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Knives Out (2019)

Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who likes to dabble across genres and put his high-concept stamp on them. His debut film, 2006’s Brick, was a moody noir-flavored mystery set in a modern high school. His next film, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was a whimsical con artist movie with cons-within-cons, and then Looper took time travel and twisted it into knots. From there the man was tapped to not only direct a new Star Wars movie but write one, and 2017’s The Last Jedi proved so divisive that Russia literally created robotic accounts to exploit raw feelings to better sow discord among Americans and undermine democracy. Johnson must have needed a detox from that galaxy far far away, and Knives Out is his version of an Agatha Christie-styled parlor mystery. Once again Johnson has taken an older genre, subverted its form, and made it his own in a way that feels reverent while also fresh, fun, and thoroughly entertaining.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a world-renowned mystery writer with a publishing empire in the millions. Then on the night of his birthday party, Harlan is found dead and every family member is a suspect. Could it be Marta Cabreara (Ana de Armas), the nurse who was last seen taking care of the old man? Could it be the daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), eager to get out of her marriage to a cheating husband (Don Johnson, having a moment this fall)? Could it be the son Walt (Michael Shannon) who was going to lose his position of power in control of the family publishing empire? Could it be grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) who didn’t show up on time for the party but showed up early for the will reading? The local police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) is doing his best to navigate the many suspects. And then there’s the famed private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), hired by an unknown benefactor to discover foul play, who interrogates each family member, investigates the corners of the estate, and uncovers the truth.

Knives Out is an incredibly fun movie to watch fly by for its extended 130-minute running time. The guessing game is enjoyable and there is a plethora of suspects and red herrings. Johnson is clearly a fan of the genre and doing his best to send it up in his own way while still staying true to its roots. Just look at the silly, Dickensian names and you can tell Johnson is enjoying himself (there’s a character named “Ransom”). The mystery is clever but it becomes something more than a whodunnit (more on that below) and that’s when Knives Out becomes special. Johnson has been repeatedly accused of being too clever by half, looking to produce some meta gymnastics to subvert audience expectations but to what end? This was an issue with the very end of Brothers Bloom and many had this same complaint with The Last Jedi. It’s not enough to subvert expectations if the alternative isn’t as compelling. Still, the choices that Johnson makes with Knives Out best serve to improve the emotional involvement in the story. That quality seems like a rarity when it comes to murder mysteries, because it’s all about solving the crime and not necessarily how it affects the people on a more human level. It’s a problem to be solved, an equation on the board, and the process eliminates the variables systematically. Except with Knives Out, Johnson opens up the central figure of Marta in such a way that she becomes a symbolic figure for the immigrant experience in this country, fighting for dignity and recognition. The political commentary isn’t deep, and some of the shots feel a little cheap, but where Johnson succeeds is treating Marta as an empathetic stand-in for an often-invisible class.

A half-hour or so into the proceedings, Johnson makes a very conscious choice that changes how we understand the mystery and especially how we’re involved. I’ll be careful about spoilers but suffice to say we get some very crucial information that makes us look at the murder differently. For the first act it feels like it’s heading into a whodunnit with our clan of suspicious relatives, but it does something else, and I would argue something better. The problem with an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit is that the film is structured toward solving one central mystery and other important dramatic elements can fall by the wayside. Once you know who the killer is, was the journey to unmask them worth the twists and turns? Johnson instead lets the audience in on crucial information so that Knives Out alters, and the “who” is less important than how this information affects our relationship with a set of characters. It becomes less who is the killer and more will this culprit get caught and how will they beat the encroaching investigation. It transforms the entire structure, where instead of everything leading to one reveal, now it becomes a series of mini-panics and scrambles to stay ahead of a trap. This made me that much more personally involved and Johnson doubled the dramatic irony and tension of scenes. It becomes more a series of obfuscation where we’re involved, remembering what clues might be the ones that ultimately prove too inescapable. There is a downside to this approach, letting out some big reveals early also serves to downplay the vast majority of the supporting players. These people are all given motives and suspicions early on, but once Johnson unloads his twists too many of these same characters just fade into the background, their story use extinguished.

Another cheerful aspect of Knives Out is simply how much fun its cast is having, none more so than Craig (Spectre). I never really gave much thought to Craig as a comedic actor until 2017’s Logan Lucky, where he seemed to be unleashed, digging full bore into a charming and kooky supporting character, and it was downright joyful to watch him cut it up onscreen. He’s given such serious, macho roles but he really excels in the right comedic role, and he just has the time of his life playing Blanc. His southern-fried accent, penchant for theatricality, and garrulous nature all contribute to both tweak the idea of the clever inspector while playing into those clichés as well, steering into the fun we have with them. There were several moments I was left breathlessly cackling because of how Craig was delivering his lines with such relish. His explanation of the mystery being “a donut hole inside a donut hole” might be one of the best film scenes of the year. It also helps that Blanc has an affectionate working relationship with Marta, the heart of our movie, which makes this eccentric even more endearing to the audience. Just as Kenneth Branagh is continuing the adventures of his mustachioed private eye, I would happily watch another murder mystery featuring Blanc if Rian Johnson felt so inclined (pretty please).

The other actors do fine work even if many of them end up being underwritten figures either meant to be threatening suspects or cartoonish buffoons. Armas (Blade Runner 2047) is the lead actress and often the contrast for our rich elites and their out-of-touch perspectives; she’s the sounding board for their pettiness, acrimony, entitlement, and thinly-veiled racism. Armas just shines in the role as this figure who routinely makes the right choice even when it costs her. She’s a relatable, hard-working, kind character trying to keep her moral bearing in this high-stakes contest. Evans (Avengers: Endgame) is enjoyably smug and a welcome force to antagonize and puncture the egos of his fellow family members. Shannon (The Current War) has his effective moments of conveying menace and being laughably impotent. Every other actor does good work but too many of them barely make a blip. I forgot Riki Lindhome (Garfunkel and Oates) was in this movie from scene to scene. It’s a big cast so the goal is to make the most of their moments, and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, though some are far more broad.

Knives Out is a fun experience and further proof that when Rian Johnson really sets his mind on a certain genre, good and clever entertainments sprout. I want this man to tell the stories that excite him because there are still many more genres that could use the Rian Johnson stamp.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary has built up a great roaring buzz from film festivals and its oblique marketing. Numerous critics are hailing writer/director Ari Aster’s debut film as one of the scariest movies of a generation. The studio, A24, which has built up a fine reputation for art movies and genre fare, is releasing it. Except A24 has some trouble when it comes to its horror thrillers. Last year’s It Comes at Night was similarly beloved by critics yet audiences generally disliked it, angered by the misleading marketing that framed it as a supernatural horror (there was none, no titular “it” to come at night). I wonder if A24 learned their lesson and that’s why the trailers and ads for Hereditary have been intentionally hard to follow. After watching Hereditary and feeling let down, I wonder if A24 is in for another disparity between critics and audiences. This is a sloppy, unfocused film with little sense of structure, pacing, or payoffs. It’s a movie of moments and from there your mileage will vary.

Annie (Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) are ordinary middle-class parents living with two teenage children, the older Peter (Alex Wolff) and the younger Charlie (Millie Shapiro), a girl given to peculiar habits. Following a tragic accident, the family is struggling to come to terms with their loss and their new lives. Annie seeks out comfort from a group meeting, and that’s where she meets Joan (the great Ann Dowd) who shows her how to contact the spirits of the dead via a handy incantation. From there, Annie tries to establish a connection to the realm beyond and possibly unleashes a spirit targeting her family.

With the rapturous critical acclaim that Hereditary has garnered, I was expecting something far more engrossing and far less sloppy. Structurally, this movie is a mess. It feels very directionless from a story standpoint, like the movie is wading around and blindly looking for an escape route into the next scene. Rarely will scenes have lasting impact or connect to the following scene; you could literally rearrange the majority of the scenes in this movie and not affect the understanding whatsoever. That’s, simply put, poor screenwriting when your scenes lack a more pertinent purpose other than contributing to an ongoing atmosphere of paranoia (more on that later). I’m struggling to make broader connections or add lasting thematic relevance to much of the plotting, and that’s because it feels so convoluted and repetitious for so long, until Aster decides it’s time to throw the audience the most minimal of lifelines. There is a moment late in the second act where a character finds a convenient exposition dump by looking through a photo album and a book that is literally highlighted. That at least explains the intent of the final act, but even as that plays out, by the end it’s still mostly confounding. The film ends with another exposition dump, this time as voice over, and I got to thinking that if it wasn’t for these two offhand moments you would have no idea why anything is happening. I had a friend whose girlfriend had been bugging him for Hereditary spoilers for months, so I carefully explained the movie to them as precisely as I could. By the end, he told me, “I still don’t get it.” Yeah, I didn’t get it either and I was actively trying.

There is a type of horror fan that will lap up Hereditary, namely the kind that places the creation of dread and atmosphere and memorable moments above all else. If you’re a gushing fan of David Lynch movies or Dario Argento and their sense of strange dream logic, you’ll be more ready to prize the sum rather than the whole of Hereditary. The aesthetics are pleasurable thanks to crafty production designer Grace Yun (First Reformed) and the moody photography from Pawel Pogorzelski (Tragedy Girls) that maximizes the space and draws out the anticipatory dread. There are effective moments where I gasped or squirmed, but there were also moments where I wanted to laugh. The key term is “moments.” Without a structure, sense of development, and attachment to the characters and their lives, Hereditary left me chasing fleeting entertainment.

Now when it comes to horror moments, I’ll again admit that everyone’s mileage will vary. Some people will watch Hereditary and be scared stupid. Others will shrug. That’s a deeply personal response. I can look at a movie like A Quiet Place and point to its intricate structure and execution to explain why its suspense was so affecting and satisfying. With Hereditary, because all it supplies is moments, I can’t explain why something will work or won’t for a person. Maybe you have a thing against headless corpses. Maybe you have a thing for jump scares (there are more than a few). Maybe you have a thing for invisible girls making clicking noises with their tongues. Then again maybe you’d enjoy a narrative that gave you a better reason to care and that organically built meaningful scares through tangible circumstances.

If you can hang onto the final nightmarish act, that’s when Hereditary is at its best, finally picking up a sense of momentum and finality. The first forty-five minutes of this movie more closely resemble something like Manchester by the Sea, a family unit becoming undone through grief and guilt, simmering grievances just under the surface. It’s well acted, especially by Toni Collette (Krampus) as a mother barely escaping the pull of her boiling anger at her son and the universe as a whole. She gets a few quality moments to blow up and it feels like years of painful buildup coming out. The awkward family interaction is chilly but missing greater nuance. It has marked elements that should bring nuance and engagement (Personal Tragedy, Mental Instability, Blame, Guilt, Obsession), but with Aster’s undercooked screenplay those elements never coalesce. This is a movie experience that is never more than the sum of its spooky parts. Byrne (The 33) is essentially just there, and the fact that the 68-year-old actor has two teenage children is a little hard to swallow. Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) does a fine job of showing his deteriorating mind late in the movie. The problem is that these characters just aren’t that interesting, so when the supernatural acceleration creeps in, there’s already a ceiling as far as how much we, the audience, will care about what befalls them. What are the stakes if you don’t understand what’s happening and don’t genuinely care about the central characters?

My pal Ben Bailey chided me after seeing Hereditary that I was trying to do the movie’s work for it by looking for deeper connections and foreshadowing clues. Is there some greater meaning for the headless women motif? Is there a larger reason why the dollhouse God imagery is prevalent? Is there a reason, after finding out about the haunting, that the family still leaves their beleaguered son alone? Is there a mental illness connection or is it all a manifestation of hysterical grief? The English teacher discusses the Greek tragedy of Iphigenia (see: a better movie following this model, 2017’s Killing of a Sacred Deer) and whether being predestined for sacrifice is more tragic than choosing your own self-destruction, and is that a glimpse at thematic relevance in a way that seems almost half-hearted? The problem with a long, incoherent story built upon a heaping helping of creepy imagery and atmosphere is that it can often fall into the lazy trap where the filmmaker will just throw up their hands as if to say, “Well, it’s up for interpretation.” I don’t mind a challenging movie experience (I was on the side that enjoyed, if that’s the correct term, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!). I can appreciate a movie that’s trying to be ambiguous and ambitious. However, the pieces have to be there to form a larger, more meaningful picture to analyze and discuss, and Hereditary just doesn’t offer those pieces. It’s an eerie horror movie with its moments of intrigue and dread but it’s also poorly developed, too convoluted, and prone to lazy writing and characterization. I’ll highlight it for you, Hereditary-style: if you’re looking for more than atmosphere and tricks, seek another horror movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

Krampus (2015)

jEYZE9aNot quite funny enough and not quite scary enough, Krampus is a holiday antidote that wants to be a modern-day Gremlins but needed to be nastier, darker, or some variant with the suffix of –er. Writer/director Michael Dougherty has been down this holiday road before with Trick ‘r Treat, a superb horror anthology genre gem that was buoyed by a twisted sense of humor and a clever criss-crossing set of storylines that pollinated plenty of payoffs. Krampus begins with a brilliant opening credit sequence that sets a high bar o promise the movie will ultimately be unable to deliver, watching slow-mo stampeding shoppers fighting over Black Friday discounts set to a classic Bing Crosby yuletide tune. From there it’s more a Griswald dysfunctional family gathering until one of the young boys rips up his letter to Santa in disillusionment, calling forth Krampus and his minions. From there the family is terrorized and come closer together in struggle, trying to understand their predicament. There are a few great character designs for the minions, especially a jack-in-the-box whose face unhinges into a sarlac pit of teeth. The PG-13 rating keeps the film from getting too gory or too wicked, which also belies the fact that at heart it’s really an old-fashioned Christmas morality play about loving one another. I was ready to groan with what appeared to be the ending but Dougherty at least subverts the expected and makes sure that there are lasting consequences for bad behavior. This isn’t going to be remembered as a holiday classic but if you’re looking for a fun horror comedy, Krampus at least has something to offer before you feel left wanting.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Way, Way Back (2013)

the-way-way-back-posterA throwback to the youthful summer movies of the 80s, The Way, Way Back is a delightful coming-of-age film that manages to excel at both comedy and drama. Oscar-winners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (co-writers of 2011’s The Descendants) graduate to directors, guiding the famous cast with ease yet squeezing enough satisfying emotional truth into the formula of a screwy, Meatballs-style comedy. We follow 13-year-old Duncan (Liam James) as he spends the summer with his mother (Toni Collette) and her bully of a boyfriend (Steve Carell). My one gripe is that the film spends far more time than it needs to establish just how unequivocally awkward Duncan is. You will likely cringe. When Sam Rockwell enters the picture as a charming goofball water park employee who takes Duncan under his wing is when the movie ascends to a new level of comedy. The Way, Way Back hums along with its own sense of charm, presenting familiar characters/scenes but giving them added texture and relatability. You will be surprised at how much you feel for these characters, you may get a bit misty at points, especially when they behave like people and not zany cartoons. Carell as a bad guy is a real eye-opener; he’s a passive aggressive bully rarely seen in movies. James is an authentically awkward teen but you also buy every step of his journey. It’s just such a sweet, enjoyable, and cute movie, exuding charm and sincerity. Here is a movie that just makes you smile. You’ll leave The Way, Way Back feeling warm and fuzzy, and Rash and Faxon have another winner on their hands.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Fright Night (2011)

Horror is a genre that’s been notoriously cannibalistic, especially as of late. I don’t mean flesh-eating, I mean the glut of remakes that has polluted the horror market in recent years. After remakes of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenth, The Hills Have Eyes, House of Wax, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, The Amityville Horror, The Fog, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, Sorority Row, Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, The Thing, and scads more, you’d be forgiven for believing that the remake of 1985’s Fright Night would be another soulless cash grab. It turns out that it’s way better than even the original and quite an entertaining movie that got lost in the shuffle.

In a quiet little suburb outside Las Vegas, students are going missing. Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) suspects that there is a vampire in town. Ed’s former friend, Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin), dismisses this idea, especially since the would-be vampire in question is his new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), a home construction worker who seems to work at night mostly. But lo and behold, after Ed goes missing, Charley concludes that his old friend was right all along. Jerry has his eyes set on Charley’s single realtor mom, Jane (Toni Colette), and maybe even Charlie’s sprightly girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots). The only ally Charley can muster is a drunken Vegas magician in the Criss Angel tradition. Peter Vincent (David Tennant) has been studying vampires for years due to his tragic personal connection to vampires, notably Jerry.

Fright Night finds that horror sweet spot, equal parts scary and funny. Credit screenwriter Marti Noxon who cut her teeth on TV’s seminal show (yeah, I said it) Buffy the Vampire Slayer; there’s even a reference to a “Scooby gang” for we Buffy fans. Noxon does a terrific job of establishing a suspenseful situation and then developing it nicely, teasing it out. There’s a sequence where Charley is trying to rescue a neighbor lady that just involves a series of hiding places but uses a simple setup of ducking around corners so well. When our plucky protagonist checks in with Vincent for some assistance, we’re introduced to an array of exotic vampire-hunting weapons and artifacts that the Vegas magician has under glass. With a setup like that, you better believe we’re going to be using those weapons later, and how. The character development is richer than most teens-battle-monster genre films. The relationship between Charley and Ed, and the awkwardness and resentment of two friends growing apart, feels rather believable even dropped into the middle of a vampire adventure. The standard girlfriend role is given a bit more weight, as she’s the one who feels confidant and aggressive. She knows what she wants, and as played by the adorably named Imogen Poots (Solitary Man), you want to be what she wants. Seriously, this actress is striking in her Grecian features and I like a woman who knows how to handle a mace. There are also small touches that I really enjoyed that helped round out the movie. At one moment, a woman is being fed on by Jerry and she spots Charley hiding behind a door. Rather than cry out for help, she carefully draws a shaking finger to her mouth, wishing him to keep quiet and not to save her. The resolution of this rescue attempt is shocking in all the right ways. It’s a surprise that feels completely within reason, and organic twists and turns are always the most satisfying.

Noxon’s script continually surprises even when it starts to follow a by-the-numbers plot. Instead of an axe lopping off a vampire’s head, it just goes about halfway through thanks to the rigidity of bone. That’s a nice touch, but then when that same vampire tries to bite our hero and can’t move his fairly severed neck closer, then that’s when Noxon has capitalized on her cleverness. And she capitalizes often enough for Fright Night to be a real step above most vampire action flicks. Noxon also finds clever spins on vampire mythos; to get around the whole can’t-enter-without-an-invitation rule, Jerry just attempts to blow up the Brewster’s home to drive them out (“Don’t need an invitation if there’s no house”). There’s a particularly ingenious method to light a vampire on fire. And the entire character of Peter Vincent, played brilliantly by Dr. Who actor David Tennant, is a hoot and a great addition. He’s a riot as a cynical, profane, and selfish stage performer.  His character is such an enjoyably comic foil, and Tennant plays him with aplomb, that you almost wish for a Peter Vincent spinoff movie.

Director Craig Gillespie shows that he is shocking adept when it comes to staging a horror film. I would not have expected this level of competency from the director of Lars and the Real Girl. It embraces its R-rating and the bloodshed is plentiful though the gore is restrained. Gillespie draws out scenes with judicious editing, letting the dread build steadily. The tension of something simple like Jerry standing in a doorway, waiting for any verbal slipup to come inside, can be terrific. Gillespie also has some nifty visual tricks up his sleeve to complement Noxon’s crafty screenplay. There’s one scene where Jerry walks into a hotel lobby and is confronted by a security guard. The camera pans over a series of security monitors that do not pick up Jerry. Then in the background we see Jerry hurl the guard to the ground to bite him and in the foreground we see the security footage minus Jerry. There’s an ongoing tracking shot inside a fleeing minivan that’s not exactly Children of Men but still a good way to feel the fever of panic. The final showdown between Charley and Vincent versus Jerry is suitably climactic and rewarding, nicely tying back elements that were introduced earlier and giving Poots an opportunity to vamp out, literally and figuratively.

Farrell (Horrible Bosses) is a charming, sexy, alluring menace as Jerry, which is exactly what you’d want in a vampire (sorry Twilight fans). Vampires are supposed to be seductive; they’re inherently sexual, what with all that biting and sucking and sharing of body fluids. If Jerry is going to be dangerous, he also has to be seductive, and Farrell is exactly that. With his swaggering walk, with his pose-worthy stances, with his grins, he’s a great ambassador for vampire kind. But this guy does more than preen; he’s also a credible threat. He’s the bad boy that is actually quite bad. Farrell’s enjoyment of his villainous role is noticeable. Jerry taunts Vincent: “You have your mother’s eyes.” He shoots and misses the big bad vamp. “And your father’s aim,” he add, chillingly. Having a strong villain can do wonders for an action movie, and Jerry is a formidable foe played with great relish by Farrell.

Not everything goes off without a hitch. The special effects can be dodgy at times, especially when Jerry goes into full CGI vampire face. The vampires tend to look like shark people, with long exaggerated jaws and rows of gnarly teeth. It’s not a particularly good look. While Noxon’s script excels in most areas, there is still enough dangling plot threads. Charley’s mother is really never a figure of significance. Her potential romance of her neighbor/vampire is a storyline that is never capitalized upon, oddly enough. That seems like the kind of storyline you’d build a whole movie around. She’s written out of the movie in hasty fashion, immediately going from a sequence of driving to being unconscious in a hospital bed. How did that happen exactly? After the Brewster house explodes, nobody seems to make a big deal out of this, like it’s just some regular neighborhood occurrence. What kind of neighborhood watch is this?

Fright Night is just a fun night out at the movies. It’s got plenty of laughs thanks to Noxon’s clever script, plenty of scares thanks to Gillespie, and plenty of sex appeal oozing from Farrell (though “sex appeal” and “oozing” don’t sound like an advisable linguistic match). It’s not much more than a vampire action flick but it’s a really good vampire action flick, clearly a cut above the dreck that usually just relies on its audience’s understanding of genre convention to cover up for its shortcomings. There’s no reason you cannot be a good movie with this genre, and Fright Night is proof of that. Convincingly acted, cleverly staged, and surprisingly well-executed, this is one genre movie that hits the right vein.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Evening (2007)

A chick flick crammed with lots of bona fide stars and A-list talent that manages to squander all talent. It slogs on and on, the back and forth nature of the plot does little to keep an audience alert, and the story it tells in the past is so pedestrian, so minuscule, and ultimately so mundane that you can’t help but wonder why an old woman on her deathbed would be flashing back and remembering it. This high profile weepy never finds the right tone and often settles for maudlin and predictable plot turns. Evening is the kind of movie that kills the chances for a large, female-driven film to get made in Hollywood.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Slowly but surely, Little Miss Sunshine is gaining momentum as the breakout comedy of the summer. It’s gotten some of the most glowing reviews of the year and is poised to capture the hearts of not just fans of indie cinema but also patrons of the big suburban multiplexes, your red state soccer moms and NASCAR dads. After having seen Little Miss Sunshine, I feel like I must have missed the bandwagon.

Little Olive (Abigail Breslin) is bursting with shriek-worthy excitement. She just found out she’s a regional contestant in the national Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant. Her family crams into a beaten down, canary yellow Volkswagen bus and heads off on a cross-state journey for Olive. Along for the ride are Olive’s fractured family — older brother (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a fighter pilot, stressed-out but supportive mom (Toni Collette), ambitious self-help failure dad (Greg Kinnear), a potty-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandpa (Alan Arkin), and a suicidal gay uncle (Steve Carell). It’s a long road to the pageant, especially with such an eclectic group of people whose only thing in common are their chromosomes.

I just couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that Little Miss Sunshine should be more. It’s not really much of a comedy. There are some funny moments, and pushing the bus is a running gag with better legs than I would have guessed, but the film has a lot of stretches where the laughs are low to nonexistent. It’s not really much of a character piece either. None of the characters are that well defined or allowed to stretch out. The family members are all archetypes of indie film weirdness: the gay intellectual, the verbally inappropriate grandparent, the self-deluded father, the frazzled mother, the loner brother, and the precocious tyke. Little Miss Sunshine does a fine job of setting up its family of cracked characters but then seems to twiddle its thumbs when it comes to development. The only character insights come in a scattered few small moments with Olive. Dad is essentially poisoning his family with his self-help claptrap, casting the world into “winners” and “losers.” There’s a heartfelt moment brilliantly played Breslin where she confesses to grandpa that she doesn’t want to be a loser because her dad would stop loving her. Aside from that, Little Miss Sunshine seems to wind its characters up and then leave them be. I wanted more of just about everything but the movie wouldn’t budge.

The movie spends quite arguably too much time at the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Child beauty pageants are a well deserved, albeit easy, satirical punching bag, and they creep the hell out of me. Seriously, turning little girls into highly sexualized Barbie dolls seems cruel, unnatural, and very very creepy to me. There was a stupendous documentary that aired on HBO years ago called Living Dolls that traced the life of a six-year-old girl and her stage mother. It was a harrowing film, and the obsessive mother is one of the most disturbing villains I’ve ever seen in a movie, scripted or otherwise. In the film you see how people transform little girls into flirty, overly made-up little adults. It’s sickening.

The reason I bring this up is because Little Miss Sunshine because they lift a direct metaphor. In Living Dolls the main girl is playing one of those tiny slide puzzles where the finished result is an honest to God yellow smiley face. It’s a perfect metaphor of this child attempting to find happiness when no one seems to want her to live as a child. And then I saw the exact same moment in Little Miss Sunshine. Rip-off or accidental homage, you decide. In the same vein, every time Kinnear invokes the name of his literary agent, Stan Grossman, I kept thinking of Fargo.

In Sunshine, the family is aghast at the pageant scene but support Olive anyway. Then things get way too easy. The film concludes with the 5,785th rendition of the weirdos celebrating what makes them who they are, their weirdness, and sticking it to the thumb-nosing naysayers. Then the movie abruptly ends. That’s all, folks. Little Miss Sunshine was already built on the aching backs of two very familiar indie staples, dysfunctional families and road trips, and offers little else to justify its existence.

It’s hard to really drag this film through the mud. It was proficiently made by the music video directing team of Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris (Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight Tonight). The acting is generally good. The better actors rise to the top despite their limited character depth. Carell is a big name in comedy right now, and he gives a rather subdued, sarcastic performance that will resonate best with audiences. Kinnear is better at playing smug types than pathetic types. His character really is the villain of the piece, so it’s nice to see his transformation even if it is awfully spontaneous. Collette always looks to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Breslin (Signs) is pretty cute and will pierce your heart during the aforementioned talk with grandpa.

There are some amusing moments and fun pieces of dialogue, and the film has its heart in the right place. The screenplay needed to go through a few more drafts to strengthen character and story. I can honestly say my favorite part of Little Miss Sunshine was listening to its very Sufjan Stevens-like soundtrack full of meloncholic horns, cellos, violins, squeezebox and electronic whispers. I would recommend the soundtrack ahead of the movie.

I feel some shades of guilt as I gather my opinion, however I cannot deny the overwhelming urge that Little Miss Sunshine should have been more. It needed more comedy, more character depth, more attention to story, and more opportunity for its ensemble of actors to sink their teeth into the material. This appointed indie darling is intermittingly amusing, has some laughs, and may be worth a free afternoon or as a rental. To me, it’s also a big example of wasted potential. Little Miss Sunshine is a beauty that needs more work before it can shine on a greater stage.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Hours (2002)

Okay, after watching the Golden Globes award show and seeing ‘The Hours’ crowned with the highest prize, and hearing incessantly about Nicole Kidman’’s fake prosthetic nose in the movie, it was time to venture into that darkened theater and see how good the awards-friendly ‘The Hours’ was. Little did I fully realize what I was getting myself into.

Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf, who is in the midst of writing her novel Mrs. Dalloway, where she proposes to display a woman’s entire life through the events of a single day. Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown, a housewife in 1951 having difficulty adjusting to a domestic life that she feels ill equipped for. Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughan, a gay copy-editor in 2001 planning a party for a poet and former lover (an emaciated Ed Harris), who is suffering from the late stages of AIDS. These three storylines will be juggled as the film progresses, with each woman’s life deeply changing before the end of the day.

The Hours’ is a meandering mess where the jigsaw pieces can be easily identified. The attempt at a resolution for an ending, tying the three storylines together, is handled very clumsily. The film spins on and on that you start to believe the title may be more appropriate than intended. What this movie needed was a rappin’ kangaroo, post haste! The film is wrought with victimization and screams “”Give me an award already!”” Before you know it you’re being bludgeoned to death with what is profoundly the most over serious Lifetime network movie ever assembled. And there’’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Lifetime movies but ‘The Hours’ does not share the sensibilities of its TV” brethren.

Kidman, nose and all, gives a strong performance displaying the torture and frailty of a writer trapped within her own mind but too often relies on wistful staring or icy glares. Moore is effectively demoralized but cannot resonate with such a shallow character. Streep is the least effective of the three and fizzles among an over-stuffed assembly of characters.

The supporting cast is unjustly left for dead. The characters are seen as parody (Toni Collette as Moore’’s un-liberated homemaker neighbor), extraneous (Claire Danes as Streep’’s daughter, Allison Janney as Streep’’s lover, Jeff Daniels as Harris’ ex-lover, you know what, almost anyone in the Streep storyline), one-note (the workmanlike John C. Reilly who plays yet another doting and demystified husband) or merely obnoxious (Moore’’s brat child that refuses to separate from her). It appears ‘The Hours’ is the three lead actress’ game, and everyone else is not invited to play along.

Stephen Daldry’’s direction shows surprising stability and instinct after his art-house pandering ‘Billy Elliot’ showed little. The technical aspects of ‘The Hours’ are quite competent, especially the sharp editing and musical score, which just points out further how slickly hollow and manufactured the film is.

The Hours’ is an over-glossed, morose film that is too self-important for its own good. It sucks the life out of everything. And for all its doom and gloom and tsunami of tears, the only insightful thing ‘The Hours’ is trying to pass off onto the public is that women are more depressed than you think.

Nate’s Grade: C

Changing Lanes (2002)

Don’t be misled by fancy marketing, Changing Lanes is no more a thriller than In the Bedroom (now that was some fancy misleading marketin’). At its core Lanes is a morality tale hiding under the clothing of thriller ilk. But while the film is surprisingly engaging the majority of it centers on Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson doing a good or bad deed and countering one. And in this dilemma the deck is stacked for audience favorability. Jackson is a down-on-his-luck father fighting an impending divorce and trying to get a loan to purchase some real estate so his wife and kids won’t move away. Affleck is a cocky lawyer in a big firm who had an affair with his secretary (the chipped-tooth looking Toni Collette). Who do you think is the “good” guy? The film seems to bend over backwards to try and make Affleck not so bad, like showing him remorseful and pushed to the edge, under threats from his father-in-law and firm partner (Sydney Pollack), and being urged into a dark unethical territory by his own wife (Amanda Peet).

Jackson underplays his role, despite the snippets of vocal outbursts, and earns the compassion of the audience. Affleck plays Cocky Lawyer Man Who Becomes Humble and does a fine job. The supporting cast really shines in Changing Lanes especially Peet. Her one true scene involving her chilly sit-down with her husband is great in its sharp veer from what is expected.

Changing Lanes was directed by Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill) with a bit of nerves. Some scenes are shot from obtuse angles and the score has an inappropriate electronica taste. In the end though, Changing Lanes is an involving morality tale with some good lead performances.

Nate’s Grade: B

Shaft (2000)

Samuel L. Jackson takes on director John Singleton’s remake – shut you mouth! I mean “newer” Shaft and spins it with effortless style and some surprising scenes of wit and even suspense. Shaft used to be a landmark in cinema, and for the black community as well, as it went full forward smashing taboos. It was more of a statement than good art because it wasn’t really art (the character in the novel was white, by the way). Jackson’s Shaft is more of a thug then the kinder gentler lady pleasure that was Richard Roundtree. This Shaft is never once preoccupied with being any landmark but doesn’t strive to be anything more then entertaining fun. The story is what surprised me most because it actually had interesting people and a well told tale. Taking a cue from the Batman franchise the villains are far more interesting and luminous then anyone else, and Christian Bale and a star-making performance by the always talented Jeffrey Wright end up making each of them a wonder on screen. Their chemistry together is worth the price of admission alone, even if you are tired of Bale playing white-collar pretty boys now (he still murders in each though!). Shaft is a loud and fast breath of summer but it’s one that surprising and very entertaining.

Nate’s Grade: B

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