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War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Matt Reeves is a director who seems to have found his true calling refashioning the work of others. He remade the Swedish film Let the Right One In and improved it in several areas, though having Richard Jenkins and Chloe Grace Mortiz and a complete lack of CGI cats certainly helps. Then he inherited the new Apes franchise with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the fledgling franchise didn’t miss a beat. I’ve been pleasantly surprised about these damn dirty apes ever since the 2011 prequel kicked things off. Reeves took control of the franchise and deepened it, following a very non-Hollywood playbook that embraced subtleties, patience, and quiet moments. It had its crazy apes action but it was a movie in service to its characters first and foremost. Reeves, serving as co-writer once more with Mark Bomback, brings the franchise to its natural and thrilling conclusion. War for the Planet of the Apes is a blockbuster with soul.

It’s been fifteen years after the outbreak of the devastating Simian Flu. Mankind is dwindling and falling victim to a secondary virus as well. There are only pockets of humans left and small militias taking the fight to the super-intelligent apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis once more in mo-cap) and his followers have taken refuge near a waterfall. The ape community is ambushed by soldiers led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). With their home exposed, Caesar splits up the remaining numbers and sends them out to find a new shelter. He is determined to seek out the Colonel for vengeance. Eventually the other apes are captured and put into a slave labor camp and Caesar and company must rescue them and flee mankind’s last gasp at staying atop the food chain.

This may be one of the bleakest blockbusters in recent memory, especially when you consider that you’ll be actively cheering for the relative extinction of mankind by the end credits. Human beings are on the brink of extinction and this has drawn out the worst fight-or-flight instincts in the remaining numbers. This is about a final fight for survival on a visceral, us versus them level, and after two movies it should be abundantly clear what direction this is all heading. Even as humankind is doing a terrific job of wiping itself off the planet, humans still present a clear threat to the remaining apes. The second film explored how a working trust was improbable and unfathomable to many on both sides of the conflict because of the injustices. That’s pretty heady for a talking ape summer blockbuster. War closes the series with an even bigger and bleaker scenario, as humanity is entering the hospice phase of its social dominance. Roger Ebert referred to the movie theater as an empathy machine, and it’s amazing how far you will empathize with non-human characters. You will feel their triumphs, setbacks, loss, and anger, and you will root for the demise of mankind. We had a good run but maybe it’s time for a different species to become the caretakers of dear Mother Earth.

This is a final film that makes allusions to some of the darkest aspects of human history including, but not limited to, slavery and the Holocaust. It doesn’t traffic in black-and-white moral absolutes. There is good in some humans, several of whom were thrown into military service unprepared, under-trained, and simply existentially lost. There are apes that have made the calculation that it’s better to work with the humans than be killed. That’s right, there are collaborationist apes, and Reeves doesn’t look down on them. They too are allowed complexity and nuance and even the possibility of redemption. No one, man or ape, is beyond the capacity for compassion. You strongly feel their shame brought from moral compromises. It’s hard not to think about real-life analogues like the Jewish police that chose to work at the behest of their Nazi oppressors. They’re all still victims.

There is great suffering and vengeance on display with War, and it’s all too easy for characters to justify it on a literal specist argument (“Apes aren’t people, and they would have done the same to you”). Caesar is trying his best to manage a fragile co-existence, though this becomes untenable with every new attack. It’s a cycle of violence that only knows recriminations and fear. This struggle is personalized for Caesar as he wrestles with his own selfish, self-destructive impulses to seek out vengeance at the potential cost of the greater good for apekind. Caesar is still haunted by the ghost of Koba (Toby Kebbel, in a welcomed albeit brief appearance), the ape he slew in the previous film. Koba could not let go of the hatred he carried for mankind for their myriad abuses. It consumed him at great cost. Caesar is battling these same impulses but is self-aware about his responsibilities as the leader of his people, but even that might not be enough to dissuade him. To have that kind of emotional conflict within a CGI animal who happens to be the protagonist in a major Hollywood production is simply remarkable.

I don’t want to scare people away. War for the Planet of the Apes is still a very entertaining and gripping movie that can easily warrant stuffing your face full of popcorn. It’s also a blockbuster with tremendous weight. At a steep 140 minutes long, I still could have used even more of this movie. Reeves displays an uncommon sense of patience for a blockbuster filmmaker given a big studio’s checkbook. A majority of this movie is silent and this doesn’t panic Reeves. The director tells his story in a visually appealing and accessible way that doesn’t scrimp on characterization and depth. For long stretches the only communication on screen is ape sign language (small quibble: the apes too often fail to look at one another when they do this). There’s a lingering hush over much of the film, allowing the audience to immerse themselves fully. When the action does heat up, the sounds and music matter more. The solemn silences, hunting parties, and tense standoffs should remind people of Westerns and prisoner-of-war movies. This is the second big-budget 2017 movie making direct Vietnam parallels concerning a man-vs-apes conflict. The prison escape structure of the second half is immediately compelling and just as well developed as what came before. The multiple points needed for an elaborate escape are presented one-by-one and organically. The mini-goals and geography are clear at all times. It leads to an all-out assault climax that is thrilling on multiple levels but also deeply satisfying because of the extensive legwork.

Serkis (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) has been the beating heart of this franchise and his work as Casaer has been a monumental achievement in the advancement of special effects (the series has never won an Oscar for its VFX). Caesar is a fully formed character with relatable flaws and doubts, and thanks to the wizards at Weta, you can see the nuances flash across his face. Serkis brings an impressive range of emotions to a non-human character that’s piercingly silent often. It’s a performance that deserves shared credit to the animators and to Serkis, who is deserving once again of awards consideration that I know will unfairly never come. Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) is definitely evoking a Colonel Kurtz homage, a man given over to the darkness. I appreciated that his character has a credible back-story that informs his actions. He’s not simply a maniacal madman. He respects Caesar and the apes, but views life as a zero-sum game, which makes genocide an appealing last-ditch option. The pleasant surprise among the cast is Steve Zahn (Captain Fantastic) who plays Bad Ape. It’s a character that seems prone to comic relief non-sequitors, but he’s scarred from his own survival experiences. This is an ape still going through PTSD and that presents even the comedic with a twinge of tragedy. The unseen actors behind their mo-cap performances breathe startling life into the numerous non-human characters, bringing unparalleled realism to this sci-fi realm.

As the conclusion to the Apes prequel trilogy, you will also experience plenty of powerful emotions. I full-on cried twice and teared up about four other separate occasions. I cannot even remember another major summer tentpole that triggered that kind of emotional response (maybe a Pixar title or two). We’ve traveled with Caesar and several of these apes for three movies and six years. We’re emotionally invested. I knew I was going to lose it if anything happened to the orangutan, Maurice (I won’t confirm his fate). The community and empathy we’ve shared with these characters for three movies comes to a gratifying conclusion that feels appropriate, sizeable, and aching with potential for further adventures in this new and exciting world.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a movie so rewarding, so engaging, that you walk away angry that other Hollywood blockbusters can’t be this good or aren’t even trying to be. It’s emotionally rich and resonant, hitting you in the heart just as often as it quickens your pulse. Because of the investment in the characters, and their ongoing progression, we genuinely care about what happens like few blockbusters. The characters don’t take a backseat to the plot mechanics. Serkis and his amazing cast of mo-cap performers have delivered performances that rival live-action actors. There are clever nods to the original series that fans will enjoy but this Apes franchise has been its own beast from the beginning. This is a thoughtful, reflective, and contemplative film that fits well for such a thoughtful and contemplative series, and yet it still knows how to deliver stupendous sci-fi action (our lives are just that much more complete having watched an ape fire dual machine guns while riding a horse). I would declare Dawn as the best action of the trilogy, but I think War is the best movie because of how much everything matters and finishes. I think once the initial dust settles, it’s time to start thinking about this new Apes trilogy place among the all-time great movie trilogies. It’s been consistently enthralling from the beginning and has treated its animal cast as equally worthy of the greatest stories movies can deliver. War for the Planet of the Apes is powerful proof of what blockbuster filmmaking is capable of offering at its absolute finest.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Some of Hollywood’s most famous characters are its monsters, and no I’m not referring to studio executives. Kong was one of cinema’s first international stars, a stop-motion marvel in 1933 that had a hankering for blonde women. His legend has endured many different incarnations and once again the gigantic gorilla is given his close-up, in Kong: Skull Island, the second phase in a would-be MonsterVerse after 2014’s Godzilla. This time the monster comes through. Skull Island is a pleasing two hours spent with just enough style, thrills, and comedy to enjoyably pass the time best accompanied by a big bag of popcorn.

In 1973, a geological surveying team has discovered a heretofore-unknown island ominously shaped like a skull. Everyone is heading there for different reasons. Bill Randa (John Goodman) wants to prove the existence of monsters, and that he’s right. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) wants one last mission before returning home from the Vietnam War and its anticlimactic ending. James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the world’s best big game trackers and wants a new challenge. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is an award-winning war photographer who wants a new scoop. Their plans are put on hold when a 100-foot tall ape, Kong, violently knocks their helicopters out of the sky. The survivors scramble to regroup and escape the hostile locals on Skull Island along with the aid of Hank Marow (John C. Reilly), a WWII fighter pilot who crashed on the island thirty years ago and might have a few screws loose from the experiences.

Kong: Skull Island is a monster mash-up that knows how to entertain in grand smash-em-up style. It is not a remake of the original King Kong story, and being free of that “twas beauty killed the beast” narrative opens the movie to be its own thing, a high-concept action vehicle and clear Vietnam War parallel. It’s like someone watched Peter Jackson’s agreeable if bloated 2005 King Kong and said, “Hey, what if we shaved off the first hour and spent the whole time on Skull Island, the undisputed best part of the movie?” It’s the equivalent of an-all marshmallow box of Lucky Charms (Simpsons reference!). The unique environment boasts a retinue of fun surprises and a variety of action set pieces that keeps the movie from falling into a valley of repetition. It’s not just giant apes and dinosaurs, there’s also giant bulls, insects, and in one creepily terrifying moment a giant spider that uses its stalks of long legs to try and impale its prey down below. It’s a long lost world that allows for a constant sense of discovery that doesn’t get old. When the characters stumble upon a graveyard I wanted to soak up every detail of the spectacular collection of bones. I was grateful that Vogt-Roberts made fine use of his locations, real and computer enhanced, to build a sense of space and atmosphere.

One of the best aspects is that the producers have apparently learned from 2014’s Godzilla and elected not to play an elaborate game of hide and seek. My biggest complaint is that I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie. I was not content to settle for a shadowy impression or a glimpse of a tail here and a foot there. It was an artistic decision that toyed with audience anticipation but it also felt like we were being lead on. Too much teasing and not enough of the good stuff. This is not a problem with Kong: Skull Island; the title beast makes his presence known in spectacular fashion around the half-hour mark, and there’s no tiresome visual obfuscation to blunt the impact. You see Kong smash and it’s glorious carnage. He’s established as ornery protector, a sheriff of Skull Island keeping order with the fragile ecosystem. It makes the world of monsters seem much larger and more balanced. I wish there was more for Kong to do as a character but without his familiar arc he’s less character and more a testy god. There is a moment or two that hint at the soul inside the giant ape, but he’s mostly the physical embodiment of implacable force and the good and bad that goes with such power.

The Vietnam parallels are plentiful and provide a dollop of subtext to the conflicts, but this is a movie that doesn’t forget to have fun. The imagery can often fall into Apocalypse Now flashbacks and other war movie iconography, from the burnt orange sunsets casting dusky silhouette to the slow motion explosions trailing after teams of helicopters. The ever-present 70s rock soundtrack almost reaches Suicide Squad levels of needle-drop proportions in the first half, constantly reminding you of its time period. Skull Island isn’t a very deep movie but it does subvert some genre expectations at turns. A character given significant attention is taken out rather unceremoniously. An appeal to a greater sense of humanity is curtly brushed off. A lone heroic sacrifice that proves to be fruitless. Our more photographic heroes are evidently the worst, most useless characters (more on that below). For a movie that doesn’t strive for more than two hours of entertainment, it finds interesting sub routes.

I’m shocked at what director Vogt-Roberts has proven capable of considering his only other film was the low-budget, rather unremarkable coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer. This is a Russo brothers-esque statement, a Colin Trevorrow-style jump from minor indie to full-blown big screen spectacle. Is Hollywood going to sign up Joe Swanberg or Shane Caruth to direct the next four-quadrant blockbuster based on a toy? He does an adept job of capturing the action with style, and his shot compositions are routinely visually pleasing, confidently guiding an audience’s eyeballs to key info within the frame. I loved Kong’s immediate introduction as the camera circled him in a 360-degree pan, stopping at points to slow down before ramping up once more. There are amusing angles that highlight the comedy or tension of a scene, and Vogt-Roberts’ sense of geography and scale enhances the destruction. The prologue even had me hooked, as we watch a pair of enemy WWII soldiers parachute on the beach and continue their fight on the new territory. It was such a slam-bang opener and Vogt-Roberts’ use of camera placement reminded me of Spielberg. The special effects are reliably terrific even if they don’t seem like leaps and bounds from Jackson’s Kong. The skull-faced lizard monsters are scary enough to be threatening while still cool. The monster mayhem is lovingly reproduced and in environments where an audience can see the spectacle.

Another improvement is that the human cast has just enough characterization to make me care. With the newest Godzilla, I didn’t care if the giant lizard stepped on any of them, short of maybe Bryan Cranston. However, in this film I wasn’t impatient for the monsters to return that much. The best characters are, ostensibly, the antagonists. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) who goes full on heart of darkness, obsessed with killing the mighty Kong, asserting man’s dominance, and winning a war that others tell him cannot be won. He’s still sore and frustrated from the Vietnam War’s conclusion. He’s convinced that brute force and intractable persistence will win out, and he’s trying to prove something to himself, to the brass in D.C., and perhaps to all the lives lost under his watch. It’s not subtle characterization by any means but neither is a movie with a giant ape fighting monsters. Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) uses any opportunity to prove his life’s research about the existence of ancient monsters who he claims are the ones who rightfully have dominion. He’s using the looming possibility of a threat, and the paranoia of the U.S. government in the Cold War, to his sneaky advantage. Watching Goodman and Jackson glare at each other, neither side refusing to back down in their stolid beliefs and personal, self-destructive obsessions, is the non-monkey highlight of the film.

The closest thing approaching human drama, and even tragedy, is Reilly’s distaff character, and I don’t know the last time that John C. Reilly was asked to be a movie’s human compass (Magnolia?). His out-of-time character has a definite degree of cabin fever wonkiness. Reilly excels at being the offbeat oddball and has some welcomed comic relief moments, but it’s the drama related to the character that stuck with me. With the appearance of new human faces, he can take stock just how much of his life he’s missed out on and the family he’s been absent for. His genuine melancholy provides a depth to a character that would ordinarily just be made fun of for being kooky. Still, he’s got some great gallows humor that keeps the movie alive comically while also reminding of the dangers at stake.

The rest of the characters are rather interchangeable or curiously have little impact on the plot, and that unfortunately includes the headlining stars. Hiddleston (Thor) is a big game tracker and he’s the most useless character. Think about that. He’s supposed to be a wildlife expert and a tracker and he provides no real purpose other than he fills out a tight shirt nicely. Hiddleston is eye candy and little else, which is strange considering his skill set should have factored into the plot somehow. He points them in the direction of water and that’s about it. Larson (Room) is a recent Oscar-winner and has tremendous skill burrowing into her characters and finding a raw vulnerability. With Kong, her anti-war photographer gets off a few ideological shots with Jackson, but there’s little to separate her from the other diverse supporting castmates who are just bodies meant to be sacrificed. They’re all waiting to be eliminated in fantastic, gruesome, or unexpected ways. You won’t exactly be shedding a tear for these people when they become monster chow. Fun fact: ⅔ of the core cast of Straight Outta Compton are here (Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell), which apparently shows that Ice Cube isn’t a fan of long travel.

Enjoyably dumb at points and smart enough to know it, Kong: Skull Island is an admirably efficient monster movie that delivers its share of fun. Vogt-Roberts makes a major statement as a visual stylist and director of big-time smash-em-ups. The action is varied, intense, and vividly realized from carefully positioned camera angles and a team of high-class special effects wizards. Kong: Skull Island knows what an audience wants and happily delivers. The actors, for the most part, are enjoyable or enjoyably expendable. If this is the next step in the growing MonsterVerse, then I saw bring on the cataclysms and world-destruction. Friendly tip, stay for a post-credits scene that sets up future installments and try not to pump your fist in excitement. Kong: Skull Island is a boisterous B-movie that can make you feel like a kid again watching the amazing film feats of classic monsters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

A Monster Calls (2016)

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

Nate’s Grade: C+

Ben-Hur (2016)

BEN+HUR+POSTERHow can one review the 2016 version of Ben-Hur without bringing up its multitude of predecessors, chiefly the 1959 Best Picture winner with one of the greatest sequences in all of cinematic history? I try and judge each movie on its own merits but remakes are difficult by nature because without the fame and hopefully good will of the original, they wouldn’t ever exist, and yet they have to find their own voice and purpose in order to justify why we even need another version of the movie. I understand some of the excuses why even tackling a new Ben-Hur would be advisable, mostly coming down to a more audience-friendly running time that’s half of the 1959 classic. Of course truncating a four-hour biblical epic has its own problems too, and while this newest Ben-Hur isn’t a three-chariot pileup of a misguided mess, it certainly pales in comparison and comes across mostly as a jazzed up yet mediocre imitation of something immutably great.

Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a wealthy first century Jewish man who is sold into slavery as punishment from his adopted brother Mesalla (Toby Kebbel), a Roman soldier. Messala is also one of the greatest chariot racers for the Roman Empire, and so Ben-Hur, after surviving a slave ship shipwreck, rises to the top of the chariot ranks to confront Messala, seek vengeance, humiliate him, and find his family once more.

BEN-HURIt’s obvious that this new remake wasn’t going to banish any cinephile’s memories of the 1959 version, but some of the decision-making handicaps the overall impact of the 2016 version, chiefly among them the characterization and casting of its lead. Judah Ben-Hur is definitely lacking when it comes to being a strong and engaging hero. The casting of Huston does not abate this. For fans of TV’s Boardwalk Empire, it’s clear that Huston can be a very capable and intriguing character actor, and he has an easy handsomeness that might slide him readily into mainstream big-budget projects. The problem is that Huston lacks the gravitas the role requires and this is further hampered by the limited characterization, and the two negative qualities twist together, lessening and lessening the quality of the picture. He’s certainly no Charlton Heston (unfair comparison, I grant you).

Here’s how bland it got: I was feeling more sympathy for the character presented to be the central antagonist. In the first act, I felt more for Messala and his plight than I did for Ben-Hur, and I’ll explain why. Ben-Hur comes from a wealthy Jewish family and a life of privilege, yet Messala did not want to fall back on this and wanted to make his own path, joining the Roman army. He returns several years later and connects with Ben-Hur, asking him to help root out zealots that would jeopardize a peace with Rome and incite violence against innocents. It so happens Ben-Hur is secretly harboring a zealot and, surprise, the guy stupidly tries to assassinate Pontius Pilate in full view of the Middle Eastern world. Ben-Hur allows the zealot to flee for his own safety. Messala has little choice in bringing some consequences but he’s asking for the zealot’s name, you know the guilty party, or else he knows that Ben-Hur’s family, Messala’s adopted family, will suffer in place as punishment. He’s begging his brother, pleading with him, and yet Ben-Hur refuses even though it may cost his own family members their lives. This plot point, by the way, is new. In no other version of Ben-Hur does a zealot jeopardize the Ben-Hur family. It’s always been an overreaction to the accidental coincidence of falling tiles from the family roof that doomed Judah Ben-Hur to slavery. This change makes the protagonist more culpable. It was here that I felt I was on Messala’s side. My friend Ben Bailey likens this to siding with a “kind Nazi” and says Rome was the Evil Authority that should be bucked at every opportunity and burnt to the ground. I don’t know what this says about me but I think it shows that the writing failed to make me root for our hero.

The movie gets slightly better once Morgan Freeman enters, as most movies do, and from there the plot streamlines into training to be a world-class chariot driver to take away from the glory of Messala and thus the roman overlords. The story follows familiar underdog plot beats seen in other sports genre movies from hob-knobbing with the disdainful and overconfident elites to training montages; it’s all here. It’s all marching toward that climactic brother vs. brother chariot race, and I’ll give the filmmakers credit that it’s respectable. There are some genuinely exciting moments and some great camera angles to communicate the danger and thrills of the action. The editing is a tad too choppy and the camera setups strangely favor far too many close-ups for a large-scale competition. Nothing could compare to the 1959 chariot race, which still holds up as one of cinema’s greatest sequences, more so with the renewed appreciation for practical effects. It’s not CGI horses and chariots and people in the stands cheering along. All of that is real and all of it is stunning to witness play out to tremendous realistic heights.

Director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is not exactly the first name you might think of tackling a biblical epic. His sensibilities seem, at first glance, a bit lowbrow for such a venture, but the man is a gifted visual stylist, as he’s shown to perverse degrees in the perversely watchable Wanted. If you’re trying to bring the story of Ben-Hur to a new audience for a new century, Bekmambetov will at least ensure that it looks pretty, and most certainly it does. The biggest fault is with the challenges of the adaptation and the shortcuts and alterations that hamper the development of the characters and their ultimate arcs. Bekmambetov has one virtuoso sequence, and no it’s not the chariot race. It’s when Ben-Hur is chained in the galley of a slave ship and becomes one of the rowers. We’re trapped in his limited perspective during an attack sequence and it’s a terrific sequence. The confusion, the adrenaline, the fear are all accurately portrayed, and as the battle escalates and the ship is under attack and eventually sinks, it’s a race to escape his chains that is visually striking and exhilarating to watch. I don’t blame the director for this movie not working well.

Ben-Hur-2016-after-credits-hqAnother side effect of the overall truncating of the Ben-Hur saga is that the religious elements, namely the inclusion of Jesus Christ, feel really tacked on and obvious, reaching for a faith-based audience but doing so clumsily. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is on the outskirts of the events of the movie, just enough to clue you in to his parallel presence (“Oh look, it must be Palm Sunday”), but he’s really another means to an end. The purpose of Jesus is to (spoiler alert) help facilitate Ben-Hur to abandon his anger and vengeance and instead adopt a position of forgiveness for Messala. The problem is that at a little over two hours long, and with the Jesus stuff fully feeling flimsy and tacked on, this big turning point for our protagonist also feels flimsy. Why would he be moved by the sacrifice of Jesus when his knowledge of the guy is primarily a helpful carpenter who fetched him water when he was thirsty? It doesn’t add up the way the movie wants.

Was a Ben-Hur remake doomed to fail considering the parameters it was fighting against? Not necessarily. While no remake will ever displace the majesty of the 1959 classic, a new movie doesn’t have to, merely opening up a new angle on a familiar story (the novel was originally published in 1880) and providing something of substance. It doesn’t have to cancel out one good movie to be its own good movie. There are enjoyable aspects of this newest Ben-Hur but all they end up becoming are aspects, frayed bits that fail to become a satisfying whole. It was a mistake to cast the blandly effective Huston in the lead and leave the character underdeveloped; a protagonist can survive one of these sins, not both. It was a mistake to coast for as long as it does with its second act. It was a mistake to provide more significant supporting characters, and Jesus doesn’t count. It was a mistake to film much of a chariot race in tight close-ups. This is not a disaster despite the money that will likely be lost. It’s easy enough to watch but hard to fully connect, and those memories of the 1959 film keep creeping back, providing unflattering comparisons.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Warcraft (2016)

Warcraft_Teaser_PosterIt’s been a long five years since we last saw a movie directed under the name Duncan Jones. He’s not just the son of David Bowie (R.I.P.) but also a talented and nimble director of science fiction thrillers with a rewarding intelligence and visual acumen. Moon and Source Code are two strong entries for anybody’s resume. After flirting with Hollywood franchises for a while, Jones latched onto a personal project, spearheading a Warcraft film adaptation based upon the popular online multi-player role-playing game that boasts over 12 million subscribers. Jones has gone on record saying he is a Warcraft player himself. He co-wrote the script and embarked on a long development process working with heavy use of special effects and actors in motion capture to bring to life the otherworldly fantasy races. It’s been a tumultuous road for the expensive final product, and Warcraft, as a movie, is proof that some concepts are best left to your home computer.

The orc race is in need of a new home because their old world is dying. Their leader, a wizard named Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), uses magic to open a portal to the peaceful world of Azeroth. The orcs invade and plunder although one orc, Daruton (Tony Kebbel), is wary of the motives of his leaders. He’s looking for stability rather than constant conquering. He finds an unlikely ally with Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a human warrior serving King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) and his sister, Lady Taria (Ruth Negga). The humans seek help from their own wizard, the Guardian Medvih (Ben Foster). Someone must be collaborating with the orcs to allow the inter-dimensional portal to open. Medvih’s apprentice, the mage Khadgar (Ben Schentzer), teams up with Lothar to investigate and find a way to thwart the oncoming orc invaders.

warcraft-2016-image-gallery-ogrim-robert-kazinskyUnless you are a fan well versed in the lore and characters of the popular online game, Warcraft will leave you sputtering to construct cohesion from what seems like a lot of incidents without explanation, connective tissue, and a compelling reason to engage with this fantasy trope mess. It felt like every third page of the screenplay was ripped out of the shooting script; things merely just happen without proper setup and development. All of a sudden this character will be evil, or that character will have some prized piece of knowledge, or these two characters will be a romantic item. Things just happen in this movie and they are far too rarely given the context necessary to matter. This is less a story than a collection of ideas scattered onscreen. Take for instance our protagonists, or what you would assume are the protagonists, a pair of capable warriors trying to prevent mass causalities on both sides of the human/orc war. Except the orc character never really translates as an effective parallel to his human counterpart. You would naturally think they would be equal in significance as they try and steer their two warring sides to making less destructive decisions. I can’t tell you anything about the worlds we’re spirited to and from. We got elves and dwarves and mages and wizards and portals and dark magic and good magic and guns that feel entirely out of place in this universe and all sorts of names we’re expected to keep up with. There is little that leaves an impact, and after a while the movie ends up becoming the metaphorical equivalent of cartoon characters that run in place while the interchangeable backgrounds alternate behind them. Besides the fact that sometimes a guy wears a crown to help you realize he’s king, or a guy flashes a ball of energy in his hand, you’re left on your own to interpret the characters and why they are meaningful. The plot is simple, orcs versus humans and bad warmongering leaders at fault, but it’s the deluge of underdeveloped characters, subplots, and world building that make what was once simple hard to understand. I couldn’t tell you why anything was happening. There is no way the casual moviegoer will be able to keep up with the speed that Warcraft hurls information at them without careful setup and meaning. You need an instruction guide to make this stuff accessible.

Fantasy is a naturally transporting genre of storytelling but unless you actually develop and explain the worlds, the inhabitants, and perhaps some of the cultures, you’re destined to feel like a stranger bumbling through a most foreign and unfriendly place. Warcraft does a terrible job of making its worlds feel lived in, never mind accessible. Every new location should tell us more about the world and its characters, their interactions and conflicts, differences and similarities. This is just bad storytelling, people. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where any of these locations are because they don’t impact the plot. The only story is about the conflict between the orcs and humans, but this could happen anywhere. There are some “important” characters on both sides of this battle but good luck trying to engage with any of these characters. The human characters are bland. I didn’t care about anyone and gave up trying. Cooper and Negga are both considerably more entertaining and effectively utilized on AMC’s Preacher. It takes an hour just for Warcraft to finally establish the relationships between its various stock characters.

It’s the orc characters that showcase the most humanity, and credit goes more to the special effects artists and motion capture actors than the screenwriting. I appreciate how the movie devotes time to both sides of the conflict and finds figures of honor, and its best representation is Durotan. Kebbell seems like an actor who really feels a sense of freedom with mo-cap performances (he was excellent as the simian villain Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). I initially thought the creature design of the orc, what with their hulking underbites, was going to be hard to render emotive performances, but there were glimmers where you could witness the shadings of the actors beneath the underbites. It’s an impressive technical feat considering the obstacles that all parties had to overcome. Sadly, this only further exposes just how shoddy the storytelling is considering the technology was capable. Darotan is a loving husband and father who is leery of his leaders intentions, but this too is just a means to serve the ultimate ends of the plot. There isn’t a thoughtful moral anti-war argument to be had here. As a whole, the orcs are a rather personality-free race of creatures. Sure they talk a big game and have some curious decorative flourishes (tusk piercings!), but to this Warcraft layman, they come across like any other barbarian group. Early on I was mentally thinking of the Klingons from Star Trek and then I concluded that this was an inappropriate comparison because Klingons have memorable personality and culture.

garona-PP-header-3The actor who gets my greatest sympathy is Paula Patton (Baggage Claim) as the half-orc/half-human outcast, Garona. First of all, given the immense physicality of the orcs, I imagine any form of fornication with a human would prove highly fatal. It would be like an elephant mating with a labradoodle. Trapped between the two groups, Patton is painted green and given a lesser underbite that is reminiscent of snake fangs. When realized on an actual person, as opposed to a creation from the realm of computer effects, it’s not terribly convincing. Patton tries her best to speak all her gobbledygook lines of dialogue but the reverse vampire fangs make it awfully difficult for her to properly enunciate. She looks too ridiculous to be an effective character, and the fact that she is pushed into a romance with a human without any sense of setup beyond the universal law that pretty people should be together with pretty people is deflating. Why does the only female character of significance have to be shoved into a romantic subplot? Your poor poor jaw muscles, Paula Patton. At least you didn’t have to wear a metal bikini. Yet.

With all of this stated, Warcraft is not a horrible movie, and credit for that should go to Jones as a director. In the same token, Jones is also the co-writer so I guess he also deserves blame for the storytelling shortcomings. Jones very smartly limits his camera movements. Character will move within the frame but usually the camera point is fixed, which allows the focus to be more attuned to what exists within the frame. This is especially helpful during battles and with the multitude of CGI elements. This stylistic choice allows the film to be more visually immersive. The fighting sequences do get a tad repetitive as one guy with a sword or club runs at another guy. I saw Warcraft in 3D at my screening and I might actually recommend people see it this way, which is something I hardly ever do. It’s not that the 3D elements will compare to the experiences of modern standard-bearers like Life of Pi or Gravity, but it’s a pleasurable experience and the presentation of the visuals is crisp. I was worried about the usual effect of the glasses darkening the onscreen image and this was not the case at all. From a purely visual standpoint, Warcraft is worth watching at least once. The special effects vary between photo-realism and extended video game cut scene, but overall the visuals are colorful and fun and easy to discern. When the action heats up, you’ll be able to cleanly follow what is happening to whom. If only this same clean precision had been applied to the half-baked screenplay.

I will admit I have never played a single minute of the Warcraft game. I am not familiar with any of the worlds, characters, or races beyond what I have watched from other more popular fantasy films and series. I am not coming at this movie from the perspective of a fan who has been eagerly awaiting the holy grail of video game movies. If you’re willing to look past its flaws, mainly its bereft characterization and haphazard plotting, then I’m sure there is a forgivable and sporadically entertaining movie here. As a man who has reviewed over 20 films directed by notorious video game adapter Uwe Boll, this is no unbridled suckfest. However, it’s still too limited for its own good. The visuals can be immersive but the story is certainly not, and there are numerous points where the movie just actively forgets that an audience requires servicing. You need to introduce us to the characters, allow us to get a sense of who they are, their internal and external battles, their relationships with one another, their significance to the plot, and relevant history and culture as it relates to the larger story. In a rush to visit all the different game settings, the movie’s screenplay zips along when it should be building its narrative. At times it feels like a travelogue with very exotic locals. Warcraft is a repository of incidents and events, almost as if it were awaiting a user to plug in and control the storyline and provide the meaning. It’s no unmitigated disaster but I don’t believe this was worth the five-year price for Jones.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fantastic Four (2015)

Few movies have had such a prominent stink of negativity attached to them as Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, a movie that is already being considered amongst the worst superhero movies of all time. Director Josh Trank (Chronicle) was given the freedom to go darker, emphasize more science fiction, and select a cast of respected actors rather than bankable names. Then came rumors of aloof and secluded behavior on set from Trank. Then came rumors that Fox and producer/co-writer Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) effectively shuttered Trank from his own movie, reshooting 40-minutes of a 90-minute film to salvage the wayward production (get ready for plenty of stuff in trailers not to be in the finished film). Not quite the room-clearing disaster of rampant speculation, the new Fantastic Four is a superhero movie that never really gets started and has constant battles with tone, characterization, and plot. It seems like the real villains of the movie are the Fox executives who signed off on the “gritty, gloomy” rendition and then interfered when they got too scared, managing to undercut the original vision, muddy an already messy film, and make things even worse. The behind-the-scenes drama is easily more interesting than anything that happens in this movie.

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a science genius recruited by Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Reed invented a makeshift teleporting device as a young child with the help of his friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). At Dr. Storm’s lab, Reed works with Storm’s children, Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a morose computer programmer, Victor Von Doom (Tony Kebbell). The group transports to another dimension but is attacked by a strange green energy cloud. Victor is left behind. The surviving foursome exhibits unique abilities. Reed can stretch his body. Sue can turn invisible and create force fields. Johnny can fly and set his body on fire. Poor Ben is a hulking rock monster. Reed promises to find a way to reverse what happened to them, but the re-emergence of Dr. Doom puts the fate of the entire world at risk.

The-Fantastic-Four-2015-The-Thing-Jamie-BellIt should be of little surprise that Fantastic Four feels like two different movies awkwardly and inarticulately smashed together. For the first hour, the movie follows the path of our heroes and their contraction of their powers. Rather than the gee-whiz fun of getting superpowers, the characters view themselves as freaks, their bodies turned against them, and their colleagues deeply afraid of them. It’s a far moodier antidote to the vicarious thrills of gaining special abilities. There are some effective sequences that channel David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Scanners, and it’s these brief moments where you feel Trank’s vision connect the most. Doom walking down a hallway and making heads explode, in a PG-13 way, is horrifying and cool. The problem for Trank, and the movie as a whole, is that this first hour still isn’t a very good movie. It takes far too long for these characters to get blasted by green space goo and become supers. The setup is so protracted and needless. Did we need to see how these characters came together? Did we need to see their childhoods? It’s not essential to see the team come together when we can already start from that point. In a sense, it reminded me of how needless I felt Pixar’s Monsters University was; did we need to see how these colleagues became friends? Despite this action-free opening half, the screenplay could have fleshed out the four main characters to justify the added time, but it’s hard for the movie to justify much.

These are some of the most boring and underdeveloped characters in recent comic book lore. If these versions of the Fantastic Four existed in the 1960s, they wouldn’t have made it to issue number two. Reed is smart. Sue is smart too but also standoffish (and adopted). Johnny likes fast cars. Ben is tough and loyal. Victor is a pessimist who called dibs on flirting with Sue. That is really about it, folks. Ben disappears for most of the film, called in to make the trans-dimensional jump because Reed feels like Ben deserves to be there since he helped create an early prototype with Reed. Actually, let’s talk about that scene. It’s a high school science fair yet the only other displays we see are clearly for much younger children, and yet Dr. Storm is visiting an all-ages school science fair to groom talent? That seems weird. Why does Dr. Storm not make the same offer to Ben, who helped Reed design and build his early teleporting machine? Regardless, Reed leaves his childhood pal behind with Ben’s abusive family. That’s because he’s a good friend. Then, once the horrible transformations occur and Ben gets the worst of it, Reed runs out on him again. Sure it’s in the pursuit of finding a cure, but who’s to say he couldn’t do that in the already constructed government super science lab? Sue doesn’t even go on the first trans-dimensional voyage; it’s just a boy’s club. Sue spends more time in this movie staring at computer screens and looking intently than any action. It’s probably for the best, though, because the scenes of her flying around in a bubble made me think of Glinda the Good Witch. I’m not a Kate Mara fan. I’ve found the majority of her performances to be stilted, but even I can admit she’s given nothing to do here but move her eyes from the left to the right and inform Miles Teller about Portishead, a band that’s only 20-plus years old. It’s sad but the most interesting part of Johnny is that a black actor, a point that caused certain more irritable fans to foam at the mouth at the adaptation, is playing him. If these super heroes aren’t going to be super until halfway through the movie, they better be interesting characters. They are not even close.

Fantastic-Four-2015-Reboot-Early-ReviewsIt’s with the return of Dr. Doom that the Fantastic Four makes its inept transition into the second movie, the one reshot by the producers and the studio. In an implausibly fast amount of time we’re given our villain of the movie and he sets off to open a black hole to destroy Earth because… we’re self-destructive? So humanity is self-destructive so Doom is going to destroy humanity? I would also like to know exactly how Doom survived for over a year in the alternate dimension when it clearly looks like there is nothing of substance for miles, unless green goop is edible. Did he just lose the need to go to the bathroom? Doom’s powers are rather nebulous, which makes it even less interesting when the Fantastic Four decides to, get this, work together to beat the bad guy. For a movie that hasn’t had one action sequence until its final act, now our characters must band together to stop Doom and his giant flashing blue light black hole thingy. The special effects are pretty undistinguished and hard to read at times. I’d also like to remark how hideously this other dimension looks. It’s all rocky crags and dark clouds; it’s like a less successful timeshare for the residents of Mordor. It doesn’t quite look like the paradise that Doom describes it as (the brochure lied to us!). This jumbled conclusion feels so ham-fisted and rushed, a villain and a typical world-destroying fate that must be thwarted at the last minute. Things just sort of happen rather than storylines finding payoffs, and then it’s all sort of over and the resolution echoes the very end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, even with the credits cutting off the vocal iteration of the title heroes. It’s so transparently different in tone, sloppy in development and execution, and so quickly introduced and resolved, that the whole conclusion comes across as forcibly laughable.

At the end of watching the dire Fantastic Four reboot, I felt more sympathy for Josh Trank. He still deserves blame for helping to conceive and develop such a misshapen story and squander his actors. After three duds and whatever you want to call the 1994 Roger Corman adaptation, it feels like maybe this franchise is just cursed. Maybe these characters are too dated and their powers are too silly. Then again we know that these characters can work in the format of a movie because a good Fantastic Four movie already exists, and it’s called The Incredibles. It doesn’t seem like anyone is going to come away completely clean from this misfire and financial flop, especially now that Trank and executives are engaging in a P.R. blame game. Fox was hoping for a rekindled franchise. Now they may be hoping to work out a deal for Marvel to buy back the rights to the characters. I would have been interested to see the full vision of what Trank was going for, especially since the one scene that feels most adamant is the best sequence in an admittedly mediocre superhero film. At least the movie would feel cohesive. It probably wouldn’t be good but at least it would be committed to trying something different. Instead, the movie tries to be different from the superhero blockbusters populating the landscape and then, at the last minute, tries to follow their lead and become one of them, becoming its own misshapen and poorly developed blob. It’s not the worst superhero movie in history (that honor still has to belong to the atomic bomb of taste, Batman & Robin), but even achieving sustained mediocrity is too much to expect.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn_of_apes_teaser_posterAnyone else think the titles of these Apes prequels should be retroactively switched? Coming off the heels of the surprisingly excellent flick Rise of the Planet of the Apes, those damn dirty apes are back with another summer blockbuster that’s just as mature, engrossing, emotionally resonant, and visually remarkable. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after the events of the previous entry, with mankind devastated by the “Simian Flu,” the same bug that has kick-started the evolution of the primates. Caesar (Andy Serkis in motion capture) is leading a fairly conservative life; he has a home, a family, a wife, and a community he’s trying to build. Then a group of humans wander into their territory needing access to the remains of a dam for a power supply. The apes do not trust the humans, but Caesar accepts their terms, looking to avoid war. However, fear, resentment, and hate fester on both sides, and it’s not long before it’s apes vs. humans and you witness one of the greatest things your eyeballs will ever see – an ape firing two machine guns while riding a horse. Plot-wise, this film is more a bridge to a larger conflict between the two factions. The human characters (including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman) are given short shrift. And that’s fine because the movie belongs to the apes; they are the stars rightfully. Half of this movie is in subtitles for ape sign language. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) dwells in the moments other blockbusters don’t have time for. He lingers in the shadows, with silences, and we slowly integrate into the world of the apes and their own power dynamics. The all-out action of the third act doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the thoughtful movie that has played out until that point. The visual effects are again top-notch and the motion capture tech captures a stunning range of human emotions that you can witness play out across the CGI creations. Toby Kebbell (Wrath of the Titans) portrays Koba, the more hawkish member of the ape tribe, and he is just as good as Serkis, which is saying a lot. I’d still call Rise a better overall film, but Dawn is a more than worthy follow-up that reminds audiences what great storytelling can achieve with the right people behind the scenes.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Counselor (2013)

counselor-2The magnitude of author Cormac McCarthy’s involvement should not go understated in discussions over The Counselor. The acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author has written modern classics often exploring the darker side of humanity. McCarthy’s first screenplay must have seemed like a hot commodity for all of Hollywood. It attracted director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) and a score of A-list actors. The anticipation was that McCarthy could match the brilliance of his prose. The Counselor, a dreary and lackluster thriller in every conceivable way, proves that McCarthy still has an uphill learning curve when it comes to serviceable screenwriting.

The titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) seems to have a nice life. He’s just proposed to his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and their sex life is vigorous. Then an old client, Reiner (Javier Bardem), invites the Counselor in on a shady drug transportation deal. The allure of easy money is too much for the Counselor to resist. Naturally, things do not go according to plan. A Mexican cartel intercepts the transport truck, bodies pile up, and the stakes get very personal for the Counselor.

Cameron-Diaz-and-Penelope-Cruz-in-The-Counselor-2013-Movie-Image1To be blunt, if McCarthy had submitted this script under a different name, it never would have made its way to the big screen. This is the award-winning author’s first screenplay and it shows. The pacing is shockingly slack, with the film rarely having any sense of life onscreen. I’m not a slave to the standard three-act structure of Hollywood screenwriting, but you need to produce something that keeps pushing the film forward, heading to a finale that seemed inevitable. McCarthy’s script is bogged down with pointless scene after pointless scene, little arias that get away from him, indulging his characters to monologue at length about philosophical nonsense. There are lengthy conversations about diamond shapes, the very nature of existence, and all sorts of Matrix Reloaded-like lingual excesses. These characters talk round and round; it feels like there aren’t even other characters in the room. Their lengthy, pretentious conversations also do little to push the narrative along or reveal essential bits of character. You get to hear one crime kingpin talk about his favorite poet. Great, but what can you say about him beyond the fact that he’s well read? Every character in this movie, from top to bottom, is a vapid space. Some of them have interesting aspects/quirks, like owning cheetahs or masturbating on car windshields, but not one character can be described as interesting. Beyond the terms “ruthless,” “pragmatic,” and “naïve,” I cannot even fathom a way to describe anyone in this film. They don’t even really work as plot devices because that would imply causality. When you couple the void of characterization with ponderous, rambling dialogue, then you’re already sabotaging your entertainment chances.

The plotting is muddled beyond all comprehension. I like to consider myself a pretty sharp moviegoer, but I was left scratching my head far too often. With a paucity of characterization and some idle pacing, I was confused as to what exactly was going on, sometimes even just at a literal level. What was this plan? How do all the players fit in? Why are the betrayers acting as they do? Who works for whom? Why should I be shocked about revealing the identity of a betrayer when it was made all too obvious in a previous scene (note: this is so directly transparent that it cannot count as foreshadowing)? Why does the appearance of a DVD signify finality after a previous phone conversation already did the same thing? And most of all why should I care? Watching this movie is like traveling through a long, impenetrable fog. There are serious, ongoing clarity issues, which make those florid digressions and overall pointless character nattering to be even more maddening. There are well known actors that come in just for single scenes, and then those scenes amount to little to nothing on the overall bearing of the plot. The Counselor doesn’t feel like a fully formed story; it feels like a collection of 30 scenes served as disposable sides for actors during preliminary auditions.

Even worse, for a film about drug deals gone badly, murder, and Cameron Diaz masturbating on a windshield, The Counselor is deathly boring. I grew restless before the halfway mark and just kept hoping beyond all evidence that the film was going to find some direction and pick up the intrigue. It did not. The film’s essential story structure, criminals getting in over their heads and paying a price, is a familiar one. This structure can work to marvelous results both grand (Goodfellas) and small (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead). Hell, even McCarthy’s own novel lead to the brilliant, Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men. Look at how the Coen brothers approach the macho, nihilistic material as opposed to its author. They created a sense of all-consuming dread with efficiency, elegance, and their characteristic macabre sense of humor. Watching The Counselor, it’s like the turgid knockoff of a McCarthy novel. When I got home I felt like I had to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. Tarantino is given to long indulgences of elaborate dialogue as well, but he makes his characters interesting, with personalities that grab you and stand out, and listening to his dialogue is a pleasure unto itself.

McCarthy’s brand of ruthless killing has its peculiar intrigue, but again it only functions as morbidly fascinating little asides. The use of tripwire is given high priority by the killers onscreen, decapitating a speeding motorcyclist and cutting into the jugular with another character. It’s a strange, harrowing, and gruesome manner of death, but is it at all practical? I know I’m treading dangerous waters bringing the concept of reality to a murky film, but what killer decides to set up a wire approximately neck high across a road? It seems likely that another car would travel that same road in the hours of buildup. It also seems highly lucky to adjust the wire to the exact height to cut into the neck. I’m no professional killer but it seems like a lot of setup and guesswork. I have to imagine there are far easier ways to kill a speeding cyclist or a man walking along the street. Attention professional hit men of the movies: stop making your job more difficult than it has to be. Nobody is awarding you a ribbon for Most Inventive Kill.

new-images-arrive-online-for-the-counselor-141250-a-1374829476-470-75There are plenty of pretty faces in this movie, genuine acting talent, and to strand them with precious little characterization is an outrage. Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) is a little too sly to play naïve, and his later actions lack a necessary sense of desperation to sell his emotional plummet. Cruz (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is so effortlessly sensual but is put on the sidelines early and stuck in the damsel-in-distress box. Brad Pitt (World War Z) is the slick snake charmer we’ve seen plenty of times before. But the worst lot goes to Diaz (Bad Teacher). She’s supposed to be mysterious and threatening as Reiner’s sexually adventurous girlfriend but Diaz plays things so stone-faced serious. This poor woman is given the most unerotic, bizarre sex scene in modern history to enact, and I don’t know whether to applaud or pity her. Sure she gets to uncork some meaty monologues about Malkina’s trenchant world perspective, but this is the movie that will be defined by Diaz humping a windshield. At least the movie plays this out somewhat realistically, with Reiner more horrified than aroused. What did that outrageous scene add up to? Also, Penelope Cruz plays a “Laura” and Cameron Diaz a “Malkina”?

I know it’s a petty thing but it really irritated me how often people refer to Fassbender’s character as “Counselor.” The end credits do reveal this to be his name. If you thought it got irksome hearing Leonardo DiCaprio say “ole sport” after every other sentence in The Great Gatsby, then enjoy the repetitive declaration of Fassbender’s lone job title. “What do you think, Counselor? I don’t know, Counselor. I’d think things over, Counselor.” Do people really refer to somebody by this title as their name, and so frequently? He also doesn’t seem to be a competent lawyer at all.

The Counselor is such an unforgivably boring slog, languid and rudderless when it should be thrilling and complex. The characters are nonexistent, the plotting is muddled and confusing, the dialogue often laborious and roundabout, and the overall film is too meandering to properly engage an audience. Even talented people can produce bad movies, and here is further proof. With this cast, with this crew, there is no excuse for The Counselor to be overwhelmingly stilted and tedious. I cannot fathom what attracted the talent to this film beyond the cache of working on “Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay.” If the results of The Counselor are any indication, I don’t know if we’ll be seeing too many McCarthy screenplays in the future, or at least McCarthy scripts that haven’t been vetted by other writers who better understand the contours of the medium. His florid arias and abstract, directionless plotting can be forgiven on the page but not on the screen. Scott doesn’t help matters, taking great care to film the luxury of the lifestyles on screen. What we’re left with is a tepid movie about bad people meeting bad ends, with little entry for an audience to care or even find entertainment. The art direction is given more care than the characters. In the weeks leading up to its release, The Counselor adopted a tagline from a quote by Laura: “Have you been bad?” It was turned into the Twitter hashtag promoting the film. Well, Counselor, you’ve been very bad.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

The 2010 Clash of the Titans made some sizable sums of money but it really became famous for one reason – the beginning of the 3D fleecing and the public’s souring on what was supposed to “save the movie going experience.” Clash was converted to 3D in post-production, and its lack of foresight and rushed conversion showed. After the high of Avatar, it only took approximately three months for the public to feel ripped off by 3D. Certain Hollywood bigwigs are concerned that bad 3D conversions will kill the golden goose, and it is having an effect. The percentage of movie audiences seeing big releases in 3D has slipped steadily from 2010. Whether it is the added cost or the underwhelming conversion, movie audiences are warier of the third dimension. And it was Clash of the Titans that destroyed a nation’s innocence. Two years later, the sequel is out and, surprise surprise, you also have the ability to see it in 3D. Either way, this movie will cause you a headache.

In the wake of Perseus successful slaying of the Kraken, he is now a widower with a young son, living their lives quietly, trying to avoid the daring heroics of his earlier life. Fat chance, kid. The gods are at war, particularly Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Aries (Edgar Ramierez) versus Olympian head honcho Zeus (Liam Neeson), Perseus’ absentee father. The titan Kronos will be unleashed from his prison, Tartarus, and this powerful behemoth will lay waste to the armies of mankind. The gods have grown weak due to mankind’s dwindling faith, and as such they cannot conquer Kronos without the help of man. It’s up to Persues, Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), and Poseidon’s demigod son a (Toby Kebbell) to track down the right magic artifacts to take down Kronos.

Once again we have a threadbare story that involves running from one location to another to find a clue that leads to the next location; the plot is just a series of magic-item gathering missions, much like a video game. Greek mythology made regular use of magic weapons to slay great monsters, but the myths at least gave their audience heroes worth fighting for. Worthington’s scowling rendition of Perseus is a bore, and giving him a son doesn’t help much. Just because the guy keeps insisting he has someone to protect doesn’t fill his void of characterization. He’s so free of charisma, so gruff and without any defining personality, that you wish he could find some magic shortcut to find his dumb magic items faster. The whole setup with our villain is also vague, beyond the very specialty of the god in question. And then there’s the whole concept of the gods dying, which was also featured in last fall’s glorious-to-look-at-but-empty-on-the-inside Immortals, another cinematic tussle with the titans. What’s the point of being a god anymore if the defining quality, immortality, can be ripped away? I suppose the screenwriters wanted to raise the stakes when Zeus and other gods enter the fray, dangling the threat that they too could perish. “We may not have weapons, but we’ll fight how long we can,” Zeus declares with modesty, and then he proceeds to zap enemies with lightning bolts. I don’t think a club is going to outrank a giant projectile of electricity. Realistically, I think the whole death-of-the-gods angle, which cold have brought some real somber and existential weight to the film, was just a setup to allow the producers to recast future sequels with less costly actors (goodbye, Neeson and Fiennes; they’ll be no more Kraken-releasing for either of you).

Director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) isn’t going to wow anybody with his addition to cinema, but he can put together a serviceable sequence of action. My favorite sequence in the entire film is when Perseus and crew enter the underground maze of Tartarus. The stone walls are constantly shifting around and the characters are zooming all around the room. It reminded me of the moving staircases in the Harry Potter world or think of it as the real prequel to Cube. And yet, even this nice sequence is limited because Liebesman and the screenwriters don’t take full advantage of their situation. We have a constantly shifting three-dimensional maze, and nobody gets lost at all? And the heroes, after discarding the map, easily find their way to the other side? What kind of design flaw is that? Liebesman prefers a lot of handheld camerawork and low angles, which can be jarring at times. Worse, the action favors a visceral chaos rather than steady development. There are plenty of people dying, columns exploding, fireballs tossing, but little of it adds up to much. It’s all disparate shots, like every character is in a separate movie. Such a shame because the special effects are rather good. If you’re going to spend this kind of money on a Greek mythology spectacle, at least make us care beyond a “fire pretty” level of tepid enjoyment.

The movie is in some breech of false advertisement since the title clearly states a plurality of titans, but by my modest account we only really have one titan to deal with, the giant lava beast Kronos (do the smaller creatures and Cyclops count as titans? I doubt this). Now we all love how fire looks, though some love it a bit too much. And lava itself has long been a childhood adversary. Who amongst us has never pretended the floor was once lava and but a handful of couch cushions were the only stepping-stones to safety? It’s hard to get an exact feel for how massive Kronos is considering he emerges from a mountaintop and seems to extend even higher into the sky. It’s intended to be a threatening and horrifying sight, but I kept thinking of a Marine ad from the 1990s where prospective recruits displayed their mettle by combating giant lava creatures (“Marines: Keeping the U.S. safe from lava men since 1916”). Instead of being awed by Kronos, I started picking apart the logistics of being a lava man. I suppose when you’re a god, or a titan for that matter, you don’t have to really eat or drink or do the things we mortals must for sustenance. But how does a lava creature work when part of his fiery M.O. is how drippy and malleable he can become? Perseus flies into the mouth of the lava beast but why does a beast, which needs no food or drinks, even needs a mouth? It’s not like this guy is speaking beyond a ground-shaking mumble. The entire face is almost superfluous. It’s not like a lava creature has eyes or a working circulatory system. Now I could apply these same annoying ticky-tack questions to any monster or mythological creature. The reason I did this is because the monster of monsters is no more intimidating, or satisfying, as the array of giant monsters that Godzilla would fight (or for you youngins – the Power Rangers). When your ultimate bad guy, and lone titan, can just as easily be blown up in the same manner as the Death Star, then we have a problem.

There’s a certain level of entertainment watching dignified actors in something so inherently campy. Neeson (The Grey) and Fiennes (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two) are a long way from their Shindler’s List collaboration. The two men lend a level of gravitas to a movie that is leagues below their talents. Perseus proves to be such a dull demigod, that I wish the entire movie had followed the warring gods instead. That approach would have been much more interesting considering that they must confront mortality. Worthington (Avatar) still has a notable screen presence in the realm of action cinema, but his constant scowling is just getting tiresome. Hollywood, give this man something to do other than scowl and he may surprise you, like in The Debt. Pike (Doom) is unconvincing as a warrior princess, and her forced romance with Persues could not be more contrived (did somebody say, rebound?). The best actor in the movie is Bill Nighy (Underworld) who shows up as a daffy version of Hephaestus, the god of metallurgy and blacksmiths. Nighy understands how completely cheesy the whole getup really is and delivers a performance on the comic wavelength that the entire movie should have held.

While not nearly as humorless and joyless as the 2010 edition, Wrath is still a fairly block-headed romp through the noisiest parts of Greek mythology. After two movies with “titans” in the title, it’s somewhat remarkable that we only witness one single titan in the entire combined 245 minutes. It’s all CGI sound and fury with little cohesion to make anything feel important, despite huge mythological creatures demolishing cities. From an action standpoint, Wrath packs enough serviceable, escapist sights for the eyes to please diehards of Greek mythology and genre fans with low expectations. I wish there was a more compelling reason to run through all this stuff than big monsters needing to be killed; this hero’s quest needs more motivation or at least a grander sense of awe. The demise of the gods due to mankind’s mounting religious doubt seems like a juicy subject that could have opened these characters up. But then the theological discussions would get in the way of people hitting made-up CGI monsters. If you like your cheese feta, then Wrath of the Titans will provide enough wrath for your bucks, though found lacking in titans.

Nate’s Grade: C

War Horse (2011)

Steven Spielberg and war seem like a dynamite combination. The popular director puts away his childish things and becomes a much more mature, thoughtful artist, with the obvious exception of 1979’s 1941. War Horse is the adaptation of a children’s book-turned-Tony-Award-winning play, where the title star was brought to life on stage via skilled puppeteers. And lo, did people weep for that puppet horse on stage, and lo will they likely weep for the flesh-and-blood version on the big screen. However, I’d hardly call this movie a mature examination on the horrors of World War I. It’s more of a touchy-feely, stodgy, vignette-heavy drama that brings out the worst in Spielberg’s sentimental side.

We’re introduced to our young horse early on, where young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) spies the colt and forms an instant bond. Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullen) buys the horse on a whim, even though the family could really use a plow horse. Albert names the horse Joey and is determined to prove everybody wrong who doubts the both of them. Together they indeed plow that rocky field and Albert’s family keeps their farm. Then World War I breaks out across Europe and the family ends up losing the horse. Joey is confiscated by the English cavalry and goes on a fantastic journey, switching sides over the course of the war (and allegiances?). Albert enlists in the military so that he can find his long-lost horse. I guess they’ll be no “Dear John” letter when your beloved only has hooves.

War Horse is a throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood epics. It’s like John Ford took control of this movie from beyond the grave (note to self: premise for a supernatural comedy). My theater was filled to the rafters with old people. It was like the nursing home emptied out for the Greatest generation’s couples night. It’s easy to see why the movie would appeal to such an older crowd. It’s a simple story told with its emotions squarely on its sleeve like a badge of honor (mixed metaphors!). It’s so unflappably earnest and sentimental that it can occasionally fall into cornball territory. There’s the greedy landlord who wants to kick the poor family off their farm. Being a Spielberg movie, no expense is spared in milking as many emotions as possible. Spielberg demands tears and you will deliver them, or so help him. It’s all about Joey the horse prancing through people’s lives, touching hearts, bringing enemies together. The movie is primed for mass (older) audience appeal; for God’s sake there is a sassy goose that Spielberg can’t help himself but continue to include. Sassy goose equals money in the bank. This is the only movie I can imagine where plowing is treated as a point of dramatic catharsis. Suffice to say, War Horse is a stodgy war drama that won’t offend anyone with delicate sensibilities.

I wasn’t expecting War Horse to be the equine version of The Red Violin (if you unfamiliar with the masterful 1999 film The Red Violin, go see it immediately instead of watching this flick). We see the horrors of war through a series of vignettes as Joey passes from owner to owner, each befalling some unfortunate fate, though I don’t think the horse is to blame (or is he…?). The vignettes run about 15-20 minutes or so apiece and because the one constant is the horse, that means we have to feature characters talking out loud explaining everything they do and feel. The horse just kind of takes in everyone’s secrets, probably wishing these people would stop their yapping. The characters are drawn rather broad so we get the German brothers who desert their posts, a French girl wanting to learn to ride a horse, and a noble English cavalry marshal, amongst others. It’s hard to get attached to such disposable characters that fail to leave a modest dent. I thought maybe all these characters would converge in the end for an emotional climax, but then I remembered that many of them were dead, so nope. It’s a strange screenwriting shortcoming when the most engaging character for most of the movie is on four legs and never says a word.

It’s hard not to emote when Spielberg lathers on the sentimentality with aplomb. But if you took away John Williams’ earnest score, Spielberg’s sappy staging, and all those close-ups of animals, would you feel anything for this story or these characters; would you feel anything without all the reminders to feel? I doubt it. Don’t count me heartless, for I’ll have you know I bawled like a baby who just watched another baby hit with a shovel at Marley & Me, but does the life of one horse matter so much more than the millions of lives lost at war? We watch all those boys, many not old enough to be called men, run into the unforgiving gauntlet of war, but someone the life of one horse is supposed to outweigh the countless death. I understand a tight narrative focus so that large, unfathomable horrors can feel personable and better felt. Shindler’s List is that kind of movie. War Horse is not. This isn’t even Black Beauty or National Velvet. One of the English soldiers chides the sobbing Albert with a sharp quip: “It’s not a dog, boy, it’s just a horse.” I felt sad when the horse was in danger; I’m not a heartless bastard.

And oh does this horse seem to be Spielberg’s symbol of purity, mankind’s ultimate accomplishment, or, you know, something Big and Important. At one point, Joey gets tangled in a mess of barbed wire and the English and Germans all come to some sort of uneasy truce to work together to free this beautiful animal (if only more hapless horses had gotten lost in No Man’s Land maybe the war would’ve been over sooner – now I sound heartless). The horse is supposed to represent some messianic cost of war, where we destroy nature, turning majestic creatures into weapons of war, etc. I don’t really know what the message/symbolism is striving for but it’s constantly grappling, looking for a suitable sticking point. Honestly, if Joey was supposed to represent purity, goodness, nature, then that filly needed to get turned into glue by film’s end (spoiler alert). I erroneously predicted War Horse to be the “Marley & Me of war pictures.” The horse lives, rejoice America. Never mind the millions of people who died horribly. You can’t have a messianic symbol without martyrdom. If Spielberg wants to drive home the loss of innocence that many underwent thanks to the War to End All Wars (oh, if only), then the horse, a symbol of innocence and nature, needed to die at the machines of war. Otherwise the movie becomes an episodic journey of a single horse, an equine Forrest Gump. I can’t imagine that’s what Spielberg had in mind. I envisioned an M. Night Shyamalan-esque ending wherein the horse does eventually die, get turned into glue, and that glue is sued to construct a bomber plane for World War II. That plane? The Enola Gay. Cut to end credits. War Horse!

This movie has deteriorate in my mind the more I think back, picking away its cornball earnestness and stodgy sensibilities. When the horse is your greatest character then your war drama has some problems. War Horse is not a bad movie by most counts. It looks swell, the emotions are big, and hey horses are pretty aren’t they? But for any discerning moviegoer looking for a strong narrative, incisive commentary on the war, or even moderately appealing characters, well I hope you like looking at horses.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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