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American Psycho (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released April 14, 2000:

American Psycho is based on the controversial 1991 best seller by Bret Easton Ellis though it got old fast. One can easily grasp how the lead connects with brand names on page one, but repeat it for 300 more and you’re tempted to add the book to your collection of firewood. Ellis’ novel was sadistically perverse, but director Mary Haron (I Shot Andy Warhol) has somehow managed to pull out an entertaining social satire from the pages of blood and name brands.

Christian Bale, mainly known as the boy-next-door in period piece films, plays Patrick Bateman with ferocious malevolence and vigorous life. Teen scream Leo was once considered for the part but after seeing Bale’s startling performance it should prove why he’s on screen and Leo’s swimming in The Beach. Bateman is an up-and-up Wall Street yuppie who glosses over appearance more than anything else. The only outlet it appears for our sinister shark from the soulless decade is by random acts of gruesome violence.

If Bateman blows off steam by blowing off companion’s heads than it only becomes more frustrating when no one believes his random confessions. Haron takes the grisly material of Ellis’ novel and mines it for pure 80s pulp. It only gets better the further it gets as you have so many points to discuss: Is Bateman acting out to prove his existence in a world that doesn’t humor him or others? Is he acting out deep-seeded rage from the actions of the decade on its people? Is he desensitized and so jaded that death does not even fracture him anymore? The questions are boundless.

The hit list of stars in Psycho includes Chloe Sevigny as a nailed home addition, Willem Dafoe as an investigative detective, Jared Leto as an axed co-worker, and sweet Reese Witherspoon as the apple of Bateman’s twisted eye. Everyone has fun in their tongue-in-cheek nostalgia romp through the absurd.

American Psychoshould not be confused with the successful teen sex farce American Pie. The only desserts in this film are just, and they’re usually left of the mayonnaise and behind the frozen head in the refrigerator. American Psycho is the thinking man’s slasher movie. A flick that slices, dices, and always entices. It only gets better after you’ve seen it. One of the best films of 2000 for now.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

American Psycho was a literary sensation upon its initial publication in 1991 and was deemed shocking, grotesque, perverse, and all those splashy adjectives that made it guaranteed Hollywood would turn Bret Easton Ellis’ novel into a film. Every young actor in Hollywood in the 90s was rumored to play narcissistic serial killer Patrick Bateman. By the late 90s, director Mary Haron was attached with Christian Bale as the intended Bateman on the condition that other name actors could be brought on (Haron secured Willem Dafoe and Reese Witherspoon for supporting roles). The producers kept pushing for their number one target, Leonardo DiCaprio as Bateman, and Haron said she would walk if he was hired over Bale. The producers went ahead and DiCaprio was hired for several months, with the budget ballooning to over $40 million, half of which was slated just for DiCaprio’s payday. Months later, DiCaprio left to film Danny Boyle’s The Beach, and the producers went back to Haron and her top choice, Bale, who was so determined to play Bateman that he didn’t take any other acting gigs for nine months just in case (new total film budget: $7 million). Looking back again twenty years later, it’s difficult to imagine late 90s DiCaprio in the part that became the first of many star-making performances for Bale, one of the most chameleon-like actors of his generation. Haron’s tenacity and instincts proved correct and the film still stands tall as a dark comedy and a character study of a compulsive narcissist.

The novel was set in the 1980s and intended to satirize the soulless suits of Regan’s America that made their ill-gotten gains on Wall Street, and the satire has only become more relevant after the 2008 financial meltdown and numerous white-collar scandals. The perception of Wall Street as predatory and vampiric and roiling with sociopathic greed has only become more pronounced, which makes the intended satirical targets even more worthy of their take-downs.

I initially wondered in my original review in 2000 whether, among other interpretations, Bateman was lashing out in a world that didn’t care about him in order to make himself feel heard, and that is exactly the opposite response. Bateman is acting out because he can and because he no longer cares about following rules. It may be a metaphorically simplistic application to make a Wall Street trader a serial killer but that doesn’t make it any less appropriate and resonating. The iconic business card scene still sends me howling, as Bateman and his colleagues (Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Matt Ross) compete for supremacy with who has the most accomplished little square of cardboard with their name on it. The hushed and awed voices, the detailed micro-analysis, the slow motion and beauty shots of the cards, it’s played to such wonderful heights of absurdity. When Bateman hires two call girls for a threesome, he spends more time flexing and admiring his own image in the mirror. He spends more time on his daily beauty care rituals than he does on introspection. For these hollow men, status and appearance is the only thing that matters in a world of imposters and transitory pleasures.

Bateman is meant to serve as a character study for a man who declares there isn’t anything there underneath him. It’s an expose of vanity in an era of venal excess and it’s also an indictment on privilege. As depicted on film, and later revealed why with an ambiguous conclusion, Bateman gets away with his wild and increasingly murderous antics because of his position. He’s a rich white Yuppie during 1980s New York City. He can get away with anything, which is why he can run around screaming, flailing a live chainsaw, wearing nothing but socks and blood, and nobody seems to be the wiser. It’s why he can go back to his own crime scenes to leave even more of his evidence, and DNA, around the premises. It’s why he can pose as Paul Allen (Jared Leto) even after he has hacked Allen into tiny little Yuppie pieces. It’s why he can hilariously wax on like a Rolling Stone essayist about musical artists like Phil Collins and Whitney Houston as he prepares to slice and dice his victims. As his actions become more and more blatant, the satire rises with Bateman to blanket his reckless impulses (these crooks can get away with anything, Haron seems to be whispering in your ear while elbowing you in the ribs). After two more decades of Wall Street scandal without consequence or credible jail time, as well as a president who is convinced rules do not apply to him, the satire has approached an even darker laugh-because-otherwise-you-might-cry territory than it was back in 2000 (“This confession has meant nothing.”).

With no one able to tell him no, how far will Bateman go? Haron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner (who also appears in the film as Elizabeth, a drunk friend of Bateman’s who becomes another victim) smartly dialed into the themes they wanted to send up and dialed down the grisly gratuitous details. In the book, Bateman’s depravity is described in as much detail as he gives to his rampant consumerism. We don’t need pages upon pages of description to understand that Bateman is sick in the head, and we don’t need examples such as torturing a prostitute by trapping rats inside her vagina. The grisly overkill of the book is smartly pulled back to its essentials, and an oft-reviled work deemed misogynistic by many critics has been transformed from a deep dive into rape, dismemberment, and cruelty into a satire on the men who aspire to commit such awful acts. There’s a noticeable difference there that some will miss. One perspective focuses on the actions and the other focuses on the meaning. Bateman is a privileged, entitled, and alienated white man teeming with unprovoked rage, a figure we’ve seen more often in the news in the ensuing decades. The American Psycho movie takes aim at the fragile male egos of past and present. Haron would later go on to write and direct other indies (2006’s The Notorious Bettie Paige) but she never seemed to get that career boost after American Psycho. Ellis decried the movie adaptation and later said he felt female directors were unable to accurately translate the male gaze, which is dubious when the starting point for Hollywood filmmaking is preset at “male gaze.”

Bale is phenomenal in what proved to be his breakout role. It was only a few years later that he nabbed Batman for Christopher Nolan. According to interviews, Bale modeled his performance after what he saw during a Tom Cruise appearance on David Letterman’s talk show. Bale says he saw an “intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes,” and he then knew how to play the part. It was also the beginning of Bale’s trademark method transformations, becoming the muscled figure of Bateman’s desire, the only thing that ever truly mattered to the man. Bale’s thinly veiled contempt for everyone and ironic detachment are constantly entertaining and provide great laughs (his go-to excuse for departing, “I have to return some video tapes,” made me laugh every time). There’s a late scene where Bateman calls his lawyer to confess to his litany of sins, feeling cornered, and it’s a spellbinding performance all in one take where he approaches mania as he finally unburdens himself (“Tonight I, uh, I just had to kill a LOT of people. And I’m not sure I’m gonna get away with it this time.”). It’s a tremendous moment in a tremendous performance. The movie is filled with familiar faces (Chloe Sevigny! Samantha Mathis! Reg E. Cathy!) that it becomes fun to realize just how many great actors and future stars contributed to the movie. For trivia buffs, it also features Batman (Bale) killing the Joker (Leto).

My original review attempts many turns of phrase, like “blowing off steam by blowing off others’ heads,” but the core points are still viable: the satire improves from the book, Bale delivers an amazing performance, and there are many ways to interpret the film. The ending isn’t quite as ambiguous as perceived but it makes sense with the outlandish escalation of events, a point where even Bateman looks at his own power with befuddled curiosity. Back in 2000, I called American Psycho the “thinking man’s slasher movie” and I think that title still applies. It’s a vicious movie but the satire is just as vicious. Weirdly, there was a direct-to-DVD sequel that just went the “non-thinking man’s slasher” route by featuring Mila Kunis (Black Swan) as a criminal justice coed who embarks on her own bloodbath, including killing William Shatner as a professor. It’s like unintended satire on Hollywood itself; follow a cerebral and daring artistic work with run-of-the-mill slop under the same name, co-opting the appeal of a “brand” to make a buck. Much like Wall Street, Hollywood doesn’t know when to stop.

Re-View Grade: A

Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

I remember reading this novel back in college, so it’s been a long road for Jonathan Lethem’s crime story to find its way to the big screen. Motherless Brooklyn is a decade-plus passion project for star/adapter/director Edward Norton, and it’s easy to see why an actor would want to latch onto the lead role. Lionel Essrog (Norton) suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and is given to verbal and physical tics he needs to indulge or else his brain feels like it will explode. He’s our eyes and ears into a criminal world that views him as a freak. It’s an intriguing vulnerability given sympathy, forethought, and it’s an intriguing way to make something old new again through a disadvantaged lens. Norton is great in the lead and Lionel feels like a companion portrait to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, another struggling man given to unconformable physical outbursts that make him feel isolated from society. The book was fascinating from being inside this unique headspace and understanding how Lionel’s brain operated with obsessions and various pressure valves. The movie, which Norton rewrote completely and set in the 1950s, is an acceptable film noir, but without that specific perspective it would get lost. It’s handsomely made and has plenty of enjoyable actors in supporting roles. There’s an intelligence to the storytelling and power dynamics, but the movie is also a bit too smart for its own good, losing its way in a convoluted mystery where the pieces don’t so much add up as they’re just given to you after a long enough wait. And the wait is long. This is 144 minutes and takes its sweet time, applying more and more layers of intrigue and period settings like Norton is checking a list of Noir Elements to include in his first directing work in 19 years (Keeping the Faith, anyone?). The world itself is surface-level interesting but the main character is the real hook, so getting more of the world without going deeper on the character, or expressly placing him in different predicaments where he can utilize his unheralded abilities, feels like wheel spinning. Motherless Brooklyn is strictly for genre fans or those who don’t need much more from their movies than a high-concept quirk.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Lighthouse (2019)

If you’re writer/director Robert Eggers and just made a most delicious impression with your debut movie, 2016’s The Witch (or, stupidly, The VVitch), where do you go next? Apparently it was off the coast of Nova Scotia with Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, and a sexy mermaid? The Lighthouse follows the story of two men, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), as lighthouse keepers trapped during a torrential New England storm in the 1890s. This fraught relationship comes undone over the course of some very severe cabin fever. While The Lighthouse might not be as enjoyable as The Witch, nor the arthouse genre masterpiece some critics have been hailing, it is an exceptionally realized throwback with its own beguiling sense of peculiarity. They don’t really make them like this anymore, folks.

The Lighthouse feels exactly like somebody meticulously melded an episode of The Twilight Zone with an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The vision is so specific and so fine-tuned that it can be startling, like watching a high-wire act of an artist perform a feat and so well. Eggers is definitely a man with definite talent and here is a movie that serves as a strange, loving homage to an earlier age. The shooting style, camera equipment, lenses, and nearly 4:3 aspect ratio coalesce to make The Lighthouse feel like a forgotten curio of an older age. The very nature of the movie’s presentation adds to the enjoyment level of the two hours of madness. This is a highly impressive movie, first and foremost from its technical side. The black and white photography is rich and stunning, making elaborate and precise use of shadows and camera movement. You feel the grime and salt. Pattinson’s face is filmed with such heaviness, shadows draped over him, that he looks like he was carved from stone to resemble a modern-day Robert Mitchum. There are several moments that unveil themselves with startling meticulousness. There are several images that stick in my memory. There are moments of levity that had me snickering madly. Eggers has a terrific instinct when it comes to staging scenes and drawing out the suspense as well as the humor. Some scenes will cycle from horror to comedy and then back again, allowing the movie to continuously feel slippery in tone as well as effect. It’s such a handsomely mounted production that it’s easy to admire the dedication. The craft is remarkable. Eggers had a very exact style he was going for with his second film,and he commits fully to the process. Whatever you think of the lasting impression, the man achieved his vision to the bitter end.

Being a two-hander, the entire movie is going to rest on the shoulders of our acting duo and what insights we can glean from them as they become combative and ultimately suspicious. There’s only one other credited actor for the entire film, Valeriia Karaman, as a lustful fantasy for Winslow, or maybe she’s not a fantasy? We’re stuck with two very capable thespians and they just dig into these meaty, hammy roles. The dialogue has a delightfully daffy out-of-time cadence and vernacular that adds authenticity as well as a sprinkle of approaching madness. Dafoe (Aquaman) is a delight as a soused old captain given to self-important and abrasive behavior. An insult over his cooking unleashes a ridiculous monologue where he lays out in great, poetic detail a curse, and like much in the movie, it goes from being funny to being serious to being outright impressive. It’s like watching actors get to play with Shakespeare, that’s how immensely pleasing it can be to listen to Dafoe and Pattinson deliver Eggers’ dialogue with great flourish. Pattinson (Good Time) has gotten a bad rap for being the Twilight pretty boy but he’s taken exciting chances on artistically daring and dangerous prospects (this is his SECOND 2019 indie thriller that prominently features his furious masturbation). Pattinson serves as our entry point into this secluded seaside shack, and it’s through him we watch the madness of the movie plant. He’s got a real fire he’s able to harness that makes him vulnerable, sympathetic, and dangerous. Should we root for Winslow? Being trapped alone with them never gets boring because of their characters, the revelation of secrets each man may or may not be embellishing, and their explosive confrontations.

This is also very funny movie. Eggers understands the thin line between madness and humor and uses this to his great advantage where the embrace of comedy enhances the overall feeling of WTF insanity. You’ll be forgiven for laughing but Eggers seems to invite it almost as a needed release. Much like Ari Aster did with Midsommar, the filmmaker is clearly playing with camp elements intentionally. It’s a tricky artistic maneuver to willingly invite camp and to make sure it doesn’t pervert the rest of the film and its ambitions, but I think Eggers pulls it off. There is literally an audible fart before the two main characters share a line of dialogue together. You’ll be surprised how much farting is actually in the movie (all added in post-production, the Internet trivia proudly crows, because I guess Dafoe didn’t want to go that far Method). There’s an exciting unpredictability to the movie even as it feels very much on a foreseeable collision course that you await.

After all that artistic sturm und drang, I was left wondering what exactly there was to hold onto for clarity and substance. Firstly, the artistic exercise, dedication to a specific vision, and level of execution will likely be enough for a certain group of viewers, especially those titillated by old school horror peppered with David Lynch peculiarities. It’s a moody work of art with definite finesse but ultimately I don’t know how much there is to take away from it. The Lighthouse feels like a well-handled experiment that deserves your admiration but I don’t know what engagement exists beyond simply the experience and then the discussion it leads. There are plenty of movies that invite an active deconstruction and this interactive interpretation serves as a central selling point, but I was wondering what I should be thinking here. I don’t know if the movie is adopting Winslow’s point of view and I shouldn’t trust what I see onscreen, or I shouldn’t trust Thomas, or I shouldn’t trust either, or whether the movie was adopting either of their perspectives or neither. By the end, I don’t know what is supposed to be taken as legitimate, and this can work with plenty of movies but the majority doesn’t seem to operate on a dream-logic. It’s a dank, claustrophobic, paranoid thriller but it’s so dutiful to an older style of thriller that the eccentricities don’t take over and become the movie. It’s entirely a movie about men being stranded, going mad, and turning on one another, and that’s about it. There is a definite Promethean analogy with Winslow’s desire to “have the light” and the old man standing in his way (this is hit even harder in the very obvious, concluding image). If you cut out maybe 40 seconds of the movie it could have played on TV back in Hitchcock’s day and would fit.

It’s hard for me to articulate but The Lighthouse is an A-level execution of an idea that feels all too limited and small. It’s thrilling and accomplished and a fun movie to just get lost within and laugh at the screen when it goes overboard. I wouldn’t even mind taking another trip and getting lost in this sea-soaked curiosity. Maybe I’ll be able to impart more meaning, because while the technical craft and extraordinarily honed artistic vision shine through, the lasting power of the whole enterprise feels a bit too locked in place. It very much is a remnant of the past, a loving homage to old Hammer films and television anthologies and tales of men losing their minds when it comes to loneliness, desperation, and helplessness. There’s much to champion with The Lighthouse and I’ll assuredly be in line for whatever Eggers decides will be his next project (a quick search comes up with a tenth-century Viking revenge thriller starring Dafoe, Ana Taylor-Joy, two Skarsgards, and Nicole Kidman). When Eggers commits to a story and style, he commits completely and the results can be breath-taking. I hope he aims for more than A-level execution with his next movie and goes for an A-level story experience to match. Still, The Lighthouse is a fascinating and delightfully weird experience that will enchant and baffle.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Vox Lux (2018)

I don’t know what this movie was trying to say about anything. Vox Lux stars Natalie Portman as the adult Celeste, a survivor of a school shooting as a teen who became an international pop star in the months after. Is there something writer/director Brady Corbet wants to say about the transformation of tragedy into mass entertainment? The dulling effect of an entertainment industry to grind up human beings and re-purpose them into shiny, inauthentic, easily marketable figurines? I don’t know. I warily thought as we open on an upsetting school shooting, “I don’t know if the final product will justify this tone,” and it doesn’t. There are decisions that feel like they should mean something, like having the same actress, Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland), play both young Celeste and her eventual teen daughter, but what? It feels like an idea looking to attach to an interpretative message. Then there’s a modern terrorist group dressing like one of Celeste’s iconic music videos. She distances herself from the violence and even publicly challenges the perpetrators. This will obviously come back and mean something, drawing upon her own beginning stages of fame derived from the bloodshed of others, right? Or during her big concert the terrorists will invade and attack her, bringing the main character face-to-face with the ramifications of hubris. None of these things happen. Instead, Portman enters the scene at the 45-minute mark and proceeds to lash out at others, lament her parenting deficiencies, gets drunk, and then puts on her show. That’s it. It’s like Vox Lux forgot to be a movie for the final 20 minutes and just becomes a numbing series of EDM pop dance numbers. Portman is actually very good and digging deep into her anxious, entitled, and spiraling pop star, rounding out her dimmed humanity when Corbet cannot. There’s a solid storyline here between the adult Celeste trying to reconnect with her teen daughter who she’s been neglecting. This isn’t it. The pretension level of the pedantic exercise made me think of Lars von Trier as filmed by Darren Aronofsky. Skip it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Aquaman (2018)

It’s hard not to talk about the fledgling DCU without grading on a curve. Wonder Woman was a great success and a definite step in the right direction but it still had clear Act Three problems. However, when your previous movies are the abysmal Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman, anything in the right direction is seen as enlightenment. There are currently no planned Superman films, no planned Batman films, and it looks like the teetering DCU is banking its future on the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman. If you had told me that the future of an interconnected series of franchises would rest upon the shoulders of a man who talks to fish, I would have laughed. Enter director James Wan, best known for the Conjuring franchise and plugging into Furious 7 without missing a beat. Warner Bros. desperately wanted Wan’s stewardship to get a notoriously difficult comics property to float in the modern market. The early marketing was not encouraging but I held out a slim degree of hope that Wan would make it work. While Aquaman as a whole has its share of problems, Wan has done it. He’s made a big screen Aquaman movie that is fun, visually immersive, weird, and packed with great action. I was just as surprised as you, dear reader, but the smile on my face was evident.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is heir to the undersea throne of Atlantis. His mother (Nicole Kidman) fled her arranged marriage and had a son with a human lighthouse keeper. She retreated back into the ocean to prevent further harm to her shore side family. Arthur is approached by princess Meera (Amber Heard) to return to Atlantis and claim his birthright to the throne, currently occupied by Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson). The reigning king is planning to unite the seven sea kingdoms to launch an attack against the surface-dwellers. Arthur must go back to the people who reportedly killed his mother and challenge his half-brother for supremacy. Along the way he’ll have to venture across the globe with Meera for a series of adventures to reclaim lost artifacts, while also dodging Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate gifted with underwater technology who swears vengeance against Arthur for letting his father die.

Make no mistake, there is definitely a ceiling capped for Aquaman. The characterization is pretty standard stuff with little added nuance. It’s a dash of Chosen One destined to bridge communities, a dash of Prodigal Son outcast trying to make amends and duty, and there’s the general pledged vengeance that reappears again and again for motivation. The plot is reminiscent of a video game, structured so that Arthur and Meera have to travel from one stage to another, finding an important artifact and then going to the next stage. Sometimes there are mini-bosses at these various video game stages. The antagonists are acceptable but without much in the way of depth or charisma. You might even find yourself agreeing with King Orm as far as his pre-emptive strike over mankind (the latent racism of “half-breeds” maybe not as much). The leads are also given little. Momoa (Justice League) is a naturally charismatic actor but his range is limited; he basically has two modes, off and on. This might have been one reason why the screenplay resolves to merely push him toward his “call to action,” which I thought was his Justice League arc. Still he’s an affable and handsome presence even with lesser material. Heard (London Fields) is struggling to find her character’s place in the story. She’s a romantic interest, quest cohort, and there are attempts to push through more feminist agency but it’s too murky. It feels like she’s trapped by her character and her giant Halloween store red wig. If you cannot get over these deficits, it’s going to feel like a relentless 143-minute video game.

And yet the movie works thanks to the talents of Wan and the overall abundant sense of exuberant fun. Wan has become a first-class chameleon, able to adapt his skill set to whatever genre he attaches himself to, be it high-octane car chase thriller, slow burn horror to grisly torture porn, or now splashy superhero blockbuster. Early on, I knew we were in good hands when Wan showcases a destructive fight scene between Kidman and a group of aqua storm troopers in long takes and wide angles, letting the choreography speak for itself and allowing the audience to fully take in every smash and crash. The action is consistently interesting and filmed in ways to highlight its best points. An underwater brotherly battle takes the movement within water into account, adapting fight choreography to add this new dimension. That’s what good action movies should be doing, applying their unique settings into the action development. There isn’t a boring action moment in the film. Even when we get to the big CGI armies duking it out, Wan instinctively knows to pull back to avoid overkill. Even the otherwise normal hand-to-hand combat is clever and consistently entertaining. The highlight of the movie is actually on land, an extended chase through the villas of Tuscany. Arthur and Meera are battling Black Manta but they’re also divided, and Wan’s camera will zoom back and forth between the two, connecting each on their parallel tracks. They jump from tiled roof to tiled roof, escaping danger. There’s one super aqua storm trooper who takes a more direct approach and just runs through room after room, and the camera follows him on this direct line of destruction. There’s even a payoff where Meera uses her powers in a wine shop to her great advantage. It’s moments like this where Wan is clearly having fun and demonstrating that he and his team have put good thought into their action.

The visuals are wildly immersive and amplify the sense of fun the film has to offer. There are plenty of cinematic reference points of influence here, from George Lucas to James Cameron, but Wan and his team do an excellent job of making this universe feel full. We visit many different undersea realms and people, including seahorse people, crab people, and just taking ownership of the weirdness without irony is refreshing. With the exception of Momoa’s need to undercut moments with quips, the film feels genuine and proud of its old-fashioned mentality, taking the ridiculousness and treating it with sincerity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t campy and absurd moments that are enjoyable precisely because of their camp and absurdity. There are people riding great white sharks and battling crab people to the death. How can that not be silly? There’s one group of creatures that feel plucked from Pitch Black, a band of feral monsters vulnerable to fire. There’s a fun and effective sequence where Arthur and Meera must dive to escape with their lit flare and we see the full totality of their situation, a literal sea of these monsters breaking apart just so as they dive. It’s a creepy moment made even better by Wan’s visual choices, which always seem to correspond to what’s best for the experience. The special effects are uniformly great and the attention to the undersea worlds is pristine.

Ultimately your view of Aquaman will come down to what you’re willing to forgive in the name of fun spectacle. Its best Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) equivalent are the pre-Ragnarok Thor films. There are definite deficits with the minimal characterization and the familiar hero’s journey plot arc, but the execution level and the sheer energetic entertainment are enough to rise above. The action sequences are routinely thrilling, eye-catching, and wonderfully alive and clever thanks to Wan. They’ve found a way to make Aquaman cool and fun, which is what rules the day when it comes to the film version. Aquaman is another step in the right direction for the notoriously gloomy DCU. If Wan was attached for a sequel, I’d genuinely be interested. This is nothing you haven’t seen before in any number of movies (just now underwater), it’s not exactly intellectually stimulating or emotionally involving, and yet the sheer success of the visuals, action orchestration, and the sense of fun override the rest of the detractions for me. It reminds me of the Fast and Furious franchise. I don’t care a lick for any non-Rock/Statham characters; I’m just there for the physics-defying stunts and set pieces. It provides the goods when it comes to action spectacle, and so does this movie. If you’re looking for a 90s throwback to big, fun action movies, then take the dive with Aquaman.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Florida Project (2017)

Director Sean Baker has become one of indie cinema’s most probing, humanist voices for the outliers of our society. His previous films looked at aspiring adult film industry performers, transsexual prostitutes, and now with The Florida Project, an assortment of low-income and homeless families. The film has been buzzed about by critics for months and has started to pick up some serious awards traction. The film does an admirable job of illuminating a childhood on the fringes of society. I just wish it had done more.

Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) is a young child living in a rundown motel miles from Disney World. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), relies chiefly upon hustling Disney tourists to make money. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the manager of the motel. He’s sympathetic to the families turning their stays into homeless residency, but he also needs rules to be abided and rent money paid. He’s concerned about Halley’s choices and how they are impacting, and will impact, the life of her daughter. Over the course of a few weeks during the hot summer, Moonee’s life will never be the same.

The Florida Project is a slice-of-life drama from the perspective of a young child, and to that end it’s quite immersive and empathetic. Little Moonee and her group of friends feel extensively real, so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if director/co-writer Baker just turned on his camera and simply said, “Go,” and sat back. Much of the movie, and perhaps even half, is watching Moonee and friends play, explore, and interact with a larger world that they don’t fully understand. There are heavier realities kept at the peripheral. Moonee doesn’t know that she and her friends are living in poverty. She doesn’t know that her fun mom is actually an irresponsible parent. She doesn’t know that the weird guy watching them play that Bobby forcefully removes is very likely a pedophile. She doesn’t know the illegal activities of her mother to make ends meet. This limited perspective is also the same given to the audience. A mother/daughter photo session that seems innocuous and a little sweet is later revealed to have seedier ulterior motives. We follow Moonee on her jaunts to investigate the rundown neighborhood, and somehow in that missing time Halley has gained money for rent. It’s not quite a whimsical, romanticized version of life in poverty like the misguided yet critically beloved Beasts of the Southern Wild. Instead, it’s more a selective perspective that focuses on the innocence and imagination of children but without romanticizing the reality of poverty. It’s like a different coming-of-age film where future versions of characters would look back and think about all the things they didn’t know when they were just kids.

Baker and his production do an excellent job of making you feel the day-to-day reality of modern poverty and the struggles of people to simply exist and without condemnation. Halley would be charitably described as a bad mom, and yet she finds ways to provide for her child even if they jeopardize her custody. Halley is far too immature to be responsible for another human being, but not all of the other women are that way. Other women in the purple motel find legal means to provide and they take a concerted interest in the well being of their children. Halley’s adult friend is able to hold down a stable waitress job. Halley is too unruly, immature, and careless to do the same. Halley’s last job was working as a stripper, though she never tries getting a job at what I have to assume are a plethora of competing strip clubs adjacent to the commercial Disney tourist empire. This is very much a visual document of systemic poverty that illuminates the hardscrabble lives of people on the fringes of society trying to stay afloat. It’s rich in details like the knowing swapping of residents between local motels for one day a month to skip past residency declaration laws. It’s an interesting hidden world that feels rarely given this kind of caring close-up.

Baker has a great talent at finding non-actors who have great acting potential to essentially play versions of themselves. From Starlet, Tangerine, and now Florida Project, Baker has a tremendous gift for discovering people. There is an absence of mannered performance tics; the characters feel real because the actors are acting very naturally. These unsupervised kids are behaving like bratty kids. Brooklyn Prince is phenomenal as Moonee and a born performer. She has an innate charm that left me laughing often. Her improvisation is terrific although some of her lines definitely out themselves as being the written ones (“I can always tell when adults are about to cry”). Vinaite (Harmony Korine’s upcoming Beach Bum) is aggravating and yet you still wish that at some point she would turn it around or come to some latent epiphany. Halley feels, infuriatingly, very authentic in every one of her moments. She is dooming her child to a comparable trapped life of limited appeal and escape, but she can’t help herself and only focuses on the immediacy of life when life is so transitory and pessimistic. Dafoe (Murder on the Orient Express) is the moral center of the film and you feel his genuine unease in every pained glance. He has to hold his authority but he’s still very sympathetic for the motel’s collection of people that modern society has easily forgotten about.

With that being said, I understood what Baker and The Florida Project was going for and I found it to be underwhelming because there wasn’t much more than an established world. This is a movie with a very loose definition of plotting. After a while, without a better sense of plot momentum, it all starts to blend together into redundancy. It doesn’t help when many of the scenes can be less than ten seconds long. Here’s Moonee and her pal eating ice cream. Here’s Moonee and her friend running in the rain. Here’s Moonee and her friend hugging. Here’s Moonee in the bathtub. It becomes a lower class triptych of establishing its world and mood, but a little goes a long way. All of that could have been established and sustained in the first act, and then the story could have launched into a greater sense of change. I may lose some hipster critic cred points but as it continued I was partly wishing that the movie had been more conventional. Perhaps Bobby becomes more involved in the life of Moonee, taking custody of her while her mother was missing or going through social services review. He’s already a quasi-surrogate father figure so why not better explore that dynamic? The characters lack a depth to them, partially because we’re following children just being children, partially because we have characters drifting through life. It’s still lacking.

This was another example of an indie film sacrificing character and story to the altar of realism. I wrote a similar complaint in my 2012 pan of Beasts: “But all of these setting details do not take the place of an involving story and characters we should care about. I felt sorry for the various residents and their lot in life, but I never felt attached to any of them. That’s because they’re bland and simplistically drawn, but also because Beasts doesn’t bother to do anything else other than create its rich, tragic, harsh world. It’s authentic all right, but what does all that authenticity have to add to genuine character work? Artistic authenticity is not always synonymous with telling a good story.”

Immersive and genuine, The Florida Project is awash in details for a way of life rarely given this much attention and empathy. The acting is very natural and the young children especially behave recognizably like young children. Keeping the perspective of the film attached to the child is an interesting gamut as it keeps some of the harsher aspects of this world and the people from the same kind of direct exposure. It allows the film to have a degree of innocence without romanticizing poverty as some kind of fairy tale. It was a perfectly fine movie that I just happened to want more from, in particular a non-redundant story with more significant plot events and characters that felt multi-dimensional and developed over the engagement. I kept waiting for more and was simply left waiting. Even the symbolism of being on the outskirts of Disney World, the materialistic “happiest place on Earth,” felt barely toyed with. The Florida Project is a good start to a good movie but it needed continued refinement and attention to be something more than an inquisitive magazine article brought to careful cinematic life.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Take my opinion with all the caution you need when I say this: I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie mysteries. Sacrilege, I know, but I just don’t find enjoyment from a mystery that is too convoluted, oblique, dense, and purposely unable to be solved until the clever detective explains everything. That’s not a mystery that engages an audience; it’s a problem that is followed by an intermediate period of downtime. Murder on the Orient Express is a remake of the 1974 Oscar-winning film, this time with Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as Christie’s brilliant Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. The original film’s appeal wasn’t the story (see above) but in spending time with the colorful suspects played by many older actors decades removed from their Hollywood peak. It was scenery chewing of a first order. The 2017 Orient Express has some slick production design and requisite big name actors but that’s about it. There are a few alterations here and there but the big moments are the same as is the ending, which means it’s another mystery primarily of obfuscation. I just don’t find these fun to watch. I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t really involved. It failed to provide ways for me to connect, to put the clues and pieces together, and confused volume with development. The new actors feel wasted, especially Judi Dench. I was most fascinated by Branagh’s extensive mustache that seems to have grown its own mustache. If you’re a fan of Poirot, Christie, or the original film, there will probably be enough in this new edition to at least tide you over. I wasn’t too sad to get off this train by the end.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Great Wall (2017)

thegreatwall-607875The Great Wall is the most expensive film in Chinese history and the first major co-production between an American film studio and a Chinese-owned studio. While Matt Damon is the name above the title, it’s filled with recognizable Chinese stars, like Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, and pop star Lu Han. China’s most renowned action filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, serves as the director. It has the look and feel of a Hollywood special effects epic but it’s very much a Chinese film in ownership and execution, perhaps marking a new synergy of East meets West blockbusters. With a whopping budget of $150 million, the same as the last Star Trek movie, it looks like a typical Hollywood big-budget epic with visual spectacle and sweeping vistas. It’s up to the viewer whether a majority-Chinese production successfully imitating Hollywood middlebrow action spectacle is a brave step forward or just another source for mediocrity.

In the 11th centruy, traveling European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) are looking for black powder, an explosive substance that’s worth serious money back home. A mysterious feral creature attacks them and William cuts off the beast’s hand, taking it as a trophy. The Nameless Order, Chinese military officials stationed at the titular great wall, capture them and want to know exactly how these foreigners were able to defeat this beast. Legend states that long ago a meteor crashed to Earth, and with it came a horde of green monsters with big teeth lead by a queen that psychically controls her thousands of attack drones. Every 60 years the creatures emerge searching for food for their ravenous appetites. The Imperial City must be protected at all costs and that is why the wall was constructed. Lin Mae (Tian Jing) is thrown into command when her male superiors are killed, and she relies upon her unexpected Western allies to throw back the evolving horde of monsters.

nejpkz1u4osxmr_2_aAs the first major big-budget collaboration between studios in China and the United States, The Great Wall feels like something that would have escaped from the 1990s era of tentpole filmmaking, and it’s clearly a paycheck film for all involved. Now that doesn’t condemn in either regard. There’s a certain charm to the relatively dumb sci-fi action movies that started being prepped with steady regularity in the 1990s when advancing special effects made it possible for hordes of CGI monsters to thwart. There’s an obvious point of engagement that crosses all translations: man versus monsters. The film even somewhat admirably knows its own ridiculousness and embraces it. I was reminded of the go-for-broke silliness of Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies like National Treasure’s positing that maybe, just maybe, there’s a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. This feels like the biggest budget Asylum movie you can imagine, and that in itself is not necessarily a problem. However, because of the mechanical nature of so much of its storytelling and the safe territory it resolutely occupies, The Great Wall is a mediocre monster movie that aims right down the middle for cross-continental mass appeal and nothing more. I’m almost certain that Damon had to have been paid $20 million dollars to justify his participation. The actors and the director go about their business in a professional manner but you feel the lack of passion. It’s a film looking to appeal to the most people and losing any sense of distinction.

Credit director Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) for keeping the film on life support, providing just enough action variety and pleasing visuals to stir an audience awake. The monsters are introduced very early into the film, around the twenty-minute mark, and their CGI horde definitely presents a worthy challenge. In fact they feel too overwhelming in their numbers. Early on we see that the ferocious creatures, which closely resemble the Ghostbusters demon dog painted green, are hard to kill outside of a straight shot to their shoulder-eyes (they have eyes on their shoulders… because…). The first creature that successfully scales the wall takes out a slew of Chinese warriors. If one of these things is that hard to kill, how in the world can a limited number of people, even with high ground, defend against a sea of a hundred thousand? The mismatched numbers deflate the stakes and lessen the tension, which isn’t helped from subpar characterization. The world building is certainly hazy (Why do they come out once every 60 years? Why do magnets affect them? Why all the effort for small food supplies?) and some of the elements feel inserted just for their “cool” factor. A group of female warriors bungee jump off platforms to spear the monsters, but why is this necessary when we’ve already seen that China has fiery projectiles that are far more effective? It is cool though.

Thankfully a movie with little going for it other than spectacle at least knows to vary up its action sequences. Each encounter with one of the monsters is structured differently. The best sequence may be William and Tovar navigating through a blinding fog and relying upon the sounds of whizzing arrows to alert them to approaching hungry monsters. It provides some fun tension and pop-out moments. There’s a beautiful sequence commemorating a fallen friend with the launching of hundreds of floating lanterns. The concluding sequence involves our remaining characters climbing to the top of a pagoda lined with stained glass. As the characters rush up flights of stairs, the screen is lovingly diluted with colored shafts of light, which also add extra visual flourishes when the monsters begin to leap through the glass level by level. Yimou’s use of color has always been a hallmark of his career and it translates even into the color-coded amour of the different divisions of the Nameless Order. They look like ancient Power Rangers. While lacking a great deal of overall tension due to its predictable nature and dull characters, there are fleeting moments of suspense drawn out in individual action set-pieces. The overall movie is generally unremarkable CGI carnage reminiscent of a too-late Lord of the Rings rip-off, and yet there’s at least a general professionalism to its unremarkable CGI carnage.

image18Early on the movie was hit with accusations of whitewashing, and given Hollywood’s recent track record with the likes of Exodus, Aloha, and Gods of Egypt, it would be entirely conceivable that producers felt Damon needed to be a white savior role. That’s not the case at all and in fact the Chinese forces are shown to be flawless specimens. Damon’s character is the out-of-place European (complete with hard to place accent) who represents selfish and arrogant Western attitudes. He’s routinely awed by the ability and precision of the Chinese warriors, who dutifully sacrifice for the greater good and safety of others they will never know. They are symbols of power, teamwork, courage, strength, and dignity. The lessons can be rather blunt (a woman… in charge?!). The portrayal of the Chinese forces is so honorable and so empowered that they come across as boring moral paragons without an ounce of traceably human nuance. They don’t come across like characters so much as interchangeable warriors, and so when they start dying one-by-one their sacrifices ultimately leave little impact. It turns out that the non-Chinese actors, Damon and Pascal, supply the most interesting characters because their roles are allowed personality, basic moral ambiguity, and inner conflict beyond a sense of duty and the requirements of achieving that duty. The Great Wall drafts off Damon’s worldwide star power to teach him a lesson about Eastern values. It certainly presents China and Chinese characters in a very positive perspective, but being so broad sanitizes their humanity and transforms people into boring paragons.

Given the pedigree of those involved, it’s completely expected to be underwhelmed by the end results of such an expensive East meets West collaboration. The Great Wall is ultimately too safe and stately to satisfy beyond generic genre thrills; lowering one’s expectations is highly advised in order to properly appreciate the goofy action spectacle. The Great Wall of China being constructed to protect from a horde of ravenous, possibly extraterrestrial monsters is certainly a silly premise, but the movie doesn’t pretend it’s anything than what it is, a large-scale monster movie with a sense of fun. It’s not soaked in deconstructive irony or meta commentary. Instead, The Great Wall is a straight-laced action spectacle that treats its absurdity with conviction. It’s not much better or worse than other empty-headed big-budget action cinema from the Hollywood assembly line, but is that progress? Is making an indistinguishable mediocre B-movie a success story?

Nate’s Grade: C

John Wick (2014)

MV5BMTU2NjA1ODgzMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTM2MTI4MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_John Wick hits you like a breath of fresh air. The plot isn’t anything new. Once again a semi-retired hitman (Keanu Reeves) is pulled back into the fray. Once again Russian mobsters are the primary villains, a popular adversarial force in the fall of 2014. What makes Wick an enjoyable throwback is its dedication to action staging that is crisp, balletic, but most importantly, clear and engrossing action. Reeves may not be as agile as he once was when he first learned kung-fu, but the man still has some serious moves, and the action choreography and stuntwork of Wick allows him to display them in long takes with lots of decisive movement. It’s no Raid 2, but it’s well ahead of most American action films of late. There’s a nice variety of action along with lots of casual headshots, which seems only natural for a trained hitman. Then there are the small touches that add intrigue and help it stand from the pack, notably a hotel with an exclusive clientele of hitmen and women who must abide by a set of rules while on “safe ground.” It’s just enough to make a well-worn genre start to feel different again. The problem with John Wick, however, is that it runs out of steam too quickly, peaking right at the beginning of Act Three. There’s a whole other twenty minutes where the film has to establish a new antagonist to get us to the finish line. It just feels like John Wick accomplishes his goal too quickly and the movie doesn’t know exactly what to do after. The conclusion of several storylines feel clumsy, drawn out, and anticlimactic. But when it’s working, John Wick is a stylish and bloody action thriller that is fun and with the right sense of macabre humor to halt it from ever getting too laboriously serious.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

fault-our-stars-movie-posterWith a premise involving two teenagers with terminal cancer, you’d be correct to assume that The Fault in Our Stars is a sad experience. It wants to be an unsentimental version of the Big Cancer Weepie, like a more hip version of Love Story. It wants to obliterate your tear ducts but in a way that won’t make you roll your eyes from an overdose of maudlin material. Based upon John Green’s international best-selling young adult novel, the doomed romance of the year has already devastated millions of moviegoers. Is it the feel-bad movie of the summer with a soundtrack Zach Braff would approve?

Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is a 16-year-old girl dealing with lung cancer. She lugs around an oxygen canister to her group therapy sessions, really to everywhere she goes. Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) try and give her enough space, try to make her feel like a normal teenager, but they all know what is coming. Then one day at group therapy she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a tall, handsome, effortlessly confident young man in remission himself (he had a leg amputated from cancer). Gus hones his sights on wooing Hazel, winning her over. She resist at first but then finds herself falling for the charming fella (“I fell for him like falling asleep; at first slowly, then all at once.”).

A Fault In Our StarsWith constant life and death stakes and the certainty of a young life, it would be easy for the film to go overboard with its emotional histrionics, and yet the real grace of the film is its more realistic approach to portraying this life. It just doesn’t seem fair for someone so young to be stricken with a deadly disease that will pluck him or her from the Earth before settling into adulthood, but these things happen. Hazel and Gus are characters that aren’t begging for sympathy or even special treatment; they’re tired of being treated like lab specimens too fragile to be left on their own. It’s easy to lose the person when the outside world completely identifies them as afflicted. The skill of this movie is that it’s heavy with drama and sadness but it doesn’t quite overwhelm, at least until the last act. Until then, much like the characters, the movie finds the moments of happiness, connection, and tenderness with human contact. You feel the bursts of nerves and excitement over the flirty connection between Gus and Hazel. You’ll enjoy the couple-y moments they share, finding their own identity as a pair, like claiming “okay” as their own secret coded language. You’ll feel warm and fuzzy over that first kiss. It’s a winning pairing that produces a steady stream of sweet exchanges and discoveries. This is something of a silver lining movie that can make you ruefully smile through your tears.

But as a Big Cancer Weepie, and with two suffering lovers, there is a definite cloud that hangs over the entire movie. You’re nervously waiting for some sort of turn for the worse. From a storytelling standpoint, I think every ticket-buyer knows with two cancer-stricken leads that at least one of them will be dead before the end credits. And so we wait for the bad news, wait for that other shoe to drop, and this unsettling dread permeates the first half of the movie, tainting all those happy couple moments. Gus and Hazel have several cute moments, but I found myself holding back, waiting for the proverbial hammer to drop on their small shared happiness, and sure enough it will come. The entire third act is dominated by one character’s descent into terminal. For the sake of spoilers I won’t say which, though readers with keen analytical skills can likely guess which of the pair is more expendable from a plot standpoint. It’s at this point when the movie transitions from sad to full-blown weepie, looking to draw out every last tear. With the diagnosis set, our couple heads toward that date with oblivion, and we get all sorts of weight heart-to-hearts, teens grappling with their own legacy, and even a practice funeral for friends to say exactly how much the soon-to-be-departed loved one mattered. Every step is wrung out, even to the point of one last letter/message before death that serves as the closing, considerate voice over. It’s hard to resist the cumulative effect of all these big dramatic plays at your emotions (I got teary at several points but held my ground).

The question arises at what point is this blatant emotional manipulation? The first half of The Fault in Our Stars finds a balance between the heaviness and the levity of first love, grounding its characters and their emotional highs. However, with that aforementioned turn of sullen events, the plot then becomes one long series of Sad Ruminations. What will the friends do without their pal? What will the family do? What does this harsh realization do to other terminal characters and their own family relationships? What about coming to grips with certain death? And then there’s the practice funeral. For a movie and a set of characters that refused to dwell in a pit of sadness, that’s all that the second half of the movie feels like. It also feels like the two-hour-plus plot is overextended to squeeze in one sad ruminating scene after another. In a way, it reminded me of the onslaught of emotional punishment that was the last act of Marley & Me, an otherwise enjoyable movie that devastated every dog owner by its conclusion. It feels a bit much.

fault-in-our-stars-movie-trailer-twitter-reactions-mainAnd this leads me to another issue with the adaptation process, namely that Gus is actually a character with little depth to him. He’s a smiling, immensely likeable figure who doggedly pursues Hazel and falls for her hard. But what is he as a person? He’s overly confident, compassionate to others, witty, charming, but these are more superficial descriptions than deeper analysis. I suppose one could argue he’s just decided to embrace life smiling, but for the most part Gus comes across as a prime figure of squishy wish fulfillment. He’s too good to be true, and with a lack of stronger characterization, that’s the way he plays. Now, I certainly liked the character and found Elgort (Divergent) to be a charming lad, but when the film transitioned to sadder territory, my feelings felt blunted. I would have felt more for this couple had Gus felt more like a real person.

It’s a good thing then that Hazel is the protagonist and main point of view, especially when Shailene Woodley as lead actress. I’ve raved about Woodley before, particularly last year’s underrated Spectacular Now, but every new leading performance is further proof that she is one of her generation’s best young actresses. There is no artificiality in this woman’s body. Her performances are master classes in exuding naturalism, blending into the character, finding subtle ways to express a wide range of emotions; seriously, this woman can express so much just with a tilt of her head and the right kind of smile. Woodley is terrific once again, instantly locking in your sympathy. Her trial of love and suffering run the danger of being heavy-handed but Woodley seamlessly anchors the movie, guiding the audience back to her sphere whenever things get too overwrought. When she tears up, I teared up. When she unleashes a howl of grief, I had to fight every impulse in my body to join her. Her chemistry with Elgort is suitable if unspectacular, but Woodley sells every emotion and without a hint of artifice. If she were in a Big Cancer Weepie, you’d never know it given the skill of her performance.

I can’t imagine there will be much surprise for anyone who watches The Fault in Our Stars. Two young lovers with terminal cancer have a way of writing itself. What separates this story from other sappy tearjerkers is its presentation and perspective. This is a movie that flirts between jaded and maudlin, scoffing at the overt sentimentality of grief culture yet finding a middle ground that feels humane and honest and earned. Woodley’s strong, emotive performance helps ground the film even when the long string of manipulation begins. I wish Gus was a stronger character rather than a charming romantic compliment, a dream boyfriend who indeed comes across as too good to be true. I wish the movie also would not get swallowed up by the heavier elements it found balance with before. With all that being said, this is an engaging drama first and an amiable romance second. You may see the end coming from the start, but the same can be said about all of us. We all know how our own story is going to end. The only difference is the people we touch in between the start and the stop. That is our lasting legacy. The Fault in Our Stars is more a journey than a destination, and it does enough right with enough sincerity and intelligence to endure the pain.

Nate’s Grade: B

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