumptive Thor 3. Played by Hiddleston (War Horse), the character draws you in, even when he’s throwing his self-aggrandized temper tantrums you want to spend more time with him. He’s far and away the most developed and interesting character onscreen, and Hiddleston has such a gleeful malevolence to him that makes the character all the more electric and unpredictable. Thor 2 is really the story of Loki coming to terms with his life’s choices, the choices his adopted parents made, his sense of self and birthright, and moving forward, becoming his own man again. This is why Thor 2 ascends another entertainment rung by tying Loki into the main story, forcing him and Thor to work together against a common enemy.
In a film dominated by a charismatic Loki, it’s no wonder that Thor 2’s real bad guy falls woefully short. Malekith is a confusing and altogether lackluster antagonist in every conceivable way. He has no personality to him; he’s simple-minded with the goal of eradicating the universe. I don’t know about you, but my bad guys better have a pretty good reason for destroying the universe since they kinda live there too. This is one of the lazier villain plot devices because it has no nuance, no shading. Apparently before there was a universe there were dark elves. I don’t want to get caught in a chicken-egg paradox here, but was there a universe before the universe, cause I look at the universe like existence’s garage. The cars inside may change but the garage was standing before it all. Anyway, Malekith wants to destroy all life because he wants to, because certainly you’d think there would be enough space in space. He’s not even that threatening or given any particular advantage beyond some firepower. It’s no wonder that Loki runs circles around this chump in the villain department. Eccleston (Unfinished Song) is not at fault. The heavy makeup he’s under smothers the actor’s ability to polish this terrible character.
The rest of the acting fares better. At this point, we know what we’re getting with Hemsworth (Snow White and the Huntsman) as the title character. He’s a sturdy leading man with just enough appeal to satisfy, though part of it is that Thor is just dull as a hero. He was more entertaining when he was cocky and irresponsible. Portman (Black Swan) holds her own though the romance between her and Thor feels more forced. Hopkins (Red 2) strikes the right mix between regal and camp. While their roles aren’t exactly integral, it’s nice having a superhero movie stuffed with great actors like Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Clive Russell, and there’s even an amusing appearance by Chris O’Dowd, who effortlessly oozes charm (take note, Thor).
This a superhero movie that separates itself by its sheer sense of fun. Thor: The Dark World takes what worked in the previous movie and provides more of it. The campy, silly Asgard stuff is given even more time, the mischievous sense of humor is renewed, the fantasy worlds given more depth and better action/effects, and fan favorite Loki gets a big starring role this time with extra brotherly bickering. It’s not the best superhero movie, nor is it the best Marvel film of recent years, but Thor 2 knows what kind of movie it wishes to be and how to best achieve this. It’s a loopy, droll, and rather imaginative big-budget superhero film, while still finding ways to be somewhat generic with its overall plotting and character turns. While the action is suitably epic, it’s the character interactions that are the most enjoyable aspect. It seems excessively lazy to say that if you enjoyed the first Thor, you’ll probably enjoy the second one as well, but there it is. Perhaps next time the storyline won’t be as convoluted and we can get even more Loki. Barring that, I’ll accept additional Chris O’Dowd screen time.
Nate’s Grade: B
For the past four years, Marvel has been seeding its all-star super hero collective in the storylines of its summer blockbusters. And with six super heroes, The Avengers carries some super expectations. The creative mind behind the film is none other than Joss Whedon, best known for creating and shepherding cult TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. Not exactly the first name you’d think Marvel would assemble to front a $200 million movie. For geeks, Whedon has become a reliable standard of quality (the patchy TV show Dollhouse notwithstanding). Here is a man who can marry big ideas with sharp characterization and delightfully skewed dialogue. In Whedon, geek nation has a savior, and Marvel knew this. The Avengers is 142 minutes of geek arousal stretched to orgasmic heights.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the agency S.H.I.E.L.D., has a dire need for Earth’s mightiest heroes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has traveled through a portal and plans on conquering Earth thanks to an approaching alien army. Fury has tasked Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) a.k.a. Iron Man, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a.k.a. Captain America, and special agent Natasha “Black Widow” Romanof (Scarlett Johansson) with stopping Loki and rescuing one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own agents, the skilled marksman Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner), who is under Loki’s devious mind control. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), would like to cite jurisdiction and bring his wicked brother back to his home world. The only person who may be able to locate Loki’s path is Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a guy with his own anger issues. With this many egos, it’s bound to get dicey. As Banner puts it, “We’re not a team. We’re a time bomb.” Can they put aside their differences to unite to save the Earth? Does a Hulk smash?
Whedon, the king of clever genre deconstruction last seen in the excellent meta-horror film Cabin in the Woods, plays it relatively straight, giving his big, effects-driven film a straight-laced sense of sincerity. It’s not making fun of these sort of big-budget, effects-driven smash-em-ups, it just wants to deliver the biggest smash-em-up yet. To that end, The Avengers achieves maximum smashitude (trademark pending). By its rousing finish, the movie has become so massively entertaining that you forget the draggy first half. The scope of this thing is just massive. The last thirty minutes is solid action across miles of crumbling, just-asking-to-be-exploded city landscape. But the trick that Whedon pulls off is how to orchestrate action on a monumental scale without losing sight of scale, pacing, and character. You’d think with a full deck of superheroes that somebody would be shortchanged when it came time for the rough and tumble stuff. Not so. Instead of fighting one another, the prospective Avengers work together in all sorts of combinations. The characters are well integrated into the fracas, making particular use of their abilities, and finding new locations of focus every few minutes. This expert hero shuffling keeps things feeling fresh amidst the constant din of chaos.
In fact, the movie finds time to give every hero his or her due, finding a small moment to reveal some characterization. I thought Whedon’s biggest challenge was going to be the juggling act of balancing so many heroes and so much screen time, but the man found a way, like he regularly does, to squeeze in character with ensemble action. The Hulk fares the best. After two movies, it feels like Whedon has finally nailed the character; granted, this success may be credited to the fact that Bruce Banner (all hail Ruffalo) is kept as a supporting character. The struggle of the character being likened to a recovering addict is a smart way to present the character without getting too morose (I enjoyed the revelation that the “Hulk” half prevented Banner from killing himself). When he’s told his mission is to smash, you can feel the exuberant joy of an unleashed Hulk id. The Hulk had two great audience-applause moments that made my theater go berserk. I also really liked the attention given to Black Widow and her lonely back-story. Hawkeye was a complete badass, though he only gets to do fun stuff in the madcap finale. The trouble with the hero team-up franchises is that not everyone’s on the same level of power. Thor is a god for crying out loud, Iron Man has super weapons, Hulk is Hulk, Captain America at least has superhuman strength but what do Hawkeye and Black Widow bring to the team? When you’re competing with all that power, being good with guns or a bow seems pretty puny. And with Hawkeye, there’s going to be a limit to his effectiveness unless he has a magic bag of replenishing arrows. Still, Whedon finds ways to make the heroes badass and humane in equal measure, and surprisingly funny, which is welcomed.
It’s hard to believe that Whedon had only directed one feature film before (2005’s Serenity, based upon Whedon’s canceled Firefly show) being given the keys to the Marvel universe. He’s directed several TV episodes of his signature shows but the man has never produced anything on this scale before. Given a gigantic canvas, Whedon delivers the goods. His action sequences are rollicking and fun and, best of all, shot and edited in a fashion where you can understand what is happening (take some notes, Hunger Games franchise). The action is well choreographed and elevated with organic complications and particular attention paid to location, like the Nicky Fury airship. Whedon is a master of the plot payoff, setting up his elements and then piloting the narrative to satisfying conclusions and integrations (Cabin in the Woods is also a pristine example of this gift). If you’re going to introduce an airship, you better believe that sucker is going to threaten to crash. I’m glad that Loki was brought back as he was the best Marvel big screen baddie yet, though I’m disappointed they essentially put him on ice for an hour.
The technical elements are ably polished even for this kind of film. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) is terrific, utilizing bright color in a way that the visuals pop. The special effects are top-notch and you just feel immersed into the action. The destruction is cataclysmic but rarely does the movie feel phony. I was impressed by the Hulk designs and the sequences in inky space with our alien adversaries. For that matter, are these aliens robots? It’s unclear whether the giant flying centipede-like ships are creatures. The 3D conversion is one of the better outings due to the fact that it doesn’t keep throwing stuff in your face. Plus, viewing Johansson’s leather-clad assets in 3D certainly has its own appeal, as does Gwyneth Paltrow in jean shorts. Hey How I Met Your Mother fans, Cobie Smulders looks practically smoldering in her S.H.I.E.L.D. agent outfit too. Okay, I swear I’m done with the female objectification.
I hesitate calling The Avengers the greatest super hero/comic book movie of all time, as the teaming hordes of Internet fanboys foaming at the mouth are wont to do. If your definition of a comic book movie is a giant sandbox with all the coolest toys, then this is your film. This is a comic book turned flesh. The Hulk and Thor fight and prove who is the strongest Marvel man, that’s got to be a geek’s wish come true. Many of the infighting sequences felt like, servicing the tastes of the fanboys, and after a while the constant hero on hero action felt tiresome. I get that we have a clash of egos going on here, but the movie suffers from a lack of narrative cohesion, by which I mean that the first hour of the movie feels like a series of guest appearances by heroes on loan. The movie doesn’t fully come together until the point where the team comes together; I doubt Whedon intended that symbiotic relationship. The movie feels more like a patchwork of standout scenes and memorable moments that a fully formed and cohesive story. If you haven’t seen the previous four Marvel movies (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America), you’ll be pretty hard-pressed to follow the story. Loki’s motivation and plan seems rather sketchy other than causing discord amongst the heroic ranks. His powers seem inconsistent and vague. Also I found the musical score by Alan Silvestri to be bland and unworthy.
The Avengers is sure to be geek nirvana for many of the comic book faithful. It’s an audience pleaser of mass scale, and I’m sure that your theater will be cheering in abundance. Whedon has pulled off the near impossible. The movie is a thoroughly entertaining, exciting, and witty popcorn spectacle of the first order. But where the movie hits the ceiling, at least for me, is that it ONLY wants to be the best super hero movie and this seems like limited ambitions. It’s like making the very best possible women in prison movie (great, but is this really all you set your sights on?). I had a great time watching Whedon’s handiwork but I wish it mined the outsized territory for bigger themes, a little more than audience-satisfying pyrotechnics, something I feel that X-Men: First Class did a better job of handling. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed The Avengers and it’s a fantastic start to the summer movie season, but by no means is it The Dark Knight or even aspiring to be, and that’s okay. Enjoy the busy escapades of Marvel’s next smash franchise. Who knows when they’ll be able to wrangle everyone together for another adventure, but judging by the sounds of ringing cash registers, the answer is sooner than we think.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Melancholia opens with a bang. Literally. Lars von Trier, film’s most polarizing and famous sadist, begins his movie with the ultimate spoiler alert, destroying the entire planet. Lars von Trier’s grandiose exploration of annihilation, both personal and species-level, can be maddening in how tedious the whole affair can become for long stretches. What’s even more maddening is that the movie flirts with being magnificent for other, regrettably smaller, stretches.
We open with the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard). Hours late, the couple arrives at their reception at the palatial estate that belongs to her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her husband, amateur astronomer John (Kiefer Sutherland). Over the course of one very late night, Justine will quit her job, sleep with a random wedding guest, alienate her family, and end her brief marriage, putting Kim Kardashian to shame. Several months later, Justine has been released from a hospital for clinical depression and is now living with Claire and John’s along with their young son, Leo. A tiny star in the sky has gotten larger over the ensuing months, and scientists have determined that this new planet is heading straight for Earth. Named Melancholia, this rogue space rock is predicted to pass by, but the calculations are getting closer and closer. Eventually, the truth is evident and Melancholia is on a cataclysmic collision course with Earth.
From a plot standpoint, the movie is completely lopsided. Melancholia opens with beautiful images that…. just…. keep…. going…. on…. and… on… set to thunderous Wagnerian overtures. It lets us know right away that von Trier is performing at an operatic level of melodrama. After this spoiler sequence, we jump back to the last months of Earth. The first hour of this movie is a boring wedding sequence that just seems to stretch for an eternity. You may wish that the rogue planet would show up and smash everyone to bits so we could get on with it. Justine and her groom are already several hours late because of the precarious route their limo had to take, so the fact that Justine takes frequent breaks and needs to be constantly retrieved can be draining. The hour of wedding blahs would be better time spent if I felt von Trier was laying the groundwork for characters. Little of the first hour seems to matter at all or has any lingering ramifications, which is bizarre considering the amount of personal nosedives Justine takes. It’s plain to see that Justine is unhappy and going through the motions, pretending to be happy for everyone’s benefit and maybe, just maybe, she can trick herself. What’s not plain to see is why we have to spend so much time on a room full of characters that will never be seen again. We learn so little about the characters, their relationships, and why any of this matters. The first half of this movie could have easily been condensed to 20 minutes. If the point was to test the audience’s patience, much like Justine does to her family, then bravo.
It’s that second hour where Melancholia flirts with the profound. The second half only concerns four principal characters. Unlike the first monotonous hour, there are events that actually matter and have substance to them, namely the encroaching obliteration of Earth. Having seen the pre-credit preview, we already know every life on the planet is doomed, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling the same pangs of anxiety as Claire discovers what we already know. Depression may be an elusive personal experience that not everybody can empathize with, especially when the depressed individual becomes overly taxing, but coming to terms with the end, not just your own, but of all of human history? That’s something every person can identify with. This confrontation of the inevitable can lead to some thoughtful soul-searching. This is an extinction event. There is no escape, unless you’re an astronaut (it’s now or never, lunar colonists).
Like most of us would be, Claire is terrified to die, to have all her loved ones die, but Justine is eerily placid. She feels that the Earth is evil and that “nobody will miss it.” To further drive von Trier’s bleak pessimism, Justine says there is no other life elsewhere in the universe. This is it, and it’ll all be over soon. “I just know,” she adds, unhelpfully. We watch Claire go through different stages of grief, fighting for some sense of closure, but von Trier will not allow any comforts. Gainsbourg was put through Trier’s typical emotional wringer in 2009’s unpleasant Antichrist, and here she’s really the entry point for the audience, and as such we sympathize the most with her since her reactions are so believable. It’s hard to feel like there’s any bond between these two sisters, which limits the impact of the end. Still, the end is fittingly devastating and makes me wish I had seen the beautiful destruction on the big screen, bathing in its apocalyptic splendor.
The dread of that final hour is extremely palpable, with the presence of Melancholia in the sky played almost like an art-house existential horror movie. At first we’re told by John that the scientists predict it will fly-by at roughly 60,000 miles per hour, but slowly the realization becomes clear that Melancholia is coming back with a vengeance. There’s a terrific plot point where John introduces a way to judge the planet’s movement. A wire circle is held out at arm’s reach, designed to trace around the perimeter of Melancholia. Then five minutes later the wire ring goes back up and, voila, the rogue planet has shrunken in size or gained. It’s a smart device that helps establish the momentum of doom, and it’s practical enough for the characters to perform. As Melancholia comes closer to collision, it gives off an unnerving blue glow. I started joking with my friend Alan that the movie was going to descend into a slasher-style stalker movie, with Melancholia chasing to get you like a spurned and dangerous lover (“We’ve traced the phone call. The planet is calling from inside the house!”). These attempts at levity are inevitable when the subject matter is so depressing and the nature of von Trier’s film lends itself to operatic pomposity.
von Trier’s film is quite a departure from the most disaster cinema, but sometimes its Big Statements can seem inartful and obvious. The very idea that the planet of doom in this dance of death is called Melancholia… come on. Maybe this whole thing would have been avoided had those egghead astronomers had given this rogue planet a happier name (My suggestion: “Doug.”). The metaphorical connection to Justine’s own melancholy is just inane. The planet is but a tiny speck in the sky at her wedding, and Justine is desperately trying to hold it together, and then in the second half the planet is much bigger and, surprise, so is Justine’s melancholy.
I found it hard to care about Justine and her personal demons. Depression and mental illness can be exasperating conditions, but that doesn’t mean I sympathized with her any more than the other seven billion souls destined to be incinerated. Her rejection of niceties can seem cold when all her sister wants to do is find some level of reassurance before the end is near. Dunst (Marie Antoinette) won an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance, and it’s hard for me to see why. It’s a darker, somber, more serious role for the actress, but looking tired, sullen, and impassive doesn’t come across as a fully rendered performance, more of a bad mood swing. My feelings are likely tempered by the fact that I found her character to be unbearable and agonizingly opaque
Melancholia is half of a great movie, but only half. The movie can feel a little too isolated, a little too leisurely paced, a little too pretentious. The beginning wedding sequence is like a minor endurance test, but rewards await those who carry on to the bitter end. This uneven art-house disaster movie has stunning imagery, numbing dread, and an apocalyptic grandeur, the likes of which could only come from the perverse mind of Lars von Trier. It’s beautiful and lyrical in its best moments, a cold, surrealist nightmare. The boldness of von Trier’s vision is inescapable, but I only wished he had fashioned a better story and sharper characters for his experiment in nihilism. If we’re going to spend the last few hours on Earth, I’d rather it be with people I gave a damn about.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Nothing says holiday treat for the whole family like a nearly three-hour movie about rape. Late author Stieg Larsson’s best-selling trilogy made three very successful Swedish films, all released last year in indie theaters. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood optioned The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, benefiting those averse to reading subtitles. At least they hired the right director in David Fincher, a man used to plumbing the depths of human depravity in films like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac. Fincher’s take is pretty dark and hardcore, but once you wash all that perfectionist grime off, I prefer the Swedish film in just about every way.
Crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is smarting from a court case that found him guilty of libel. He’s commissioned by a wealthy businessman Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his granddaughter, Harriet. Henrik strongly believes she was murdered by one of the sinister members of his extended family, a group of shady characters with some allegiance to Nazism. Mikael is assisted by the unorthodox computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a rail-thin Gothic gal clad in tattoos and piercings. Their partnership sometimes gets blurry as they grow closer over the course of the investigation. Together the pair investigates a series of grisly, ritualistic murders related to Harriet’s disappearance, and the closer they get to discover the truth the more dangerous things get.
So the burning question: is Fincher’s take better than the original Swedish version? Well, in some areas yes but in many areas I’d have to say no, that I prefer the lower budget, no-name Swedish version. Obviously a director of Fincher’s caliber is going to significantly raise the quality of a production, and the technical merits of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo are without question. This is a seedy, grimy, prurient, and very dark (in both lighting and thematic material) little movie. There’s always been an eerie beauty to Fincher’s cool aesthetics, and it’s on display here as well. Many of Fincher’s Social Network crew carried right over to Dragon Tattoo, so the editing is crisp, the cinematography sleek, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is a storm of ominous tones. Their plaintive score is actually a fairly unmemorable muddle, never approaching the energy, intricacy, or diversity of their Oscar-winning score for The Social Network. However, the extra polish and the glut of familiar actors takes away from the intrigue of the movie. When something meant to be gritty is too artistically stunning, it detracts from the thematic intent of the story. That sounds like a contrary way to insult Fincher for making his movie look too good, but perhaps that’s the best way of stating the point. Niels Arden Oplev is nowhere near the filmmaker that Fincher is, nor did he have the budget or creative freedom afforded Fincher, but perhaps someone of lesser talents was better suited to best tell this tale. By all means, the American Dragon Tattoo is a more visually alluring film, but Oplev’s film is more fully felt. I recently rewatched the Swedish version again for points of comparison and found myself much more involved in the characters, the story, and the actors, even though I had already seen the movie. Fincher’s version may be the better-looking movie, but surprisingly Oplev’s is just the better movie, period.
The adaptation by Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List) actually hews closer to Larsson’s book than the Swedish film, though Zallian redirects the film into a new ending. But the additions don’t seem to add anything of substance to the narrative (Blomkvist’s teenage daughter; dead cat), and the new ending feels more confused than helpful. Most of all, Zallian’s script devotes less time to the characters of Lisbeth and Blomkvist. I had a better understanding of these characters and their complicated, shifting relationship in the Swedish film. That narrative was much cleaner with helpful, clarifying procedural details and a dose of ambiguity. Simply put, the story just flowed better in the Swedish film. The personal connection Blomkvist had to Harriet (she was his babysitter long ago) has also been severed. Many of the story’s problems are still the same regardless of language or adapter. There is a clear disparity when it comes to audience interest in the two leads. What’s more interesting, a punky, bisexual, computer hacker or a disgraced, somewhat bland journalist? Exactly. Also, the story takes far too long to put our lead characters together, over an hour at that. The murder mystery is filled with murky plot points, pieces that seem like they might be integral but then turn out to be incidental. It takes a good while to process and familiarize oneself with the expository details of the case, but under Zallian’s draft, the mystery is given less room to breath. For a movie clocking in at 150 minutes, things feel untidy and rushed. The resolution feels drawn out to ungodly Lord of the Rings-lengths; I swear there must be a solid 20 minutes after the eventual serial killer is dealt with. It just feels like it goes on forever. Still, the characters are what ultimately makes Dragon Tattoo engaging, and Zallian’s efforts cannot dampen the captivating, curious nature of Lisbeth Salander.
Both Craig and Mara give fine performances but I prefer both Swedish actors to the A-listers. Craig is certainly a better actor than his Swedish counterpart, but the role is a middle-aged journalist and not James Bond, and thus a better fit for the unknown Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist (Mission: impossible: Ghosts Protocol). Blomkvist isn’t supposed to be an ass-kicker. As a result, you don’t feel his terror as he gets in deeper and lands in serious physical jeopardy. Likewise, following in Noomi Rapace’s (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) shoes was going to be a difficult feat for any actress, but Fincher got the girl he wanted, Mara, who tore down Mark Zuckerberg with precision in The Social Network. Mara commits herself completely to the role and undergoes a severe physical transformation (bleached eyebrows, wiry frame, nipple piercings), but she lacks the intensity of Rapace, the spiteful attitude, the recklessness and the resourcefulness. Rapace felt like a caged animal that could explode at any moment; Mara feels more like a lost puppy. I’m being intentionally cavalier with my word choice. Mara is quite good as Lisbeth; it’s just that Mara can’t quite measure up to the preceding tattooed girl. It feels like there’s a lot more going on with the Swedish Salander, whereas the American (still Swedish) Salander is waiting for her cue. It’s like Mara has dressed the part and waits for the character to just click over.
I’m not one for lazy analysis, but I feel like the uncomfortable issue of sexual violence/ voyeurism needs to be addressed, and I find that everything I wrote a year ago in my original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review could readily apply to its Hollywood counterpart. So here goes: “The book’s original title was ‘Men Who Hate Women’ and that seems apt given what occurs on screen. Sure there’s a serial murderer on the loose but that’s par for the course. Even the grisly ritualistic killing stuff. But Lisbeth encounters a lot of malice and hostile male aggression, some of it very sickening. There’s a startlingly extended rape sequence, followed by some sadistic, if justifiable, revenge. It all contributes to an overall tone of queasy misogyny that seems to waver between intentional and unintentional. I’m not sure tone-wise whether the movie ever creeps into unsettling voyeurism at the behest of women in explicit sexual peril, but it certainly is a distraction. It can get pretty hard to watch at times in this disturbing thriller. I hope the eventual sequels don’t follow this same queasy, upsetting tone but I also worry that this may be unfortunately part of the books/movies’ appeal.”
For those new to Lisbeth and Larsson’s sordid saga, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will more than likely play well, a squalid thriller with the nicest coat of gloss you could ever hope for given the material. This is dark, rape-heavy stuff, and an odd adult drama to position as a Christmas release, but the collective appeal of the best-selling books should guarantee so many butts in the seats. It’s likely a safe bet that a high majority of those paying customers are unfamiliar with the Swedish version of the same story, which is a shame because, short of a few technical advances, I believe the Swedish film to be the superior movie. It had better acting, more appropriate casting, a rounder narrative that fleshed out the characters, their relationships, and their histories better, and a better score (sorry Trent, better luck next time). It’s still a movie that registers a “good” on most critical accounts, and Lisbeth Salander is still a fascinating person, a wounded warrior that catches the imagination. I’ll be curious to see if the subtitle-free Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does well enough at the box-office to warrant filming the next two decidedly lesser books. Whatever the case, there will always be the Swedish films and Ms. Rapace’s star-making performance.
Nate’s Grade: B
Mamma mia here we go again. This movie is going to be a middle-aged woman’s dream come true. It boasts a cast whose median age is in the mid 50s, one former yet still dashing James Bond, lots of good vibration getaway vibes, songs by a pop group whose heyday was over 30 years ago, and a heaping helping of girl power. In short, Mamma Mia will entertain the same mixture that made Sex and the City a monster hit, notably middle-aged women, teen girls, and gay males. I’ve seen the stage show and enjoyed it, as have millions of others around the world, but the movie fails to capitalize on reaching a broader audience. Mamma Mia is content to serve the faithful and delivers a less than satisfactory product. The world of cinema is not the best place for this material.
Raised all her life on a Greek island in a Mediterranean paradise, Sophie (Big Love‘s Amanda Seyfried) is getting married. Her disapproving mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), runs a hotel and has raised her daughter by herself. Then one day Sophie goes through her mother’s diary and discovers she has three possible fathers, Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), or Sam (Pierce Brosnan). She invites all three to the island to vet her real father. In agitated response, Sophie invites her old gal pals Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) to help her during this paternity crisis. Over time old loves will be rekindled, new love will bloom, and there will be a lot of singing.
Let Mamma Mia stand as a future testament as to why you do not generally let someone helm a film when they have no film experience whatsoever. The creative talent behind the hit Broadway musical refused to grant anyone in Hollywood the rights to their worldwide sensation. So the stage director, Phyllinda Lloyd, is now also the film’s director, and oh my goodness was not the right choice. Her film inexperience shows with every second. The movie just doesn’t look right from beginning to end. There’s a noticeable “off” sensation due to Lloyd poorly shooting her scenes, editing her scenes, and directing her actors. I kept wanting, through sheer force of will, to nudge the camera angles, to change the composition a tad to make them more visually appealing, because Lloyd shoots the movie in bland static angles with minimal coverage. Mamma Mia looks so amateurish and fussily so, like Lloyd is purposefully thumbing her nose at the art of cinema. Lloyd also doesn’t bother to place any choreography in her scenes, and her actors just sort of spin and sway to the music like they were dancing in front of a bedroom mirror. It’s remarkable that a movie with so much riding on it looks so shoddy.
Presented in the reality of a stage, Mamma Mia is a shallow but fairly fun time. The movie version transports the musical into an actual Greek locale, which, to knock Lloyd yet again, she makes no real use out of (she mostly shoots her actors against rock faces and under harsh, glaring sunlight). What works on stage, when presented under the pretenses of the real world, comes across as incredibly cheesy and goofy beyond all relief (get a load of the high-stepping snorkerlers). The song and dance numbers, the character interactions, the sitcom generic plot (ripped off from 1968’s Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell), they all start to transform into camp and beg for mockery. All of a sudden the entire island turns into a Greek chorus and provides backup during the impromptu singing. It’s strange and comes so late that it never feels properly established. The characterization is pretty slim, and once the movie establishes its characters it pushes the petal to the floor. The plot whizzes by in a whirlwind of one Abba song after another, with minimal breaks in between just to change setting and barely elbow the characters forward. I don’t think the actors had any chance to breathe in between the song numbers because I know I could barely exhale before another song assaulted my senses with forced giddiness.
But here’s the odd thing. The film is so silly and played to constant high-energy capacity that after a while Mamma Mia begins to wear you down. You may begin to smile, you may begin to clap, but you’ll be guaranteed to start humming the incredibly infectious tunes. Mamma Mia is essentially an Abba jukebox with a third-rate story strung along for the ride. As a story, it leaves much to be desired, but as a musical experience it makes you realize how glorious those Abba songs are. They’re like perfect pop bundles that somehow make you feel better even if the lyrics are more bittersweet than you realize at the time. The 18 Abba songs showcased, along with a few others during a weird curtain call sing-a-long, will certainly lift your spirits just as long as you concentrate more on the music than on the often-forced context.
The actors are better than the material, clearly. Streep is her generation’s finest actress but she tries too hard to convince you of the great girl-power fun she’s having. The singing, on the other hand, is all over the map. Streep and Seyfried have the strongest voices of the bunch, which is good considering they also have the most musical numbers to sing and twirl to. Neither has a particularly sensational voice but then again they certainly distance themselves from their pitiful peers. Most of the other actors just have droning vocals but Brosnan, oh boy, I have to congratulate the man for having the courage he does. You feel embarrassed for the guy; I mean this is James Bond here. I found myself turning away whenever he opened his mouth, not wanting to look the man in the eye. Every time he started singing my theater crowd of Mamma Mia faithful began snickering and giggling. I almost feel so bad that I should send the guy a card saying, “Sorry about the singing, but hey, you’ll always have the paycheck.”
The real audience for a Mamma Mia movie is the fans of the Mamma Mia theatrical show, and the movie is tailored to their interests. The big screen version isn’t interested in converting new fans, hence the amateurish direction and disregard for reaching out for broader appeal. Mamma Mia the movie is pretty much a less zippy and ten times goofier version of the stage show except with bad singing. If that sounds like a fun evening out, then by all means enjoy. This is a mess of a movie and not a terribly good movie at that, and yet the power of those Abba songs will inject enough goodwill that you will forgive some of the movie’s transgressions. Some. Pierce Brosnan’s singing is something that cannot be forgiven nor forgotten.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Shiver me timbers Jerry Bruckheimer. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are taking no prisoners when it comes to money and fans. Ten months after 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest comes the concluding chapter to the Pirates saga. At World’s End is longer, bigger, and more expensive, but it is also the first Pirates movie that felt like a ride I wanted to get off.
The British navy, at the command of Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), is eliminating all piracy once and for all. He now controls the heart of Davey Jones (Bill Nighy) and so controls Jones and the crew of the Flying Dutchman, the most fearsome ship run by cursed barnacle-encrusted crewmen. As the very busy hangmen will attest, it’s not a friendly time to be a pirate. The Black Pearl has set out to Singapore to find support from Soa Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), one of the nine pirate lords. The Pearl is now commanded by Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) who was brought back from the dead thanks to the witchy Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris). They travel to the ends of the earth to Davy Jones’ locker to rescue Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who was last seen in the belly of a beast. Elisabeth (Keira Knightley) and Will (Orlando Bloom) are both aboard and still bickering about their stalled romance. Once Sparrow returns to the land of the living, the group meets with the other pirate lords from all across the globe in an effort to pull together and stand against Beckett.
As it turns out, the fear that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was a 150-minute trailer for this movie was unfounded. That’s because the third movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean series completely ignores or messes up the many intriguing setups from the second film. Character motivations from Dead Man’s Chest are mostly unresolved and revert to stock generalizations. Jack Sparrow feels like he’s been grafted onto an unrelated storyline. Most disappointingly is what happens to Davy Jones, the greatest addition to the Pirates landscape. This awesomely-realized villain was scary and fascinating and looked fantastic thanks to Oscar-winning special effects. At World’s End takes such an intriguing villain and turns him into an impotent tool to Beckett. He’s been transformed into a houseboy who might as well fill people’s teacups. Yes Davy Jones thankfully figures into the climax but why in the world’s end must an audience wait that long? Davy Jones reminds me a lot of the ghostly twins from 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded who were completely dropped from the second Matrix film to the third.
But not only does At World’s End fumble the hand-off from the previous sequel, the movie itself establishes many setups with poor or unsatisfying payoffs. So much is made about the pirate lords from all over the world, and we see a colorful collection of international pirating groups that is fitfully amusing, but the whole section has no point at all. Chow Yun-Fat’s character is a non-starter; in fact none of the new characters introduced in At World’s End play any importance on the overall plot. The film is building to a final all-out battle between the united pirate lords and the British navy. We witness the awesome sight of the sea filled with vast armadas of ships, and as an audience we are getting hungry for some epic nautical action. Then At World’s End pretends that none of the other ships matter and sets its entire battle as one ship versus one ship inside a whirlpool. While this is admittedly exciting it isn’t anywhere near as exciting as an entire war amongst hundreds of ships. The filmmakers have all the money in the world and they couldn’t give us a little something bigger in scope? The pirate lords could have just as easily been cut from the movie if they were just going to stand on the sidelines and wave a flag.
The pirate lords make a big deal about their apprehension with releasing the sea goddess Calysto from her earthly prison. The pirates trapped her into the body of a human in order for them to gain control of the seas. They reckon she’ll be one very bitter sea goddess and take out some apocalyptic wrath out on the pirates. So the pirates release her, cowering in fear at her powerful reprisals and,,, nothing. Calysto vanishes, causes some mildly inclement weather, and is never seen again. Talk about a lot of pointless hot air.
I think perhaps the clearest example of how the movie screws up is with the monstrous Kraken. This slimy beast got a ton of attention in Dead Man’s Chest and was a ferocious terror on the high seas. Now, I would expect that such a creature that played an integral role in Dead Man’s Chest would be back for the next sequel. Ignoring its prominence in the plot, the thing just looked amazing onscreen. But with At World’s End the giant monster is killed off screen and in between the movies. I felt insulted when I saw the mighty carcass washed ashore like a pathetic beached whale. What is satisfying about that? Why would Beckett make Davy Jones kill such a powerful weapon he could use for his own unseemly gain? It makes no sense. The Kraken isn’t the only character done a disservice by a plot stuffed to the gills. Some are killed in terribly pointless incidents and it just becomes irritating.
At World’s End is missing the high-flying fun of the first two Pirates movies, and this venture just feels draggy, tiresome, and far too dreary. You know you’re headed for some morose subject matter when a movie hangs an eight-year-old before the opening credits. This latest film is crushed to death by the weight of excess plot and confusion. There’s a damn near 20-minute section of the movie that’s nothing but characters double-crossing, triple-crossing, quadruple-crossing each other; it literally requires a character to spell out what has just taken place and set the record straight. I don’t think At World’s End ever recovers from this absurdly confusing miscue.
The film seems more interested in talking over an audience than delivering something genuinely thrilling and stirring. There’s a curious lack of action and nothing new matches the imaginative action set pieces of the previous films, like the duel atop the roving water wheel. Excluding a large melee between the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman as the climax, the action pops in and out in shortly timed bursts. For a movie within a hair or running three hours, there needed to be more action. Instead of derring-do, At World’s End spends interminable periods of people talking, usually in personal quarters, and explaining the increasingly laborious plot to each other. All of the Pirates movies are filled with false endings and heaping helpings of extra plot, but this is the first time I really felt the real drag of its running time. Director Gore Verbinski still knows how to keep things looking good but he can’t save the film from its anchor of a maddening and convoluted plot.
The movie is not without its due pleasures. Depp is always going to enchant with his now iconic character, but the true star of the film is Rush, who makes welcomed return. The special effects are still tops. The sequence rescuing Jack from the world of the dead provides many trippy moments that possess their own strange beauty, like when we watch the Black Pearl sail against the black, star-spotted sky. It’s fun seeing Keith Richards appear in cameo as Jack’s father and the stated inspiration for Depp’s performance. A small man and a large gun makes for one very funny sight gag. A Mexican standoff that actually involves an armed monkey is a comic high point. It’s just that all the fun or memorable moments seem to be the ones that matter the least. At World’s End still manages to do enough right to work, especially its Singapore opening. As far as a movie that upholds the quality of its franchise name, that’s a whole other matter.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is a somewhat entertaining but heavily flawed final film to a trilogy. It’s the darkest and trippiest of the three movies, but it also makes the least amount of sense and has the least amount of action. That doesn’t seem like a good exchange in my book. There are not enough important events to justify the bloat. At World’s End has a hardcore case of butterfingers when it comes to handling plot and character setups from earlier films, and as a result almost nothing and no one ends in a satisfying fashion. The effects are still eye-popping and Depp will always be a comic treasure, but this lackluster movie feels like tripping at the end of a marathon. I had so much hope for At World’s End after how gratifying I found the other two movies but I cannot quell my disappointment. This is not a fitting conclusion. This feels more Matrix Revolutions than Return of the King. Of course it’ll make tremendous amounts of booty at the box-office, but will demand for a fourth be as rabid after this muddled and murky capper?
Nate’s Grade: B-