The true tale of rescuing the trapped 13 Thai boys in the summer of 2018 is turned into an engrossing and often thrilling if overly long 2022 movie experience thanks to director Ron Howard and a dedicated crew bringing to vivid life the harrowing drama. I was vaguely aware of this story as it played out originally, though missed the critically acclaimed documentary The Rescue from last year that covered the same material, but watching the movie I realize I knew very little of the actual horror. The movie centers around a pair of English divers (Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen), both with over 30 years of specific cave diving experience, helping the Thai Navy Seals and government officials to find and save the missing children and their coach. The submerged path is one that lasts about seven hours, and it’s narrow, dark, and treacherous, easy to lose your way. when you only have a tank of air, navigation is the difference between life and death. It’s also a race against time as the monsoon waters are flooding the cave further. The cave traversal sequences are nerve-wracking and deeply immersive, enough so that even I, while watching, started sitting on the edge of my couch in the safety of my own home. The story isn’t entirely centered on our two heroic white guys, as the screenplay by William Nicholson (Gladiator) widens the focus onto many who contributed to the boys eventual rescue, from an engineer who realized they needed to dam water drainage at the top of a mountain, to the locals who agreed to have their crops flooded for the possibility of saving the kids, to the bravery of the Thai Seals, to the hope and burdens of the parents. I never knew the boys had to literally be anesthetized to be removed, and the ensuring climax as the rescue team keeps tabs on how their precious cargo is responding during the multi-hour journey underwater. Howard keeps things pretty straightforward and helpfully provides onscreen graphics to better provide a sense of distance within the cave, which just makes the heroics even more dizzying. Thirteen Lives is an inspiring story about the world coming together for common cause (except Elon Musk, who baselessly accused one of the divers as being a “pedo”) and it’s also genuinely exciting even when you know they all make it out alive, which is its own credit. It might have used some tightening up for pacing, but it’s a well-made dramatization that pays real homage to the many heroes without overplaying its drama.
Nate’s Grade: B+
David Cronenberg returns to the thing David Cronenberg is best known for. It’s been twenty-plus years since the director has gone back to his body horror roots, and Crimes of the Future is certainly a gross gross movie. If that’s what you’re hoping for, then the discomfort and bizarre sexual analogies might be a selling point for you. For me, I just felt nauseated without an interesting core to keep my mind from drifting away. In the future, people have evolved (?) pain tolerance and infection rates, so our protagonist Saul (Viggo Mortsensen) turns surgery into public performance as his assistant/lover (Lea Seydoux) removes the vestigial organs his body produces. Kirsten Stewart’s antsy, horny character states that “surgery is the new sex,” and you’ll get plenty of parallels as we watch person after person get all squirmy while being cut open. My problem with the movie is that there isn’t anything beyond the shock value. The commentarry about body experimentation as a form of sensuality feels trite and more an opening for weird moments, like when Saul gets a zipper installed across his pelvis and his assistant decides to open it and somehow pleasure this… pouch? There’s a hint of an interesting movie here. Saul is being asked to serve as a confidential informant for the government hunting down an extremist group trying to kick-start evolution so that children will be able to consume plastics. That would have put our main character into a discovery role for this world that would have provided more than shock value. The movie begins, literally, with a child being suffocated by his mother, so that sets the tone as to where Cronenberg is headed. Crimes of the Future is essentially a geek show of a movie absent meaningful social/sexual commentary and interesting characters. It’s more a movie of pliable body parts.
Nate’s Grade: C
Green Book plays like a twenty-first century rendition of Driving Miss Daisy, a well-meaning and relatively gentle movie about race relations where a prejudiced white person comes about thanks to their firsthand friendship with an African-American male. It’s reportedly inspired by the true story of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a nightclub bouncer, driving around a famed pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), as he performed throughout the South in 1962. The best part of the movie is the character interaction between this odd couple, and you’ll get plenty of it too. The actors burrow into their very distinctly conflicting characters, so it’s a natural pleasure to watch them eventually bond and learn from one another. This is the kind of racism that doesn’t make people feel too uncomfortable, and you could say that about the film as a whole. It’s a bit safe and has its intentions set on being a big, inclusive crowd-pleaser, and it plays like one. There are moments to make you laugh, moments to make you cheer, and moments to make you tear up. Morstensen and Ali are terrific together and find dignity and humanity in characters that could have easily become one-note stereotypes. The more we learn about Dr. Shirley the more interesting he becomes, a man used to feeling like an outsider no matter the company he keeps. Watching the two men grow and open up to one another can be heartwarming and deeply satisfying. Remarkably, the film is directed and co-written by one half of the Farrelly brothers, the pair responsible for ribald comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. It’s an easy movie to fall for, with its winning formula and enjoyable actors, but there’s a little nagging concern I have that Green Book is too safe, too straight, and too pat in its life lessons. Despite its Best Picture win, it’s not like Driving Miss Daisy has any lasting cultural impression, and I wonder if maybe Green Book is destined for the same. Still, the acting and writing is enough to bring a smile to your face and remind one’s self about the power of kindness.
Nate’s Grade: B
At first glance, the movie seems like an odd fit for director David Cronenberg, that is until you realize that, as Freud himself might approve, the entire movie is bubbling with sexual repression and kink. The movie showcases the friendship between the two titans of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and the strange patient (Keira Knightley) who brought them together and tore them apart. This is a very intimate chamber drama, confined to lots of men in suits talking in great detail about psychology and philosophy and desire (there are three separate scenes of dream decoding and lots of letter correspondence voice over). Knightley is superb as a hysterical patient torn apart by her socially inappropriate desires. It may be a tic-heavy performance but my God can the woman act. She’s like a feral beast at points. The majority of the film follows Jung’s affair with Knightley and his friction with the single-minded Freud, who incidentally is never without a cigar clenched between his teeth. Jung wants to expand their field of study to include paranormal activities; Freud wanted to stay within the realms of science to give their movement credibility. Cronenberg’s period drama can be a bit too sedate at times given its aberrant sexuality. You don’t really empathize with either Freud or Jung, and thus the drama is a robust and intellectually stimulating exercise but only an exercise. For people who do not share an interest in psychoanalysis, they’re in for a long slog. A Dangerous Method is a rather short film, only 99 minutes, and would have benefited from being a bit more dangerous with its subdued subject matter.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Director David Cronenberg is an idiosyncratic director who explores Big Ideas through the context of creepy horror movies where the body is violated. He’s covered everything from evil gnome-like children, ravenous monsters in Marilyn Chambers’ armpit, and Jeff Goldblum’s face unfortunately peeling away. But then Cronenberg struck it big with 2005’s A History of Violence, giving him the highest profile of his long Canadian career. The auteur of ick is now back in a similarly themed tale of the true impacts of bloodshed with Eastern Promises, a gripping and thoughtful work.
Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife working in London and come across a young Russian girl who dies in childbirth. She leaves behind a diary that Anna seeks to have translated so that she can find family members to contact about the newborn. This brings her unknowingly to the doorstep of Senyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who runs a restaurant in London’s Russian district. She inquires if Senyon or any of the employees knew the dead girl, and as soon as Senyon hears about the reality of a diary he becomes more concerned. And he should be since he is the head of one of London’s most notorious organized crime families. His loose canon of a son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), has authorized a hit behind his father’s back and repercussions may soon be approaching. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) serves as the family’s chauffeur but takes an interest in Anna and is willing to assist her as she stumbles into impending danger the more she translates from the diary.
Much like writer Steven Knight’s excellent previous film Dirty Pretty Things, this is a film that shines a light on the underbelly of London and focuses on the immigrant experience and how apt they are to be exploited. Eastern Promises is both a straightforward crime thriller with an intriguing, albeit simple central mystery, but then as it moves along it transforms into something far richer. Through the diary, we uncover the hidden inner workings of the Russian mafia, which is a truly global enterprise. Women are promised with great riches and freedoms in their Slavic homeland, and then once transported will spend the rest of their lives behind the bars of a whorehouse, kept dependent thanks to a drug habit forced upon them. We’re immersed in the culture of this crime family. Eastern Promises takes its noirsh sensibilities and then gives us the foreboding and enigmatic Nikolai, a mysterious figure that the audience, like Anna, is drawn to. He spent time in a Siberian prison and is covered in telling tattoos that serve as a resume for the mafia. Nikolai is such a dominating presence and proves to be more intriguing than the central diary mystery, and it’s here where the film performs a balancing act and transfers our attentions fully to this brooding brute.
Cronenberg subverts his usual irony and weirdness to stay true to his tale, and this may well be, even more so than A History of Violence, the most accessible Cronenberg movie yet. We’re a long way from flesh-eating-monster-in-Marilyn-Chambers’-armpit. He still works with such compact efficiency so that no scene feels wasted, and Eastern Promises is a brisk 1 hour 40 minutes. Where Eastern Promises really succeeds is by layering in strong characters within a relatively genre movie. People are not exactly who they seem and the actors do their best to give remarkable depth to their roles.
Cronenberg seems to have found an actor that shares his artistic sensibilities. Scorsese has Leonardo DiCaprio, Wes Anderson has Bill Murray, Kevin Smith has Ben Affleck, and now Cronenberg has Viggo Mortensen. I never thought much of Mortensen as an actor until Cronenberg unlocked something deep and mesmerizing in their first pairing. With Eastern Promises, Mortensen establishes himself as an extremely capable actor. Nikolai is a complex figure and he Mortensen displays a mastery of understatement; his stony silences and piercing stares speak volumes, but you can practically watch the decision-making of the character pass through the face of Mortensen. He skillfully displays the good inside a man bred for evil.
Watts is an actress with few equals and she dazzles once more in a role that requires her to do a lot of legwork. And yet, there’s a sad, haunting quality to her thanks to the back-story where she lost a child due to miscarriage. Cassel is also impressive in a complicated role that requires a lot of internal languishing. He’s at one an impudent child willing to live high off the power of his family name, and at other times he comes across as a severely wounded man who cannot thrive in his hostile family (both little and big F) environment. There are interesting revelations that make Kirill a much more complex and captivating figure, and Cassel plays the many dimensions very well. Personally, I’m happy to see Armin Mueller-Stahl in another high profile movie. There was a time shortly after his 1996 Oscar nomination for Shine where if you needed an old guy for a movie, you got the Armin. Lately, it seems James Cromwell has taken his place as go-to old guy. In Eastern Promises, he has such a sly menace to him from the moment his ears prick up at the notion of a diary. He insists upon inserting himself into Anna’s life and casually makes remarks like, “You know where I work, now I know where you work,” with just the right amount of finesse to sound intimidating and yet potentially harmless.
One scene I will never forget is when Nikolai is ambushed in a bathhouse by two revenge-hungry thugs. He sits there naked and exposed and these two unhappy gentlemen descend upon him (fully clothed) with knives. Nikolai fights like a wounded animal and manages to successfully take down both men even though he is unarmed and un-clothed. Up to this point the character has been something of a gentle giant, knowing the vicious ways of the Russian mob but seemingly at distance from them for whatever ethical decision. But it’s at this moment that we bare witness, no pun intended, to the cagey survival instincts of a man who must live his life looking over his shoulder. It’s a bravura scene that is played out in agonizing detail. Nikolai is slashed and thrown against tiled walls (much penis-related mayhem is glimpsed), but he keeps coming back and knows precisely when to strike. It really is the actors doing all the hard knocks and brawling, which heightens the tension. Cronenberg stages the violence in his realistic drawn-out style, which horrifies an audience while simultaneously fascinating them. This is by far one of the most indelible film moments of the entire year.
Eastern Promises is an engaging character-based thriller, and yet I wish it finished as strongly as it began. This is the kind of movie where much is implied or said in silence, which works great at respecting the intelligence of an audience as well as staying consistent with a believable reality where everyone in such dangerous positions is not explaining everything aloud. However, one of the drawbacks of a film where much is implied is that when it’s over you may wish that they implied less and showed more. The climax to Eastern Promises is a little weak, especially when it comes shortly after the incredible bathhouse attack. There’s a very hazy sense of a resolution. From an artistic standpoint, I suppose I can appreciate a thriller that doesn’t feel the need to end with a pile of dead bodies and much blood being spilt, but at the same time, from an audience point of view, I was really left wanting for more when the film finally comes to a halt.
Thanks to a smart, twisty script, Cronenberg’s sharp yet quirk-free direction, and some stirring performances, Eastern Promises is a first-rate thriller with the added benefit of strong characterization to add richer depth to this tale of mobsters, retribution, and sex slavery. Mortensen is the real deal when it comes to acting, folks. Cronenberg may have found a true match with Mortensen, and the added cache may give the director greater financial opportunities to tell more intriguing tales that may or may not feature ravenous armpits.
Nate’s Grade: B+
It is important to talk about Hidalgo being marketed as a “true story.” As a general rule, it’s good to be wary of movies that are heavily pushed as being “true stories” or “based on true events.” You have to pay close attention to the wording. Last fall, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was heavily marketed as a film “inspired by true events.” Which means it’s about as real as your dreams are. With this said, Hidalgo is based on the real Frank Hopkins and his stories about his life. Oh yeah, it just so happens that Hopkins is also a pathological liar and none of this is real. So, what the marketing of Hidalgo should really say is something like “based on the true story of what we heard from a pathological liar.” Something like that.
In fact, if you do some minor research, you’ll discover that the only thing true is that there was a guy named Frank Hopkins. He wasn’t part Native American, a Pony Express employee, a member of Wild Bill’s Circus, and he never had a horse named Hidalgo AND there has never been any 3,000-mile race in the Arabian desert. Yet Disneys marketing department still goes with “based on a true story.” I’ll remember that next time I have a dream involving little people and ice cream.
Hidalgo is the “story” of Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a former Pony Express employee who’s turned to the bottle to try to forget the slaughtering of Native Americans (exactly like Tom Cruise in Last Samurai). Hopkins enters a legendary 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert to regain his spirit. The race, across the “Ocean of Fire,” is dangerous, the elements are brutal, and the other riders will stop at nothing to win. Can the American cowboy who no one believes in triumph in the end?
Taking a hard look at Hidalgo, roughly 50 percent of the finished movie is watching Hopkins travel from Point A (usually on the left) to Point B (usually on the right). So, yes, half of this movie is watching someone walk one direction. I can’t imagine what the editing process was like. How do you know exactly where one shot of Hopkins walking should go? Sure, Lawrence of Arabia had a lot of walking in the desert from left to right, but it was also 4 hours long! Both films do star Omar Sharif, though.
25 percent of what is left involves people sitting around talking about all kinds of clichés, like pining for acceptance, independence, equality, etc. These sequences tend to bog down Hidalgo‘s narrative and bring the action to a halt. I realize that these “sit down” scenes are meant to be breathers and expand the characters. However, the characters don’t deepen because they are amidst a patchwork of clichés instead of a story. The actors are also saddled with some laughably awful dialogue, like, “There is a tempest in my tent,” or the greatest groaner of them all, “Even a blind man could see you’re beautiful.”
So, continuing numbers crunching, an audience is left with 25 percent of a movie, and what is that 25 percent? In short, the rest. Hidalgo does have some lively action sequences and exciting horse races but these bursts of fun are much too far apart. When getting down to it, Hidalgo is 25 percent an interesting movie. Now, whether 25 percent of entertainment is enough for someone depends on how hard-fought they are for amusement.
The thing Hidalgo has going for it is Viggo’s star power. He is a handsome guy and has a smoldering presence but he whispers more lines than any actor I know. Maybe he threw out his voice after three of years of yelling with The Lord of the Rings.
There are just some wondrously odd moments in Hidalgo. When Hopkins gets to the Arabian desert he notices a group of chained black people walking beside him. “Never seen slaves before?” a rider asks Hopkins. Then we cut away. What was that? The movie gives a shoulder shrug to slavery and then moves on. Later the slave kid becomes part of Hopkins’ pit crew, which also includes a wily old goat farmer. What? I have no idea how this kid became like Hopkins’ servant, and I have no idea why he’d be so happy about it. This part of the movie leaves me stumped, especially for a film where a character is so forward thinking about tolerating other races (as the protagonists always are in movies now). By the time you get to a laugh-out-loud sequence where Hopkins is on his knees chanting Native American chants, and the wavy ghosts of his brethren encircle him, you may have already checked out of the building.
Some of the blame must be heaped upon director Joe Johnston (Jumanji). His pacing is quite slack (136 minutes) and yet he stuffs more subplots and minor characters than the narrative seems able to handle. A very long subplot involving a kidnapped princess is a nice diversion, but entirely inorganic and almost to a distracting level of fantasy. Johnston also employs some hatchet CGI work that seems like it was left over from The Mummy movies. It does not speak well to the quality of a film when it’s been on the shelf for close to a year. The surprise antagonist who kidnaps, kills, and does whatever to win the race has no repercussions at the end. They lose. That’s it. Hopkins doesn’t even find out the person is a villain. What’s up with that? There’s no comeuppance
Hidalgo is not a bad film, but it’s not exactly a good film either. It’s cliché-ridden, clumsily plotted, and full of bad dialogue and stiff characters. The movie looks good, and the horses are beautiful, but this is one tale to put out to pasture. Those hungry for a grand adventure with a hunky lead may be partially pleased, but that’s only if they can put up with 25 percent of an entertaining movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
To all those hairy-footed Tolkien geeks that chewed me out for having the audacity to call 2002’s Two Towers, of all things, boring, let me say this: while I still find the second entry of The Lord of the Rings to be disappointing and pretty flawed, the final chapter, Return of the King, is a glorious and satisfying conclusion. Instead of doing a usual review (plot synopsis, strengths/weaknesses, etc.), I’m going to bring back the charges I had against Two Towers and explain why Return of the King does not suffer from these ills. Will the defendant please rise as I read aloud the charges.
Charge Number One: Two Towers has nothing going on for its majority except hyping an oncoming battle.
And I still feel this way. Short of the great Helms Deep battle, there was oh so little going on in Two Towers that they could have easily trimmed an hour away from it. And don’t give me this crap about the whole kingdom of man subplot or Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) realizing his eventual responsibilities. Whatever. Now, in Return of the King, there is so much going on and the pacing is so tight, that despite being the longest film by far (3 hours and 20 minutes), this is the FIRST Lord of the Rings films that has not put me to sleep in the theaters. The nearly hour-long battle involving the 200,000 Orc army with its huge elephant creatures is mesmerizing and visually stunning. But even after the battle and before, unlike Two Towers, there is plenty going on that actually matters, not just three characters running around endlessly.
So even though little is going on, Two Towers still doesn’t use all this free space to deepen characters. But in Return of the King, the characters come through and shine. The hobbits are back to the front burner and the film is better for it. Sam (Sean Astin, in the finest performance of the film) and Frodos journey becomes increasingly important and the strain and deception of Gollum puts a wedge between their friendship. When Frodo (Elijah Wood) looks scornfully at Sam and dismisses him from their journey, it’s heartbreaking. Why? Because after two years we as an audience have come attached to these characters and do feel for their struggle. When Sam, toward the climax, says, “I may not be able to carry the ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you!” I dare anyone to try not choking up. We also get deeper moments of character with peripheral characters, like Faramir realizing he can only satisfy his father by a suicidal mission. Even the smaller characters from the second film, like Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and her kingly father Theoden (Bernard Hill), have wonderful moments where the emphasis is on characterization. Return of the King is filled with rich character moments that remind us how much we enjoy and feel for these people … uh, and hobbits.
Charge Number Three: Most of the characters from Fellowship of the Ring have scant appearances in Two Towers.
This still holds true. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, brilliant) returned from the dead but had about three minutes of screen time. The elves (Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett) were given the amount of screen time most people would consider cameos. And then the hobbits were left alone for the overlong subplot involving Theoden and his clan. What Two Towers really was was the dwarf, elf, and Aragorn movie. And I like each of those characters but this story is not theirs its the hobbits. So the disproportionate amount of time spent with Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn felt like what would happen if, in Star Wars, C-3PO and R2D2 had their own film. It wasn’t as interesting and it wasn’t right. But with Return of the King, the attention is back to the hobbits, and all of the characters in the entire film have at least one stirring moment of quality time. Gandalf is back in a big way and its welcomed. What else is welcomed is the increasing attention Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have. They started as merrymakers, but by this trilogys end they are desperate to join the ranks and fight. The shared moments between Merry and Eowyn in battle are great. The moments between Pippin and Gandalf are even better. And even though the elves still get the short end of the stick, they make lengthier appearances that are more satisfying. It appears, though, that Cate Blanchett’s longest amount of time in this whole trilogy was narrating the opening prologue.
Even if you disagree with me on the previous three charges, you must agree with me that Two Towers had about a million dwarf jokes too many. Return of the King, to my knowledge, doesn’t even have ONE dwarf joke. Fabulous. This is not to say I want less Gimli. The subplot involving the Two Towers trio seeking an army of the dead (a tad deus ex machine) is intriguing, and his competitive banter with Legolas is still ripe (Bah! That still counts as one!).
Return of the King is an amazing experience and one that is a fully satisfying conclusion, unlike say, I don’t know, maybe the last two Matrix films. The danger feels more abundant now that the end is near and the tension mounts. The payoffs are rewarding and the climax is fittingly climactic. However, the 20-minute resolution is a bit drawn out. It seems director Peter Jackson can give us three hours of fast-paced action but cant speed through a medley of hugs. You think its over…. and then theres more, then you think its over…. then there’s more. This is a small quibble for such an epic trilogy, and Return of the King proves that it’s really one large triumphant film, with a bit of a sag in the middle. What? Did you think I’d get through all this Lord of the Rings love-fest and not take one last jab at Two Towers? Though I still prefer Fellowship of the Ring out of the three, Return of the King cements the trilogys cinematic greatness in our time. Oh yeah, and the cinematography, special effects, production design, makeup, and score are magnificent too.
The defendant is cleared of all charges.
Nate’s Grade: A
My countrymen and fellow Americans, I come here not to praise Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers but to bury it. I don’t know if it’s a result of being the bridge between the beginning and end of this saga (taking the role of neglected middle child), or a result of unmet sky-high expectations, but I may be alone here in saying that Two Towers was a letdown. I’ll try and frame my reasoning as to not be attacked by hairy hobbits and men with pointy hats and long flowing beards.
1) Story structure. Unlike Fellowship of the Ring, where were introduced to a rich world and have suitable character set-up, the second LOTR film puts almost all our characters on the backburner and gives us an insufferably long subplot involving a king and his brood. The movie peters out an ending and seems to throw its hands in the air saying, “See ya a year from now.”
2) Length. This wasn’t a problem with the previous film but man did Two Towers become unbearable as it went. Some described the first film as three hours of walking; well the second could be described as two plus hours of folks hyping a battle and then — a battle. Seriously, theres a lot of talk about a significant battle and that’s it. An hour could have easily been cut from this. It got to the point where my then-girlfriend was sprawled across my lap pleading for me to somehow make the movie end.
3) Characterization. So much time is spent doing nothing you think the film would further round the characters? Oh how stupid you would be. Nothing new seems to be drawn from any character, with the exception of the treacherous yet likable Gollum. Several people from Fellowship (Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ian McKellen) have screen time that amounts to no more than a cameo, so why in the world aren’t we getting anything more from our already established heroes? Everyone just looks friggin bored. As was I.
4) Excessive dwarf jokes.
I re-watched Fellowship and all of the reasons Two Towers suffered were not evident. So what does this tell me? Nothing particularly, except not to see the movie in the theater again. Two Towers is by no means a bad film. The cinematography, production and special effects are all breath-taking and sweeping. I’ll still look forward to seeing the next, and last, installment in Peter Jackson’s Rings epic, but Two Towers has left a bitter taste of disappointment to linger upon.
Nate’s Grade: B-